What kids should be reading for AAPI Heritage Month and why representation matters

It’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and one great way to mark the month is by educating yourself — and your children — about the community through reading. Given the proliferation of violence against the community, knowledge is power.

Children can start to internalize race and gender stereotypes as early as 4 years old, Dr. Christia Brown, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky, previously told USA TODAY. 

“Kids, by the time they’re starting elementary school, have biases that parents are probably unaware of,” Brown says.

It’s crucial to start teaching lessons about diversity early, she says. 

“The world is diverse, and it’s increasingly diverse. Children that are better prepared for that, and can recognize it and feel comfortable with it, are going to be better equipped to navigate the world as it really is,” Brown adds.

Leslie Bow, English and Asian American Studies professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, says, “It’s important to expose children to racial diversity in children’s books because studies have shown that familiarity with children of color in stories reduces negative biases against racial groups.”

Here’s a look at books parents can consider sharing with their children this AAPI Heritage Month. The New York Public Library has additional titles and recommendations. 

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For the youngest kids

Festival of Colors

Author: Surishtha Sehgal and Kabir Sehgal; illustrated by Vashti Harrison

Ages: 1 to 5

Synopsis: “It’s time for the Indian festival of Holi, a celebration of the start of spring, of new beginnings, and of good over evil. Friends, families, and neighbors wear white clothing and toss handfuls of brightly colored powders at one another until they’re all completely covered from head to toe!”

Super Satya Saves the Day

Author: Raakhee Mirchandani; illustrated by Tim Palin

Ages: 4+

Synopsis: “Super Satya, a Sikh American girl, is ready to have a super day, including finally conquering the tallest slide in Hoboken. But her day takes a not-so-super turn when she realizes her superhero cape is stuck at the dry cleaner. Will she be able to face her fears, help her friends and be the true hero everyone knows she is?”

"Super Satya Saves the Day," written by Raakhee Mirchandani and illustrated by Tim Palin.

For the elementary school set

Finding Om” 

Author: Rashmi Bismark; illustrated by Morgan Huff

Ages: 5+

Synopsis: “The story of Anu, an Indian African girl who explores the mantra Om with her beloved grandfather, Appuppa. Through this story, she begins to uncover techniques of mindfulness that readers can explore along with her.”

"Finding Om," written by Rashmi Bismark and illustrated by Morgan Huff.

Dumpling Soup

Author: Jama Kim Rattigan; illustrated by Lillian Hsu-Flanders

Ages: 4 to 8

Synopsis: “Hawaiian Korean Marisa Yang can’t wait to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her big ‘chop suey’ family. She loves taking part in their traditions, and this year, Marisa gets to make dumplings for the very first time.”

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners

Author: Joanna Ho; illustrated by Dung Ho

Ages: 4 to 8

Synopsis: “A young girl realizes that her mother, her grandmother, and her little sister have eyes that look different. They kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea, crinkle into crescent moons, and are filled with stories of the past and hope for the future.”

For the almost teens

That Thing about Bollywood”

Author: Supriya Kelkar

Ages: 8 to 12

Synopsis: “Bollywood takes over in this contemporary, magical middle grade novel about an Indian American girl whose world turns upside down when she involuntarily starts bursting into glamorous song-and-dance routines during everyday life.”

Amina’s Voice

Author: Hena Khan

Ages: 8 to 12

Synopsis: “Amina Khokar is grappling with a lot of changes as she enters middle school, all while balancing her family’s traditional Pakistani culture and customs. This is a heartfelt story about bringing a diverse community together and finding the courage in your own voice.”

For the teens, YA set

Flamer

Author: Mike Curato

Ages: 14 to 18

Synopsis: “Aidan is at Boy Scouts camp for the summer. On top of growing feelings for his roommate, Aidan also deals with racism, bullying, and self-esteem issues. As the summer progresses, he finds himself with a lot of questions and compounding emotions, culminating in his self-discovery.”

I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir

Author: Malaka Gharib

Ages: Teens

Synopsis: “Gharib depicts her experience growing up as a first-generation American, the daughter of a Catholic Filipino mother and Muslim Egyptian father, and her struggles to stay true to herself as she moves from a diverse high school to a predominantly white university.”

A Pho Love Story

Author: Loan Le

Ages: 12+ 

Synopsis: “Two Vietnamese-American teens fall in love and must navigate their newfound relationship amid their families’ age-old feud about their competing, neighboring restaurants.”

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Why AAPI representation in children’s books matters

It isn’t impossible for children’s books to tackle difficult topics – take Shaun Tan’s picture book, “The Arrival.”

It “tells the story of a refugee who comes to make a home in a fantastical new land,” says Bow. “There are no words, only pictures that eloquently convey what it’s like to immigrate to a new place where you don’t speak the language, can’t read the clocks …  ultimately it is a story about adjustment and change, both its hardships and its pleasures.”

Bow also teaches “The Name Jar” by Yangsook Choi “which is about the importance of holding on to one’s culture against the pressures to assimilate,” she says. “Should the protagonist change her Korean name because her American classmates can’t pronounce it?”

Of course, children’s books won’t necessarily deal with overt racist actions.

“Instead, they depict an Asian American child undergoing some awareness of their cultural difference because of their names, what they bring to lunch, the use of chopsticks, being adopted, etc.,” Bow says.

Parents who are allies to the community could use one of these books as a jumping off point to confront biases they may have already developed, she says.

Sumie Ota, associate director at the New York Public Library, adds that it’s not just children who can learn, too.

“Parents can support their own growth alongside their children by actively selecting books that represent diverse characters and experiences, inviting discussion and questions, and seeking out other books or resources that can help them and their child learn more,” Ota says.

Representation in books is critical to keeping AAPI awareness momentum beyond a specific month. “Although special months devoted to a particular community or topic can be helpful towards creating awareness, representation in books can continue that conversation and enhance it,” Ota says.

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