There are 20.6 million people who identify as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander alone (not in combination with another race), making up 6.2% of the nation’s population (2020 Census). In fall 2021, some 5.4% of students enrolled in public preK–12 schools were Asian and 0.4% were Pacific Islander. At private schools in 2019–20, some 6.6% of students were Asian and 0.7% were Pacific Islander. A record 22 million Asian-Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, each with unique histories, cultures, languages and other characteristics (Pew Research). May is designated as Asian/Pacific American Heritage month, a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States.
Our readers deserve to read books that feature characters with whom they can identify, and other readers may need to read books that allow them to meet characters that are different in some ways from themselves.
These are novels/memoirs that I have read and can recommend for grades 4-12 written by authors or featuring characters who are of Asian/Pacific Islander descent. Not all will be Asian/Pacific Islander-American. Note the diversity in format—short stories and novels in prose, verse, and graphics. Below are my reviews of 32 of my more-recently read and reviewed.
Boundless (anthology); Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices
(anthology); Unsettled (verse); Golden Girl (verse); Front Desk; Three Keys; Hello, Universe; Amina’s Voice; Amina’s Song; More to the Story; Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun; Save Me a Seat; Squint; Thirst; Park’s Quest; Lia Parks & the Missing Jewel; Beyond Me; Somewhere Among; Born Behind Bars; A Time to Dance (verse); The Bridge Home; When You Trap a Tiger; The House that Lou Built; Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth (verse); Orchards (verse);; The Magical Imperfect (verse); All the Broken Pieces (verse);; Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero; They Called Us Enemy (graphic); Other Words for Home (verse); Wei to Go!; Inside Out & Back Again; Red Butterfly (verse); Shooting Kabul; A Single Shard; Amal Unbound; Omar Rising; The Night Diary; How to Find What You’re Not Looking For; Farewell to Manzanar; Chinese Cinderella; Shine, Coconut Moon; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; You Bring the Distant Near; American-Born Chinese (graphic); Dust of Eden; Patron Saints; Up from the Sea (verse); Love, Hate & Other Filters; Darius the Great Is Not Okay; Under the Blood-Red Sun; We Are All We Have; Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
BOUNDLESS: Twenty Voices Celebrating Multicultural and Multiracial Identities edited by Ismee Amiel Williams
The U.S. population is undergoing rapid racial and ethnic change. The multiracial population in the United States—those who identify with two or more races—is also increasing with the rise in interracial couples. The children of these interracial unions are forming a new generation that is much more likely to identify with multiple racial groups. By 2060, about 6 percent of the total population—and 11 percent of children under age 18—are projected to be multiracial. (Population Reference Bureau)
Most of us have felt, from time to time, that we don’t fit in—with our peers, our communities, our families, even our own skins—for a variety of reasons. These are twenty stories of adolescents who don’t feel they fit in or they are not “whole” because they are multiracial or multicultural. Boundless shares the multiracial and multicultural experience of contemporary adolescents.
Nina feels that she is not Asian enough to be a part of her extended family. “Sometimes I wonder of karaoke nights [with the family] would’ve felt different if I’d grown up where Dad did, around more people who looked like me. So many people in Hawaii are multiracial. It isn’t weird or different or ‘exotic’, like I’ve been called all my life.” (24)
Amalia Lipski is Hispanic-Jewish. “By trying to hold on to those two identities, I feel like I’m doing a disservice to both. Like, I’m trying to find the right balance, but I want to be more than fifty percent Judia and fifty percent Latina. I want to be two hundred percent everything. I want to be more than what everybody expects me to be. I want to be…perfect.” (42)
Tami is Japanese-Jewish. “I swore I wouldn’t…divide myself up. Not after I teacher called me half-and-half in elementary school…. Am I too much of something? Not enough of another? I know what I am not—whole.” (75)
Irene is Mexican-Irish, “EE-reh-neh to my mom’s side of the family (the Mexican side); Eye-reen to my dad’s side of the family (the Irish side)…. My goal in life is to keep my head down.” (85) “There is no way to divide myself and put the pieces into nice little boxes.” (96)
Eitan is Israeli-Mexican and feels invisible. “Was a person more defined by where they were born or where their parents were born? If some government or the other decided to take away either one of his nationalities, he would still be Eitan.” (124)
Madison Rabottini is Italian-Chinese. “There is nothing quite like doing a Zoom party with the Italian side of the family to realize how out of place my brother and I look in box after box of curly hair and hazel eyes. Then we flip to a Skype of my mom’s side, and suddenly Dad is the outsider.” (140)
Lydia is biracial, Indian-White. “There have been opposing forces within me for as long as I can remember. I am twins inhabiting the same body, two chemicals combined to form a unique reaction.” (277) “I am not Indian enough. Sometimes I don’t even feel American enough. I am not enough.” (280)
Simone is biracial; Sean is of Honduran decent, adopted by an Irish couple; Trevor is Black-Puerto Rican; Jerry is Filipino White; and, after his death, Hiba Ahmed visits her father’s homeland, Jordan. “I just want to know more about where he was from. About where I’m from.” “349
Here are stories for those who have not felt “enough” for any reason. As I wrote in my review for Black Enough, this is a book that invites some adolescents to see their lives and experiences reflected and invites others to experience the lives of their contemporaries.
Anthologies should find their way into more classrooms and school libraries for multiple reasons. Short stories are an effective way to engage reluctant readers and help them build reading stamina, and anthologies are the ideal vehicle for introducing all readers to authors new to them, authors whose novels they may want to read next. Anthologies also can also offer a diversity of authors, characters, settings, and conflicts within one volume.
Readers can divide into Short Story Clubs (Book Clubs), each reading and discussing one of the stories and making a short presentation to the class who can then compare and contrast the stories and their themes and conflicts. The stories in Boundless would lend themselves particularly well to this activity. For more information and strategies for reading in Short Story Clubs, see Talking Texts: A Teacher’s Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum. -----
OPEN MIC: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices edited by Mitali Perkins
Growing up different in the neighborhood, in the school, in the dominant local culture—that is something I can relate to. Singing Christmas songs in assemblies, humming during the J word; decorating my house with dreidels as my neighbors turned on their lighted trees; hiding my matzoh sandwiches in the school cafeteria; sitting on my porch on Sundays while all the neighbor kids went to church. This is what the authors share in Open Mic—the 10 stories, or “riffs on life,” of being culturally different.
Open Mic should be in every MS/HS classroom library, preferably a copy for every student to read, a collection of stories that will generate important conversations about race and culture and fitting in. Written in a variety of styles—graphic stories, free verse, and prose—and perspectives—first person and third, memoir and fiction (or maybe fictionalized versions of memoir) by ten different authors, many who will be recognized by adolescent readers, there are stories that will appeal to all readers and are necessary for many adolescents.
They are all short, which will appeal to our "reluctant"readers and about a wide variety of cultures, which may welcome our ELL students. Many are hilarious; editor and author Mitali Perkins explains that humor is “the best way to ease…conversations about race” (Introduction), and all are enlightening. Truly, this is a collection of stories that will serve as mirrors, maps, and windows. -----
UNSETTLED by Reem Faruqi
In my last school, I always knew where to sit and with who. In my last school, my name was known. In my last school, my voice was loud. In this school, I am mute. In this school, I am invisible. (91-92)
Nurah, her older brother Owais and their parents move from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree, Georgia, for better schools and job security, leaving behind her three grandparents and her best friend Asna. The transition is not easy. In America they live in a hotel; Nurah’s mother seems to be fading, and her brother begins rebelling. When Nurah and Owais find a swimming pool at the Rec Center, they regain a bit of home. But Owais is an expert swimmer, appearing to fit in more effortlessly.
It is important to note that my skin is dark like the heel of oatmeal bread while Owais’s skin is light like the center of oatmeal bread. We do not look alike are not recognized as brother and sister. (225)
The water is Nurah’s only friend, until
“Do you want to eat lunch with me?” 8 words that change my life. (110)
Nurah’s new friend Stahr also wears long sleeves, but not from Muslim modesty, and her secret bring the two girls and their mothers together.
And one day when Stahr is not at school at lunchtime, and Naurah is being bullied,
“I’m Destiny. You can eat with us…” (216)
And then Owais is beat up by two of the boys on the swim team, jealous of his success, and Nurah feels guilty for not warning him to not go into the locker room. After his hospitalization, he gives up swimming.
he is always in his room lately, because he is safer on land than in water (265)
And Nurah discovers another type of bullying when the boy she likes and his friends make fun of her visiting grandmother whose “mind becomes so tangled.”
I remember when my tongue Betrayed me. I remember I need to say something. I go back in to their laughter. I find my voice and spit it out “It’s not funny.” The store gets Very Quiet and I feel light again. I grab Dadi’s ice cream. I remember what hope tastes like… (273)
When Nurah decides to begin wearing her hijab,
In the beginning the looks of others spear me but the more I wear it the easier it becomes. the more I wear it the looks seem to soften. (284)
Finally, at the masjid with Owais and his new friend Junaid
Today I wear my hijab , Tightly wrapped, shimmery light blue,… today when I look in the mirror, I think-- “Not bad.” I feel prettier than I have In a long time And exactly where I’m supposed to be. (305)
A story of transition, new beginnings, the importance of friendship, and finding one’s voice and our “something unexpected,” Reem Faruqi’s verse novel is based on her childhood experiences as an immigrant living in Georgia. -----
GOLDEN GIRL by Reem Faruqi
I know what you’re thinking-- "Aafiyah Qamar, just STOP!" Believe me, I’ve tried. But I can only stop when the thing I want —Need-- is safe in my hands or even better… my bag. (59)
Aafiyah Qamar, a Pakistani-American seventh-grader, lives with her Abba (father), Mom, and little brother Ibrahim. She is healthy, has money, and is happy— “aafiyah” (well-being) in Pakistani. “Everything good. Just like me. (3). She only has one friend, the more sophisticated Zaina, who is a neighbor and classmate, and one friend is enough for her. Fia also plays tennis, collects “Weird but True” facts, and has an unusual habit she cannot control—kelptomania, a recurring drive to steal that the person cannot resist, stealing items for the sake of stealing, not usually because the items are wanted or needed, or because they cannot afford to buy them; it is rare in children.
When Aafiyah turned 13, she realizes she has become pretty. That’s when the trouble started. People were so busy looking at my face, my curled eyelashes (it’s Vaseline), they forgot to look at my hands. (27)
She is guilty about her habit. Sometimes when I borrow things and guilt swirls in my mind, I feel like a r k n b o e piece of my family. (33)
Told in verse, this the story of a challenging year in a young adolescent’s life. Aafiyah experiences mild hearing loss. Her Dada Abu (grandfather) has cancer and needs to come to the United States for treatment. On a trip to Pakistan to bring back Dada and Dadi Abu, Fia’s father is charged with embezzlement from his company, and he and Dadi have to remain in Pakistan until his name can be cleared. In the U.S. Fia tries to help with their decreasing finances but devises a less-than-perfect Plan which costs her the friendship with Zaina and Zaina’s family, her phone, her position on the tennis team (Mom’s decision), and shame.
But readers become witness to Aafiyah’s growth. I’m not that girl anymore, The one who gives into her whims. (304) -----
FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang
Front Desk’s ten-year-old Mia moves to the head of my “Strong Resilient Girls in Literature” list as she becomes an activist and champion of those who cannot, or will not, stand up for themselves [“You don’t get it, kid. I’ve been fighting my whole life. I’m done. It’s no use fighting—people are gonna be the way they’re gonna be” (105)], teaches others the wrongs of prejudice and injustice, and forms a community from her neighbors, patrons, and fellow immigrants.
Mia and her parents emigrated from China to the United States for a more “free” life. In China her parents were professionals; in America they feel lucky to find a job managing a motel. But the owner, Mr. Yao, is unkind, unjust, cheap, and prejudiced. He reduces their salaries until they are working for lodging and a life of poverty. And while this is a novel about Mia who manages the front desk and helps her parents temporarily hide other Chinese immigrants who have been mistreated, it is really a novel of culture, prejudice, bullying, community, and, most of all, the power of writing. “It was the most incredible feeling ever, knowing that something I wrote actually changed someone’s life.” (218)
In America there are two roller coasters, and people are born to a life on one or the other, but Mia and her friend Lupe, whose family came from Mexico, have decided to break that cycle. Although bullied in school and warned by her mother that she will never be a “native” English writer, Mia develops her writing skills to help Hank gain employment after a wrongful arrest, free “Uncle” Zhang whose ID and passport were being held by his employer, share her story with her teacher and classmates, and finally persuade friends and strangers to take a chance on her family.
Mia is a representative of the “nearly twenty million immigrant children currently living in the United States, 30 percent of whom are living at or below poverty.” (Author’s Note). As such, this book will serve as a mirror for many readers, a map for others looking for ways to navigate young adolescent life, especially in a new culture, and as a window for those who will learn empathy for others they may see as different. Author Kelly Yang also shares the autobiographical elements of the novel in her Author’s Note.
Front Desk, with its very short chapters and challenging topics would be a meaningful and effective 10-minute read-aloud to begin Grade 4-7 daily reading workshop focus lessons. I would suggest projecting Mia’s letters since they show her revisions as she seeks to improve her language skills and word choices. -----
THREE KEYS by Kelly Yang
“I thought about Lupe’s words for a long time, thinking of how different and similar the two of us were. We were both girls with big hopes and dreams. But because of one piece of paper, we were on two different sides of the law. I didn’t really understand before what that paper meant. But now, I was starting to realize, it meant the difference between living in freedom and living in fear.” (171)
Sixth grader Mia continues her crusade for social justice in this sequel to Front Desk. Mia and her parents are now owners of the Calivista Motel where, with the help of the weeklies, especially Hank, they rent rooms, hold “How to Navigate America” classes for immigrants, and try to earn enough to pay dividends to their investors and possibly someday ending Mia’s mother’s endless room cleaning. Mia again sees racism and discrimination all around her, even among her classmates, and she forms Kids for Kids, a new club for those who also feel outside the mainstream. With Proposition 187* coming up for a vote in California, many of Mia’s undocumented friends, including her best friend Lupe, fear for their futures. And they become activists. “’That’s the worst.’ Jorge shook his head. ‘The people who just watch and don’t do anything.’” (80)
When Lupe’s mother goes back to Mexico for a family funeral and her father is imprisoned, the girls and the motel family gather forces to oppose Jose’s deportation, Prop 187, and racism. Mia fights in the way she knows—writing letters to the editor. But she recognizes that she has certain privileges as an immigrant with papers. “I realized something that I never thought of before: that the thing I had been relying on to voice my complaints and frustrations, my outlet and most powerful ammunition, wasn’t available to everyone. There were certain things you needed to write letters, besides just a pen.” (108) As the Calivista community becomes even more inclusive with a “Welcome, Immigrants” sign and bunk beds for cheaper rates and Mia and Lupe gain a few converts—Mrs. Welch, their teacher; Jason Yao, former enemy, and finally even his father, they have hope for the future.
This is an important novel for middle grade students who need to see their lives and lives of those they may encounter in person or on the news reflected in story and to see the strength and power they can have and the difference they can make.
*Proposition 187 sought, among other things, to require police, health care professionals and teachers to verify and report the immigration status of all individuals, including children. The stated purpose was to make immigrants residing in the country without legal permission ineligible for public social services, public health care services, and public education at elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Shortly after the law was passed in November 1994, a permanent injunction was issued against its implementation; Prop 187 was formally voided on July 29, 1999. -----
AMINA'S SONG by Hena Khan
“I know there are many others like me, who are trying to figure out where they belong, make sense of our complicated and wonderful world, and get other people to care.” (Amina, 274)
According to the Anna E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center as of 2019 25% of U.S. children under 18 are children of immigrants.
I was excited to reunite with Amina of Amina’s Voice in Hena Khan’s new companion novel Amina’s Song (which can be read independently of Amina’s Voice). Amina has spent the summer in Pakistan, visiting her closest relatives—her aunt and uncle, Thayee and Thaya Jaan, and her cousins, Zohra and Ahmed. When she returns to the United States, she feels torn between her two cultures. “It’s like a piece of me was left in Pakistan, and I wonder when I’ll be whole again.” (74)
Before she leaves Pakistan her uncle gives Amina a mission, “I want you to do something for me.… I want you to show people in America the beauty of Pakistan. They don’t know this place like you do now.” (46)
Amina is excited to share Pakistan with her friends, Soojin and Emily, but they seem more interested in talking about the new school year. “I want to tell my friends more about my trip…. All the memories, funny moments, and unforgettable scenes living inside me, things I’ve been thinking about and writing about in my notebook, are parts of me they know nothing about.” (83)
Amina decides for her history class Living Wax Museum project on “someone important in history” to focus on Malala Yousafzai, but when she shares some of her research, her classmates react by feeling sorry for everyone living in Pakistan and think it must be a dangerous place. Since she also wants to share the beauty of her culture, Amina decides, “What if I focus on the other parts of Malala’s life that I learned about, more than the shooting? My class has already heard about that , so maybe when I dress up as Malala, I can talk about everything else she’s been doing.” (154)
Amina is painfully shy, but Zohra advises, “It’s important to know how to speak strongly and convince people of your arguments, Amina.…How else are you going to make a difference in the world if you don’t use your voice?” (224)
Amina presents not only Malala but other notable females of Pakistan in her presentation, demonstrating the courage to possibly sacrifice her grade to “show people in America the beauty of Pakistan,” as her beloved uncle requested.
Additionally during this year Amina has become good friends with a new student, Nico, also the child of immigrants—an Egyptian mother and a French father. Nico is a musician and proficient in using a digital audio workstation to lay down beats, and together they plan how to put Amina’s thoughts into a song and record her. “I want [Nico] to show me how to finally bring the music that lives inside of me to life.” (128) With her brother Mustafa’s help Nico and Amina make a music video and shares her song hoping to show people so they will “appreciate the different aspects of my life and understand how they are important to me.”
“I’m finally ready to sing and can’t wait a moment longer.” (268)
Readers will learn about Pakistan’s cultures and heroes and the importance of having a song. -----
When I was a child and an adolescent, my favorite book was Little Women. I first read the Junior Illustrated version and then graduated to the novel. I next devoured Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Little Women was published in 1868, but is both timeless and timely. However, the characters are not diverse, and this novel, even with its universal themes, may not speak to all readers and give all readers a mirror into their own worlds and a window into that of other cultures.
That is why I read with excitement Hena Khan’s MG novel More to the Story. Based on Little Women but set today in Georgia, the novel tells the story of a Pakistani-American family: Mama and Baba, Mayam (15), Jameela (12), Bisma (11), and Aleeza (10) and the family friends’ nephew Ali (13). Jameela, a budding reporter and Features Editor of her school newspaper, narrates their story. \When Baba loses his job and leaves for a 6-month position in Abu Dhabi and Bisma, the sister to whom she is closest, is diagnosed with lymphoma, Jam has to find the strength to fight her quick anger and to work with her family. And while a story she writes about microagressions impresses the news staff and brings a current problem to the foreground, it also threatens her new friendship with Ali, and Jam has to make things right. She finds help through an extended family who loves each other finds ways to support each other during these difficult times.
This is not a book for only those who have read Little Women, but a wonderful story in its own right. It could also be paired with Little Women the novel or possibly one of the movie versions for poems in two voices between the characters in each text. There is always more to the story. -----
ZARA'S RULES FOR RECORD-BREAKING FUN by Hena Khan
“I have to come up with a plan to make sure I stay Queen of the Neighborhood. And fast.” (30)
Ten-and-three-quarters-year-old Zara lives with her Muslim family—Mama, Baba, little brother Zayd, Naano and Nana Abu. Zara has always organized the kids of her neighborhood: she makes rules—which are fair; she chooses the games—which are fun; and she picks the teams—which are even, there being three boys and three girls. In fact Mr. Chapman, their older neighbor, nicknamed Zara “the Queen of the Neighborhood.” But then Mr. Chapman sells his house and Zara worries about who will move in. Will there be kids? Will they throw off the dynamics of the neighborhood? Will there be an in even number for teams?
A Jewish family with two children moves in: Naomi Goldstein, a ten year old girl, and Michael, her older brother. Naomi has a lot of good ideas, like making “a cool tub” (like a hot tub) from a blow-up swimming pool and building a clubhouse. And she includes everyone. But when the others join Naomi, Zara refuses, feeling that her position as Queen of the Neighborhood has been threatened. Her uncle gives her some of his old books and one is the Guinness World Records. Zara decides to break a record so she can enter the Hall of Fame and “seal [her] place” in the neighborhood.
Zara’s plan fails when Zayd bikes into her Hula Hooping marathon and rain ruins her longest chalk drawing and she finds out that Guinness World Records has its own rules. Meanwhile Naomi starts getting everyone involved in breaking records, saying that Zara inspired her. “I thought it would be cool if we all broke records. Then we can be in the book together.” (85)
It takes a while for Zara to realize that Naomi is not competing with her, her friends are not intentionally bailing on her just because Naomi has some fun ideas too, and that everyone can have fun together and take turns making the plans. “And just like that, I realize I’m sharing the crown. But, surprisingly, it makes me feel a lot lighter than I expected.” (98) -----
SQUINT by Chad Morris & Shelly Brown
“So hit me with your best challenge for spreading kindness…. A challenge that helps people relate to people…. Share a little piece of yourself, like I did, and let us get to know and love you.” (238) These final words from Danny, a boy who suffered and died from progeria, guide Flint and McKell in their search for acceptance and belief in themselves.
Flint, nicknamed Squint because he has an eye disease that compromises his eyesight, has two goals: to win a comic book contest and make friends in middle school.
McKell is a new student from a school where she had few friends. In Flint’s school she hangs out with the popular kids who bully Squint. But McKell befriends Squint, and they encourage each other to attempt something new and follow their passions, following her brother’s Danny’s video challenges.
When Squint adds Diamond, a female superhero hero, to aid Flint’s comic book hero also named Squint, he supports McKell in overcoming her fear of sharing her talent. As they step out of their comfort zones, Squint confronts his bullies and finds that relationships are not always what you think they are.
This is a powerful novel about trust in others and trust in oneself and about adolescents learning to be themselves as they navigate middle school with all its rules. I was hoping for some comics (graphics) to go along with the story, but the Squint does share the text of his comic book as he creates it. -----
THIRST by Varsha Bajaj
“Over and over she chants, like it’s a mantra. ‘You’re not alone. You’re very brave.’ And slowly I begin to believe [Shanti].” (61)
Minni lives in Mumbai in an area of extreme poverty with little access to water. She goes to school, trying to graduate and make a better life, while her mother gathers water, cooks for the family, and works as a maid for a wealthy family. Her father works long hours at his tea stand, and her brother had to drop out of school and cuts vegetables in a restaurant, dreaming of becoming a chef. The people in her area wait long hours in line every morning for water which then has to be boiled to be safe.
One night Minni, her brother Sanjay, his friend Amit, and Minni’s best friend witness water being stolen by members of the Water Mafia, men who then sell it to the rich. Sanjay and Amit are seen by the thieves and have to leave town. Then Minni’s mother becomes ill and goes to stay with family who can care for her, and Minni has to balance getting and boiling the morning water, trying to arrive at school on time so she won’t be locked out, her studies, cooking for her father and herself, and covering her mother’s job working for Anita Ma’am, her daughter Pinky also a 12-year-old, and Pinky’s father mother who demeans and insults Minni.
Besides her best friend Faiza, many community members have faith in and support Minni. As she writes in her journal, Your family is always part of you, In your blood and in your memories. Your true friends are with you too. They hold you in their hearts and walk besides you. So that even the days you walk by yourself, You’re not alone. (78)
Minni wins a coveted scholarship to a Sunday computer class where the American instructor becomes yet another ally and where she works to design an app that might help with the time her community members lose standing in water lines each morning.
When working at Pinky’s lavish apartment, she notices, Water flows through the taps in Pinky’s bathroom. The tap doesn’t need s marigold garland wrapped around it. Money, not prayers, makes the water flow. (73) And when she recognizes the man in charge of the water theft, she knows she has to do something to stop the stealing of water.
The next day doubts fill my head. Why do I think I can change anything? Who am I? A mere twelve-year-old girl who is struggling to pass seventh grade. Whose family is just scraping by in this city of millions. Then I remember all the fights I’ve witnessed in the water lines. When there’s not enough water to go around, there’s anger fear, and frustration.…I can’t back away. I have to act, to do somethings. (155)
Minni joins the ranks of resilient adolescents, and Thirst would group well in Book Clubs with other novels featuring Tween & Teen Justice & Change Seekers. -----
LIA PARK AND THE MISSING JEWEL by Jenna Yoon
“All I ever wanted was to be part of IMA, fight monsters, and be one of the four protectors of the world.” (6)
Twelve-year old Lia is born in a world where magical powers count. And she has none—or at least none that she can identify. Her best friend Joon has magical powers and a chance to pass the exam for the International Magic Agency-sponsored school and become a great agent. Even Lia’s parents, her Umma and Appa, who are only desk agents, have “very low doses of magic.”
“I turned twelve a few months ago. Normally, I was pretty good at Taekkyeon. But I couldn’t concentrate today. Feelings of dread welled up in the pit of my stomach. I knew how all this would end. Not well.” (2)
So Lia decides she will stay at the normal school and become popular. “I’d really thought that if I had no powers, I could still be somebody by being part of the popular group.” (46) But when she defies her parents instructions and goes to the birthday party of Dior, her wealthy and most popular classmate, Lia unwittingly releases some magic, and all chaos is unleashed. She returns home to find her sitter Tina dead in the driveway and her parents kidnapped by the evil diviner Gaya.
Following her parents’ cryptic clues, Lia and Joon are transported to her Halmoni’s (grandmother’s) house in Korea where Lia learns her real family history and that “When you were born, your power had already manifested.… But it was dangerous, because the monsters sensed it too. That you were different.” (90)
Lia decides she has to make things right, “All this was my fault.…It was because of me that my parents were kidnapped and were being held hostage by Gaya.”
What follows is edge-of-the-seat adventure that will keep readers reading and worrying and hoping as Lia follows clues and tries to find—and then secure—the jewel that Gaya demands and, using all her wits and spells, determines what to do to get back her parents (and Joon) without giving the power back to Gaya.
Readers will learn a bit about Korean culture and folklore as they race through this adventure with the newest superhero. -----
BEYOND ME by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake, the strongest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, shook northeastern Japan, unleashing a savage tsunami. More than 5,000 aftershocks hit Japan in the year after the earthquake. The tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant resulting in the release of radioactive materials. (LiveScience.com and National Geographic.org)
Beyond Me is one story of this tragedy. Fifth-grader Maya lives in Japan with her American mother and Japanese father, grandmother, and great grandfather. On March 9, 2011, at the end of their school year, her class feels an earthquake, different from earthquakes they have experienced before.
On March 11th at 7:44am the “earth shudders.” Beginning at 2:46pm an earthquake struck the eastern coast “so strong it pushed Japan’s main island eastward, created a massive tsunami, and slashed the eastern coastline in size.” (89) And even though Maya’s family lives miles from the tsunami, they are affected, and Maya is terrified. She chronicles the 24 days after the earthquake, sometimes minute by minute, as she shares her thoughts and feelings over what is happening in her house, her town, and, through the news, the people of Northeast Japan. The house shakes, food is rationed, and transportation has stopped, but she and her family are safe.
Readers see Maya overcome her fears and reach out with her mother and father to help those most affected by the disaster. She and Yuka fold paper cranes and ask for sunflowers seeds to plant, and Maya writes notes to the “People of the Northeast.” Maya continues journaling for 113 days after she and her best friend plant sunflower seeds on her grandparents’ farm, strengthening and helping to heal Earth as the mug she put back together with lacquer and gold dust.
Through free verse, timelines, and creative word placements readers take this journey with Maya as they learn a lot about nature and the effects of earthquakes. This book would pair nicely with Leza Lowitz’s Up from the Sea, a verse novel that focuses on the story of one town and one boy directly affected by the tsunami. -----
SOMEWHERE AMONG by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
Ema is binational, bicultural, bilingual, and biracial. Some people consider her “half,” and others consider her “double.” Her American mother says she contains “multitudes,” but Ema sometimes feels alone living in Japan somewhere among multitudes of people. When fifth-grader Ema and her mother go to live with Ema’s very traditional Japanese grandparents during a difficult pregnancy, author Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu’s verse novel takes the reader through six months (June 21, 2001-January 2, 2002) of customs, rituals, and holidays, both Japanese and American. There are challenges, such a choosing a name for the new baby that brings good luck in Japan and that both sets of grandparents can pronounce. Ema celebrates American Independence Day and Japanese Sea Day, and she now views some days, such as August 15 Victory Over Japan Day from diverse perspectives.
On September 11, 2001 Ema experiences both two typhoons in her town and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in America—on television. As the reader traverses the intricacies of two fusing two distinct cultures with Emi and her family, our knowledge of others is doubled. -----
BORN BEHIND BARS by Padma Venkatraman
Kabir Khan, the son of a Muslim father and Hindu mother, was born behind bars in a prison in Chennai, his mother wrongly accused of a theft before he was born. He has lived his life in deplorable conditions—little food, no privacy, intermittent water availability, and no freedom. His only happiness is being with his Amma and his teacher at the prison school.
But at age 9 his life becomes even more uncertain when, too old to live in prison, he is to be released into the streets. “I tell myself I’m free. I’m outside where I dreamed of going, but I feel like a fish in a net being lifted out of the water I’ve lived in all my life.”(59)
Claimed by a man who says he is his uncle, he faces his first dangerous situation. “My ‘uncle’ is selling me.” (72)
Kabir escapes and navigates the streets with the help of a new friend, the resilient Rana, an adolescent girl who has lived on the streets —and in the trees— and killing her own food—squirrel and crow stews—since her Kurava (Roma) family was attacked, her father killed. She teaches Kabir how to survive street life. He has two goals: to find his father and find a lawyer to release his mother from prison. “I can just imagine Amma walking out of that gray building—me holding one of her hands and my father holding the other.” (93) His command of both Kannada and Tamil languages are an asset and when following his Amma’s wishes to be good, he returns a lady’s lost earring, he and Rana and rewarded with tickets to Bengaluru to find his father’s parents.
In Bengaluru Kabir and Rana learn to trust and find new lives that allow them to both have hope again.
Filled with memorable characters, this emotional story will bring empathy and cultural awareness to upper elementary/middle-grade readers; its short chapters will provide a good read-aloud for teachers, librarians, and parents. -----
WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER by Tae Keller
“Long, long ago, when tiger walked like man…” – Korean folktale
Folktales relate the stories of a culture but they recount and extend the stories of folk and families. They are universal, but when it is your story, “It’s special.” (68)
Lily feels she is invisible, a QAG (quiet Asian girl); sometimes it is her magic power. And she depends on her older sister Sam. But when Lily, her mother, and sister move back to Washington state to help her Halmoni, who is dying of cancer, Lily can no longer be invisible. To try to save her grandmother, she needs to face the tiger that only she nelieves in. Lily’s Halmoni tells her, “… the world is bigger than what we see.” (32) “When you believe [in you], that is you being brave. Sometimes, believing is the bravest thing of all.” (51)
But Lily learns that sometimes you don’t save the person; it is enough to believe in the traditions of the culture and share the stories of the people.
“It’s kind of like these folktales have a mind of their own. Like they’re floating around the world, waiting for somebody to come along and tell them.” (68)
Stories are important. The librarian tells Lily, “The thing I’ve learned is that stories aren’t about order and organization. They’re about feelings. And feelings don’t always make sense. See, stories are like … Water. Like rain. We can hold them tight, but they always slip through our fingers.”…But remember that water gives us life. It connects continents. It connects people. And in quiet moments, when the water’s still, sometimes we can see our own reflection.” (206)
Magic. Family. Culture. Friendships. Loss. Stories. And the most beautiful writing (Teachers will want to use passages as writing mentor texts). I had an ARC of this novel tucked away in a vast TBR pile, and when I read that Tiger won the 2021 Newberry Medal, it moved to the top of the list. I then read in two days—the writing and the story swirling through me, the memorable characters (new friend Ricky with his extensive hat collection, teen Sam and her girlfriend, mother trying to keep it all together and balancing her cultures, and, of course, Halmoni herself) still lingering.
I can see this novel grouped with three other middle-grade novels for Magical Book Club reading: Corey Ann Haydu’s One Jar of Magic, Kathy Erskine’s The Incredible Magic of Being, and Salman Rushdie’s folktale about the power of story Haroun and the Sea of Stories . -----
FALLING IN THE DRAGON'S MOUTH by Holly Thompson
Over seventy percent of young people say they have encountered bullying in their schools—as victim, offender or bystander. The Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education defined bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated or has a high likelihood of repetition. But bullying is not a problem only in the United States.
As Holly Thompson so powerfully and effectively portrayed female bullying—bullying by exclusion, spreading rumors, and meanness ("Mean Girls")—in her verse novel Orchards, she portrays the more physical and verbal abusive bullying of males in Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth.
Jason Parker is a fifth grade American boy living and attending school in Japan where he is different—and bullied for being different. He has redefined “friend” as anyone who doesn’t punch or kick him or refer to him as a “stinking foreigner.” Near the end of the school year Jason is placed in a group, or han, with five of the meanest kids in the class. What follows is relentless bullying, and the reader sees the importance of telling an adult, but not just any adult. The teacher has to be aware of what is going on, and Jason is afraid that his parents will make it worse. He is hoping to last until his parents can afford to send him to the international school.
With the support of his little sister, two new friends outside school—an older man with Parkinson’s disease and a teen who quit school because of the bullying, his English group, and aikido, Jason perseveres until the bullies “play” the choking game and Jason’s parents and the school finally become involved. Jason’s aikido instructor explains “…we need to train so that we sense danger in order to avoid it” but also warns him “the world is full of all kinds of people and some of them are a bit lost” (308-309).
In short lyrical free-verse lines, the reader learns about Japanese culture but also the trials of being perceived as different in any culture. The reader experiences the effects of bullying on children and the importance of effectively stopping and preventing bullying but also becomes aware of the dilemmas involved with trying to end bullying. I found myself frustrated that Jason did not tell his parents, but then I am an adult. I also was disturbed that his teacher ignored all the signs, but I have learned that this is too often true. In fact, Jason wants to change the rule that allows teachers to hit students.
An effective study of bullying would be for a class to either read both Orchards and Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth to gain different perspectives and begin conversations on the different types of bullying, or for half a class to read one, or to combine these novels with other books on Bullying. -----
ORCHARDS by Holly Thompson
A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying and that 10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide. As the social hierarchy intensifies in middle school, girls form cliques and can get meaner. PBS Parenting explains that much of this behavior stems from the intense desire to belong, the need to feel powerful, and the conditioning that many girls have to not express their feelings directly. Some girls function as leaders, others as followers, and the rest live outside the groups.
In this powerful verse novel, Kana Goldberg, an American middle school girl, feels guilty when Ruth, a classmate, commits suicide: should I have said something when I saw you at the mall? should I have sat across from you at lunch in the cafeteria? should I have invited you to be in my group in science or my critique partner in art?
Kana reflects on the social hierarchy in her eighth grade class: electrons arranged in shells around Lisa Becca and Mona first shell solid the rest of us in orbitals farther out less bound less stable and you in the least stable most vulnerable outermost shell.
Kana was not only a bystander. She acknowledges that Lisa was mean to Ruth and we all followed her lead.
Kana’s Japanese mother and Jewish American father send her to her maternal grandmother’s mikan orange farm for the summer to “reflect in the presence of [her] ancestors.” While there, she learns to farm, becomes part of the family and community, and learns the rituals of her Japanese culture, but most importantly she reflects on her actions and those of her clique and thinks about Ruth and what happened and where to place blame because they didn’t understand her. what I wanted to know was if depression is so common is depressions was a possibility for someone like you, Ruth then why didn’t they teach us about it?
Kana finally realizes that the list of what they didn’t do-- end the texting talk with you laugh with you listen to you include you …seems so basic and short.
There is another tragedy associated with the bullying and, through the rituals surrounding death Kana practices with her relatives and the Japanese community, she returns home with ideas of ways to create a memorial to the friends who were tragically affected by the bullying—and to help, not just the girls but the entire 8th grade class, to “go on.” -----
THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT by Chris Baron
A golem is a creature formed out of a lifeless substance such as dust or earth that is brought to life by ritual incantations and sequences of Hebrew letters. The golem, brought into being by a human creator, becomes a helper, a companion, or a rescuer of an imperiled Jewish community. --------- Stan Lee once said, “If you don’t care about the characters, you can’t care about the story.” And I do look for characters I care about; in fact; sometimes I just want to take care of them. Even though I fell in love with them, there is no need in Chris Baron’s new verse novel; the two main characters, Etan and Malia, take care of each other quite well.
Etan is part of a close community of emigrés from Prague, the Philippines, China, and other countries who, with his grandfather, sailed on the Calypso and entered America through the Angel Island Immigration Center in 1940. Etan needs the support of his community when his mother goes to a mental hospital and he loses the ability speak—except sometimes. In addition, his father appears to have lost his Jewish faith, and the community Sabbat dinners end. Etan finds comfort in his religious grandfather and his jewelry shop which appear to be the heart of the community.
Etan doesn’t play with the other boys at school since his mother left, and, when on a delivery errand, he meets Malia who has been homeschooled since she was bullied and called “the creature.” Malia’s severe eczema keeps her in the house or covered up from the sun with her Blankie. However, as he becomes friends with her, Etan believes that his grandfather’s ancient muds will cure Malia’s condition or bring a golem to help them out.
Etan, there are many things from the old world from your ancestors that we carry with us always. It’s our fire. Our light. But there are somethings from those times that are still with us. (114)
When the mud doesn’t work permanently, Mrs. Li tells Etan, Your friendship for this girl is the oldest and strongest form of medicine you can ever give her. Remind her that she is not alone. (161)
His grandfather agrees, …each of us has his own story. You have a chance to be the light, to help a friend. (178)
Etan helps Malia find her voice, and, when the earthquake nearly destroys the city, the community joins together, and Etan former friend Jordan and the bully Martin also contribute.
At the same time, his grandfather acknowledges that Etan is nearing the age of thirteen, the age of Bar Mitzvah and becoming a man, and he gives Etan family artifacts that he had brought from Prague to “connect you to the old world like a bridge, to remind you of where you came from and who you are, and that anything is possible.” (298) This gives Etan the idea of how to help put things back together. The old and the new mix together, making something completely new, making something together. (323)
Set during the October 17, 1989, San Francisco earthquake and the legendary Game 3 of the World Series between the Giants and the A’s, this story is magical but certainly not imperfect. It is a memorable story of friendship, community, Jewish traditions, Filipino culture, and healing. -----
YUSUF AZEEM IS NOT A HERO by Saadia Faruqi
Anyone who has followed me or my professional writings knows how passionately I view a study of the events of September 11, 2001 and their repercussions—on individuals, our country, and the world. To date I have read, reviewed, and recommended 25 novels and memoirs (and picture books) written for elementary, middle-grade, and young adult readers. These novels have been powerful and, fascinatingly, each presents a different perspective of the events. Some take place during September 11, some following the events, some a few years later or many years later, and a few include two timelines. Many take place from the perspectives of multiple characters. Most are reviewed in my blog for YA Wednesday: http://www.drbickmoresyawednesday.com/weekly-posts/20-mgya-novels-1-graphics-collection-to-commemorate-the-20th-anniversary-of-911-by-lesley-roessing
I have written about the importance of reading these books, especially in Book Clubs, where readers can choose the book that interests them, reading at their comfort level in the format that most engages them, and discuss these sensitive and challenging concepts in safe, small-group spaces because these novels, in most cases, present not only the events of 9/11 but the Islamophobia, prejudice, discrimination, and bullying that followed these events.
I have visited schools and classes from grades 5 though 9 in ELA and in Social Studies classes and facilitated Book Clubs with five novels, different for each group of readers, and I have presented these novels and strategies and lessons for reading in Book Clubs at local workshops and national conferences. I included my 9/11 Book Club unit as a chapter in my book TALKING TEXTS: A Teacher’s Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum.
I finally had the opportunity to read one of the best novels on Nine Eleven for grade 4 through 10 readers, Saadia Faruqi’s Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero.
“Suspicion of those unlike us is common human behavior. We don’t trust who we don’t know. But yes, 9/11 was terrible, and it really fueled the fire of hatred in this country.” (184-5)
Sixth grader Yusuf Azeem was born in Texas and is an American; his mother was also born in America and his father was a Pakistani immigrant who runs the popular A to Z Dollar Store in town (and a somewhat a local hero after capturing an intruder threatening his store and customers). The family is Muslim, but, understandably, Yusuf is shocked when sixth grade begins with threatening notes in his locker. When one says, “Go home,” he hurt and confused. Frey is his home. Surely the notes are meant for someone else.
September 11, 2021 is approaching, and when his mother’s younger brother Uncle Rahman comes for a visit, he notes, “The twentieth anniversary of the attacks is coming up soon.” Abba drank some water. “Does it matter? It’s been twenty years.” Uncle Rahman looked stern. “You don’t mean that. You know it still affects us every single day. At work. On the street. At the airport.” (21) Before leaving, Uncle Rahman gives Ausuf the journal he started keeping after the events. “I was your age when 9/11 happened. It was an emotional time for everyone, and it was hard for me to process…. I ended up writing about some of my experiences, trying to figure things out…. My place in the world. How it all changed in an instant, how I became a stranger in my own country.” (23-24)
As the town’s 20th anniversary celebration approaches, Ethan, the sixth grade bully, harasses Yusuf and some of the other Muslim students while his father, leader of the Patriot Sons, makes life difficult for the adult Muslim community, spraying graffiti on the A to Z Dollar Store and trying to halt the construction of the mosque.
Yusuf stands up for other students whom Ethan bullies, and, when Cameron tells him that he shouldn’t “make waves,” that challenging things could be dangerous, Yusuf protests, “I wasn’t being a hero. I had to do that. It was my duty as a Muslim.” (182)
As poorly as his middle school year is going, Yusuf is excited to be captain of the Robotics Club which is preparing for the TRC competition that he has been looking forward to his whole life. Working with his best friend Danial and Cameron, a former friend who Yusuf thought had changed, both members of the Muslim community; his new friend Jared who happens to be Ethan’s cousin; and Madison, the one girl on their team, he forms a circle of allies. As his father tells him, “Life is full of all kinds of people, son. We just have to learn to avoid the bullies and stick with our friends.” (322)
This is a novel that may benefit from some background on the events of September 11, 2001 since the action takes places in 2021 but, read individually, Ausuf’s uncle’s journal will help fill in information. The importance of this particular novel is that is demonstrates that, for some of our citizens and students, “Twenty years. So much time. But things haven’t really changed at all.” (48) One of the major events in the story—when a little computer in his backpack beeped and, instead of questioning him and investigating, Ausuf is thrown in jail for twelve hours—is based on a real event from 2015 where Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim 14-year-old, was arrested at his high school because of a disassembled digital clock he brought to school to show his teachers [https://www.cnn.com/2015/09/16/us/texas-student-ahmed-muslim-clock-bomb].
It is vital that our children learn about 9/11 because, as Ausuf’s mamoo says, “History informs our present and affects our future.” (81) -----
OTHER WORDS FOR HOME by Jasmine Warga
What happens when you have to leave your home to leave far away within another culture? How does that place become “home”?
When trouble spreads to Jude’s small city on the sea, a city formerly filled with tourists, and her older brother joins the revolution, seventh-grader Jude and her pregnant mother immigrate to America, leaving behind her Baba, his store, and her best friend to move in with her uncle, his American wife and their daughter. Life in Cincinnati is very different; Jude’s English is not as good as she had hoped and her popular seventh-grade cousin Sarah is afraid she will seem “weird,” like her new friend Layla whose parents came from Lebanon and wears a hijab.
Jude tries to assimilate but I am no longer a girl. I am a Middle Eastern girl. A Syrian girl. A Muslim girl.
Americans love labels. They help them know what to expect. Sometimes, though, I think labels stop them from/thinking. (92)
As she learns more English, practicing slang with the four members of her ESL class, and becomes friends with Layla and Miles, a boy from her math class fascinated with stars and the galaxy, Jude misses Baba, Fatima, and Auntie Amal, and worries about Issa; however, she becomes closer to her aunt, speaks Arabic with her uncle, and starts thinking of the old house as home. Becoming a young woman, she begins wearing her scarves, although she has to convince her aunt that this is her choice.
Jude discovers that belonging is complicated. Layla tells her she is “lucky” that she comes from somewhere rather than being a Middle Eastern girl in America who, if she moved to Jordan, would be an American girl in the Middle East. Lucky. I am learning how to say it over and over again in English. I am learning how it tastes-- sweet with promise/and bitter with responsibility. (168)
Even the very American teen Sarah seems to want to embrace her other culture; she asks to learn Arabic and points out that, as cousins, they look much alike.
When Jude follows her brother’s wish that she be brave, she tries out for the school musical, even though Layla says, Jude, those parts aren’t for girls like us.… We’re not girls who/glow in the spotlight.” “’But I want to be,” I say.’ (206)
Jude talks to her brother and although his life is full of danger, they are both “doing It” and We are okay with learning our lines because we are liking the script-- maybe, just maybe, we have both finally found roles that make sense to us. Roles where we feel seen/as we truly are. (324) -----
WEI TO GO! by Lee Y Miao
“A runner, a home-run wannabe, and a lacrosse trainee get off a subway exit in Kowloon.” (227) No, this is not the opening line of a joke. It actually is the middle of an adventure starring Elizabeth Wei Pettit, Kipp Wei Pettit, and their mother.
When she finds out that the design firm her father founded is about to face a corporate takeover by the Black Turtle Group based in Hong Kong and her family would have to move away from her bestie, her new maybe-crush, and her softball team (before finally getting a wristband for her first homerun), Ellie decides to save Avabrand. She talks her mother into accepting a trip to Hong Kong won in a contest—and take her along. Unfortunately, her annoying younger sports-minded brother also has to go, but, on the positive side, he is a human GPS, and navigation is definitely not Ellie’s strong point. “One family and two kids with one middle name. Three months before seventh grade and I’m traveling across the Pacific to save my dad’s company. With my little brother—ugh!” (45)
After many cryptic, clues, dead ends, and sharp turns involving two brothers—Mr. Han (Ellie’s Chinese heritage teacher in the U.S.) and Gerard (BT’s CEO), and a lot of resilience, leading to a face-off and hopefully a win: I straighten myself up. I can go for it. My family will not be kicked off our front porch. I will stay in my school. I will stay in my home. Kipp will stay on his lacrosse team when he makes it. Mom will stay with her job. Dad will stay with his company. (268)
There is another positive side to the trip. “When I found out the world is bigger than my family and me, I didn’t know I’d literally be running around in a new place far from home.” (271)
Asian-American Ellie and the readers learn a lot about Hong Kong, Chinese culture, the business world, and the support of other people. “I had lots of help. [Mr. Han] nudged me at first. I had Kipp and Mom. I thought about things that Dad, my softball coach, my English teacher, and my bestie said to me. Even my next-door neighbor and her two little boys. They were all with me at different times.” (269) -----
RED BUTTERFLYby Amy Sonnichsen
This is the story of Tara, an abandoned baby of Tianjin, who was raised by an American woman who gave up everything—husband, daughter, grandsons-—to illegally stay in China to raise her.
After Tara finds she was never legally adopted and has no government identity and Mama is deported, Tara learns that one can have many families, and there is room in people's heart for one more child (as I have room in my heart for just one more favorite novel).
SHOOTING KABUL by N.H. Senzai
“The driver hit the gas and the tires squealed as the truck made a sharp turn and then accelerated right though a bombed-out warehouse onto a parallel alley. Fadi looked from the edge of the truck’s railing in disbelief. His six-year-old sister had been lost because of him.” (25)
Fadi’s father, a native Afghan, received his doctorate in the United States and returned to Afghanistan with his family five years before to help the Taliban rid the country of drugs and help the farmers grow crops. But as the Taliban became more and more restrictive and power-hungry and things changed, Habib, his wife Zafoona, Noor, Fadi, and little Mariam (born in the U.S.) need to flee the country. During their nighttime escape, chased by soldiers, Fadi loses his grip on Mariam as they are pulled into the truck, and she is lost.
Eventually making it to America, the family joins relatives in Fremont, California. “Fremont has the largest population of Afghans in the United States” (56), and Habib takes measures to try to find and rescue Mariam. Starting sixth grade in his new school, Fadi is continuously plagued with guilt over Mariam’s loss and is tormented and beaten up by the two sixth-grade bullies. However, though Anh, a new friend, he joins the photography club and becomes obsessed with a contest that could win him a ticket to India for a photo shoot but also take him in proximity to Pakistan where he can look for Mariam himself.
Then the events of September 11, 2001, occur and “By the end of the day, Fadi knew that the world as he knew it would never be the same again.” (137). Harassment escalates both at school and in the community. “[Mr. Singh] was attacked because the men thought he was a Muslim since he wore a turban and beard. They blamed him for what happened on September eleventh.” (165)
When the Afghan students have had enough with the school bullies, they band together and confront the two boys, but having them cornered, decide, “We can’t beat them up. That would make us as bad as they are…. Beating them up won’t solve anything.” (232) Meanwhile, while looking for a photograph that will capture “all the key elements” of a winning photograph and additionally portray his community, Fadi shoots the picture which, in an unusual way, leads to finding Mariam.
In Shooting Kabul, readers meet one family of refugees living in a community of Afghans of different ethnic groups as well as immigrants from other countries. The story also takes readers through some of the background of the Taliban in Afghanistan, relevant at this time. -----
AMAL UNBOUND by Aisha Saeed
It is immediately apparent why this novel was one of the books chosen for the 2018 #Global Read Aloud—well written, well-developed characters, strong adolescent female protagonist, and contemporary issues.
Twelve-year-old Amal lives in a rural Pakistani village where she is the eldest daughter of a small landowner, who like everyone else owes money to the greedy, corrupt landlord. She goes to school and dreams of becoming a teacher. After a run-in with the landlord’s son, she is required to work on the Khan estate to repay her father’s debt, an impossible feat since the servants are charged for lodging and food. As she becomes part of the household, connects with the other servants, and learns more about the unlawful Khan family, she has to decide how much to risk to save the villages, her friends, and her future. She is counseled by her new teacher, “You always have a choice. Making choices even when they scare you because you know it’s the right thing to do —that’s bravery.” (210)
I am adding Amal Unbound to my list of novels featuring strong girls in MG.YA literature [http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/the-new-nancy-drew]. She reminds me of such adolescents as Serafina (Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg) and Valli (No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis).
As author Aisha Saeed wrote in her Author’s Note, “Amal is a fictional character, but she represents countless other girls in Pakistan and around the world who take a stand against inequality and fight for justice in often unrecognized but important ways.” In this way novels and characters can function as maps to help our young readers navigate the challenges and ethics of adolescent life. -----
OMAR RISING by Aisha Saeed
“What about the boys on the other side of the wall? Picking whatever activities they’d like because they were born into families who can pay their tuition. [The headmaster] is right. I’m lucky. But it’s hard to feel that way right now.” (50)
Omar lives in a one-room hut with his mother, a servant for the family of Omar’s best friend Amal. When Omar is accepted to the prestigious Ghalib Academy for Boys as a scholarship student, his whole town celebrates. He is aware that his future opportunities have widened, but he is particularly excited about the extracurricular activities, especially the astronomy club since he has always wanted to be an astronomer.
At school Omar immediately makes friends—Marwan and Jabril from Orientation; Kareem, his roommate and one of the scholarship kids along with Naveed, and soon others, especially when they observe Omar’s soccer skills. The only unfriendly person appears to be their neighbor Aiden. And Headmaster Moiz, the English teacher for the scholarship students or, as he says, “kids like you,” who appears to take an instant dislike to Omar. Despite having the academics to be accepted, the scholarship kids find the studies difficult, no matter how hard they study.
And then they find out that Scholar Boys are not permitted to join any activities or sports; instead they have to do hours of chores.
Back home, everyone was proud of me. Back home, everyone was jostling for me to be part of their team. But I’m not home now.” (ARC, 56) “I’m the kid doing chores. Who can’t do any of the fun after-school activities. Struggling to keep up with my classes. (153)
Omar and Naveed and the others fulfill their work hours, mainly in the kitchen with the chef Shauib and his son Basem where Omar finds he has some talent and where they can keep their secret from the other students (who think they are just nerds, studying all the time). “Marwan acts like we think being stuck in a room on a Friday night instead of out having fun is what we want to do. He doesn’t get it. Because he can’t.” (109)
But the boys find out that the system is rigged. Most of the Scholar Boys are not expected to stay beyond the first year. Studying together with the other scholarship boys, night and day, Omar does well in science and math but continues to do poorly in English until he asks the Headmaster to tutor him.. “Finding out how hard it was to actually stay at this school, I’d started pushing away my dreams, afraid it would hurt more if it all crashed down. But maybe holding onto your dreams is how you make your way through.” (117) He raises his grades but it is not enough; SBs are to maintain an A+.
For his art class final project, Omar studies Shehzil Maik, a local artist who works in many mediums to promote justice, equality, and resistance. With her influence, he designs his own collage, “Stubbornly Optimistic.” During his presentation Omar shares the injustice he and the other Scholar Boys are facing. “We might go to the same school, but the rules are completely different for us.… We might be in the same classes but we are from different classes.” (ARC, 176)
However, when the school unites to fight the discrimination, he finds that art can be a catalyst for change. This is a story of a young boy who is not only strong and resilient but one who is willing to make a difference for himself and future boys.
Note: This novel is a companion novel to Saeed’s Amal Unbound; even though a sequel in time, it can be read independently. -----
HOW TO FIND WHAT YOU ARE NOT LOOKING FOR by Veera Hiranandani
“You used to be friends with more of them, but as everyone got older, they treated you differently. Maybe it’s because you’re the only Jewish girl in the sixth grade. Or maybe it’s because people think the way you write is weird. Or maybe it’s because you keep your hair short and you don’t like to paint your nails or wear dresses or makeup. It makes you wonder if there’s just one way of being a girl and if you’re doing it wrong.” (72)
It is 1967. The Goldberg family is Jewish but had moved away from their Jewish neighborhood to a small town in Connecticut to realize their dream of owning a bakery and better schools for 12-year-old Ariel and her 18-year-old sister Leah. When Leah meets and falls in love with an Indian-American graduate student, Raj Jagwani, her parents forbid the relationship even though the U.S. Supreme Court has just made interracial marriage legal in all states (Loving vs. Virginia). When Leah and Raj elope, Leah’s parents disown her. “…Ma told you that because Leah married someone who isn’t Jewish, she can’t be part of the family anymore; it was their duty as Jewish parents to reject her decision, Ma explained.” (75)
Besides the loss of her supportive sister, Ari has other problems: She feels like she is different and faces some anti-Semitism in her school. “What would it be like if lots of kids were Jewish at school and you didn’t have to explain that part to anyone? A feeling starts to float up your body, a lightness. Is that what other people feel like every day?” (145)
Ariel has trouble concentrating on her studies and finds handwriting very difficult. When a new teacher diagnoses her problem as dysgraphia, allows her to use a typewriter, and encourages her to write down her feelings, even just a few words, Ari discovers free verse and begins writing more and more. “It’s still so new, writing poetry, but it’s become a way to feel better, a way to feel free. It’s like finding something buried in the ground, thinking it’s a rock, then realizing it’s gold.” (162)
With her best (and only) friend, Ariel decides that she will do whatever is possible to reunite her family before Leah and Raj’s baby is born and will stand up for herself at school, finding her voice.
This Sydney Taylor Book Award (for outstanding books that authentically portray the Jewish experience) 2022 Gold Medalist Middle Grades winner is a must for all middle grade classrooms and libraries as a read for those who feel they don’t fit in—in school or in their family—and those who have faced prejudice in any form. It also will serve to promote empathy in those who have not faced the same challenges as Ariel and her family.
Note: Ariel’s story was told in second-person which may be a new experience for readers. -----
SHINE, COCONUT MOON by Nesha Meminger
“After September eleventh, I never felt more un-American in my whole life, yet at the same time, I felt the most American I’ve ever felt too. I never knew it, but this has been a recurring theme throughout my life and it seemed to get shoved into my face after the attacks on the World Trade Center.” (150-151)
Samar Ahluwahlia is an Indian-American teen living in Linton, NJ, with her mother who turned her back on her family and religion. When the events of September 11th occurred, shaking Sam as well as her classmates and community, she didn’t realize that those events would affect her personally. Until her Uncle Sandeep rang their doorbell.
“Before Uncle Sandeep walked back into my life, I’d never cared that I was a Sikh. It really didn’t have much impact on my life,…. But that was before 9/11. The Saturday morning that Uncle Sandeep rang our doorbell had one of those endless, frozen blue skies hanging above it; the same kind of frozen blue sky that, just four days earlier, had born silent witness to a burning Pentagon and two crumbling mighty towers in New York City. And the cause of all those lost lives was linked to another bearded, turbaned man halfway around the world. And my regular, sort of popular, happily assimilated Indian-American butt got rammed real hard into the cold seat of reality.” (10)
After becoming re-acquainted with her personable, loveable and loving, optimistic uncle, visiting his gurdwara (temple), and watching the harassment and hate aimed against him even though he is Indian, American, and Sikh, rather than the Middle Eastern and Muslim, Sammy decides she wants to learn more about Sikhism and meet her family, hoping to have what her best friend Molly has with her large Irish family. “This discovering more about myself stuff is addictive. It’s like starting a book that you just can’t out down, only it’s better because the whole book is about you.” (110)
After being termed a “coconut” by an Indian girl at school and learning about the WWII Japanese internment camps, Sam begins researching intolerance, joins a Sikh teen chat group, and convinces her mother to take her to visit her grandparents where she is exposed to the traditional “values” that caused her mother to rebel.
However, when Molly includes their childhood enemy Bobbi Lewis in their friendship and Sam finally acknowledges that the supportive Bobbi has changed or maybe isn’t whom she thought, Sam realizes, “If we give them a chance, people could surprise us. Maybe if we didn’t make up our minds right away, based on a few familiar clues, we’d leave room for people to show us a bunch of little, important layers that we never would have expected to see.” (149)
Through the repercussions of 9/1l, her newly-expanded family and group of friends, her research into history and the Sikh religion, and experiencing the narrow-mindedness of her boyfriend, some of the kids at school, and even her grandparents, Sam realizes the dichotomy of being a coconut. “I thought of Balvir’s definition of a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside, mixed-up, confused. And then Uncle Sandeep’s: The coconut is also a symbol of resilience, Samar. Even in conditions where there’s very little nourishment and even less nurturance, it flourishes, growing taller than most of the plants around it.” (247) -----
PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING by Randy Ribay
“There was a time I thought getting older meant you’d understand more about the world, but it turns out the exact opposite is true.” (296)
Jason Reguero has his life planned out, at least as much as any typical 17-year-old. He will finish his senior year, play video games with his best friend Seth, attend Michigan in the Fall, graduate, and get a job, even though he has no idea what he wants to do and has not found anything that has awakened a passion . In fact, Jay seems somewhat adrift until he receives the news that his seventeen-year-old cousin, Jun, was killed in the Philippines by government officials under President Duterte’s war on drugs, accused of being a drug addict and pusher. Jun’s father, as head of the police force, refuses a funeral or any type of memorial. The last time Jay saw Jun was when his family, whose family had moved to the U.S. so the three siblings could be more “American” like their mother, was when they were ten and were like brothers. They had written back and forth until Jay got caught up in his own life and stopped answering Jun’s letters. Jun, questioning the political regime and the church, had moved from his restrictive father’s house and was thought to be living on the streets. Feeling guilty for having abandoned his cousin, Jay uses his Spring Break to fly to the Philippines to investigate Jun’s death, the reason he was really killed, and why no one—other than his sisters, Grace and Angel—mourns his death. Jay is introduced to Grace’s friend Mia, a student reporter, and together they investigate Jun’s last few years. They find that Jun’s story is not that simple. “I was so close to feeling like I had Jun’s story nailed down. But no. That’s not how stories work, is it?. They are shifting things that re-form with each new telling, transform with each new teller. Less a solid, and more a liquid talking the shape of its container.” (281) Randy Ribay's coming-of-age novel, Jay finds some answers, and some more questions, challenging his preconceptions. But he also begins discovering his Filipino heritage and his identity as a Filipino-American. He finds a passion which determines his future—at least for now. “We all have the same intense ability to love running through us. It wasn’t only Jun. But for some reason, so many of us don’t use it like he did. We keep it hidden. We bury it until it becomes an underground river. We barely remember it’s there. Until it’s too far down to tap.” (265)
This is a YA novel for mature readers about identity, family, heritage, and truth. Readers will also learn a lot about Filipino history and contemporary politics. -----
UP FROM THE SEA by Leza Lowitz
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write.”--Richard Price
Instead of focusing on the overwhelming statistics generated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan—nearly 16,000 deaths and 3,000 people missing—the event becomes even more intense and compelling as author Leza Lowitz relates the story of one town and one boy and the resilience of many.
The story begins on March 11 when Kai, a half Japanese, half American 17-year-old and his teachers and classmates experience the “jolting of the earth,” and as trained, they evacuate, running for their lives, looking for the highest place, as their town is destroyed. Written powerfully in free verse, the reader feels the fury of nature as the water “churns,” “thrashes,” “surges,” “sweeps,” “charges.” Kai ends up in a shelter having lost his mother, his grandparents, and one of his best friends. His father left years before to return to America.
Faced with overwhelming loss and trauma, Kai walks into the ocean but is saved by one of his classmates and convinced to accept the opportunity to go to New York City on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 where he will spend some time with young adults who lost their parents as teens in the 9/11 attacks. At Ground Zero, Fia tells him, “Bravery means being scared and going forward anyway.”
Kai hopes to find his father in NYC but returns to his village to help the young adolescents who lost their families and to rebuild his town. “I want to be/ like that tree/ deep roots/ making it strong/ keeping it/ standing tall.” And it is to his roots Kai returns and stays—“The quake moved the earth/ ten inches/ on its axis./ I guess/I shifted,” too.”
Up from the Sea, lyrically-written as a verse novel (a format that engages many reluctant readers), would serve as an effective continuation to a 9/11 study. Readers should already be aware of the events of 9/11 to understand the connection between Kai and Tom but will comprehend the trauma and loss experienced, and resilience that is required, by anyone who faces adversity. -----
DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram
“I had never been surrounded by my family before. Not really. “I loved them. “I loved how their eyelashes were long and dark and distinct, just like mine. And how their noses curved around a little bump in the middle, just like mine. And how their hair cow-licked in three separate places, just like mine.”(174)
Darius Kellner just didn’t fit in.
He was a Fractional Persian who was a little overweight from his medicines for clinical depression. He didn’t fit in in school where he was one of two Persian students, Javaneh being a True Persian. He didn’t fit in at school where he was bullied by Trent and his Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy. He didn't fit in at work at Tea Haven where they steeped every tea to a full boil despite the advice of Darius who knew teas. And he didn’t fit in his family: with his mother, a True Persian; and his father, the Ubermensch, a handsome blonde American with Aryan looks; and his little sister, Laleh, who was also a Fractional Persian but was popular at school and spoke fluent Farsi with her Persian relatives and friends.
But when Darius and his family go to Iran to visit his grandmother and dying grandfather, Darius becomes Darioush and is enveloped by his extended family and the Persian culture, makes a new best friend, plays “soccer/non-American football” and finds that he is actually good, and he learns more about his father. “I finally managed to open up the well inside me.”(299) But the most important lesson he learns is that Darius the Great is not okay, and that is okay. Through this story YA readers will learn quite a lot about the Persian culture and how it feels to stand with one foot in two worlds. -----
WE ARE ALL WE HAVE by Marina Budhos
There are an estimated 5.5 million children with at least one undocumented parent, 4.5 million of whom were born here, making them U.S. citizens (American Psychological Association). Nearly 130,000 migrant children entered the U.S. government's shelter system in fiscal year 2022. Historically, the vast majority of minors received by the agency are migrant teenagers who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents or legal guardians (CBS News).
Each of their stories are different but have the same effects. The harmful material, physical and mental health consequences of the mere threat of deportation leave already vulnerable children of undocumented parents even further marginalized (American Psychological Association). Immigration enforcement—and the threat of enforcement—can negatively impact a child’s long-term health and development (American Immigration Council).
“Sometimes you think your life story is a straight line, a road humming forward. Maybe Ammi thought her story was a clear way ahead. She went to the best schools. She had a family, fancy clothes, a spot at a university. A big wedding and husband. Me too. I thought Fatima and I were the same. I thought my biggest problem was Ammi trying to be me. I thought I got my height from Abu. I was so focused on what was ahead, that I didn’t understand what was behind me. It was too complicated. It didn’t make a clean story. What good is a story if you don’t know all the parts?” (215)
Seventeen-year-old Rania came with her pregnant mother from Pakistan when she was a child. They were seeking asylum, ostensibly fleeing threats from those who killed her father, a journalist. Her younger brother Kamal was born an American citizen. When her mother is arrested by ICE and sent to a detention facility, Raina’s life—her plans for hanging out with best friend Fatima, working in a book store, getting ready for college—come to a screeching halt. Not yet 18 and without an adult to take custody of them, Raina and Kamal are sent to a shelter, and Raina learns that her mother has been lying to her about the status of their appeal, her Pakistani family, who her father is, and the reason they fled to the United States. And she has no proof that their lives in Pakistan were in danger.
“What hurts more: That they want us to leave? Or that my mother lied to me? (30)
“It’s like everything I’ve understood about us, our situation, has widened into this huge movie screen. It’s not just me and Kamal. Or Ammi [in detention] in Pennsylvania. Something bigger is going on: the white tents we’ve seen on the news; the shifting lines; the children sleeping curled on concrete floors; and now here [in the shelter], covering their faces. We are disappearing, into the holes and crevices of this country.” (85)
Carlos was one of the thousands of undocumented, unaccompanied teens who crossed the border on his own, fleeing gang violence, and ended up in a shelter, facing deportation when he turns 18.
When Rania and Carlos meet, they take to the road with Kamal, first to find the uncle that Rania didn’t not know she had, and, when he refuses guardianship, to disappear. They shelter in a motel for teen summer workers where they earn money and the people look after them and when it is necessary to leave, Lidia finds them a temporary sanctuary in a synagogue in Vermont where Carlos realizes that their only chances are for him to cross to Canada and for Rania and Kamal to return “home” to help their mother prove her case with Rania’s newly-awakened memories of their life in Pakistan.
The heart of the story is Rania and Carlos’ relationship, both proud, independent teenagers who support and accept help from each other while providing Kamal with the childhood that they missed.
This is an essential YA read, showing multiple sides of the immigration-refugee situation, and should be read by all teens, including teachers, as many of these children and adolescents are hiding in plain sight in our classrooms. As Lidia, Rania’s mother’s lawyer, says, “The rules keep changing. I’ve got long-term clients in detention. I’ve got grandmothers put on airplanes without saying goodbye. People with job offers unable to get here. Everyday it’s another story. Your mother’s story is just one of them.” (69) -----
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