A Parent’s Guide to Chinese American Children’s Books
I have a wonderful son who I hope will enjoy exploring the Chinese part of his multicultural background as he grows up. While Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? quickly became a bedtime favorite when he was a toddler, adding Chinese stories into our reading routine didn’t come as naturally at first.
When I first researched Chinese American children’s books online, I couldn’t make sense of what I found. The books available broadly spanned topics ranging from Chinese history and customs to life in Chinatown and ancient folklore. What I lacked was a filter to help me evaluate the options, as well as provide a sense for how I could incorporate Chinese culture into my son’s American childhood in a natural and organic way.
Find Good Stories Told Well
Alisha Berger, a global literacy program officer at Room to Read and formerly a senior editor at Penguin Group, guided me to focus first on strong storytelling. “The best children’s books feature universal storytelling that anyone can access,” she says, “Great authors reflect all of their characters in a positive light, without relying on ethnicity and culture to carry the story.” In other words, I would be seeking great storytellers writing on subjects related to Chinese culture, rather than simply a book with an obviously Chinese storyline.
Choose a Meaningful Theme
Both Berger and Mia Wenjen, who covers parenting, children’s literature and education at PragmaticMom, recommended I next find a theme that would resonate with both me and my son. “I think it’s important for kids to find themselves in children’s books,” Wenjen says, “Which is to say — examples of characters that serve as role models and not as stereotypes.” Given my own background, I decided to focus on the 2nd generation Chinese American experience, though just as easily could have chosen Hapa kids or multicultural families.
Provide the Tools to Dream
In what he called the “apartheid of literature” in his March 2014 piece in The New York Times, Christopher Myers observes that African American characters “…are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery.” Applied to the Chinese American experience, I similarly didn’t only want books about building the transcontinental railroad or mystical folk tales. I wanted inspiring stories with characters who would spark in my son what Myers calls “…the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination [and] personal growth.”
With this checklist in mind, I’m happy to share a list of favorite children’s books that I’ve shared with my son, spanning the range of Chinese holidays and the different aspects of the Chinese American experience.
Chinese New Year
A New Year’s Reunion
This book captures the spirit of family reunion at the heart of Chinese New Year. Maomao’s father works far away and comes home only at Chinese New Year. When her father arrives, Maomao hardly recognizes him. But before long, the family is making sticky rice balls, hearing firecrackers outside and watching the dragon dance in the street.
Sam and the Lucky Money
Perfect for older toddlers, this book address a subject near and dear to any child at Chinese New Year — spending the lucky money they receive in red envelopes! Free to spend his money any way he chooses, Sam excitedly browses the bakeries and toy stores in Chinatown, only to have his outlook changed by a chance encounter with a stranger.
Bringing in the New Year
This book follows a contemporary, suburban Chinese American family as they prepare for Chinese New Year. Amidst dragons, dumplings and lanterns, Grace Lin builds a sense of holiday excitement that will feel especially familiar to your toddler if you’ve just finished a round of Christmas books prior to Chinese New Year.
Dragon Boat Festival
Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival
A charming volume in which a little girl learns about the Dragon Boat Festival from her her grandfather. He tells her the story of Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet who loved his kingdom and shares a recipe for zongzi, sticky rice balls wrapped in lotus leaves.
Gung Ho! A Dragon Boat Story
A uniquely Chinese American take on the holiday that follows the adventures of a team competing in the Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival as they prepare for the race, take a fantastic flight through the city and arrive back to the finish line just in time to win.
Awakening the Dragon
A comprehensive book for older children that explores the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival, its customs and the races themselves. The book covers ancient traditions like wearing fragrant pouches, eating rice dumplings and racing dragon boats to please the gods.
Hungry Ghost Festival
A toddler-friendly story that conveys the basic outline of the Hungry Ghost Festival while following a boy who captures the “Garbage Eating Ghost.” There’s a short primer about the holiday at the end that ties together the entire story, as well as a recipe for “boy-free dumplings.”
A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts
A chilling multi-course meal of stories for grade school-aged children that takes readers on a journey through time and across different parts of China. From the building of the Great Wall to the modern day of iPhones, hungry ghosts continue to torment those who wronged them.
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
China’s most important collection of ghost stories. Stories like Painted Skin and Living Dead would be welcome around any late summer campfire. Though unfamiliar to Western audiences, these tales frighten and delight with a familiar spirit of curiosity, fear and wonder about the non-human world.
Lin Yi’s Lantern
The is the story of Lin Yi, a boy in a small Chinese town who is sent to the market for Mid-Autumn Festival foods by his mother. Though he bargains hard to have enough money left to buy a red rabbit lantern, his best laid plans run off the tracks and he learns a valuable lesson in the process.
As they sit under the night sky, a little girl listens to her Mama and Baba tell ancient tales of a magical tree that can never be cut down, the Jade Rabbit who came to live on the moon and one brave woman’s journey to eternal life. A perfect book for slightly older children who can understand the full scope of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Thanking the Moon
This book offers the best introduction to the Mid-Autumn Festival for new readers. Using her trademark economy of words and whimsical illustrations, Grace Lin follows a modern Chinese American family as they drive into the country and celebrate the holiday on a grassy hillside with an honor table, mooncakes and brightly lit lanterns.
In this fun intergenerational story, a young boy and his grandmother walk the streets of Chinatown visiting shops, markets and restaurants before Chinese New Year. The scenes are timeless — roasted ducks hanging in a restaurant window, an open-air fishmonger and colorful banners in a parade.
Gai See: What You See in Chinatown
This fun introductory picture book takes you on a journey through a Chinatown wet market (or gai see in Cantonese). A little boy discovers produce, noodles and live seafood while shopping with his family in a lively market where vendors sell their goods from open air stalls, pushcarts and stores.
My Chinatown: One Year in Poems
This book explores a boy’s first year in the United States after emigrating from China as he grows to love his new home in Chinatown through food, games and the people surrounding him. It’s a child’s sweet perspective on the daily rhythms of his community, packing more emotional depth than the common picture book.
Big Jimmy’s Kum Kau Chinese Take Out
This book is a surprisingly realistic depiction of life at a New York Chinese takeout restaurant, told through the eyes of little boy. Follow along as deliverymen arrive, cooks chop and slice ingredients and customers visit all day long to place their orders.
Dim Sum for Everyone!
Using beautiful illustrations and an economy of words, this book shares the spirit and energy of a dim sum meal. On a visit to a bustling dim sum restaurant, a family picks their favorite little dishes from the steaming trolleys filled with dumplings, cakes, buns and tarts.
The Runaway Wok
Ming is sent to the market with eggs to trade for rice, but returns with a magic wok that brings the family a feast, gifts and money. With spirited text and lively illustrations, this story teaches young readers about the importance of generosity.
Chinese American Life
This book is about overcoming family language barriers when grandfather speaks Chinese and his multicultural American grandchildren do not. A charming story that gently teaches the lesson that our differences matter much less than what we share.
The Ugly Vegetables
In the land of backyard swimming pools and flower gardens, a little girl and her mother buck the trend by growing Chinese vegetables. Come harvest time, everyone agrees that those ugly Chinese vegetables become the tastiest, most aromatic soup they have ever known.
Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic
Taiwanese parents who went to college in the U.S. raise their daughters and create an annual soybean picnic for Chicago’s Chinese American community. A heartwarming story about immigrant families adapting their culture in a new country.
Chinese American History
The 1860s construction of the Transcontinental Railroad told through the eyes of two brothers who leave their village in Canton seeking a better future in America. This story reveals the harsh truth about life for the Chinese railroad workers, while celebrating their perseverance and bravery.
Kai’s Journey to Gold Mountain
A young boy leaves his small fishing village in China to join his father in San Francisco in 1934, passing through Angel Island enroute. Pair this book with the many books on Ellis Island to share the immigrant struggle to find a home in America.
Hannah Is My Name
A family arrives in San Francisco in 1967 from Taiwan following the loosening of United States immigration laws in 1965. A young girl named Hannah takes a new name, begins a new school, learns a new language and starts to adjust to a new life in America.
HT: Photo by the Asia Society.