Across the United States, communities have rallied in support of Asian Americans after horrific attacks and targeted murders. Groups like Compassion Oakland have assembled volunteers to chaperone Asian American elders so they can walk safely throughout their neighborhoods. And adults are not the only ones taking action. Middle schoolers have organized marches and galvanized their communities to stop Asian hate.
While there is a long history of racism and violence against Asian Americans in the United States, there are also science-backed ways to combat hatred and divisions. Because racism is so deeply entrenched in our society, it’s important to help kids cultivate empathy, understanding, and belonging early in life.
According to decades of research, intergroup contact—encountering people from different groups—is an effective way to combat prejudice. One easy way parents and educators can leverage this research is by reading diverse and authentically representative picture books to their children.
As the esteemed multicultural children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop explained, books can be “windows and mirrors.” As “windows,” books can offer children a view into a real or imagined world different from their own that can be gently explored, understood, and appreciated. A 2016 study found that children who were read stories showing positive relationships between majority and minority children improved their attitudes about groups of people outside their own group. This was more powerful for children who were five to eight years old, compared to nine to twelve.
Diverse and authentically representative picture books also validate Asian American children’s own experiences. Books can be mirrors “reflecting back for us the joys and sorrows, the loves and hates, the pain and pleasure of living,” described Sims Bishop. She further explained, “Through the mirror of literature we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, of reaffirming our place in the world and our society.” Picture books are powerful because of the visual representations of the world they offer to the youngest readers.
But children’s picture books continue to lack diverse and authentic representation. A 2015 study of the 455 picture books published in 2012 found that only 5% of picture books showed Asian, Latinx, Native American, and Middle Eastern characters as the primary culture. Of the over 3,000 children’s books published in 2018, books about animals exceeded the number of books about all children of color.
One of us (Jane Park) published a children’s picture book to create a story that would serve as a mirror for her own Korean American children and a natural example of cross-racial friendship. And, as parents, we have sought out picture books with authentic representations of diverse cultures to read to our kids.
Based on that experience, we have compiled a list of exceptional children’s picture books about and by the Asian American community. The books on this list do not portray Asian Americans as exotic, foreign, or “other.” As acclaimed author Linda Sue Park noted, books like The Snowy Day that feature characters whose ethnicity is clearly a part of their identity without being the story’s principal subject continue to be rare. “Every Asian or Asian American book I have ever read to my kids has been about food or some sort of Asian celebration,” recounts Serena Chen, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Chen’s research explores the self, identity, and relationships. She explained, “It is important to have people of all backgrounds be represented in everyday life, so they are not pigeon-holed. Constraints on how minorities are represented in books perpetuates stereotypes about minority groups.”
Books about holidays, food, or immigration are important, but—in order to avoid inadvertently “othering” Asian Americans—we also need to expose young people to narratives of kids (like the ones below) that don’t center identity as the main story.
Clever Little Witch, by Muon Thi Van and Hyewon Yum
This fanciful tale is about a big sister, Little Linh, who wants her little brother, Baby Phu, to get lost after he incessantly annoys her. She comes up with a transformative plan to help them get along—but is this clever idea the solution she really hoped for, after all? Clever Little Witch explores the nearly universal experience of sibling conflict and humorously entertains children’s capacity to problem-solve with magical thinking. Children are invited to discover that while siblings can be exasperating at times, their redemptive qualities shine through when you least expect it, and remind you how precious these relationships can be.
How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion, by Ashima Shiraishi and Yao Xiao
Young readers will be inspired by the true story of Ashima Shiraishi, a teenager who started rock climbing when she was only six years old. As a climber, Ashima falls down repeatedly, and gets back up each time with new knowledge about how to stretch her body and navigate ridges as she scales boulders. To rock climbers, boulders are big problems that you make your own to solve, breaking them down into small parts. How to Solve a Problem shows how to embrace failure as valuable because it teaches us to look at a problem in a new way and with greater insight. The story highlights for children the thrill of finding new, hard things to do, without sugarcoating the numerous mistakes—ascents and descents—that are an expected part of the process.
Juna’s Jar, by Jane Bahk and Felicia Hoshino
Juna and Hector are best friends, whose favorite pastime is exploring nature together at their neighborhood park. They use empty kimchi jars to collect critters, rocks, and other natural treasures they find. One day, Juna abruptly learns from Hector’s abuela that he moved away. She misses her friend and wonders how she might be able to see him again. Her big brother, Minho, tries to cheer Juna up by helping her find new things for her empty jar. Each night, whatever they put in the jar takes Juna on marvelous nature adventures to find Hector. Juna’s Jar highlights the importance of friendship and supportive sibling relationships in children’s lives. Juna shows children that although the path may be unclear at first, they can find a way forward when their lives change unexpectedly.
Lift, by Minh Le and Dan Santat
Big sister Iris lives in an apartment building with her parents and little brother, who is only a toddler. Her responsibility in the family is to push the elevator button when they go out. She can always count on the incomparable power of pushing the elevator button to bring her joy when she is feeling down. So, when her little brother usurps her button-pushing duties—to the delight of her parents—Iris feels utterly let down. But she becomes hopeful when she notices the elevator repairman throwing the old elevator button in the trash. Iris quickly grabs the button and takes it home, where she secretly puts it to magical use. After a while, Iris finds an even more uplifting way to enjoy amazing elevator-button adventures. Lift underscores how our own acts of generosity can elevate our life experiences.
Our Favorite Day, by Joowon Oh
Every day, Papa follows a routine. He drinks morning tea, waters his plants, and goes into town by bus. But on one day a week, he does things a little differently. On Thursdays, he picks up extra dumplings at his favorite restaurant, buys craft supplies, and picks flowers. Thursdays are special because it’s when his little granddaughter comes to visit. This lovely tale of the special bond between grandfather and granddaughter will take root in your heart. Cut paper illustrations and watercolors bring depth and texture to this simple and touching story.
Puddle, by Hyewon Yum
On a rainy day, a boy is upset because he can’t go out to play. He is determined to stay in a bad mood and rejects the idea that he could possibly have fun indoors. But when his mom starts drawing, he can’t help but get curious. He starts to give input, and together they collaborate and create a fun rainy-day scene. They decide to turn their imaginative scene into reality and venture out to play in the rain themselves. This “I’m bored” story encourages creativity and collaboration.
Redwoods, by Jason Chin
A big-city boy’s mundane subway trip is transformed when he finds a book about redwoods. With each bit of new information, he is plucked out of New York City and transported into an ancient redwood forest. As he explores, we learn fascinating facts about the ancient trees. When the boy returns to the city, he’s able to pass on the wonder to another child. Full of interesting lessons, this nonfiction picture book is artful and immersive.
Super Satya Saves the Day, by Raakhee Mirchandani and Tim Palin
Satya is missing her superhero cape! Her cape is at the neighborhood dry cleaners, and she feels nervous about going through the day without her superpowers. Over the course of the day, Satya still manages to come to the rescue of her friends, finding lost toys and pets. She realizes that her powers come from within and that she doesn’t need her cape to be Super Satya. With fun, lively illustrations, this book has a likable heroine and a strong sense of setting that shows her diverse community.