When it comes to creating empathy and developing a commitment of justice and respect in my children, I tend to turn toward good children’s books. In fact, we’ve shared some of our favorite children’s books about important African American figures, great kids books about women in history — really so many fantastic, thoughtfully curated roundups of children’s books over the years.
While we’ve recognized AAPI Heritage Month through children’s books in the past (be sure to check this post too), the recent increase in violent anti-Asian discrimination is leading me to choose bedtime stories that highlight the incredible accomplishments of so many AAPI people.
So, if you’re also looking for some suggestions for terrific children’s books about inspiring Asian-Americans, here are a few of my top suggestions. Many of them are brand new, but some are only a few years old. They’re all worth a look though, and I hope your kids enjoy them as much as mine have.
And hey, if there are others your kids love, please leave them in comments! There’s always room on bookshelves and library queues for more books.
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The first book I’d pick is It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way (Amazon or Indiebound) by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Julie Morstad. If you don’t know activist Gyo Fujikawa, you can learn about her fight against racial injustice in picture books alongside your kids. Gyo focused her efforts on a world she knew so well: picture books. She was absolutely determined to depict diverse children in books — an idea that was rejected by her publishers, by the way, in case anyone is still taking the notion of diverse children’s book characters for granted.
It’s a wonderful book to spark conversation with your kids about about doing what you can, where you are, to support the causes you care about,
If your kids love science, you need to read them this remarkable story of a lesser known character in 20th century science. Hidden Figures has (rightfully) gotten tons of attention, but The Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom (Amazon or Indiebound) by Teresa Robeson and Rebecca Huang shows how Chien Shiung defied the odds by even attending school in the first place…to her remarkable achievements in the world of physics. But it’s very honest about how she was often overlooked for jobs and awards, because she was a woman…and Asian. It’s an important read, and it’s great for classroom discussions about how lack of recognition doesn’t equal lack of achievement.
Kao Kalia Yang and the children of the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp
The memoir Yang Warriors (Amazon or Indiebound) by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrated by Billy Thao has so much to love. Starting with the fact that it shows that fierce, determined, compassionate — and of course committed — children can be heroes too. Here, Yang tells the story of her own time as a child in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. After a week without food, a group of ten young cousins embark on a dangerous mission to attempt to find food to bring back to the family. The reviews describe the hope, resilience and inspiration this story holds, while offering an excellent history lesson that isn’t often covered in elementary school history classes.
My son was really captivated by Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist (Amazon and Indiebound) by Julie Leung and Chris Sasaki, and no surprise it was also the winner of the American Library Association’s 2021 Asian/Pacific American Award for Best Picture Book.
The story details Wong’s journey from Chinese immigrant to America, to janitor, to art school student to, ultimately, an artist creating the iconic visual style of Disney’s Bambi. The hard work, honesty, and determination to accomplish his dreams comes through beautifully, and I would absolutely add Paper Son to those school biography lists for “living history” days, teachers.
Minimalist parents and fans of art and design will love reading Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines (Amazon and Indiebound) by Jeanne Walker Harvey and Dow Phumiruk. And not just with the kids, at bedtime! The clean lines and beautifully sparse design echo the work of Lin herself, the esteemed architect who’s best known as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, and who is likely the best known AAPI hero on this list.
You may think that the life and mind of an architect is an esoteric subject for young kids looking for a children’s book about inspiring Asian-Americans, but not here; Harvey and Phumiruk weave Lin’s childhood (as the daughter of a clay artist throughout the narrative of her work on the memorial, keeping it relatable and compelling.
I might add this is a must-read if you live near DC and have visited Lin’s memorial, or are planning to visit soon.
Have your kids visited or read about Sing Peak in Yosemite National Park? Then they’ll especially be fascinated by Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service (Amazon or Indiebound) by Annette Bay Pimentel and Rich Lo. It’s the true story of Tie Sing, a Chinese-American mountaineer who played a part in creating the United States’s National Park Service. Talk about a true American immigrant story!
In 1915, a time that most Chinese-Americans were working in restaurants or laundries, Sing had dreams of being a chef. As a trail cook, he was invited to cook for a group of 30 wealthy, influential people who were exploring the idea of a park service. When disaster struck — several times — his experience, creativity and ingenuity enabled him to feed the group. But more than that, it gave him the opportunity to remind them how protecting the mountains was their highest calling.
Hazel Ying Lee
In 1932, fewer than 1% of all pilots were woman. At that time, no Chinese-American women had ever flown a plane at all. And yet Hazel Ying Lee was determined to fulfill her dreams, and this determination shines through in The Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee (Amazon or Indiebound) by Julie Leung, and lovingly illustrated by Julie Kwon. It’s a special choice if you are looking for a children’s book about inspiring Asian-Americans figures who broke through some major glass seasons.
Especially because it reminds our children that the “names we know” aren’t always the only names to know. And that’s why we look for diverse heroes in our children’s books in the first place.