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24 beautiful kids' books that reflect the Asian American experience

Bestselling authors suggest the perfect books for children of all ages.
"When You Trap a Tiger" and "Watercress" are just a couple of the two dozen reads for children that our four panelists recommend.
"When You Trap a Tiger" and "Watercress" are just a couple of the two dozen reads for children that our four panelists recommend.TODAY Illustration / Amazon
/ Source: TODAY

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During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

As Asian American communities struggle with the rise in anti-Asian hate, this year's AAPI heritage month feels more urgent than ever.

For children learning about identity, there's no better time to introduce diverse stories that reflect their experiences or expose them to the wider world.

We asked four bestselling authors to choose must-read children's books for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May. Our panelists are Joanna Ho, author of the picture book "Eyes That Kiss in the Corners"; Karina Yan Glaser, author of the "Vanderbeekers" series; Rajani LaRocca, author of "Red, White, and Whole"; and Minh Lê, author of "Drawn Together."

Best picture books for AAPI heritage month

"Laxmi's Mooch," by Shelly Anand and Nabi H. Ali

"This is a joyful, body-positive picture book about a young Indian American girl's journey of accepting her body hair after she is teased about her mustache," Ho says. "I love that she's not only able to embrace herself, she also shares this love with her friends at school. My 4-year-old loves this books and asks to read it every night before bed."

"Watercress," by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin

"This gorgeously illustrated, lyrical picture book draws on the author’s memories of growing up in Ohio and how her parents would stop by the side of the road to pick wild watercress," Yan Glaser says. "While the task initially fills her with shame — she only wanted vegetables from the grocery store! — her feelings evolve when her mother shares about her own life of growing up in China."

"The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story," by Tina Cho and Jess X. Snow

LaRocca loves this beautiful picture book about "a young Korean girl who is afraid of the ocean even though she wants to be like her grandmother, a haenyeo who collects fish and mollusks from the sea, as these female divers have done for centuries. The grandmother-granddaughter relationship is heartwarming, and the illustrations are breathtaking."

"Hannah's Night," by Komako Sakai

"I love this small miracle of a book, which tiptoes along with young Hannah as she wakes up in the middle of the night and wanders through a quiet moonlit house," Lê says. "Sakai captures the magic and (sometimes mischievous) delight of being awake and having the entire house to yourself."

Best graphic novels for AAPI heritage month

"Measuring Up," by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu

Ho and LaRocca both recommend this graphic novel about a girl who moves to Seattle from Taiwan and feels out of place. "Cici is inspired by both her grandmother and Julia Child in this sweet, funny story of friendship, family and fantastic food," LaRocca says.

"Stargazing," by Jen Wang

"This delightful graphic novel tells the story of two very different girls living in the same Chinese American community and how they realize the strength in themselves through their friendship with each other," Yan Glaser says. "The illustrations in this book are lovely, full of humor and heart."

"The Magic Fish," by Trung Le Nguyen

"This one broke my heart in the best ways possible," Lê says. "Weaving together fairy tales with heartfelt family narratives, 'The Magic Fish' is a testament to the power of stories: the stories we read, the stories we share with the world and the stories we tell ourselves."

"The Prince and the Dressmaker," by Jen Wang

Ho also loves this graphic novel by Jen Wang. "This romance between a gender-fluid prince and his best friend and dressmaker explores identity, love, friendship, family and dreams. It resists traditional fairy tales and reclaims them in subtle, subversive ways," she says.

Best nonfiction for AAPI heritage month

"All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team," by Christina Soontornvat

Our panelists were unanimous in recommending this meticulously researched, Newbery Honor-winning account of the 2018 rescue of a boys' soccer team trapped in a cave in northern Thailand. LaRocca called it "absolutely gripping."

"This brilliant book is also an example of perspectives, nuances and stories that are highlighted when Asian people tell our own stories instead of having them told by others," Ho added.

"It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way," by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

Ho also loves this picture book about Gyo Fujikawa, the author-illustrator who ⁠in 1963 created a book of racially mixed babies that helped pave the way in the fight for representation in children's books. "This is a story of a determined artist with an activist heart and explores several periods of history, including Japanese Internment to Civil Rights," Ho says. "If that doesn't sell you, maybe the pages of chubby, round babies at the end will!"

"Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist," by Julie Leung and Chris Sasaki

"This stunning picture book tells the incredible story of Tyrus Wong, who was only 9 years old when he boarded a ship with his father in China and headed for America," Yan Glaser says. "As an adult, he attended art school while working as a janitor, and after graduation he became the artist who created the iconic illustrative style for Disney's 'Bambi.'"

"From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement," by Paula Yoo

"This must-read is a masterwork of narrative nonfiction as Yoo marshals her prodigious journalistic and storytelling chops to bring Vincent Chin's tragic story and the community activism it inspired back to life," Lê says. "In doing so, she traces well-worn patterns of racism and injustice that place today's disturbing rise in anti-AAPI violence within an important historical context."

Best chapter and middle-grade books for AAPI heritage month

"When You Trap a Tiger," by Tae Keller

"A young girl has to make a deal with a tiger as she embarks on a journey — inspired by Korean folklore — to unlock the power of story to save her grandmother," Ho says. "This book is magical. If I could write a book half as beautiful as this one day, I will have achieved all my writer goals."

"Prairie Lotus," by Linda Sue Park

"Truly a master of historical fiction, Linda Sue Park weaves a spellbinding story of a young half-Chinese girl growing up in the Dakota Territory in 1880 and the racism she encountered in the mostly white town of La Forge," Yan Glaser says.

"Unsettled," by Reem Faruqi

This novel in verse tells the story of a girl who moves from Pakistan to Georgia. "Playful and heartfelt, this is a book about family missed and friendship found, of making mistakes, speaking up, and learning to flourish in a new home," LaRocca says.

"The House that Lou Built," by Mae Respicio

"Industrious Lucinda 'Lou' Bulosan-Nelson plans to build a tiny house in a desperate attempt to keep her family from moving to a new city," Lê says. "While her various schemes don't always work out, along the way she uncovers hidden truths about the strength of her family and community, as well as the true meaning of home."

Best YA for AAPI heritage month

"The Downstairs Girl," by Stacey Lee

"I read everything Stacey Lee writes," Ho says. "She's a master storyteller and often centers the stories and histories of Asian Americans in time periods from which they have been completely erased in the dominant narrative. This book is hilarious even as it delivers critical commentary about race and gender."

"We Are Not Free," by Traci Chee

"This spellbinding book is told in the points of view of 14 Japanese American teens living in San Francisco and how their lives are upended following the attack on Pearl Harbor," Yan Glaser says.

"American Betiya," by Anuradha D. Rajurkar

LaRocca recommends this novel "about Rani, an Indian American teen with a photographer’s eye and dreams of medical school who experiences first love with a white American boy against her family’s traditions. Beautifully written, this story tackles racism, identity and learning what you really want."

"Darius the Great Is Not Okay," by Adib Khorram

"One of my favorite coming-of-age stories in a long while, Khorram takes us on a family trip to Iran with the tea-drinking and 'Star Trek'-loving Darius — a trip that stirs up a host of complex themes including cultural identity, language barriers and depression," Lê says. "At the heart of it all is a story about the power of friendship and how a true connection with another person can be a necessary life raft, something worth holding tight to in the middle of a storm."

Books from our panelists

"Eyes That Kiss in the Corners," by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho

Joanna Ho's debut picture book, illustrated by Dung Ho, is an affirming ode to the beauty of eyes that "kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea." In her eyes, she sees the warmth and beauty of her family in her own reflection.

"The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street," by Karina Yan Glaser

Karina Yan Glaser's chapter book series starts as a tight-knit, biracial family works together to stay in their family home in Harlem. The Vanderbeekers bring a touch of diversity to classic children's chapter book narratives.

"Red, White, and Whole," by Rajani LaRocca

Rajani LaRocca's middle-grade novel in verse follows an Indian American girl whose mother is diagnosed with leukemia.

"Drawn Together," by Minh Lê and Dan Santat

Minh Lê's touching picture book about a boy bridging a generational divide with his grandfather shows a bond beyond language, with stunning illustrations by Dan Santat.