The Chinese immigrant experience is one with a long history in America resulting in becoming the largest Asian population in America today. There is a great one-page overview on Chinese immigration that details this history. Interestingly, this article says that the earliest Chinese immigrants during the 1700’s were well received and became wealthy but attitudes changes negatively during the mid-1800’s when less skilled Chinese “Coolies” came during the gold rush.
As I think about the Chinese immigrant experience — my father immigrated from China to pursue a Ph.D. program at U.C.L.A. a few years before the Communist Revolution — my own experience is probably similar to most second-generation immigrants in the quest to balance American culture while honoring an Asian past. Of course, my background is dissimilar to most Chinese immigrant stories as my mother is of Japanese descent and 2nd generation at that. And did I mention that I married a Korean?
And so each of us carries an immigrant story that is unique. I chose these books because there was something special about each of them that helps me to connect to my Chinese roots and I hope that you enjoy them too, even if your ancestry isn’t Asian.
For my own children, a “mixed-plate” to quote a Hawaiian term, they are 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Asian. And at 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Japanese and 1/2 Korean, they are an unusual mix in that these three countries have traditionally hated each other for centuries. And so in reading these stories, they may or may not relate to any of these stories, but I hope that it will help them to honor and take pride in their ancestry even if it’s as varied as a patchwork quilt.
Top 10 #OwnVoices Chinese American Books for Kids and Teens
10. Dragonwings series by Laurence Yep
9. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Shang
If there is one book that I would single out as THE seminal Asian American coming of age story, it would be The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. What is unique about this story compared to all others is that the Chinese American family is an assimilated 3rd generation family without the usual Asian stereotyping. It’s not about characters that are super smart geniuses or that play the violin/piano like a child prodigy … these are characters that Asian kids living in suburban communities across the United States can actually relate to. Fitting in while retaining your Asian culture. Living up to high family expectations and standards. Being your own person versus who your parents want you to be. Good stuff! And it’s so well written that I think it will be up for many, many children’s lit awards. Wendy Shang is the Amy Tan of children’s literature. Try her for yourself! [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
8. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord
This is the story of Shirley Temple Wong as she emigrates to America at age 8 and discovers that American is the land of opportunity by learning about baseball, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the great Jackie Robinson. [chapter book, ages 8-12]
7. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Chinese folk-lore is turned into a Prinz Award-winning YA graphic novel is this tale of Chinese American Geek Turned Monkey Hero. [graphic novel, ages 12 and up]
6. The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin
It’s the Year of the Dog, and Pacy learns that this is the year to “find herself” which means trying to find her special talents and how she fits in with family, friends, and classmates. There is a little bonus gift in that Pacy enters a book writing contest and that book is The Ugly Vegetables! Grace Lin is the “Amy Tan” of children’s literature and this is a gentle story for anyone who struggles with finding themselves. In real life, Grace Lin said that she actually won the science fair and you can check her website to find out more about what really happened in real life versus Year of the Dog. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
5. Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee
Millicent Min is an 11-year-old girl genius with no social skills or friends except for her Grandmother Maddie. While Millicent can rationalize her solitude, her parents and grandmother co-conspire to socialize her. They force her to play volleyball and to tutor an annoying Chinese American kid, Stanford Wong, who is the polar opposite of her. Things look up for Millicent when she makes her first friend, Emily, at volleyball. But things come to a head when Emily finds out that Millicent and Stanford are lying to her as they both try to hide their tutoring arrangement from her. And to make matters worse, Maddie decides to move to England. Millicent is a genius, but can she figure out how to repair her friendship? [chapter book, ages 9 and up)
4. The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin
One of my favorite picture books about a little Chinese girl who objects to the “ugly vegetables” her family grows compared to her non-Asian neighbors who grow beautiful flowers. But when her mother makes a delicious soup from the Chinese vegetables, all the neighbors want to trade flowers for soup. What I like about this story is that “fitting in” is something internal that the little girl feels; not a result of overt prejudice. And in the end, her differences enrich the entire neighborhood. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
3. Apple Pie on 4th of July by Janet S. Wong
When her parents cook Chinese food to sell at their store on the 4th of July, the little 2nd generation Chinese American girl thinks that her parents “don’t get it.” No one wants Chinese food on the 4th of July, right? A simple story that depicts perfectly the straddling of two worlds that 2nd generation children feel. [picture book, ages 2-6]
2. Alvin Ho and Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look
Both series are hilarious.
Alvin Ho is afraid of everything from girls to school. He won’t speak in class but he has a rich life outside of it with his friends, going on adventures that test his courage. Alvin is the 2nd grade Asian American boy version of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and draws in the same audience of reluctant readers as well as readers who enjoy a funny early chapter book. [easy chapter book, ages 6 and up]
1. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
My oldest has always loved Asian folk tales. In this Newbery Award-winning book, Grace Lin’s finest work to date weaves Chinese Folktales into a story that is greater than the sum of its parts. With Asian themes of filial respect and sacrifice, she writes a novel that is the “Asian Percy Jackson.” [chapter book, ages 8-12]
More Great #OwnVoices Chinese American Books for Kids and Teens
The Nian Monster by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Alina Chau
Use this charming picture book to celebrate Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year. It explains the customs in this fun adventure pitting Xingling’s wits against the Nian Monster. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Shadow in the Moon: A Tale of the Mid-Autumn Festival by Christina Matula, illustrated by Pearl Law
This is a lovely picture book in which a family, two sisters and their grandmother, celebrates the Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as the Chinese Moon Festival). Grandmother (Ah-ma) tells the story of the archer and his wife and how the lady in the moon came to be. The Shadow In The Moon: A Tale of Mid-Autumn Festival by Christina Matula, illustrated by Pearl Law. Use this picture book to celebrate the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival with or without mooncakes. This book is an interesting blend of contemporary Chinese customs and traditional folklore. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Mama and Papa Have a Store by Amelia Lau Carling
I love this story about a Chinese family that immigrated to Guatemala City and owns a store. Depicting a typical day in the life of a family as described by the youngest, it’s a fun way to learn about the people and culture of Guatemala and the gentle rhythm of their lives. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic by Ginnie Lo, illustrated by Beth Lo
There are very few Chinese families in the Midwest during the 1940’s so Jinyi and her family travel four hours by car to visit relatives in Chicago from Indiana. There, they get to eat Mama’s favorite Chinese foods … boiled soybeans, Eight Treasure Rice, pork-and-spinach dumplings. One day, Auntie Yang spots a field of leafy green plants. Could it be mao dou, soybeans?! It is! The farmer is growing soybeans as feed for cows and pigs but he’s happy to sell it to Jinyi’s family. They buy a huge bundle, boil them up, and set up tables to eat outside. Thus the family’s first soybean picnic was born. Over the years, word spread and the soybean picnic grew. Soon thirty Chinese families would drive up to Auntie’s house. Eventually, more than two hundred people gathered until it outgrew Auntie and Uncle Yang’s backyard!
This is a true story! The authors’ really do have an Auntie Yang who discovered a soybean field near her house. Her soybean picnic grew into a huge annual event, connecting other Chinese immigrant families during WWII. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Nim and the War Effort by Milly Lee
Nim wants to win the paper drive but her grandfather won’t let her miss Chinese school. She has to venture out of Chinatown in order to prove to a Caucasian kid that she’s an American. [picture book, ages 7-12]
The Magic Horse of Han Gan by Chen Jiang Hong
I chose this picture book as much for gorgeous traditional Chinese paintings as for the story which is about the life of painter Han Gan, who lived in China 1,200 years ago. The myth is that he is a such a great painter of horses that one of his paintings comes to life. [picture book, ages 5-8]
Coolies by Yin
When one thinks of Chinese immigrants, the image of “Coolies” comes to mind and this period marks the period when new Chinese immigrants were viewed negatively. The Coolie story is an important story about the Chinese immigrants during the 1800’s and underscores why “Coolies” were an important part of building the great railroads across the Western United States. [picture book, ages 5-8]
Morning with Grandpa by Sylvia Liu, illustrated by Christina Forshay
Mei Mei s grandpa is practicing tai chi in the garden, and Mei Mei is eager to join in. As Gong Gong tries to teach her the slow, graceful movements, Mei Mei enthusiastically does them with her own flair. Then Mei Mei takes a turn, trying to teach Gong Gong the yoga she learned in school. Will Gong Gong be able to master the stretchy, bendy poses? Winner of the LEE & LOW New Voices Award, this title celebrates, with lively spirit and humor, the special bond between grandparent and grandchild and the joy of learning new things together. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Down By The River by Andrew Weiner, illustrated by April Chu
One beautiful autumn day, Art sets out with his mother and grandfather for a fishing trip. Fishing days are Art’s favorite. He loves learning the ropes from Grandpa—the different kinds of flies and tackle and the trout that frequent their favorite river. Art especially appreciates Grandpa’s stories. But, this time, hearing the story about Mom’s big catch on her first cast ever makes Art feel insecure about his own fishing skills. But, as Art hooks a beautiful brown trout, he finds reassurance in Grandpa’s stories and marvels in the sport and a day spent with family, promising to continue the tradition with his own grandkids generations later. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
More books by April Chu:
The Cat from Hunger Mountain by Ed Young
Rendered in exquisite mixed-media collage, Caldecott Medalist Ed Young’s deceptively simple fable is a deeply affecting tale about appreciating the value of treasures that need not be chased. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
More books by Ed Young:
Count My Cupcakes 1 2 3 by Joyce Wan
Learn to count from one to five in this rhyming board book featuring colorful disappearing touch-and-feel cupcakes! It’s an eye-catching extension of Joyce Wan’s adorable cupcake book with delectable spreads of irresistibly chubby, yummy characters, including a cup of cocoa, a rolling donut, and lots and lots of cupcakes. And at the end of the story, you can’t help but giggle and laugh with your little one as you practice counting down from five to one and back again. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
More books by Joyce Wan:
The Crane Girl by
This book is a kind of Japanese Rumplestiltskin folk tale about friendship and the power of kindness. [folk tale picture book, ages 6 and up]
Mixed: A Colorful Story by Arree Chung
In the beginning, there were three colors . . .
All special in their own ways, all living in harmony―until one day, a Red says “Reds are the best!” and starts a color kerfuffle. When the colors decide to separate, is there anything that can change their minds?
A Yellow, a Blue, and a never-before-seen color might just save the day in this inspiring book about color, tolerance, and embracing differences. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Is Mommy? by Victoria Chang, illustrated by Marla Frazee
In this irreverent, hilarious, and charming picture book, award-winning poet Victoria Chang and celebrated artist Marla Frazee show that all toddlers love their mommies—no matter what. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
More books by Grace Lin
Grand Canyon by Jason Chin
This spectacular picture book about the Grand Canyon won a Caldecott Honor and Silbert Award, both well deserved. Explore the Grand Canyon and learn about the ecosystem, trails and more in this riveting nonfiction adventure. [nonfiction picture book, ages 6 and up]
More books by Jason Chin:
More books by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book is a Classic by Susan Tan, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Cilla is a spunky heroine with relatable problems: new sibling, best friend squabbles, and scared of the dark. But she also brings something new to the table that characters like Ramona or Clementine do not. The questions from strangers because of her racial ambiguity, tensions between in-laws perhaps due to her parents’ mixed-race marriage, and how food is the great bridge between cultures. This is not a middle-grade book for just mixed race kids. This is a book for any kid, but mixed race kids will especially appreciate Cilla’s perspective.
The sequel to Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire starts with a Chinese New Year celebration at Chinatown. Cilla dresses in red, receives a red envelope, distributes good luck oranges throughout the house, watches a lion dance parade, and eats a mooncake. This is her year to be a big sister, overcome her fears, be more “Chinese,” and participate in her aunt’s wedding as a flower girl. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
More books by Lisa Yee
The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh
I had trouble attaching to this character but I think that it’s just me. Bea was a little too passive for me without a strong enough personality in this coming of age middle school story of a girl adrift both at school as her friendships shift and at home, as she becomes a big sister. Some of the story threads didn’t feel realistic to me like the note hiding and discomfort being a big sister given that the age gap is twelve or thirteen years. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Books by Lawrence Yep
The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang
I really liked this clue-solving adventure set in modern-day China. It’s a “Pirate
Treasure Map Meets Ancient Chinese Hidden Treasure” epic quest that Mia Chen and her older brother must solve in order to find their missing Aunt Ling. Time is running out as her Aunt’s nemesis, Ying, is on the trail too. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Mia and her parents have immigrated from China to Southern California where they are struggling to make ends meet. Her parents take a job running a motel, but they are exploited by the evil owner, Mr. Yao. Mia is learning English and dreams of many things including writing, but her mother thinks Mia can’t compete with native speakers and wants her to focus on math. The plot is fast-paced and touches on so many facets that are front and center right now: modern slavery, racism, police and #BlackLivesMatter. Throughout it all, Mia preserves with hard work, an indomitable spirit, a growing command of the English language, an ability to create a community, and a sense of justice that changes her family and everyone around her. This is a powerful book that every reader will both enjoy and benefit from! [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
More books by Janet Wong
See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
This was my son’s assigned rising 7th-grade summer reading book. My son liked the first half of the book which is about 11-year-old Alex Petroski’s road trip from Colorado to New Mexico for a rocket launch event with his small and very afraid dog. The story is told through Alex’s voice by way of recordings and it also indicated to me that perhaps Alex has Asperger’s Syndrome. We know that it’s just Alex and his mom at home and there is something not quite right with her as Alex is the primary caretaker for both of them.
It’s at the rocket launch event that Alex meets two fellow competitors that help him get to the next leg of his journey. It’s here where my son loses interest in the story. Cheng introduces more adult characters at each new location in the book, with each having a backstory that somehow winds together with the rest of the plot. Newbery judges like this complicated lines of plot that intersect for a satisfying ending, but my son did not. He had trouble keeping track of everyone and really didn’t care for a nearly-all adult cast. If you compare this to Riordan books which he loves, this book lacks the humor, the adventure, the special powers, and, most of all, the “kids-on-a-quest-doing-it-by-themselves” element. It was tough slogging to make my son finish the book and I did all the reading to him aloud!
I think while some have this book on the shortlist for Newbery, there is just too much going on in terms of adult characters, plot twists, and mental health challenges for a middle school audience. For a road trip book, I’d probably recommend Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech instead. My son would recommend The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex instead. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
Books by Roseanne Thong
Reflection: A Twisted Tale by Elizabeth Lim
More books by Lenore Look
Books by Gene Luen Yang
The Monkey King’s Daughter series by T. A. Debonis
Meilin is a 13-year-old girl who lives in California with her mother and uncle. Her life seems very ordinary and fraught with the usual high school struggles of zits, popular-but-obnoxious girls, and trying to fit in. Her life turns upside down when she learns that her father is the immortal Monkey King and her grandmother, the Chinese goddess of Mercy. Worse yet, she morphs back and forth into a monkey form complete with tail! When a special birthday present from her uncle turns out to be a gate that can teleport her into the mythical past, Meilin must find the courage to battle side by side with her father to save her kidnapped mother from her father’s greatest enemy.
For girls seeking an Asian version of the Percy Jackson series, The Monkey King’s Daughter by T. A. DeBonis is a fast and fun read. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Lovely, Dark and Deep by Justina Chen
Thanks to her crisis-manager parents, she doesn’t just have to wear layers of clothes and spaceship-sized hat. She has to avoid all hint of light. Say goodbye to windows and running outdoors. Even her phone becomes a threat.Viola is determined to maintain a normal life, particularly after she meets Josh. He’s a funny, talented Thor look-alike with his own mysterious grief. But their romance makes her take more risks, and when a rebellion against her parents backfires dangerously, she must find her way to a life — and love — as deep and lovely as her dreams. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee
The struggle to get into a top-tier college consumes sixteen-year-old Genie’s every waking thought. But when she discovers she’s a celestial spirit who’s powerful enough to bash through the gates of heaven with her fists, her perfectionist existence is shattered.
Enter Quentin, a transfer student from China whose tone-deaf assertiveness beguiles Genie to the brink of madness. Quentin nurtures Genie’s outrageous transformation—sometimes gently, sometimes aggressively—as her sleepy suburb in the Bay Area comes under siege from hell-spawn.
This epic YA debut draws from Chinese folklore, features a larger-than-life heroine, and perfectly balances the realities of Genie’s grounded high school life with the absurd supernatural world she finds herself commanding. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Warcross by Marie Lu
For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
American Panda by Gloria Chao
An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate. [young adult, ages 14 and up]
Kangaroo Too by Curtis C. Chen
Set in the same world as Waypoint Kangaroo, Curtis C. Chen’s Kangaroo Too is bursting with adrenaline and intrigue in this unique outer space adventure.
On the way home from his latest mission, secret agent Kangaroo’s spacecraft is wrecked by a rogue mining robot. The agency tracks the bot back to the Moon, where a retired asteroid miner―code-named “Clementine” ―might have information about who’s behind the sabotage. [young adult, age 14 and up]
The Singing Bones by Shawn Tan
Wicked stepmothers, traitorous brothers, cunning foxes, lonely princesses: There is no mistaking the world of the Brothers Grimm and the beloved fairy tales that have captured generations of readers. Now internationally acclaimed artist Shaun Tan shows us the beautiful, terrifying, amusing, and downright peculiar heart of these tales as never before seen. [chapter book, ages 12 and up]
More books by Shaun Tan:
Chinese Americans Books for Kids and Teens Honorable Mentions
Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully
This is a Great Books for Girls by Kathleen Odean selection about a nun who is a master of Kung Fu and helps a village girl avoid an unwanted marriage. A great book about girl empowerment through the martial art of Kung Fu. Think The Karate Kid for girls! [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Zen Shorts by Jon Muth
Jon Muth manages to take Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu and distill it into three stories that both children and adults can relate to. A wonderful book for everyone’s bookshelf. The artwork is gorgeous too! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Fa Mulan by Robert D. San Souci
I always find it interesting to read the book a movie is based on. San Souci retells this legend that comes from a ballad composed around 420-589 A.D. about the battles found between the Chinese and Tatars (what is now Mongolia and Manchuria). This retelling shows that the Disney movie is faithful to the ballad with one big exception, Mulan did have permission from her parents to join the army. Filial piety is pretty important in Asian culture! [picture book, ages 6-10)
Historical Tales (A Story of Ancient China) series by Jessica Gunderson
I found these great beginning chapter books at the library. They are a very interesting and accurate historical fiction series that brings Ancient China to life. Great if you are also combining any museums of, say, Terracotta Warriors. The Terracotta Girl would be a perfect fit! The Jade Dragon is a more general story combining ancient sports (horned helmet wrestling jiao di, rowing and archery) with dragon symbolism.
The Stone Heart (The Nameless City) by Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire
My Chinese heritage is linked to the silk trade and I am fascinated by the Silk Road. This graphic novel brings the intrigue and adventure of the silk road to life.
Kaidu and Rat have only just recovered from the assassination attempt on the General of All Blades when more chaos breaks loose in the Nameless City: deep conflicts within the Dao nation are making it impossible to find a political solution for the disputed territory of the City itself. [graphic novel, ages 9 and up]
The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng
The Year of the Book is a subtle and realistic portrayal of what it means to grow up as a second generation Asian American. For 4th grader Anna Wang, it means being on the sidelines at school while her once best friend trades up socially. At home, life is safe and cozy, especially with books that comfort and entertain her. Is it her Asian-ness that keeps her from being popular or it is her bookish personality? Should she care or embrace it? Books, family, and friends make up the triad that defines Anna right now and this is the year of the book to learn how to balance it all. I’d hand this multicultural chapter book to any girl who has ever felt left out. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood
Augusta Scattergood tackles a little-known subject: that Asian Americans were also subject to Jim Crow laws in the South. In this chapter book, she gently weaves together a story of Azalea, a rising fifth-grader sent to live her grandmother in Arkansas that she’s never met before. Grandma Clark is a woman with a towering presence; she encourages Azalea to make friends with Billy Wong who is also new to their small town. He’s living with his Great Uncle and Aunt so that he can attend a previously all-white school and works in their small grocery store. There’s also the bully, Willis, and Scattergood shows us that things are not black and white; behind his prejudice are family responsibilities heavy for a young boy to bear. Grandma Clark’s plan for a more tolerant community is simple; she utilizes Garden Helpers to help out while she’s recuperating, thus forcing everyone to work together. Azalea discovers that she’s more similar to her grandmother than she realized, and their relationship, like hers with Billy Wong, strengthens from the adversity of facing racism around them. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
The Zodiac Legacy series by Stan Lee, Stuart Moore, and Andie Tong
This has been our biggest hit so far. I read it myself and thought it was page-turner but wondered if my son would get through it. Boy, was I wrong. He could not stop reading this book, and I found him reading on the soccer field sidelines (a first!) and it even got him off screens. He’d beg at night to read just a few more minutes.
Why? True, the cast is multi-ethnic with a large Asian American contingent but I think it’s the plot that combines The Chinese Zodiac with superhero powers that can be transferred via super high technology to anyone. Stan Lee, of Marvel Comic fame, is the genius behind this series that has abundant comic book full-page illustrations in this action adventure chapter book that appears to be a series.
My son’s twin friends read this over Spring Break and were desperate to discuss the book upon completion. That’s music to both me and their moms. They also raced through it and are eagerly awaiting the next installment. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
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