Adele has been a youth services librarian for 25 years and a mother to a daughter from China for 20 years.
A List of Picture Books Featuring Asian and Asian-American Children
Here is a list of the best books for children ages 4-8 that feature Asian and/or Asian-American children.
There is a little something for everyone here: funny books, folktales, picture books and beginning chapter books. I hope you find something you like.
1. Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim
In Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas, author Natasha Yim does a take on “The Three Bears” story—Chinese New Year style. Little Goldy Luck is charged with taking a New Year’s delicacy—fried turnip cakes—to the panda’s house. When she gets there, the bears aren’t home of course, and she proceeds to test out their congee, their chairs, and their beds. What makes this story different from the original is that Goldy starts to have second thoughts once she runs back home, and she returns to the pandas’ house to make amends for the mess she’s made.
This would be an excellent book to read to an elementary school class to introduce Chinese New Year celebrations, as Yim weaves in details about luck, red envelopes, and customary foods. Zong’s adorable illustrations include delightful little details that characterize the clothing, the pottery, and the furnishings. My favorite is a little Chinese zodiac rug on the floor. Yim also includes a note about New Year’s traditions in the back of the book.
2. My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder by Nie Jun
I picked up this book because it was recommended to me by one of the biggest names in children's graphic novels: Raina Telgemeier, the godmother of the autobiographical graphic novel. Her book, Smile, is a best-seller and wildly popular with the kids at my library, so I took her advice and read the books she recommended. This one gives a nice sense of everyday life in an ancient part of the city.
My Bejing is a collection of four short stories told in graphic novel format. Using delicate and subtle watercolor illustrations, Nie tells stories about a young girl named Nu'er living with her grandfather in a hutong, a name for a narrow alley formed by lines of traditional family courtyard residences. Once the norm in Beijing, just a few are preserved today as cultural history. One of the characteristics of a hutong is that it encourages neighbors to interact with each other. These stories play off that interaction, showing a neighborhood full of colorful characters and the gentle adventures they have together. (At the end of the book, the author provides some more information about hutongs as well as a photograph and several sketches of daily life.)
In the first, Nu-er (who has a leg disability) wants to train in swimming for the Special Olympics, but she and her grandfather are having trouble finding a pool that will accept her. Grandfather comes up with a clever idea to help her practice. Each of these stories includes an element of magical realism, and in this one, we see Nu'er swimming of into the air, saying "Grampa was right. When we believe in ourselves, we make our own luck."
In the second story, a mysterious little boy introduces Nu'er to a "bug paradise." In the third, she learns the sweet story about how here grandparents connected, and she somehow becomes a part of the story. In the last, she brings hope to a crochety painter in the neighborhood.
The stories have quite a bit in common with some of the anime classics out there like My Neighbor, Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service.
They're a good choice for short stories with a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of whimsy, and a little bit of magic.
3. Mae, the Panda Fairy by Daisy Meadows
If you haven’t been introduced to the Rainbow Magic fairies phenomenon for beginning chapter book readers, this is a good place to start. Mae, the Panda Fairy is a short little 64-page book is the first of seven books in “Baby Animal Rescue Fairies” subseries and features a Chinese fairy who is caretaker of a baby panda.
Here’s the set-up of the story: two girls (Kirsty and Rachel) go to a wildlife reserve and meet up with Bertram, a talking frog and the royal footman from Fairyland, who spirits them off to the Fairyland nature reserve. There, they meet the Baby Animal Rescue Fairies who each have a key chain that attracts their baby animals to them.
Soon, the nefarious Jack Frost (villain in all the fairy books) comes and takes the keychains because he wants to collect all the baby animals into his icy zoo. His first target is Pan Pan, the baby panda.
SPOILER ALERT: The girls help Mae, the Panda Fairy to trick Jack Frost and reunite Pan Pan with his mother, and all ends happily.
These are gentle books with a villain who is more of a mischief-maker than a threat. The fairy is illustrated as a Chinese girl, and children will learn that pandas live in China and eat bamboo, though the cultural context is not emphasized as much as in that other stalwart of easy chapter book series: The Magic Tree House, which actually tries to work in quite a bit of information about history and cultures into the stories.
Still, the Rainbow Magic fairy books have quite a bit of appeal for girls from kindergarten to around 3rd grade. It is the most checked out book series, by far, in the public library where I work, outstripping any other adult, teen, or children’s author. I often see girls come in and leave with both hands full of these books, and it’s nice to see one that includes a little bit of China.
4. The Cat from Hunger Mountain by Ed Young
Ed Young specializes in moody cut-paper collage illustrations, and he’s used these techniques brilliantly in The Cat from Hunger Mountain. If you are ever wanting to talk to children about a life of privilege and the trait of gratefulness, this book is your ticket.
The story is almost like a fable. Lord Cat lives at the top of Hunger Mountain, a privileged being “who had everything imaginable, yet never had enough.” Workers had made him the tallest pagoda high above everything else, clothing from the silk and gold, and lavish meals. The mountain was known for its rice, which servants would wash in the river and serve to the Lord, who always wanted them to work faster.
When his lands fell into drought, Lord Cat’s servants moved to the cities and he eventually finds himself wandering and begging in search of food. Two acquaintances take him to a benevolent monk who gives out free food to anyone who arrives hungry. After the cat receives a half bowl of rice, he asks the monk where the food came from.
The monk replies that he is lucky to live at the bottom of Hunger Mountain where a careless lord had his rice washed upstream. The monk collected and stored the rice. He has now accumulated so much that he has plenty to share with others in need. The cat realizes that “he had been fed with his own wasted food. And for the first time ever, he knew what if felt like to be truly blessed.”
It’s an elegant, compact story, but the real draw is the illustrations which utilize photographs and textured paper to evoke the setting and mood. Young rarely has simple, straight-on perspective, and viewers are challenged to put together the story based on glimpses of eyes through the trees and layered shapes which suggest the settings, characters, and emotions of the story.
5. The Pandas and Their Chopsticks and Other Animal Stories by Demi
In The Pandas and Their Chopsticks and Other Animal Stories, the pandas have a problem. Each of their chopsticks is three feet long! How can they get their food to their mouths? Children will delight in the solution from a group of particularly generous pandas.
I’ve loved Demi’s detailed and colorful drawings ever since I read The Empty Pot. Here, she gathers together several Chinese fables that illustrate virtues like sharing, intelligence, humility and perseverance. The illustrations are reminiscent of Chinese embroidery, and her whimsical borders add a delightful touch.
6. A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road by Bonnie Christensen
A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road is a wonderful way to introduce children to the Silk Road that flourished in the Ninth Century facilitating trade all the way from China to Italy. A young girl in China gives her father a jade pebble to give to the next trader, and so on down the line, so that she will have a connection with a child at the other end of the road. From Antioch to Baghdad to Torcello, each trader adds something until the boy at the end of the road has a bag of small treasures. Christensen’s colorful paintings illustrate the story perfectly.
7. Hai, Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon J Muth
I’m not a huggy person, really, but I just want to give Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons a hug. Jon Muth’s loveable watercolor panda wanders through this collection of haiku on the seasons—kind of a Chinese/Japanese hybrid that is tender and whimsical.
I sat my family down (including my teenager) and read the book aloud to them because the delightful little poems just beg to be shared. One of my favorite pages has the panda decked out in a yellow raincoat striking a Gene Kelly pose with an umbrella and a lamppost. The accompanying poem reads: “Dance through cold rain/then go home/to hot soup.”
The facing page with the panda eating chocolate chip cookies is adorable, too.
This would be a great gift book for any child, especially one who loves pandas.
8. The Seven Chinese Sisters by Kathy Tucker
The Seven Chinese Sisters is a great book about strong and smart girls. For years, our Chinese heritage camp used the story for a play that the children acted out for the closing program at camp. Inspired by a traditional folktale called the Seven Chinese Brothers Tucker has put a feminine spin on the tale and written about the seven sisters.
Each sister has a special talent. The oldest can ride a scooter fast as the wind; the second knows karate, the third can count beyond five hundred the fourth can talk to dogs, the fifth can catch any ball, the sixth can cook wonderful noodle soup, and no one yet knows what the baby, seventh sister, can do. When the baby is snatched by a dragon, the sisters pool their talents to get their sister back, find out what the dragon wants, and help him as well.
The book has Grace Lin’s trademark illustrations: colorful, patterned, and lively.
9. Two of Everything by Lily Toy Hong
Two of Everything is a delightful folktale is about a poor farm couple who find a magic pot. It doubles everything they put into it.
They figure out that they can put their coins into the pot and all night long, they keep doubling them until they are very rich indeed. In the morning the husband runs out to go shopping, but when he comes back, hands full of packages, he accidentally knocks his wife into the pot. Now there are two of her!
By this time, you are probably thinking that the couple has become greedy and will have to pay the price. But this book has a surprise ending. The Haktaks have come into good fortune, and though they have bumps along the way, they come up with a workable solution and find a way to live their life in moderation.
I do storytelling in the schools, and this is one of my favorite stories to share. The kids like to guess what is going to happen when people start tumbling into the pot.
10. Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges
I love the cover illustration of Ruby peeking out at us through huge red doors. Ruby's Wish is a nice tale to give your girl a sense of the history—and progress—of women in China.
In this story based on her own grandmother, the author tells the tale of a young girl born long ago in China who wants to learn more than girls and women are allowed, even in rich families. She tells her grandfather that she wishes to study further, and he listens in gentle amusement. But to her surprise, he makes it possible when the time comes.
11. The Empty Pot by Demi
Demi is known for her exquisite and delicate illustrations. In The Empty Pot, they are reminiscent of Chinese “100 children” embroidery. This is a gentle tale about nature, doing your best, and honesty.
Little Ping, the best gardener around, enters a contest in which the boy who grows the best flower can become the next emperor. He’s distressed when his flower won’t grow, but a little twist at the end shows all his competitors in their true light.
In print for decades, this has become a children’s classic.
12. Katie's Lucky Birthday by Fran Manushkin
These books are geared to children who can read about a paragraph per page, general ages 5-7.
Katie Woo is an everyday American girl who happens to have Chinese heritage.
In this series of books for beginning readers, Katie treads on familiar primary-school ground, getting new shoes, tick-or-treating with friends, celebrating a birthday.
The illustrations are big and bright and should be reassuring children who are making a transition from listening to picture books to reading books on their own.
Though the books consist of 2 or 3 little "chapters," they are quite brief, and parents or grandparents may want to consider buying a handful of them to give young readers a feeling of having a substantial number of books.
In Katie's Lucky Birthday Katie is excited for the birthday party she will have at school. Her friends talk about different traditions their families follow—eating blueberry pancakes or measuring how tall they’ve grown.
Katie’s mom brings a surprise treat, and Katie herself works on a surprise for her classmates. Nutrition-conscious parents will be happy to see that Katie’s treats are strawberries and blueberries.
Whimsy and Chopsticks
I love Rosenthal’s books. They are fun, whimsical, and great for reading aloud.
Chopsticks (The Spoon Series) is about a pair of chopsticks who are inseparable--until one of them has an accident and is laid up for a while. (Lol—the injured chopstick is hurt when trying to karate chop an asparagus spear and is whisked away—literally with a kitchen whisk.) The other one feels bereft until he learns to do things on his own while his partner heals.
Full of sight gags, and puns, this book provides all kinds of little discoveries. You’ll never look at chopsticks the same way again.
Introducing the World to Pandas
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda is a wonderfully-illustrated story of determination and courage that recounts the story of Ruth Harkness who persevered in traveling to China back in 1934 to complete her husband's mission: bring a panda to the United States.
Her husband had died while on a trip to Chengdu to search for a panda, and Mrs. Harkness set out on the daunting journey to travel to the far province when it was not common for a woman to travel alone.
The author notes that it is somewhat frowned upon today to take baby pandas from the wild to put them in a zoo, but that in the 1930s it was the only way for scientists to learn about and appreciate animals.
Illustrator Melissa Sweet creates wonderful collages with watercolor and special papers she obtained when she visited China.
Here you will find all kinds of short novels written especially for girls this age.
Cheer for the engaging and enthusiastic Ruby Lu or go back in time with American Girl or Magic Tree House books.
Ruby Lu Books
Meet Ruby Lu, an energetic girl with Chinese heritage, who is the heroine of these beginning chapter books.
These humorous books describes the day-to-day escapades of a spirited little girl.
The reading level is similar to that of the popular Magic Tree House series, or the Junie B. Jones series.
In Ruby Lu, Brave and True Ruby Lu is a spunky, Chinese-American girl who deals with the things that life throws at her with courage and good grace. The book is a series of little moments, making the chapters good for reading aloud. In this one, we meet Ruby Lu, her mom & dad, and her little brother, Oscar.
Ruby progresses through a variety of 8-year-old adventures like putting on her own backyard magic show, overcoming her fears about going to Chinese school and dealing with a visitor—her cousin Flying Duck, from China.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it also has a scene of her driving herself and her brother to Chinese School. Somehow, the parents were tied up, and Ruby decides to take matters into her own hands. Driving a car seems simple enough, so she turns the key, puts the car in drive and heads the couple of blocks there. Her parents are, of course, frantic, and tell her never to do that again, and she promises not to (though she seems to think that the biggest mistake was to park in the principal’s spot.
I have to think this incident was based on Look’s life. Many 8-year-olds are confident in their abilities, and driving a car doesn’t look too hard to them. (I had the same sorts of situation when I was five and thought I could step in front of a cow to make her stop going out the wrong gate. I learned that 40 pounds isn’t much of a match for 1,500).
I think most kids will appreciate the humor in the scene, rather than being inspired to pick up the car keys. But, just in case, you’ll probably want to talk about how a young child could be seriously hurt if they tried something like that. All the more reason to read this book along with your girl.
Magic Tree House Books
Judging from my experience as a children's librarian, the Magic Tree House series is the most popular beginning chapter book series in existence, and has been for some time.
A magic librarian sends two children, Jack and Annie, back in time to solve problems and gather items.
Kids like the adventure, parents and teachers like the fact that the children learn a little bit about culture and history from each book.
Day of the Dragon King
Jack and Annie go back to ancient China to save a book from the Emperor’s fire.
A Perfect Time for Pandas
In this book, Jack and Annie find themselves whisked off to the mountains in southeastern China and helping out at a panda reserve. They are having a great time, until a devastating earthquake hits, and they are on a panda rescue mission.
After reading the Magic Tree House fiction books, many children become interested in learning more. The non-fiction “Fact-Trackers” provide interesting background and facts in the same engaging and simple style as the novels.
Oldies But Goodies
The following books are no longer available new (though some are available in Kindle format), but they are well worth getting on the used market.
A Book About Growing Up
This book makes a nice gift for an elementary-school girl. It is out of print new, but well worth getting in the secondary market. Rose Lewis, author of the popular book I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, follows up her tender story with this book for older girls.
The "Crazy Cakes" girl is older now, and her mother reminisces about all the things they've done together on her birthday: going to an American citizenship ceremony, kite flying, getting a new puppy, and watching dragon boat races.
Rose Lewis’ trademark watercolors also illustrate this book. They provide the perfect blend of charm and innocence.
School Library Journal calls it, "A sweet, gorgeously illustrated book that's perfect for family sharing."
Chinese Characters in the Snowy Woods
I can’t say enough about books by Huy Voun Lee. They are my undiscovered treasure and have truly made the Chinese characters more understandable for my family. (Too bad the author doesn’t have an encyclopedic set so that I can learn the 1,500 characters needed to be able to communicate.) Lee's books include the titles In the Park, At the Beach, In the Leaves, 1,2,3 Go!, and my favorite, which I am reviewing here, In the Snow.
In this book, a boy by the name of Xiao Ming walks through a snowy forest with his mother. They talk about the Chinese character for “tree,” which looks a bit like a tree with roots and branches. Lee shows us the character, and also an illustration of a tree that looks a lot like the character. Then, we learn that, if you put two of the characters for together, you have written the word “forest.’ Logical, right? My favorite is the character for “snow,” which has the character for “rain” on top of “hand.” As Xiao Ming’s mother points out, “Rain and snow are both forms of water, but we can hold snow in our hands.”
The cut-paper illustrations are lovely and joyous, and Lee includes the characters and pronunciations on the endpapers of the books.
I often take these books into classrooms to give the children of how Chinese characters work. It explains what could be a dry subject in an engaging story format.
American Girl Books
This book, set in the 1970s, is a companion book to the American Girl "Julie" series. Ivy Ling, a Chinese-American girl, is Julie's best friend, and in this book she gets her own story. Ivy loves gymnastics, but the day of the big tournament coincides with an important family reunion. Set in San Francisco. Another book in the series which prominently features Ivy is Happy New Year, Julie which features a Chinese New Year celebration.
Happy New Year, Julie
Julie's family isn't the same since her parents divorced, and she knows Christmas will be hard. When her best friend Ivy, invites her whole family to their new year's celebration, she wonders how everyone will get along.
© 2013 Adele Jeunette