I don’t know a lot about Southeast Asian American children’s literature so this was fun list to research and it was fun to hunt down books I had heard about but haven’t read in a while as well as discover a few really great authors that are new to me. I asked a Mom Friend at a birthday party — we were both waiting in the car for 2+ hours while our kids jumped on gigantic trampolines — since she’s East Asian what East Asian KidLit was in her bookshelves. She said there wasn’t a lot available and it’s true. These books are fantastic but under the radar. It turns out that she’s an expert on immigration particularly refugee immigration to the United States. I only knew her as my child’s friend’s mother/room parent for 3rd grade.
If you know of any books that you or your children have enjoyed, please leave me a comment and I’ll keep adding. I know I am heavy on just a few authors for this list, so it would be great to expand it. It’s just that my library didn’t have all the books I was seeking that day and I’m too lazy to reserve. These days with money so tight, when you reserve a book you need to do it online at the library site that frustratingly slow. In addition to that, you’ll get a notice that your book is in, but with new cutbacks, you have to go pull the book from the shelves yourself. I tried to get the books through my new color nook but these books aren’t popular enough to warrant ebooks yet. I hope that changes! The sign of the times, right? Caught between old world inefficiencies but not in the new world of downloadable books.
p.s. Thank you to reader Navjot for giving these links to other great lists of Southeast Asian KidLit and one for Southeast Asian YA (Young Adult).
Honorable Mentions including New Releases
Step Up to the Plate Maria Singh by Uma Krishnaswami
Uma Krishnaswami set this book in a really interesting time: spring of 1945. Japanese Americans have been sent to internment camps, including a family in 9-year-old Maria’s town of Yuba City in California. There are still laws that prevent people of color from owning land, voting or becoming citizens. America is at war on two fronts.
Against this backdrop, Maria Singh wants to play softball but Papi from India and Mama from Mexico are surely going to object. There’s the modesty issue, but Maria can’t field the ball in a long skirt. There are other issues the family is concerned about during these turbulent times: racism and its effects on their community, India’s bid for independence, and being forced to move from their home. That’s a big one. This is a little-known chapter of segregation that forced mixed-race marriages. Maria and her family will charm the reader, letting them see that love is color blind, strong and steadfast. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari
Sheela Chari’s second mystery combines graffiti art, parkour, Indian American characters, diamond smuggling, and family secrets. It’s set in Yonkers, NY and is a fast-paced urban page turner. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
A Long Pitch Home by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
In this book, 10-year-old Bilal uses his newly acquired skills in baseball to help his father join them in America. His father is caught in a web of corruption in Pakistan.
When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
I loved this YA romance novel of two kids the summer before college. It’s a fun and humorous take on When Harry Met Sally with a “sort of” arranged marriage of two high achieving Indian Americans. Set in San Francisco’s SFSU, this book combines manga with web development, and love not exactly at first sight. If you like Jenny Han’s TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED series, you’ll like this. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Sea Glass Summer by Anjali Banerjee
Eleven-year-old Poppy Ray longs to be a veterinarian, but she’s never had a pet. This summer, she’s going to spend a month with her uncle Sanjay, veterinarian and owner of the Furry Friends Animal Clinic on an island off the Washington coast.
Poppy is in for big surprises. She loves tending to the dogs, cats, and even a bird, and she discovers the fun of newborn puppies and the satisfaction of doing a good job. But she learns that there’s more to caring for animals than the stethoscope and cotton swabs in her Deluxe Veterinarian First-Aid Kit. She’s not prepared for quirky pet owners, gross stuff, or scary emergencies. With help from a boy named Hawk, a chunk of seaglass, and a touch of intuition, Poppy gains a deeper understanding of the pain and joy of working with animals.
With warmth and humor, Anjali Banerjee tells the story of a resourceful, determined girl who can’t wait to grow up, but begins to realize just how much she has left to discover. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Review by Paper Tigers.
Vanished by Sheela Chari
This book came highly recommended on a number of fronts including kidlit book bloggers and authors (see comments below). I will track it down so I can review it pronto! Author Uma Krishnaswami has an interview with author Sheela Chari here.
In Andal’s House by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Amanda Hall
Alex of Randomly Reading has this great picture book for older readers about a young boy in India who feels the sting of discrimination even though the caste-system no longer exists.
Thank you to Sunita who suggests two more books: There have been some recent releases that my girls have liked – my teenager recommended The Lost Girl and my 8 year old got Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed from her school library. I’ve read both and they are fantastic – both have strong Indian female characters and both are mostly set in India.
The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna
Eva’s life is not her own. She is a creation, an abomination – an echo. Made by the Weavers as a copy of someone else, she is expected to replace a girl named Amarra, her ‘other’, if she ever died. Eva studies what Amarra does, what she eats, what it’s like to kiss her boyfriend, Ray. So when Amarra is killed in a car crash, Eva should be ready.
But fifteen years of studying never prepared her for this.
Now she must abandon everything she’s ever known – the guardians who raised her, the boy she’s forbidden to love – to move to India and convince the world that Amarra is still alive. [Young Adult, grades 8 and up]
Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed by Madhvi Ramani
Nina is seriously grumpy. She’s been saddled with a school project that she doesn’t want to do and her parents who won’t stop telling her how wonderful India is. But she’s never ever been there!
A chance discovery changes everything — could her sweet aunty be a secret agent? Is her Aunty’s spice shed, in fact, a travel machine? Before long Nina is traveling in her shed with no idea where she will land.
Nina is about to embark on a crazy adventure involving a short-tempered holy man, a charming street thief, glamorous film star and a fierce Tiger.
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins
A Bank Street Best Book of the Year.
Shortlisted for the Massachusetts Book Award in the Young Adult category.
A Skipping Stones Honor Book.
An ALA 2010 Amelia Bloomer Book.
An IRA Notable Book for a Global Society.
When her father loses his job and leaves India to look for work in America, Asha Gupta, her older sister, Reet, and their mother must wait with Baba’s brother and his family, as well as their grandmother, in Calcutta. Uncle is welcoming, but in a country steeped in tradition, the three women must abide by his decisions. Asha knows this is temporary–just until Baba sends for them.
But with scant savings and time passing, the tension builds: Ma, prone to spells of sadness, finds it hard to submit to her mother- and sister-in-law; Reet’s beauty attracts unwanted marriage proposals; and Asha’s promise to take care of Ma and Reet leads to impulsive behavior.
What follows is a firestorm of rebuke–and secrets revealed! Asha’s only solace is her rooftop hideaway, where she pours her heart out in her diary, and where she begins a clandestine friendship with Jay Sen, the boy next door. Asha can hardly believe that she, and not Reet, is the object of Jay’s attention. Then news arrives about Baba . . . and Asha must make a choice that will change their lives forever.
The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins
In this engaging story about cultural discovery, thirteen-year-old Sunita finds herself resenting her Indian heritage when her grandparents come for a visit from India to California. She’s embarrassed by the differences she feels between herself and her friends, but she’s in for some surprises as she gets to know her grandparents — and herself! Includes a reader’s guide.
First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover by Mitali Perkins
In time for election year, meet America’s first daughter!
Adopted from Pakistan when she was three, Sameera (“Sparrow”) Righton is not your typical all-American girl. None of this used to matter, but that was before her father decided to run for president of the United States. Now some of her father’s campaign staffers think that maybe a dark-skinned, adopted daughter could hurt his chances. They begin to pressure Sameera to change her name to Sammy and to be more “American.” Sameera is torn between molding herself into the perfect daughter and being true to herself. Who will win out? Sparrow? Or Sammy?
Bindi Babes series by Narinder Dhami
My going-into-6th grade tried to read this book but didn’t like it. I said, well it’s like an Indian American Beacon Street Girls. She countered that Beacon Street Girls is better. Maybe that is splitting hairs. It’s not that either series is bad per se, it’s just that neither is or ever will be up for prestigious children’s lit awards. BUT, there is a place for everything and this series is great for East Asian girls who want to see themselves (2nd generation) in the books that they read for fun. We read Beacon Street Girls for the same reason … one character was the actual literacy specialist at our elementary school and we recognize many of the places in the book since it’s just one town over.
Best Indian-American Books for Kids
10. The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami
Eleven-year-old Dini loves movies—watching them, reading about them, trying to write her own—especially Bollywood movies. But when her mother tells her some big news, it does not at all jive with the script of her life she has in mind. Her family is moving to India…and, not even to Bombay, which is the center of the Bollywood universe and home to Dini’s all-time most favorite star, Dolly. No, Dini is moving to a teeny, tiny village she can’t even find on a map. Swapnagiri. It means Dream Mountain and it only looks like a word that’s hard to pronounce. But to that open-minded person who sounds the name out, one letter at a time, it falls quite handily into place: S-w-a-p-n-a-g-i-r-i. An honest sort of name, with no surprise letters waiting to leap out and ambush the unwary. That doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises in Swapnagiri like mischievous monkeys and a girl who chirps like a bird—and the biggest surprise of all: Dolly.
So now, Dini is hard at work on a new script, the script in which she gets to meet the amazing Dolly. But, life is often more unpredictable than the movies and when Dini starts plotting her story things get a little out of control.
This is a joyful, lively Bollywood inspired story is full of colorful details, delicious confections and the wondrous, magical powers of coincidence. Uma Krisnaswami will have you smiling from ear to ear. [chapter book, ages 9-12]
9. The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story by Uma Krishnaswami
Hatha yoga has been practiced in India for centuries and is now a popular activity for children to help them focus and calm their minds. My middle daughter who is energetic, to say the least like Vinyasa Yoga and says that it makes her feel calm. This is a good thing! If your child enjoys yoga, he or she will like this story about how Meena, who thinks she’s clumsy, uses the power of yoga to help her during her school play when she’s a wiggly tree. The yoga poses in the back include tree, frog, lotus, cat, and cobra. If your child wants to explore yoga, the card deck Yoga Pretzels is a fun way for kids to explore different yoga poses! This would also make a nice gift paired together. [picture book, ages 6-9)
8. Monsoon by Uma Krishnaswami
The theme of this story–a child impatiently waiting for a change in the weather is a fairly common one in literature, especially picture books. But the heart and soul of this story is India, and properly so. It’s no surprise to anyone that reads this picture book that the author grew up in India. In the story India is not a far away or exotic place, it is home-and Ms. Krishnaswami’s poetic prose paints that love of her home on every page, with every word. The text on each page is brief, but it is text to be savored, full of rich imagery as everyone prepares for the monsoon rains. This is clear from the very first line: “All summer we have worn the scent of dust . . .” The author does not fall back on old clichés but finds new metaphors to describe the town and the coming rains. The result is a description that is refreshingly vibrant and just different enough to tantalize–but not to alienate-readers. It allows me to step into another country as if I were a native, experiencing the anticipation through the young narrator as she waits, worries and hopes for the rains to come. At the very back of the book, the author has included a page of information about the monsoons and India for those who want to understand the ‘what’ and ‘where’ of the story better. The addition of the information at the back allows the author to accomplish the goal of sharing the knowledge without allowing it to bog down the text of the story itself. from Shamshad at Amazon [picture book, ages 4-8] *I’ll review this when I can get my hands on a copy.
7. Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami
Asha arrives at long last from India to her new adopted bi-racial family in the United States, just in time to celebrate Rakhi Day with her new older brother Arun. [picture book, ages 4-8]
6. Catch That Crocodile! by Anushka Ravishankar
A simple story about a crocodile who shows up unexpectedly in a village. Only little Meena knows what to do. The illustrations are two color block prints that give this picture book it’s quirky appeal. [picture book, ages 2-6]
5. Naming Maya by Uma Krishnaswami
The reviews at Amazon are a little harsh but I disagree. I really liked this chapter book about 12-year-old Maya who has returned to Southern India (Chennai) with her mother after her grandfather dies in order to sell his house. While the book is set in India and sparkles with imagery of rickshaws, crowded streets and the colorful personalities of their neighbors, the story is really about relationships: how Maya comes to terms with her parents’ divorce, Maya and her mother’s relationship with their housekeeper Kamala Mami and Kamala Mami’s complex relationship with her own son and daughter-in-law. To me, the tangled web of relationships is true to East Asian familial relationships and is a story that not only teaches about another culture but also how very alike we all are no matter where we hail from. [chapter book, ages 8-14]
4. Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
Set in Bangladesh, the Rickshaw Girl is one of my favorite books (and it’s not just because I met Mitali Perkins who lives in my town). It’s a short chapter book about a girl who uses her artistic ability to help her sickly father support their family in an unexpected and gender-bending way. Uplifting and very educational about the hardship of growing up in poverty in Bangladesh, this is a great read that transports the reader into a different culture and lets you walk in their shoes. I find that it is as appealing to boys and girls. [short chapter book, ages 7-10]
3. My Mother’s Sari by Sandhya Rao, illustrated by Nina Sabnani
This is a gorgeously illustrated picture book that collages sari fabrics with appealing drawings of multicultural children enveloped in the richly colored sari which can be anything from clothing to a hanky to a magical world of pretend. [picture book, ages 2-7]
2. Chachaji’s Cup by Uma Krishnaswami
The beauty of making a list on a topic that I know nothing about is discovering really outstanding authors and Uma Krishnaswami was my find from this list. I wasn’t able to find all her books at my library, but the ones I read were consistently sensitively told yet mesmerizing stories. Chachaji’s Cup is no different. This is an advanced picture book that tells of the hardships of Partition (when India was split from Pakistan and many, many people were forced to uproot and move based on their religion) but told from grandfather to grandson in a gentle way to explain the significance of a special teacup he uses every day. This teacup is symbolic of hope, resilience, memory, and love, and bridges the new life in America from the old one in India. It’s a picture book that would be important in an elementary school classroom but would also be good at home for any child to understand how others arrived in America whether it’s someone in their family or a classmate. [picture book, ages 7-10]
1. Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min
This is the book that started the list. It arrived in the mail and my youngest made me read it over and over again even though he’s never eaten Indian food nor knows what a roti is or tastes like. It didn’t matter. He loved this book which is a spin-off Popeye but instead of spinach, it’s homemade roti that fortifies Dada-ji (and his grandson Aneel too!). The brightly colored illustrations are appealing and I also like how this book combines the old country with a modern, harmonious East Asian American family. But be careful, after reading this book, you will be craving roti! [picture book, ages 4-8]
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