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Seeing Asian-Americans: Great Chapter Books for Tweens

Adele has been a youth services librarian for 25 years and a mother to a daughter from China for 20 years.

Seeing Asian-Americans: Great Chapter Books for Tweens

Seeing Asian-Americans: Great Chapter Books for Tweens

Interesting, Exciting, and Funny Books

Here is a list of the best books featuring tweens (ages 8-12)—both Asian and Asian-American—which have been published in the last few years.

This site cover mostly fiction books, but there are a few nonfiction books if you scroll towards the end. I've included a nice cookbook for tweens to use as well as the granddaddy of all nonfiction—one of the Eyewitness books, known for their stunning photos.

There is a little something for everyone here: mystery, fantasy, kung fu, folk tales, and funny stories with interesting characters.

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

New! Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

For her first book,Front Desk, Kelly Yang drew on many of her experiences as an immigrant from China in the 1990s when her family managed a series of motels in the U.S. Her main character, Mia Tang, is a 10 year old who manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel in Anaheim, California.

I would have loved for my daughter to be able to read this book when she was a tween several years ago. Children adopted from China will gain an understanding of what it was like to be part of a Chinese immigrant family in the U.S. Mia’s parents believed “that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face,” but they found a different reality when they came to America. The hamburgers part was true, but it was difficult for them to get good jobs because of the language barrier, and they spent their time doing very hard work for very little pay. Mia talks about being embarrassed because she has to wear flowered pants that her mother found at a good price at the thrift store. Everyone else wears jeans, and Mia comes in for some teasing.

Nevertheless, Mia remains hopeful, resourceful, and hardworking. Even though she has trouble writing in English (her second language) she comes up with a plan to win a motel offered as a prize in an essay contest. She also uses her writing skills to compose letters that help out some of the longterm tenants of the motel. At first I thought this plot point was rather farfetched, to think that a child could help someone get a job just by writing a letter. But after reading an interview with Kelly Yang, I found out that it happened to her in real life.

Reading this book, you can’t help but be fond of Mia and her family and all the friends they help along the way. Kids with Chinese heritage can relate to some of the difficulties of being one of the few Asian kids in school. At the same time, they can learn more about the experiences of those whose parents were immigrants from China. Now that my daughter is in college, she tells me that it was helpful to know immigrant families, because many of the Chinese people in those families had experiences that were at times different from hers.

Front Desk has won over a dozen “best book” awards and is fun to read to boot. It’s an excellent choice for any of our kids who are in their tween years.

Just Like Me by Nancy Cavanaugh

Just Like Me by Nancy Cavanaugh

New! Just Like Me by Nancy Cavanaugh

I had read Cavanaugh's last book, This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, and thought it was tender and funny, so I was happy to see that she had written another book, this time about girls who had been adopted from China. Cavanaugh herself adopted a girl from China (whom she includes in her author photo on the back book flap). Her daughter, along with her "Chinese sisters" (the girls adopted from the same orphanage at the same time) served as the inspiration for this story.

In Just Like Me, we meet Julia, a tween girl who is reluctantly going on a "bonding" experience at a summer camp with two other girls from her orphanage. It seems that her adoption coordinator would like her to keep a journal of her experiences and feelings in order to share with others. Julia isn't into exploring her heritage as much as the other two girls, Avery and Becca. Going to summer camp with them was all her mom's idea, and at the beginning of the book we see her a bit resentful as she rides to the bus with these two other girls who are more acquaintances than friends.

To make matters worse, they end up having to share their cabin with an overly competitive and overbearing girl, her enabling friend, and her cousin, who seems to be on the outs with the other two.

The camp is a typical outdoor Christian camp with community meals, singing, all types of games, and a counselor who wants her campers to all get along.

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The story unfolds on two levels. On the one, we have a typical story of girls who want to take first place in a series of competitions but can't seem to get along for long enough to let them be successful in the contests.

On the other level, we have a story about Julia and how she has pushed away her feelings about China and adoption for quite a long time. In a rather poignant detail, she takes along with her a piece of blue yarn from a baby blanket that her parents wrapped her in when they picked her up from China. She likes to pretend that it's a blanket from her birth mother so that she can be like all of the other kids in her class who have mementos from when they were babies. When the yarn goes missing, it causes quite a bit of consternation in the cabin. And, when the other girls eventually find out that it's not really from her birth mother, there is even more consternation.

In the end though, the two plot lines resolve with the girls learning how to get along and all of them realizing that they feel vulnerable in some way and that they should support each other.

The characters are realistic and well-drawn, and the events have an authentic feel. Girls who have been to summer camp will certainly recognize the traditions. And, whether the reader feels ambivalent about her heritage like Julia does, or if she's into exploring it like the other two girls, she can still benefit from learning how others feel.

All in all, this is another tender, funny, and insightful book from Cavanaugh.

My Beijing by Nie Jun

My Beijing by Nie Jun

New! My Beijing by Nie Jun

I picked up My Beijing 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 Beijing.

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 hand-drawn 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 off 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 her 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.

Finding the Edge by Karen Chen

Finding the Edge by Karen Chen

Finding the Edge by Karen Chen

After I picked up Finding the Edge, an autobiography of the up-and-coming American figure skater Karen Chen, I decided to look her up on the Web and learn more about her. The first article I found, a piece from The Mercury News in San Jose, described her as “gutsy.” Chen is fairly modest about it, but as you read her story, you find out more and more about how the word describes her.

The book, which is geared towards children, follows a fairly standard pattern for an autobiography, telling how Chen first became interested in skating, detailing the hard work that goes into being an elite athlete, and describing how she sets goals and deals with setbacks.

It’s well-written, moves along quickly and includes interesting details that children can relate to. Children with Chinese heritage are likely to be particularly interested in her descriptions of her childhood trips to Taiwan where her grandparents live. She also participated in Chinese dance classes, and talks about how that artistry influences her performances. I’ve watched a little of the competitions, and I have to say that I think she has the most expressive hands of all the skaters. I was especially interested in reading how she performed the peacock dance, and I think I can see those movements reflected in her work.

In the first section of the book, you can come away with the impression that Chen leads a charmed life. She has natural athletic talent and supportive parents who have the resources to allow her to pursue a skating career. But as you read, you learn of the challenges she’s faces, and you learn where the term “gutsy” comes in. She has the normal challenges you’d expect: changes in her body as she grows, a frustrating search for boots that work just right. She also deals with injuries, including a broken ankle. Towards the end of the book she reveals a challenge that she’s kept quiet until now, but makes me look with newfound respect at each of her performances. I won’t give it away here, but it‘s worth reading the book to find out.

Her performance at the 2018 US Championships shows again how much fortitude she has. The day before she was supposed to compete, she was so sick from the flu that she didn’t even get out of bed. But, if you watch her performance the next day, she is all smiles and performances. She did under-rotate some jumps and finished in third place, good enough for the Olympic team.

In an interesting twist, it turns out that Chen’s performance at the 2017 World Championships, where she finished fourth, was the one that allowed the US to take 3 skaters instead of 2 to the Olympics. That was the performance that The Mercury News called “gutsy,” and it seems fitting that she is the one that gets to take that third spot.

This is a good book about the process of setting goals and working for what you want, an inspiration to children who have a dream.

The Magical Monkey King by Ji-Li Jiang

The Magical Monkey King by Ji-Li Jiang

The Magical Monkey King: Mischief in Heaven

I was intrigued by the tale of the Monkey King when I read a little about him in Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning book American Born Chinese. Since then, I have been looking for a concise, readable book which would introduce me to the legend which is so beloved by children in China.

I finally found what I was looking for in Ji-Li Jiang’s The Magical Monkey King. It’s a short chapter book written at about a 4th-grade level which tells how the Monkey King came to be and recounts his early adventures becoming king of the monkeys and his later conflicts with the Jade Emperor in heaven.

After reading this book, I have a much clearer understanding of the framework of the Monkey King stories, and I can see why he appeals so much to the children. In a way, he is a child turned superhero. He’s curious and clever, but get bored easily, which leads him into making mischief. He has a whole range of superpowers: he can turn himself into any animal, he can make himself invisible, he can leap 108 thousand leagues, and he can use his magic staff in battle. And, oh, yes, he is also immortal.

Not surprisingly, he is also a bit arrogant and impatient, traits which get him in trouble with the other immortals in heaven. He often has to endure some punishment from the higher powers, but he always bounces back for more adventures.

The author, Ji-Li Jiang is best known for her memoir Red Scarf Girl, which is about growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China. It has been compared to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl for providing a child’s view of what happens when repression and tyranny take over a country.

In The Magical Monkey King, Jiang turns to a lighter topic and shares the beloved tales of the Monkey King, who was born out of a stone mountain, proved himself worthy to be king of the monkeys, studied for several years with an esteemed monk, and eventually found himself appointed caretaker of the Jade Emperor’s Heavenly Peach Garden.

The story is written at about a 4th grade level, and the chapters are only 4 or 5 pages long, making them ideal for a read-aloud for much younger children, as well. Youshan Tang has provided several illustrations reminiscent of Chinese woodcuts.

If your child likes the Monkey King stories, I’d also recommend the movie The Forbidden Kingdom with Jet Li starring as the Monkey King. Jackie Chan is also in the movie, which is a comedy martial-arts film about an American teen boy who is transported to China to return the magical staff to the Monkey King.

Frazzled by Booki Vivat

Frazzled by Booki Vivat

A Funny, Illustrated Book About Middle School

When my daughter was little, I loved reading her books that told her about her Chinese heritage, books that related the folk tales of China, or that showed what life is like in Chinatown. But, I also wished that I could find books about everyday contemporary life that happened to have a Chinese girl who was trying to make friends or moving to a big girl bed, or any of the shared challenges that show up in life. That’s a long-winded explanation of something that now has a name: Everyday Diversity.

Frazzled by Booki Vivat fills the bill. Our main character is Anna Wu, a 6th grader who has lot of worries and anxieties about middle school, and just a tad overdramatic. She tells us “Nothing good ever happens in the Middles.” To prove her point, she mentions The Middle Ages, the middle seat, and being the middle child. The latter affects her especially as she is the middle child between an over-achieving older brother and a charming younger sister.

She has all the usual complaints about middle school: weird teachers, mean girls, bad cafeteria food. In addition, she feels left out of her circle of friends because she doesn’t have “a Thing.” When it comes to choosing an elective, she doesn’t really have a passion like science club or theater group. She is relegated to study hall, a place where nothing ever happens.

During the course of the year, though, she comes up with the idea of putting together a lunchroom barter system so that children can trade the food they don’t like with someone else who’s not too thrilled with an item in their lunch. They take it school wide and it’s a big success, but she can’t help feeling that it’s all going to come to an end somehow.

Vivat’s story is a nice exploration of finding your way in confusing times. I especially like that Abby learned that her older brother and study hall teacher could be much more supportive and helpful than she had thought. And she learns that a person’s Thing is fluid, especially during the middle school years.

The books has lots of illustrations, cartoons and doodles, much in the style of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, which makes it a short read and appealing to reluctant readers as well as any kid who likes humor.

It’s worth reading a little bit of Vivat’s bio. By looking around on the web, I found out that she’s an Asian-American woman (“Yes, my name really IS Booki ,” she tells us) who had originally intended to become a pharmacist—or maybe an elephant trainer, lol—but she kept coming back to books. Her circuitous career path seems to have informed the theme of her book that we are people in process. What we can do is take the opportunities and see where they will lead us.

When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

A Book that Weaves Together Chinese Mythology and Folklore

I can’t think of any better way to introduce your child to Chinese folklore and mythology than to give them one of Grace Lin’s books to read. In her novels, children are often called up to go on quests to help their families. In their travels, they come across ancient stories that cleverly weave together into their own stories.

In When the Sea Turned to Silver, a girl by the name of Pinmei and her grandmother—a woman known as The Storyteller—live together on a remote mountain, not far from a young boy named Yishan who lives alone in his home.

It’s a peaceful life in which Pinmei spends hours listening to her grandmother’s stories, along with the villagers who have climbed the mountain to grandmother’s home to request embroidered garments for their celebrations.

But one day, the emperor’s soldiers come and take grandmother away, leaving Pinmei and Yishan to undertake a dangerous journey and come up with a plan to rescue her.

As the story progresses, Lin treats us to the stories in a variety of folktales and legends that weave together to explain who the emperor is and his desire for immortality.

As someone who has read quite a few children’s books about China, I was pleased with the little flashes of recognition I experienced throughout the book. I remember reading the story of the painter with the magic brush whose paintings came to life when they were completed. I recognized the name of the beautiful white horse BaiMa as the Mandarin words for “white horse,” and when the horse magically turned into LongMa, I knew that it was a “dragon horse.”

In her author’s note, Lin talks about how the Chinese number 6, 8, and 9 have a rich history that associates them with peace, good fortune, and longevity, and how she conceived or three companion books that would carry each of these as a theme.

In When the Sea Turned to Silver, she uses stories of magical horses, grasping tigers, and the Black Tortoise of Winter to show the consequences of a ruler’s quest for power and the surprising ways wishes can be granted.

The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng

The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng

The Year of the Book is my new find for third or fourth-grade girls.

The main character, Anna Wang, is a fourth-grader who loves to read. Classic books like Little House on the Prairie and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and A Wrinkle in Time fill up her days and serve as an escape when school friendships gets complicated.

She feels pushed to the outside by a circle of friends, and having a mother who sometimes confuses English idioms makes her feel like even more of an outsider.

But, as the year progresses, she learns how friendships can grow out of acts of compassion.

This understated book doesn’t hit children over the head with its lessons, but instead lets children learn and discover along with Anna. Along the way, author Andrea Cheng tucks in wonderful insights into Chinese culture.

As a little bonus, the author includes instructions for sewing the little drawstring bags that Anna makes for her books.

The Year of the Baby by Andrea Wang

The Year of the Baby by Andrea Wang