He Hawai’i au. As I am writing this article, I am also glancing down at that sentence tattooed on my wrist. Every time I look, I am immediately filled with comfort and pride. He Hawai’i au roughly translates to “I am Hawaiian”, but it means so much more. If you have been following our blog or know me personally, you probably have already heard my identity story. When I was little, my family and I had to move from our beloved Hawai’i islands to the mainland. During grade school on the mainland, I was taught to question and be ashamed of my Native Hawaiian identity, which ultimately led me to try to bury it along with my middle name, tan skin (there’s only so much a white foundation can do, though), and long hair. Thankfully, as a young adult, I started to challenge the racism and prejudice that led me to be embarrassed of such a beautiful and complex identity. Over the summer, during a trip back to my birthplace, I wanted to mark overcoming that mountainous obstacle, so He Hawai’i au was tattooed onto my wrist. It also serves as a reminder of my identity and heritage in case I ever start to question myself and my ohana again. 

Unfortunately, my story is not uncommon. I have heard similar recounts of childhood from so many of my Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) community members. Stories of well-meaning teachers who just did not have the resources to help build cultural empowerment. Tales of teachers or students committing microagressions and macroaggressions that have left cracks in our identities. Families who just were unsure of how to help undo the harm coming from the outside world. However, our community is a strong one and one that I fight for every single day in my career as an educator and also the founder of Colorful Pages. And now, this month we celebrate Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage month! The month of May is a time for us to rejoice in our identities, heritages, and culture, but it is also a time for others to learn more about our community and undo some of that past harm. 

My hope is that educators, librarians, and families, no matter their identity, use this time to share our stories and increase our collective cultural empowerment and cross-cultural empathy as a nation. And, to help, I have had the extreme pleasure of curating a list of diverse books that authentically share experiences from the APIA community. I have listed 15 books: 6 picture books, 5 early chapter books/middle grade books, and 4 young adult books. Each book is written by someone from the APIA community. I also chose to focus primarily on Exploration and Conversation books that delve into the heritage part of this month. Happy Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month! I hope you truly see the diversity, love, complexity, and richness in our large community.  

Picture Books

Dim Sum for Everyone, by Grace Lin

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Exploration

Age Range: 3-7 years

This is a fun board book about a Chinese-American family. The family sits down and enjoys a meal of dim sum. Grace Lin uses simplistic text and vibrant colors to make this enjoyable for any child. I am a huge fan of hers and have most of her picture books/board books for my classroom!

Māui Hooks the Islands (Hawaiian Legends for Little Ones), by Gabrielle Ahuli’i

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Exploration

Age Range: Listed as 5-6 years (we think more 2-7 though)

This is a part of a cool board book series called, “Hawaiian Legends for Little Ones” that is all about sharing Native Hawaiian legends and making them accessible for our kiddos. I love these and, as a Native Hawaiian, it makes me want to cry realizing that there is a possibility our stories can be shared broadly in classrooms and homes! This specific book within the series is about the common legend of the demi-god Māui pulling up the Hawaiian Islands. The illustrations are amazing, so much so that I wish I could print them out and hang them around my classroom.

Bilal Cooks Daal, by Aisha Saeed

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Exploration (with a little Conversation)

Age Range: 3-7 years

I found this book during a random library visit and I loved the illustrations (very 2019-2020 illustrations) and also the story! Bilal Cooks Daal is a picture book that follows Bilal and his dad as they introduce daal, a Southern Asian dish, to Bilal’s friends. This story is mostly an Exploration Book, but there are also some Conversation elements, because Bilal is afraid that his friends might not like daal. 

A Morning With Grandpa, by Sylvia Liu

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Exploration

Age Range: 4-8 years

A Morning With Grandpa is a picture book about Mei Mei and Gong Gong sharing two practices, tai chi and yoga. This granddaughter-grandpa pair shows off a great dynamic of playfulness and calming energy. 

Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala, by Meenal Patel

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Exploration 

Age Range: 4-8 years

Meenal Patel authors and illustrates a sweet and charming picture book. Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala is about Priya, who lives in the United States and lives for her grandmother’s descriptions of India.This picture book is all about heritage and keeping it alive in your family, even when you move to a new country. As Patel writes, “Sharing India with others is the very best way to carry it with you”!

Suki’s Kimono, by Chieri Uegaki

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Between Exploration & Conversation

Age Range: 4-8 years

Chieri Ugeaki writes this picture book about Suki and her kimono that was given to her by her obachan. Suki decides that she wants to wear the kimono she loves so much on her first day of school. Her sisters try to dissuade her from wearing it by stating, “People will think you’re weird”. However, the blue kimono means so much to Suki that she is brave and decides to wear it! It is an important message for all children to hear about standing up for and sharing your culture and things important to your family. This would be a great first day of school read, too.

Early Chapter Books/ Middle Grade Books 

Meet Yasmin!, by Saadia Faruqi

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Mostly Representation with a little Exploration

Suggested Age Range: 5-8 years

Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi

This early chapter book is about a Pakistani-American girl named Yasmin. Yasmin is a second grader who loves to explore many new situations. The illustrations by Hatem Aly are colorful and engaging combined with Saadia Faruqi’s fun stories. I have a student who is obsessed with these books because of how much of a mirror it is to her own life – she feels like she can finally see herself in books!

Lili’uokalani, by Ruby Hasegawa Lowe

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Conversation

Age Range: 9+ years

This was one of my favorite books growing up and I even submitted an unassigned book report on it in third grade! It is a biography about Queen LIli’uokalani who was the last queen of Hawai’i. She did so many great things during her reign and fought for the sovereignty of her Hawaiian people. This non-fiction chapter book is perfect to really dive into Hawaiian history at an age-appropriate level. It also is part of a series that Kamehameha Publishing has of many Hawaiian monarchs. Please start teaching our true history!

The Year of the Dog (A Pacy Lin Novel), by Grace Lin

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Between Exploration & Conversation

Age Range: 8-12 years old

Grace Lin is one of my favorite picture book authors, so you are probably super familiar with her on our book lists! However, this is the first time I’ve checked out her chapter books and they did not disappoint. In The Year of the Dog, Grace Lin writes about Pacy Lin, a young girl grappling with her identity amongst the world and her friends. This is a great book to explore Asian-American identity and heritage as a mirror or window depending on your own identity. 

kira-kira, by Cynthia Kadohata

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Conversation

Age Range: 10-14 years old

This book is an older middle grade book (published in 2005) and won a Newbery Medal. Kira-kira follows Katie Takeshima, an eleven-year-old in the 1960s. Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the South. Katie’s sister, Lynn, has always helped her process through things, but then, Lynn becomes sick and Katie is left without Lynn’s wisdom. Kadohata writes a really strong book that dives into the past Asian-American experience that is also very relevant to modern day.  

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Conversation

Age Range: 10+ years old

Inside Out and Back Again is also an award-winning book that won a Newbery Honor. This middle grade book tells the story of Hà, who is forced to flee Saigon and seek refuge in America due to the Vietnam War. The novel is told in verse and gave me goosebumps while reading. 

Young Adult Books

First They Killed My Father, by Loung Ung 

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Conversation

Age Range: Young Adult +

In First They Killed My Father, the Khmer author, Loung Ung, explains her story as a young girl enduring and surviving through the time of the Khmer Rouge. The realities of the tragedy are tough but necessary to read for young adults and adults to understand what the conditions were like.

This Time Will Be Different, by Misa Sugiura

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Conversation

Age Range: Young Adult +

Misa Sugiura has written some really conversational novels, including This Time Will Be Different. In this young adult novel, CJ Katsuyama, a Japanese-American teenager, helps out at her family’s flower shop until her mother decides to sell it to a family who made money from the Internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. Any reader of this book will grow as they see CJ navigate racism, homophobia, intergenerational trauma, and family conflict.

Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me, by Lurline Wailana McGregor

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Exploration & Conversation

Age Range: Young Adult +

Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me is a young adult novel about Moana Kawelo who has a glamorous life in California. However, when her father suddenly passes away, she is brought back to her home in Hawai’i. Moana struggles to find her identity in Hawai’i and questions her success on the Mainland. This book won the 2010 Best Young Adult Book from the American Indian Library Association.

Internment, by Samira Ahmed

The Spectrum for Multicultural Lit.: Conversation

Age Range: Young Adult +

Samira Ahmed has written a must-read for all young adults and older! Seriously, everyone needs to read this book. Internment is set in the United States in a horrible near-future. Layla Amin, a seventeen-year-old, and her family is sent to an internment camp for Muslim Americans as the US spirals into more intense Islamophobia. In order to not fall silent, Layla, her friends, and some other allies outside of the camp fight for their rights and start a resistance against the internment camp they are in. 

Happy Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month! Thank you for sharing and rejoicing in our stories! 

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