13 best Asian American children's and young adult books 2019

The list includes a retelling of 'Little Women,' a story set amid Kuala Lumpur's 1969 riots, and an illustrated biography of Disney's first Asian American animator.
Asian American books for children and young adults to read in 2019
Recent years have seen an onslaught of books featuring both diverse characters and diverse experiences, including from and about an Asian American lens.
By Lakshmi Gandhi

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For parents eager to raise a young reader, filling your home with books your child can connect to is essential.

“You want books all throughout your house — not just that one shelf in the living room, but the dining room, the bathroom, [and so on],” Maria Russo, co-author of “How To Raise a Reader,” told NBC News in October. She discussed how to build and nurture your child's love of literature.

For Russo, the most important thing parents of readers can do is make sure reading is seen as accessible and fun. “Having a lot of books in your own house and creating an environment where books are nearby that they can stumble on sets a family culture [of reading],” she said.

And luckily for hopeful readers (and perhaps their parents), recent years have brought an onslaught of books featuring both diverse characters and diverse experiences. In addition to the books we mention below, buzzy recent titles worth checking out include Sabina Khan's "The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali," which follows a young Muslim gay teen struggling with her identity and Hafsah Faizal's "We Hunt the Flame," a new fantasy novel set in a world based on ancient Arabia.

As we approach the end of the year, we’re looking back at some of the best children’s and young adult books to be released in 2019 by and about Asian Americans. From the illustrated story of a Disney legend who was instrumental in creating “Bambi” to an award-nominated young adult novel about a Filipino American teen caught between two worlds, here are some books to consider placing on your bookshelves this winter.

Asian American Picture Books

1. “Tiny Feet Between the Mountains” by Hanna Cha

When Hanna Cha was still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design she was part of the team that created the acclaimed anthology “Permanent Alien.” On Nov. 5, Cha — who frequently draws attention on social media for her striking illustrations — released her debut picture book “Tiny Feet Between the Mountains,” which incorporates aspects of Korean mythology while also celebrating the power of young girls.

The book introduces readers to Soe-In, a small girl whose name literally translates to “little person” in Korean. When the sun suddenly disappears in her village, the head of the village asks the community for a volunteer to investigate what happened. When no one steps forward, Soe-In rushes to do so and heads into the forest to discover what went wrong. Once there, the young girl comes face-to-face with the spirit tiger who has swallowed the sun by accident, and then works retrieve it.

2. “Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong” by Julie Leung and illustrated by Chris Sasaki

Tyrus Wong is best known for his groundbreaking work as one of the first Chinese American animators at Disney—his paintings would become the basis for the film “Bambi.” In “Paper Son,” Julie Leung recalls the journey Wong (then known as Wong Geng Yeo) took on a steamship from China to California at the age of 8. Accompanied by Chris Sasaki’s illustrations, the story poignantly follows the young Tyrus as he arrives in the United States with only a single suitcase and his immigration papers.

As Tyrus begins school and discovers art, he soon finds that all he wants to do is paint and draw and, fittingly, eventually begins attending an art institute in Los Angeles. Leung describes Tyrus touchingly working as a janitor at night, wherein he delicately wields his mop as if it were a paintbrush.

3. “I Miss My Grandpa” by Jin Xiaojing

Grief and loss are overwhelming topics for readers of any age to process, yet Jin Xiaojing illustrates the power of love throughout generations in her new book “I Miss My Grandpa.” The young girl at the center of the book never had a chance to meet her grandpa, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel the loss acutely.

To ensure the Grandpa's spirit lives on, the child’s grandmother explains Grandpa’s spirit and features can be seen in family members around them. Cousin Aiden, for example, has Grandpa’s “listening ears,” while the girl's “youngest uncle, Mason, has a face shaped the most like your grandpa’s.” Readers follow along as the child learns all about Grandpa and how other members of the family resemble him. As her grandmother concludes, “He is still living within us who love him.”

Asian American Middle Grade Books

These books are aimed at fifth to eighth graders.

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4. “Bone Talk” by Candy Gourlay

Candy Gourlay’s “Bone Talk” is a thoughtful and touching examination of the impact of colonization on cultures and people through the eyes of a child. The story is set in a remote village in the Philippines in 1899 just as the Philippine-American war is about to begin. For Samkad, a boy from the Bontok tribe, it is also the year he will participate in a ritual that officially transforms young men into tribal warriors, a moment he has been anticipating for ages.

Samkad loves his culture and community and is determined to be the best warrior he can be. But then an unexpected visitor arrives and informs the tribe members that a group of people called the Americans have arrived and are likely headed its way: “They've been bringing chaos and war nearby, and they're coming very soon."

5. “More to the Story” by Hena Khan

This has been a great year for fans of the beloved classic “Little Women,” which is celebrating its 150th anniversary with the release of several new retellings and reinterpretations. Author Hena Khan puts her own twist on the story of the March sisters with “More to the Story,” which centers on the Atlanta-based Mirza family, comprising Pakistani American sisters Jameela, Maryam, Bisma, and Aleeza.

When their beloved father Baba heads to work overseas for six months, the family has to learn to adjust to a household without him. Luckily for Jameela, a distraction arrives in the form of a new neighbor, Ali, the teen nephew of a family friend. Just as in “Little Women,” the sisters navigate financial struggles and a health scare while also learning how to grow into young adulthood. Fans of “Little Women” retellings should also be sure to check out “Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy,” a graphic novel set in modern-day Brooklyn released earlier this year.

6. "Pilu of the Woods" by Mai K. Nguyen

For Willow — the main character in Mai K. Nguyen’s new graphic novel "Pilu of the Woods" — navigating the world is often difficult. The preteen frequently gets emotional and isn’t sure how to handle it. After a particularly bad day, Willow decides to run into the woods by her house, where she always feels safe. It is there that she meets Pilu, a lost tree spirit who can’t figure out how to get home. When Willow learns that Pilu’s home is the magnolia grove Willow and her mom used to frequent when she was a child, she immediately offers to help Pilu get back home.

But when Pilu hesitates about embarking on the long journey, Willow’s emotions once again burst out and — in a twist provoked by a sudden storm — take life. Willow then has to take on her emotions head on.

7. “Dragon Warrior” by Katie Zhao

Katie Zhao’s debut book “The Dragon Warrior" is part of a recent wave of middle grade and young adult novels based on Chinese mythological stories. Main character Faryn Liu may only be 12 but she already knows that she is destined to be a warrior, aspiring to it along with her brother Alex. Those dreams face an obstacle, however: Their father had mysteriously disappeared years ago, leading everyone in their community to distrust them. Undeterred, the siblings steadfastly continue to train in secret.

It is only when Faryn sees and battles a demon while on an errand in San Francisco that people begin to wonder if she is the legendary Heaven Breaker, who — according to myth —c ommands an army of dragons able to defeat demons anywhere.

Asian American Young Adult Novels

Teens and tweens who love to read can find new books about everything from an unexpected love to a girl who stands up for herself amidst political turmoil.

8. “Love From A to Z” by S.K. Ali

S.K. Ali’s sophomore novel “Love From A to Z” explores what happens when two teens unexpectedly meet at a turning point in each of their lives.

Zayneb is the only Muslim girl at her Midwestern high school. After she publicly calls out a racist teacher, she finds herself suspended from school and at loose ends. Adam is a Muslim of Chinese descent living in Doha, Qatar, who has a secret — he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the same disease his late mother had.

When Zayneb decides that visiting her aunt in Doha would be a welcome change of scene and a good way to get an early start on spring break, the two teens meet and connect in an intense and personal way.

9. “The Weight of Our Sky” by Hanna Alkaf

Set during the race riots that tore apart Kuala Lumpur in 1969, “The Weight of Our Sky” examines the lasting impact the sectarian violence had on one family.

To the outside world, Melati Ahmad is a typical teen girl who is obsessed with the Beatles. In reality, she struggles to manage her obsessive compulsive disorder and frequently has intrusive thoughts. When Melati decides to head to the cinema with her friends on May 13, 1969, the decision ends up changing the course of her life. Separated from her mother by the riots and with a newly instituted curfew in place, Melati has to rely on her own inner strength and the assistance of a Chinese boy named Vincent in order to get back to her family.

As Alkaf writes in the author’s note at the beginning of her debut novel, “This book is not a light and easy read.” But for readers looking for something a bit weightier, “The Weight Of Our Sky” provides a thoughtful and nuanced look at a moment in history with which many Western readers may be unfamiliar.

10. “Caster” by Elsie Chapman

Aza Wu knows how scary and harmful magic can be. The main character of Elsie Chapman’s latest novel “Caster” lives in a dystopia that has nearly been destroyed by spells. After her sister Shire is killed while casting, Aza knows that it now up to her to save the tea house her family has run for generations, while also appeasing the gangs running her neighborhood.

Billed as a young adult sci-fi version of “Fight Club,” “Caster” follows Aza as she enters a secret casting tournament and begins fighting for herself and her family’s legacy.

11. “Permanent Record” by Mary H.K. Choi

What happens when an internationally known social media influencer makes a sudden and unexpected connection with a college dropout just trying to figure out how to get by? That is the question Mary H.K. Choi explores in her bestselling sophomore novel “Permanent Record.”

Leanna Smart is a former child star who is known as one of the most recognizable faces out there. Pablo Rind has been working at a 24-hour Brooklyn bodega since dropping out of school. When Leanna stops by the store for snacks at 5 a.m. after a late night out, they begin a relationship that surprises everyone — including themselves.

12. “Song Of The Crimson Flower” by Julie C Dao

The latest young adult novel by Julie C. Dao sounds in many ways like a classic fairy tale. Bao is an impoverished physician's apprentice who is deeply in love with Lan, the daughter of a nobleman. He is shattered when Lan viciously rejects him.

After Lan comes to regret her actions, she tries to make it up to Bao when she finds his treasured flute by the river. But what Lan doesn’t know is that Bao’s soul has been trapped inside the flute by an evil witch. She soon learns that there’s only one thing that will set Bao free: true love.

13. “Patron Saints of Nothing” by Randy Ribay

A finalist for this year’s National Book Award, Randy Ribay’s “Patron Saints of Nothing” explores the story of the Filipino American teenager Jay Reguero, whose world is shaken to the core when he learns that his favorite cousin, Jun, died mysteriously in the Philippines.

“First and foremost, I was writing it for Filipino Americans, that was the primary audience in mind — Filipino American teenagers,” Ribay told NBC News in June. When Jay learns that Jun died as a result of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, he becomes determined to discover what exactly happened and travels to Manila in order to do so.

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