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Seeing Asian-Americans: Great Books for Teens

Adele has been a youth services librarian for 25 years and a mother to a daughter from China for 20 years.

The site has reviews of books that show the Asian-American experience for teens.

The site has reviews of books that show the Asian-American experience for teens.

The Best Books of the Last Few Years

Here is a list of the best books featuring teens—both Chinese and Chinese-American—which have been published in the last few years.

There is a little something for everyone here: fantasy, steampunk, kung fu, and realistic stories with heart, soul, and humor.

American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda by Gloria Chao

In American Panda Mei has always tried to do everything her Taiwanese parents want:

  • She studied hard in school and got good grades. She even skipped a grade!
  • At 17, she got accepted to MIT, one of the best colleges in the country.
  • She’s studying medicine at MIT so she can become a doctor.

So far, so good.

Except her parents are still pushing. Mei’s mom calls her several times a day and leaves voice mails when she doesn’t answer. (If you think your parents are over-the-top, wait until you read the messages Mei’s mother leaves.)

And also, Mei has a problem with being a doctor. She’s a germaphobe. She hates icky stuff and feels like washing her hands all the time. And as she takes her classes, she discovers what it’s like to be a doctor. You have to deal with icky stuff all the time!

Mei would really like to pursue something else, a passion that she’s had since she was a child, but she knows her parents won’t approve. And she has seen what happens when her parents disapprove of someone. They disowned Mei’s own brother, their only son, when they didn’t like the woman he wanted to marry. She’s Chinese and everything, but they won’t accept her.

Seriously, they disowned him. Won’t talk to him. Won’t talk about him. Won’t help him with his tuition. They’re acting like he died.

Mei doesn’t know if she could stand up to that kind of treatment. She loves her parents, and she does want to work hard. But she’s not sure how much longer she can go along with her parents’ plans for her life.

And the cute new boy she’s getting to know…that’s another wrinkle in her life.

This fun read is the first book from Gloria Chao, a writer who seems to have a lot in common with Mei. According to the back flap of her book, she is “an MIT grad turned dentist turned writer.”

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

In The Downstairs Girl, 17-year-old Jo Kuan is convinced that she has found the perfect thing to make her way in the world. She will make hats.

All the ladies in Atlanta want to have the most stylish hats, and she is good at designing them, putting colors together and decorating them with her special creations with Chinese-style knots.

But, all of a sudden, she loses her job. It seems that she speaks her mind a little too freely. And the ladies in Atlanta seem a little uncomfortable having a Chinese person speak so directly to them. The Civil War is not long past, and people haven't gotten used to the influx of Chinese immigrants who have come to their city.

What is Jo to do? For one, she has to go back to being a servant for a young woman she can't stand. She knows she is lucky to have a job, but still. She'd rather do almost anything else

And, actually, she does find something else: a little job on the side, one which requires her to have a secret identity. But she finds out she is not the only one in town with secrets.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

In All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung tells the story of her life.

She was born into a Korean-American family, but she was born 10 weeks too early. Her birth parents were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to take care of her, so they relinquished her for adoption, and she was taken in by a Caucasian family. She grew up one of the few Asians in a predominantly white town.

She describes her parents as loving and honest, telling her as much as they knew about the circumstances of her adoption, yet she didn’t feel like she could tell them about everything that was happening at school, and how she was continually being teased and bullied about being Korean.

She became a writer, first writing down her feelings out of sheer frustration and then honing her writing skills into being a writer and editor for different publications. As a result, this memoir is a well-written book that takes us into her life and helps us understand the way she felt.

It wasn’t until she was married and expecting a baby of her own that Chung started the search for her birth family. She had wondered but had never taken the first steps before. Her adoption was technically a closed adoption with no information available, but over time, the US laws changed, and she was able to find information on some of her relatives.

It would be giving too much away to say what she found. I can say that real life tends to be complicated, maybe not living up to everything you’d hoped, but also not as bad as everything you’ve feared.

Outrun the Moon

Outrun the Moon

Outrun the Moon by Stacy Lee

AR Reading Level 5.3: Interest Level 6-9th Grades

A Story Set in the San Francisco Earthquake

Author Stacey Lee describes herself as a “4th-generation Californian with roots in San Francisco Chinatown…She has lots of experience with earthquakes, having skinned her knees more times than she wants to remember diving under tables.”

And so, in Outrun the Moon, she has written a historical novel about a determined heroine, 15-year-old Mercy Wong, who lives in San Francisco and survives the 1906 earthquake.

When the story opens, we learn that Mercy, a strong-willed girl who has “bossy cheeks," according to her neighbors in Chinatown, is angling to get herself a spot at the exclusive St. Clare’s School for Girls. Inspired by The Book for Business-Minded Women, she has plans to better herself and lift her family out of poverty.

With a blend of boldness and cleverness, she strikes a bargain with the school’s main patron, who will take the unusual step of allowing a Chinese girl to attend the school if she can convince everyone she’s a Chinese noblewoman.

To her dismay, she finds the school is more about comportment and embroidery than the business skills she was hoping to learn.

But then the earthquake hits, and Mercy finds that she needs every bit of her determination and cleverness in the aftermath.

This fast-paced and engaging story will introduce readers to lots of cultural and historical detail without them noticing it. Being a teen book, it has a sweet and innocent romance, though the fellow is absent for much of the story.

I also need to tell you that not everyone in Mercy’s family survives the earthquake, so be prepared for some sadness if you want to read this book.

A friend of mine from the library where I work has met the author and thinks she will be someone to watch in the coming years. She sounds like an interesting character in her own right. On the back flap of the dust cover, she says that one day she hopes to own a hypoallergenic horse and live by the sea.

Soundless by Richelle Mead

Soundless by Richelle Mead

Soundless by Richelle Mead

Fantasy Book AR Reading Level 6.0 266 p. 2015

A Fantasy Story Set in China

Soundless has the ambiance of a finely-textured Chinese myth. It starts in a village, high on a mountain, cut off from the rest of the world by a series of avalanches that block the path. Is it the present? Past? Future? We’re not sure. Just as we’re not sure where in China the village is located.

What we do know is that a young woman named Fei , along with the rest of her village, is in trouble. For as long as anyone can remember, no one in the village has been able to hear. They have grown used to using their hands to sign and communicate, but now, some people are losing their sight as well.

When she notices that her beloved sister is having trouble seeing, Fei tries desperately to hide it from the others. She and her sisters are part of the village’s community of artists, living a life of relative ease and assigned the task of watching what happens every day and painting what has happened as a record of the community’s history. If the elders find out she is going blind, they will consign her to a life of hardship in the mines.

As much as she aches for her sister, Fei is also afraid for the whole village. The only way they can get food is to send precious metals down the mountain on a zipline to the mysterious village of Beiguo, which then sends up food. But many of the miners are losing their sight as well, and if they can’t mine for metals, the whole village faces hunger and starvation.

One night, Fei is awakened by a strange sensation. Could it be sound? Why is she the only person who can hear it? And is there any way to use her newfound power to help the village?

Before she knows it, Fei has joined forces with Li Wei, a young man who has lost his father to the mines and is determined to uncover the truth of what is happening to the village.

What you will find in this book: A cherished sister, a warrior woman, a little bit of romance (note to parents- a clean read), and most of all, a terrible secret that will change the lives of everyone it touches.

From the author of Vampire Academy and Bloodlines, this fantasy/adventure novel weaves a rich tapestry of a story.

Red Butterfly

Red Butterfly

Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen

The beginning of Red Butterfly is like a riddle that takes a little while to figure out. A girl named Kara is telling us about her life in Tianjin, China, cooking stir-frying, riding her bicycle, talking with the neighbor boy.

A Girl Caught Between Two Worlds

But right away, we find out her mother has had to sell her piano to get some money to buy food. And then we find out that Kara is a Chinese girl born in China, while her mother is an American born in Montana. Kara’s father used to live with them in China, but he has gone back to Montana, where Kara’s older sister, older by 30 years, lives, too.

As if this isn’t strange enough, we find out that Kara’s mother never leaves the apartment. Never. Kara gets to go out sometimes, but she has to follow the rules she learned when she was tiny. “Don’t talk too much, but be pleasant, not afraid. Don’t chat with strangers or tell them where you live.”

Clearly, her mom has a secret, but what is it? The answer changes Kara’s life forever.

This book will pull you into Kara’s life and keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what is going to happen to her. Even though it’s almost 400 pages long, it reads quite fast because the lines are short, like a fast-moving poem.

It’s heartbreaking at times and will give you a feel for what it’s like to be a Chinese girl caught between two worlds.

It has some pretty cool artwork, too.

Fire Horse Girl

Fire Horse Girl

The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Fire Horse Girlis a good book for a teen who likes feisty heroines, intrigue (from the cover, you can see that she dresses as a young man at some point), and plot twists and turns.

Tucked into the adventure, readers will learn quite a bit about Chinese-American immigrants and what it was like to come to a new land in the early 20th century.

Jade Moon is considered unlucky by her family. She was born in the year of the Fire Horse—one in which the horse’s “worst traits—their tempers, their stubbornness, their selfishness—burn with increased strength.” She chafes against the traditional women’s role in China—not to mention that she is shunned and teased by those who consider her bad luck.

She and her father plan to move to America to fulfill family obligations, but when she is on Angel Island, she learns that her father plans to keep her as entrapped as she feels in China. She makes a daring escape and takes on another identity but becomes entrapped again- this time in the activities of the tong, which often functioned as a sort of Chinese mafia.

Author Kay Honeyman was inspired to write this story by two things: the renovation of Angel Island and the process of adopting a boy from China. In this, her first novel, she weaves together adventure, suspense, an eminently likable heroine, and the poignant stories of Chinese immigrants struggling to hold onto their dreams for a better life while enduring the sparse conditions and interminable interviews that constituted the Angel Island experience.

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

Ages 15 and up

A Teen Caught in China's Cultural Revolution

It’s not easy to find a book for teens that is set during China’s Cultural Revolution. The period was marked by public shaming, betrayal, torture and violence, so it’s not surprising that authors have a hard time conveying the history while not delving into horrific and graphic detail.

I’m pleased to say that Compestine, whose father was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, strikes a good balance in Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, a simply told yet poignant tale of a fictional girl living through the upheaval.

Her story starts with a nine-year-old girl named Ling, who has a comfortable life in China living with her mother, a nurse, and her father, a doctor. We get to know the Wongs, the friendly family who lives upstairs and Comrade Li, a seemingly kindly fellow who lives next door and makes origami figures for the children.

As time goes on, however, it is clear that a movement is afoot that poses a threat to the happiness of Ling’s little family. Their house is suddenly subject to surprise inspections from the Red Guards, Comrade Li turns menacing, Mr. Wong goes missing in the night and Mrs. Wong is publicly humiliated and then arrested.

Compestine avoids severe violence and any bloodshed, but the events could still be disturbing for a sensitive reader. I would recommend this for an older teen. One woman is brought home after being shamed and chooses to commit suicide (offstage), and that is something to consider when choosing something for your child.

However, if you have a teen who has been OK with popular teen books such as The Hunger Games or Divergent, this book should be fine.

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party has been turning up on lots of lists of recommended books lately, a tribute to the fine storytelling and the importance of the time period in the evolution of China. If your teen is interested in Chinese history, this book is an excellent choice to immerse her in Chinese culture and history.

Chu Ju's House

Chu Ju's House

Chu Ju's House by Gloria Whelan

This luminous book, Chu Ju's House, sheds light on Chinese cultural practices as it follows its capable and resourceful heroine in her journey across China.

When 14-year-old Chu Ju discovers that her grandmother plans to send away her newborn sister so that the family can try for a boy, she leaves home and sets off to find a new life in the countryside so that her sister can have a chance to stay with her family.

Through her travels, the reader experiences life in contemporary rural China as Chu Ju learns several trades to support herself. She first helps a family on a fishing boat, then tends to silkworms in a silk factory, and then works the land and plants rice with an elderly woman and her son.

Whelan's style is at once spare and highly descriptive. She specializes in stories of young women making their way in a difficult world and finding independence and satisfaction, and Chu Ju is no exception as she finally finds her own home and profession.

For girls adopted from China, this story provides a gentle yet honest look at cultural attitudes towards gender and the hard choices that girls and women face.

Great Call of China

Great Call of China

The Great Call of China by Cynthia Liu

Though the cover makes this book seem like a fluffy piece of chick-lit, it is actually a well-written and enjoyable story featuring a smart young woman.

Cece, a young woman who was born in China and adopted when she was two years old, joins an exchange program in China. She is interested in the archaeology of Xi'an, and also has plans to try to learn something about her birth parents.

What she finds out about her parents is perhaps not typical but believable, and we learn a bit about Chinese archaeology along the way.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder is a re-imagining of the Cinderella tale which finds her living as a mechanic in a future city called new Beijing.

Unlike the other books on this list, the China setting isn’t central to the story. Still, I thought teens would be interested in a book that shows the center of activity in China, albeit an altered China of the future. (It seems to have a few Japanese elements—like kimonos added for good measure.) The food they eat is definitely Chinese, as are the names.

Lin Mei—everyone calls her Cinder—lives with her controlling, mean-tempered stepmother, as always, but the twist here is that Cinder is a cyborg and good with a wrench.

One day, the handsome and friendly Prince Kai drops by to see if she can take a look at his android.

We all know the story arc, but it plays out in some surprising ways in this futuristic, just a tad steampunk universe. Cinder is a great heroine—brave and ingenious, and the romance is kept chaste.

Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation is a book that brings home the hardships, the triumphs, and the poignancy of the immigrant experience in America.

Kimberly Chang and her mother find themselves at the mercy of powerful relatives who have sponsored their trip to the United States, and they are forced to work in their extended family's sweatshop to pay back their debt. (Who knew that there were still sweatshops running in this country in the 1980s?)

The poverty is palpable: they live in a rundown building without heat, and one memorable scene has them fishing a bolt of bright blue furry material from the trash cans to use for blankets, curtains, and even tablecloths.

We cheer for Kimberly as she moves from wide-eyed immigrant to acceptance at one of the most prestigious colleges in America.

Tiger by Jeff Stone

Tiger by Jeff Stone

Tiger by Jeff Stone

This book provides plenty of action for kids who like adventure series while shedding some light on Chinese culture, especially the ideas behind kung fu and its fighting styles, and the history of 17th century China.

Kung Fu Adventure Series

Stone hooks readers in from the very beginning and spins a tale of kung fu monks (each of whom specializes in a certain type of kung fu, hence the Tiger, Monkey, Snake, etc. of the titles) on a journey to discover themselves, their links to each other, and their destiny.

When the story opens in the first book, Tiger (still available on Kindle), five fighting monks are crammed together in an earthen jar and not too comfortable. The one on the bottom is getting squished, and one of them has stinky feet. Right away, Stone establishes the humor in the book and the narrative tension: the monks are hiding from something.

It turns out that the renegade monk, Ying, has attacked the temple, his army brandishing a new weapon: guns. Before the grandmaster is slain, he tells the five young monks that they must discover their connections to each other and change the heart of the traitor, Ying, and the emperor. It's quite a tall order for the characters, all between the ages of 12 and 17.

As they proceed with their adventures throughout the seven books, the kung-fu action sequences and twists and turns in the plot keep young readers turning pages.

Older Books, Still of Interest

The following books have been around a while, and not all of them are in print. But they are well with purchasing on the used market.

As such, I've included short reviews of them here.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

The second book in the series is titled Fury of the Phoenix.

Supernatural Myth and Teen Fantasy

A girl looks for her father and finds herself attacked by several supernatural evil beings. An Asian-inspired version of high fantasy, this work was voted one of Booklist’s best fantasy books of the year.

Books for Teen Girls: Families with Children from China

Books for Teen Girls: Families with Children from China

Nothing but the Truth

A clever and quick-witted teen who is half Asian, half Caucasian, finds herself dealing with "guy problems" at a math camp her mother insists on sending her to for the summer. Headley's use of language is smart and funny.

Books for Tween Girls: Families with Children from China

Books for Tween Girls: Families with Children from China

Girl Overboard

Syrah Cheng, daughter of a billionaire, is a snowboarder extraordinaire. But when she has an accident on the slopes, she needs to cope with trying to rehabilitate her injured knee and find herself at the same time.

© 2013 Adele Jeunette