Newton, Mass.–Many new contemporary novels by Asian Americans aren’t traditional tales set in Asia nor stories about coming to America for the first time. They’re written by authors who understand two-time Newbery Honor Book author Lawrence Yep‘s (Dragonwings and Dragon’s Gate (excerpt)) removal of the ethnic qualifier before his vocation. “I think of myself principally as a writer,” Yep told the International Reading Association’s The Dragon Lode. “I often write about my experiences as a Chinese American, but I’ve also written about far away worlds. Writing is a special way of seeing.”
Without a doubt, an Asian American vision has moved into the mainstream of the children’s literary world. In 1994, only 65 of the 5,500 children’s books published featured Asian American authors. Last year, that number doubled. Some of these have become national bestsellers that are guaranteed a place on bookshelves for years to come. Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard)(author interview) and Cynthia Kadohata (Kira Kira)(excerpt)(author interview) each won the prestigious Newbery Medal, while Allen Say (Grandfather’s Journey) took home a Caldecott Prize. An Na (A Step From Heaven)(author interview) won the Printz, an award for young adult novels, and Gene Luen Yang garnered a National Book Award for his graphic novel, American Born Chinese.
In 2008, a wave of middle grade novels (ages 7-11) written by Asian Americans is already catching the attention of readers, teachers, librarians, and parents–and not just within multicultural circles. Children’s literature experts are calling Grace Lin‘s (sequel to the popular Year of the Rat, Year of the Dog (author-illustrator interview)) a “classic in the making” along the lines of Betsy-Tacy. Janet Wong‘s forthcoming novel Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer (author interview) explores the joys of vacation and friendship, with Jake divulging that he’s a “quarpa,” or one-quarter Korean. Winner of the Sid Fleischman humor award, author Lisa Yee makes kids (and adults) laugh out loud with bestselling stories like Millicent Min: Girl Genius and her newest title, Good Luck, Ivy (author interview).
When it comes to books like these, as Newbery winner Linda Sue Park told author Cynthia Leitich Smith (Tantalize) during an on-line chat: “At last it seems we’re getting ready to go to stories where a person’s ethnicity is a part but not the sum of them.”
New releases for teens, too, aren’t mainly immigrant stories or traditional tales retold. These YA novels deal with universal themes such as a straight-A teen struggling with a cheating scandal at her school (She’s So Money by Cherry Cheva), a promising athlete coping with a snowboarding injury (Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley (author interview)), and a Pakistani-born blogger whose father is about to become the president (First Daughter: White House Rules by Mitali Perkins). An Na’s The Fold, a novel about a teen considering plastic surgery to change the shape of her eyelids, speaks to all who long to be beautiful, and art-loving teens far and wide will connect with Joyce Lee Wong’s novel-in-verse Seeing Eily. Paula Yoo, a one-time writer for People magazine and television hits like “The West Wing,” fuses her pop culture savvy and love of music in Good Enough, a novel about a violinist in rebellion. Her brother, David Yoo, connected with hormone-crazed nerds of every race in his funny novel Girls For Breakfast and is offering his fans the forthcoming Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before.
Founder of readergirlz, a literacy initiative for teens (divas interview), award-winning author Justina Chen Headley notes that these books are relished by readers from many different backgrounds. “There are a ton of interesting cultural trends that make it cool to read about Asian American characters,” she says. “Take manga and anime, for instance. Or Gwen Stefani‘s harujuku girls. Mainstream, popular celebrities from actors to athletes are Asian American, and this is filtering into YA and middle grade novels.”
Dr. Sylvia Vardell, Ph.D., a professor at the School of Library and Information Services (author interview) at Texas Woman’s University, isn’t surprised either by the growing appetite for books featuring protagonists of every race: “Most kids live with ethnic and cultural diversity every day. It just makes sense that books for teens would reflect this too.”
These stories continue to resonate with Asian American readers as well. Lisa Yee remembers the frustration of growing up and not finding many books about American girls like her. “When I grew up, there was no fiction featuring contemporary Asian Americans, unless of course the book was about the struggle of immigrants,” she says. Thanks to exciting changes in children’s book publishing, it’s a different world for today’s young readers of every cultural heritage with many choices when it comes to novels.
This year’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month begins May 1, 2008, and several authors are banding together to offer FUSION STORIES (www.fusionstories.com), a menu of delectable next-gen hot-off-the-press novels for middle readers and young adults. FUSION STORIES’ critically acclaimed authors so far include Cherry Cheva (Los Angeles, CA), Justina Chen Headley (Seattle, WA), Grace Lin (Boston, MA), An Na (Montpelier, VT), Mitali Perkins (Boston, MA), Janet Wong (Princeton, NJ), Joyce Lee Wong (Los Angeles, CA), Lisa Yee (South Pasadena, CA), David Yoo (Boston, MA), and Paula Yoo (Los Angeles, CA).
FUSION STORIES aims to be a helpful resource for parents, educators, and young readers, so if you know of a novel that (1) is for middle readers or teens, (2) was published in 2007-2008 by a traditional publishing house, (3) features an Asian American protagonist, and (4) is set primarily in contemporary America, please send a .jpg of the cover, a .jpg of the author, one or two reviews, and a brief description of the novel to email@example.com. FUSION STORIES would be delighted to add titles and authors to the site.
A press kit package (available at FUSION STORIES, www.fusionstories.com) includes downloads, bios of FUSION STORIES authors, information on their books, and conversations with experts about Asian American literature for young readers. For more information, review copies, or interview requests with any of the authors, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss related interviews by Paula Yoo with Joe Bangilan, a Branch Services Coordinator for San Antonio Public Library; Sylvia Vardell, professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University; Dora Ho, a young adult librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library; and Sarah Park, a Ph.D candidate at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Here are sneak peeks:
Joe says: “The United States has often defined itself in terms of Black and White, but Asians are emerging into the conversation. I believe mainstream acceptance is the goal.”
Sylvia says: “The story or content may not be specifically culturally based, but there are still usually signs of the author’s background in the voice, pacing, details, or art. I like that. I think it can offer as much distinction as any literary device.”
Dora says: “Sometimes, the theme of immigration/language barriers/racism is not necessary in a good Asian American literature. Readers want to be able to identify with the characters in the books and many of them may not face that kind of discrimination.”
Sarah says: “Multicultural literature is important for all teenagers because no one lives in a bubble. Reading about other people’s experiences helps develop our empathetic sensibilities and broadens our world view. That’s sorely lacking in our world today.”