Daily Archives: May 2, 2011

Spotlight on Asian American YA

In honor of Asian American Heritage month, we’ve invited librarian and blogger Trisha Murakami to write about her thoughts on the state of Asian American young adult fiction.

I’ve complained a lot in the past about what I consider to be stereotypical elements in YA fiction about Asian-Americans. In fact, I think you could probably make the argument that there is actually a stereotype of Asian-American YA fiction:

  • about a girl
  • Chinese-American, Indian-American, or Korean-American
  • whose parents immigrated to the United States
  • and said parents are pretty strict
  • so because the girls are good girls to begin with, “rebelling” against their parents generally means having a love interest of a different race or ethnicity, breaking their curfew, and/or lying about their grades (not actually as good as the girl pretends they are)

Okay, maybe stereotype isn’t the right word; perhaps prototypical is better. Either way, it’s always bothered me because this is not representative of my experience of growing up Asian-American, nor is it reflective of the experiences of millions of other Asian-Americans.

This is not to say that books that include one or more of the aforementioned characteristics aren’t valid or worthwhile. But to me, it also serves to highlight that wanting more diversity in books doesn’t just mean wanting more books with African-American, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic-American, and/or GLBTQ protagonists in general — it also means that we need books with more diversity within these populations. Asian America is not a monolithic culture or race or experience, but it’s hard to tell based on the YA novels available.

Asia’s a big place, after all, and it’s not just comprised of China, India, Japan, and Korea. People of various Asian nationalities have been immigrating to the US for over 150 years, and not all immigrants or children of immigrants are straight, able-bodied females. Some families are wealthy and educated, some are not. Some are of multiple races or ethnicities, others are not.

So here’s a short list of some of my favorite titles that explore a bit of the diversity and variety that comprises Asian America.

Cheva, Cherry. She’s So Money. HarperTeen, 2008.
A rarity: a hilarious Asian-American YA novel. When Maya’s parents leave her in charge of the family restaurant for the first time ever, she is excited. Until one of her decisions leads to the Health Department fining the restaurant $10,000. Afraid her parents can’t afford the fine, Maya decides to find a way to earn the money herself and agrees to take part in what turns into a cheating ring.

Crutcher, Chris. Whale Talk. Greenwillow, 2001.
The Tao Jones, better known as TJ, is a standout athlete who refuses to join any of his high school’s sports teams until he reluctantly agrees to help start a school swim team. What better way to stick it to the letter jacket-obsessed jocks who rule the school than by fielding a team composed of students who “would look most out of place in a Cutter High School letter jacket”? Ignore the book’s cover and read Whale Talk in spite of the whitewashing.

Headley, Justina Chen. Girl Overboard. Little, Brown, 2007.
Girl Overboard stands out to me because of how it integrates a lot of specific cultural details in a story about a girl who just happens to be Asian-American. It’s easy to imagine a white girl dealing with the same problems in a book with the same basic storyline.

Kluger, Steve. My Most Excellent Year. Dial, 2008.
One of the happiest, most positive and exuberant YA novel you’ll find. Among the narrators is Augie Hwong, who finally realizes what practically everyone else has known for years: he’s gay.

Smith, Sheri L. Hot Sour Salty Sweet. Delacorte, 2008.
Ana Shen’s Chinese-American father’s parents and African-American mother’s parents will eat together, but cooking together is another story. In honor of Ana’s eighth grade graduation, her grandmothers, both accomplished cooks, insist on preparing special dishes in her honor. Does disaster loom or will food bring everyone together?

Yamanaka, Lois-Ann. Name Me Nobody. Hyperion, 1999.
Abandoned by her mother, Emi-Lou lives in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, with her grandmother. Self-conscious about her weight and an outsider at school, Emi-Lou has only friend. But as Von starts spending more time with another girl (and is the other girl her girlfriend?), what will happen to Emi-Lou and Von’s friendship? Although several of Yamanaka’s adult novels feature teenaged characters, this is her only novel for teens.
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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/050211trishamurakami.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Trisha Murakami blogs at The YA YA YAs. As an Asian-American and YA librarian, she has decidedly strong opinions on Asian-American YA fiction, though she admits that her opinions on this topic may be skewed by being born and raised in Hawaii.[/author_info] [/author]