18 fiction books to read for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander writers by reading some of the top recent novels including one of President Obama's favorite books.
Book covers for "Frankly in Love" by David Yoon, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" by Ocean Vuong, and "Immigrant, Montana" by Amitava Kumar.
Book covers for "Frankly in Love" by David Yoon, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" by Ocean Vuong, and "Immigrant, Montana" by Amitava Kumar.
By Lakshmi Gandhi

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In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re taking a look at some of the best recent books written by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. This list builds on our previously reported efforts by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to write their stories back into history and looks at Asian Pacific American stories that go beyond the celebratory month.

Whether you are looking for something for the youngest reader in your life or need a great piece of literary fiction yourself, there is something for everyone on this list.

Asian Pacific American literary fiction

1. "Immigrant, Montana" by Amitava Kumar

It is hard to categorize Amitava Kumar’s latest book — exactly what the author intended.

In his author’s note, Kumar calls “Immigrant, Montana” “a work of fiction as well as nonfiction” and an “in-between novel.” The book tells the story of Kailash, an Indian immigrant who arrived in the United States as a graduate student in the early 1990s. As Kailash approaches middle age, he starts looking back at the women and relationships that shaped his early years in America. Since its release last July, “Immigrant, Montana” has received rave reviews, including one from former President Barack Obama.

2. "Insurrecto" by Gina Apostol

Gina Apostol’s acclaimed new novel “Insurrecto” follows Chiara, an American filmmaker, as she travels to the Philippines to do research for her screenplay about the Philippine-American War.

She hires a translator named Magsalin, and the two women set out on a road trip through the country to discover more about an 1901 incident in which a group of Filipinos attacked an American garrison. After Magsalin reads a draft of Chiara’s script, she begins writing her own version of events. Apostol’s prose moves between the two scripts while revealing how the Philippine-American War shaped both the histories of the United States and the Philippines for decades to come.

3. "On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous" by Ocean Vuong

When asked in 2017 to share what inspired him, the poet and author Ocean Vuong named “the world, its contradictions, conflicts, joys, and wild beauties and dangers.

All of those themes are present in Vuong’s debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” which is set to be released in June.

Structured as a letter from a 20-something son known as Little Dog to his mother who cannot read, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” explores a family’s history as it stretches from Vietnam to the family’s experience as refugees to the United States to the present day.

4. "If You Leave Me" by Crystal Hana Kim

The impact of the Korean War on multiple generations of one family is explored in Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, “If You Leave Me.”

The book begins with the teenage Haemi Lee being forced to leave her home in South Korea with her family when it is invaded by North Korea.

While Haemi has a lifelong connection with her childhood friend Kyunghwan, it is Kyunghwan’s older cousin who is determined to marry Haemi before he heads to war. While Haemi marries and quickly becomes a mother, the decisions made in those early years have a lasting impact.

Asian Pacific American graphic novels

5. “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker

Actor George Takei has often written and talked about his childhood in a Japanese American incarceration camp during World War II, most memorably in the Broadway show “Allegiance” in 2016. Now, along with co-writers Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, and artist Harmony Becker, Takei is bringing his story to a younger audience with his debut graphic novel.

Due out on May 28, the book follows the 4-year-old George as he leaves his California home with his family and is taken to a camp in Arkansas. As the young George tries to adjust to his new circumstances, he watches as his parents also make sacrifices for their children.

6. "Mooncakes" by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu first introduced their characters Nova Huang and Tam Lang through their popular webcomic “Mooncakes.” Now, they are now bringing them to print with their graphic novel of the same title, scheduled for release on Oct. 15.

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Nova and Tam aren’t your typical teens: One is a witch and the other is a werewolf.

Once childhood crushes, they see their worlds collide one night when Nova comes across Tam fighting a demon in the woods. That sets them off on a journey in which they simultaneously deal with coming of age and the occult.

7. "The Prince and the Dressmaker" by Jen Wang

Jen Wang’s latest graphic novel is a sweet and modern twist on a classic fairy tale that centers on a nonbinary character.

Prince Sebastian may still be a teen but he’s already is one of the most eligible bachelors in the land.

Because of this, his royal parents are on the hunt to find him a bride. But Sebastian has a secret — he sneaks out at night to become Lady Crystallia, a beautiful Parisian fashion icon known for her style. One of the only people to know Sebastian’s secret is his dressmaker, Frances, the female designer responsible for Lady Crystallia’s stunning gowns. Readers follow as both teens navigate the complexities of guarding such a big secret while also discovering their own identities.

Asian Pacific American children’s books

8. “Hi'iaka Battles the Wind” by Gabrielle Ahuli'i and Jing Jing Tsong

Children will get to learn the story of the Hawaiian goddess Hi'iaka in this picture book by Gabrielle Ahuli'i and Jing Jing Tsong.

“Hi'iaka Battles the Wind” is part of Beachhouse Publishing’s new "Hawaiian Legends for Little Ones" series and hopes to introduce the next generation to Hawaii’s long and rich history of storytelling.

The story stars Hiʻiaka, one of the most significant figures in Hawaiian mythology. When a destructive wind begins destroying homes and crops in Waipi’o Valley, Hi'iaka uses her lightning pau (or skirt) to throw lightning bolts and divert the wind away.

9. "Drawn Together" by Minh Lê and Dan Santat

This new picture book tells the story of a little boy who visits his grandfather. At first, the pair struggles with a language barrier but soon learn to bond through their shared love of art and creativity.

Legacy is a consistent theme for Lê.

Speaking to NBC News in 2018 about a new superhero book he was writing for DC Comics, he said: "How do you live up to the legacy of previous generations who went through so much adversity in their lives? What are you going to do when it's your turn to take on the world? Those are tough issues to grapple with, whether or not you have superpowers.”

10. "A Map Into the World" by Kao Kalia Yang and Seo Kim

A Hmong American girl looks for beauty in the world around her in this children’s book by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrator Seo Kim, scheduled for release on Oct. 1.

As the little girl moves into a new home with her family, she also sees how the world — and her family — change over time.

Asian Pacific American middle grade novels

11. “Sea Sirens” by Amy Chu

Inspired by L. Frank Baum’s 1911 novel “The Sea Fairies,” Amy Chu’s upcoming middle-grade graphic novel revolves around a Vietnamese American surfer girl named Trot and her amazingly cranky talking cat.

When Trot is wiped out while surfing, she finds herself in an underwater sea kingdom that is being divided by an epic sea battle between the Sea Siren mermaids and the Serpent King. Chu’s prose draws on both Baum’s original novel and Vietnamese mythology to create a memorable world.

12. “Dragon Pearl” by Yoon Ha Lee

“Dragon Pearl” has a lot to offer young fans of sci-fi, including a 13-year-old girl who can shape shift, a faraway planet and the influence of Korean mythology.

While the main character, Min, comes from a long line of fox spirits, her mother urges her to keep the family’s identity a secret and forbids her from using any magic.

As Min struggles to keep up the pretense that she is an ordinary human girl, she also has to deal with her often critical aunties and a houseful of cousins who are constantly in her personal space.

13. “The Best At It” by Maulik Pancholy

“30 Rock” alum Maulik Pancholy makes his literary debut with this buzzy new middle-grade novel.

Like the author, protagonist Rahul Kapoor is from a small town in Indiana with few kids of color.

As he struggles with his anxiety and place in the world, Rahul’s grandfather Bhai gives him a piece of advice: find something you are really good at and then become the best at it.

Rahul has no idea what he’s best at, but soon comes to believe that finding out will help with both his problems with school bullies and his burgeoning secret crush on classmate Justin Emery.

Asian Pacific American young adult novels

14. “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

Some of the most acclaimed Asian American young adult authors came together to reimagine classic East and South Asian myths for this anthology, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.

The authors in “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” include New York Times bestselling authors Melissa de la Cruz, Aisha Saeed, Roshani Chokshi and more. They explore Asian folklore in genres that range from romance to sci-fi.

15. “The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee

It can be hard to find historical fiction that features Asian American characters, but fans of shows like "Downton Abbey" have a lot more choices than they used to.

Stacey Lee’s upcoming novel “The Downstairs Girl” (scheduled for release on Aug. 13) centers on Jo Kwan, a teenage maid in 1890s Atlanta who works for one of the wealthiest families in the city.

As Jo toggles between the moneyed world of her employers and the working-class home of her Chinese immigrant father, she also finds time to write Atlanta’s most popular advice column under the name “Miss Sweetie.”

16. “For a Muse Of Fire” by Heidi Heilig

Just 16, Jetta Chantray has already become known as one of the most popular shadow puppeteers in the land thanks to her secret ability to see the dead and communicate with them through her puppets.

But when a colonizing army takes over their country, all of the native traditions are banned, and Jetta and her family try to flee via ship to the fictional land of Aquitan, where they’ve heard they can make a good living because shadow puppets are all the rage.

“For a Muse Of Fire” draws on the history of Southeast Asia and French colonialism while also exploring Jetta’s life as a teen with mental illness.

17. “Patron Saints of Nothing” by Randy Ribay

Randy Ribay’s startlingly timely new novel features a high school senior determined to find out what lead to the death of his cousin in the Philippines.

Filipino American teenager Jay Reguero originally planned to have a pretty chill senior year before heading off to the University of Michigan. But when his cousin Jun is murdered as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, Jay wants to discover what really happened — and why no one in his family will talk about Jun’s death.

When Jay travels to his parents’ birthplace to start an investigation, he discovers more than he bargained for.

18. “Frankly in Love” by David Yoon

In his contemporary YA debut, David Yoon explores the life of a Korean American teen who struggles with dating, crushes and his family’s expectations.

Main character Frank Li coined the term “Limbo” to refer to Asian American kids like himself who are have traditional parents at home but just want to be ordinary Southern California kids at school. His parents have always told him to “date Korean,” so when Frank develops a crush on a popular girl at school named Brit Means, he tries to come up with a plan to distract them. The high school senior will pretend to date fellow classmate Joy Song (who has also always been told to date Korean) while secretly wooing Brit.

Things don’t go exactly as planned however in this “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” style romcom. “Frankly in Love” is scheduled to be released on Sept. 10.

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