16 Children’s Books to Celebrate AAPI Heritage

There was a time not that long ago when children’s books lacked the wonderful representation and diversity we see today. In the last decade, bookmakers (authors, illustrators, publishers, editors, and others) have turned their attention to showcasing “own voices” stories. In doing so, they have made considerable strides in creating books that mirror the young people reading them. I hope we continue to see more of this in the coming years.

Did you know May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI)? In the late 1970s, it began as a celebration during the first ten days of May to honor the history, culture, and contributions of AAPI individuals. In 1990 a bill was signed into law, making the celebration a month-long recognition.

Like Black History Month (in February) and Women’s History Month (in March), reading books about AAPI individuals need not be restricted to one month. Instead, let’s make it an ongoing dialog with our children about the rich diversity of humanity. 

Let’s eradicate prejudice by starting small and taking stock of what books line the shelves in our home and classroom libraries; may the pages reflect the rich and varied human experience of all people that have the power to foster greater connection rather than division. 

three children's books on top of a wooden bookshelf in front of a brick wall
Image: @bookbloom

Ages 3-8

‘Ohana Means Family by Ilima Loomis

Kalo (the taro plant) is used to make the traditional Hawaiian food poi. Kalo grows in mud, surrounded by cold, clear water. Hands reach into the mucky mud to pick the kalo, which will be used for ‘ohana’s luau. Sunlight and rain grow the kalo in the fertile land that’s never been sold. 

Bit by bit, a new piece is added to this story. Recounting an island home where ‘ohana (cousins, elders, friends, mothers, fathers) gather to share a cherished meal together.

I am Golden by Eva Chen

Mei is given a new start in a new country, guiding her parents through the transition. However, her parents cannot be with her at all moments, and at times things feel lonely, especially when people see only differences. 

But Mei has a history of dragons and jade rabbits. She is like the lotus unfurling and the voice of the magpie. Inside her is a golden flame of uniqueness that comes from her heritage. “What do you see when you look in the mirror, Mei?” Mei means beautiful in Chinese. Do you see that? 

A tribute to the immigrant experience, this hope-filled book is a true standout. 

Mommy’s Hometown by Hope Lim

Hearing stories about the town his mother grew up in is a cherished nighttime ritual for a young boy. The mountains stand as giants nearby, the cloud-filled sky, and the cool river that runs through town where his mommy and her friends catch fish and play in the warm sunshine. 

When mother and son arrive in Mommy’s hometown, the old buildings have been replaced by new ones, and the landscape is not how the boy imagined it would be. During an evening stroll, mother and son walk on the concrete path alongside the river—the one remaining constant from his mother’s stories. They take their socks and shoes off and wade into the icy cold. 

On the way home, under a colorful sunset sky, his mom imagines her childhood playing on the now bustling streets, and the boy imagines playing with his mother as a child so long ago. A heartfelt story for the entire family. 

Let’s Do Everything and Nothing by Julia Kuo

Will you climb a hill with me? Dive into a lake with me? Read the starry sky with me? 

Watch as mother and child reach the watery depths together and ascend the summit hand-in-hand. Whether sharing twilight hours outside, a cozy cup of tea, or the nighttime ritual of bath and bedtime snuggles, this sparsely worded but stunningly illustrated book reminds us that being with our loved ones is truly the gift that matters most. 

All You Need by Howard Schwartz

A poem set to illuminating watercolor illustrations, this sweeping story takes readers through the needs of each human. First, a planet to call home. Sun for light and warmth. Rain for things to grow. Seeds that will grow. Clean air to breathe. Nourishing food to grow and plenty of restorative sleep. 

As the child in this story grows, she begins to share her own words and talents with the world. A world where she is accepted and loved by the soft, beating hearts of others. A refreshing message for all.

I’ll Go and Come Back by Rajani LaRocca

A young girl flies across the world for the first time to visit her extended family in India. India is noisy, and everyone stares. 

When her cousins go to school during the day, the girl feels lonely, but she still has Sita Pati (grandmother) to keep her company. Although Sita Pati doesn’t speak much English, the pair still make sand pictures on the cement, visit the bustling market, and play games together. 

When it is time to leave India, the girl cannot simply say goodbye, but instead, she says “Poitu varen,” which means she’ll go and come back. This is exactly what happens when the following pages show Sita Pati coming to visit America. An intergenerational Indian-American story of connection despite distance. 

Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim

Two children enter Halmoni’s (grandma) house and shout out for her. Searching through each room, they realize she isn’t home. When they discover mysterious footprints and a new wardrobe in Halmoni’s bedroom, the mystery begins. 

Through the wardrobe, they find themselves outside among jewel-toned mountains, where they encounter a curious rabbit. The rabbit gives the siblings a backscratcher and tells them they should be on the lookout for a tiger. Into the forest the siblings wander, where they encounter goblins that devour their snacks but offer curious gifts in exchange. 

Told in three parts, this graphic novel (depicted with immersive images) combines four different Korean folktales into one adventurous caper. In truth, it is one of our family’s top 10 books of all time. 

Watercress by Andrea Wang

As the red rusted car clangs down the road, a Chinese-American family pulls off to the side to gather watercress from a nearby ditch. Together the family collects stringy stems with rounded leaves and muddy roots, gathering them into brown paper bags. 

At dinner that night, the watercress are reborn into a garlicky side dish, but the young girl refuses to eat them. Mother then recounts a story of her family’s survival through the great famine, where her brother did not make it. 

A story of hardship, family, and new memories are woven into one. If there is one book you’re likely to see on list after list this year (see it on our list of Best Picture Books of 2021), this title is it and is absolutely worthy of every accolade.

A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin

Setting the Big Mooncake aloft in the night sky to cool, Little Star’s mama asks her young daughter not to touch the Mooncake until she is told. Little Stare agrees and remembers her promise. At least for a little while. 

However, in the middle of the night, Little Star wakes, and with wonder in her eyes, she takes one tiny nibble of the Big Mooncake. Night after night Little Star returns to the Big Mooncake to sample just a bit more of the sweet delicacy floating in the night sky. When the Big Mooncake has all but disappeared and only twinkling crumbs remain, the girl must confess what she’s done to her mother. An ode to the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, this story is full of a magical quality that my four-year-old heartily approves of. 

Friends are Friends, Forever by Dane Liu

Yueyea and Dandan are best friends, but Dandan is moving. On Lunar New Year, the families gather to eat dumplings, tell stories, and make final memories together. Together the friends make delicate red paper snowflakes and place them on plates of water. The next morning they pop out frozen snowflake ornaments and hang them on barren trees. Then the friends say one final goodbye. 

In America, things are different. Things are hard. The language comes slowly, and her classmates laugh at her birthday silk dress. Gradually Dandan makes friends with a girl named Christina. When Lunar New Year comes again in her new home, Dandan shares her beloved Chinese traditions with her new friend.

Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umigar

“When I first came to this country, I felt so alone.” So begins this moving tale about a young immigrant girl who comes to live with her Auntie and Uncle but has difficulty settling in. 

One day the girl and her aunt go for a walk. As they walk, the aunt tells a story about how a group of Persian people were forced to leave their home and sought refuge in India. The king of India, however, thought his land was too crowded and demonstrated this with a full cup of milk. But the travelers had come so far and only wanted to live in peace and joy, which they demonstrated by stirring a scant amount of sugar into the brimming cup of milk. 

And though the strangers spoke different languages, the warmth of kindness and acceptance was palpable, and the newcomers were welcomed. An allegory for anyone who has had to make a new home in a foreign country.

THAO by Thao Lam

Open to a cutout photograph of young Thao, surrounded by paper collage children staring at her with questioning eyes. Even though Thao’s name has the same letters as other kids, the people surrounding her are constantly mispronouncing her name. Thao learns to respond to names that are not her own (Tam, Thale, Tofu, Toe, Throw, Theo, and so forth). 

In an effort to blend into her new American home, Thao decides to be called Jennifer, but at lunch, her special meal reminds her of who she is. Told with great emotion, this powerful tale is a reminder to practice and pronounce other people’s names correctly. Because it matters to them.

Ages 6-8

Mindy Kim and the Fairy Tale Wedding by Lyla Lee

Mindy’s dad (Appa) is getting married, and Mindy gets to be the flower girl for the upcoming celebration. The first order of business is picking up Mindy’s relatives that have flown in from Korea to be part of the festivities. 

At the airport, Mindy holds up a sign, remembering when she visited Korea the previous summer and anticipating what fun she’ll have with her extended family over the coming days. But will everything go off without a hitch, especially with a dog as the ring bearer? 

Interwoven with black and white images and explanations of Korean words throughout, it’s hard not to love Mindy Kim chapter books. 

Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi

This early chapter book series explores Yasmin’s many occupational interests along with her day-to-day intergenerational family life. Each book is presented in three chapters and includes a glossary at the back. 

With engaging and age-appropriate dialogue and energetic color illustrations on each page, this story, featuring a Pakistani protagonist, will appeal to children and adults alike and is ideal for beginning independent readers.

Ages 8+

All Thirteen by Christina Soontorvat

A thorough examination of the engineering, volunteers, and innovative thinking that made the incredible 2018 rescue of a Thai boy’s soccer team possible. Although the outcome of the story is known from the outset, the gripping nonfiction details make this award-winning book nearly impossible to put down. 

I especially appreciated learning about Stateless Citizens and the awareness this incident brought to that ongoing problem. You might try this as a family read-aloud, as it is such an outstanding (and perhaps my favorite book on this list)!

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim

Yumi Chung is the daughter of Korean immigrant parents. Her family owns a restaurant, and her older sister is the golden child, already enrolled in medical school and still a teenager. Yumi attends the most privileged school in the area, but with no friends and not-good-enough grades, she finds herself enrolled in a rigorous summer program that she’s dreading. 

Yumi’s real love is comedy, stand-up comedy, which she practices while knowing that she’ll never be allowed to become a comedian because of her strict, no-nonsense parents. When Yumi finds a comedy camp by accident and is mistaken for another student, she doesn’t bother correcting the lie until the secret snowballs out of control.

Told with humor, multi-dimensional characters, smart dialogue, and a plot that propels readers to root for Yumi’s dream, this coming-of-age story is likely to steal your heart from the very start.

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