Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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The Way We Do It In Japan by Geneva Cobb Iljima

cover The Way We Do it In Japan  In the United States, much is made of accepting minorities and “exotic” cultures, but The Way We Do It In Japan reverses this scenario by dropping a little American boy, Gregory, and his mixed family (Jane from Kansas and Hidiaki from Japan) in the middle of Tokyo.

Gregory learns to do things “the way we do it in Japan” when it comes to bathing, sleeping, and speaking Japanese. But at school he finds that his peanut butter sandwich is “the wrong kind of lunch” as everyone else has rice, fish and fermented soybeans. The next day, however, the cafeteria makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everybody to make him feel included. In real life, however, while this may very well happen in Japan, school cafeterias in the U.S. are unlikely to all of a sudden serve fish and fermented soybeans to show their acceptance of Japanese students. So is the message here that foreign countries will always whole-heartedly embrace Americans?

The illustrations that accompany this thought-provoking story are feature exaggerated facial features, and the father’s shifty-looking facial expressions can be particularly distracting. Despite that and the debatable lesson, this book still presents a positive model of cultural acceptance, and also teaches some Japanese terms, pronunciation, and culture.

 

Recommended: 4-9 years

Flowers from Mariko by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks

cover for Flowers for MarikoThis book, written by husband and wife team Rick Noguchi & Deneen Jenks, is a real gem. It tells the story of a young Japanese American girl, Mariko, and her family as they return to California after being imprisoned in American concentration camps (also known as internment camps or relocation centers; simply referred to as ‘Camp’ by Japanese Americans of that time) during World War II. An authors’ note provides additional context at the end of the book.

I found this book to be excellent in several ways. To begin with, the artwork of Michelle Reiko Kumata is a revelation. It is apparent that the illustrations were based on actual black-and-white photos from the 1940s, but Kumata’s pictures bring the story to life in beautiful full color. Drawn with bold outlines, her pictures are full of patterns and textures from period fabrics, shadowing that adds depth to every scene, and subtle, authentic details such as the furoshiki-wrapped bundle that one woman carries on her way to Camp. Though the story’s subject matter is far from uplifting, it was still a joy to gaze at every page of this book. (more…)

Dust of Eden–a novel in verse by Mariko Nagai.

cover Dust of EdenMariko Nagai’s Dust of Eden is a lovely, spare story told by a young Japanese American protagonist who goes by both her American name, Mina, as well as her Japanese name, Masako. This book is a series of images and scenes that tell how a young girl in the United States in the 1940s navigates being both Mina and Masako, both American and Japanese, both feeling at home and feeling alien.

The novel is a set of poems from Mina’s point of view interspersed with letters to and from her best friend in Seattle as well as short personal essays Mina writes for school. These lyric pieces are arranged chronologically and geographically, with the first poem of the book titled “Seattle, Washington October 1941,” and the last poem called “Epilogue December 1945.” In the span between, Mina details her life in Seattle right before Pearl Harbor (a life filled with her parents, grandfather, brother, best friend, and school), and she writes us through her father’s unjust imprisonment in Montana after Pearl Harbor and her family’s internment first in Washington and then in Idaho, ending with her brother volunteering to fight for the Allies and her family finally being allowed to return to their Seattle home after the war is over.

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A Kiss Means I Love You by Kathryn Madeline Allen

cover for A Kiss Means I Love YouIt’s as important for babies and toddlers to feel like their emotions are understood and validated as it is for them to learn how to express how they feel, whether it’s through body language or words. A Kiss Means I Love You, a picture book with photographs of diverse children and families in various emotional and physical states, does just this.

Ranging from a smile to coughs and sneezes, the formula of “a ___ means I’m ___” will help babies and toddlers expand their vocabulary for expressing themselves, and hopefully develop sympathy and empathy through seeing the different children in various moods and states in the book. Like Dr. Seuss’s My Many Colored Days, the simple words on each page may help a child feel their emotions validated and shared by others.

This book would be great for daycares, especially diverse ones—my daughter took it to school and the toddlers matched one another’s names to the children on the pages, seeing themselves in them. A Kiss Means I Love You makes a good bedtime story as well, ending with the familiar line (in a new order), “I love you…goodnight.”

Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao

Recommended: 2-5 years

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

cover Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood Varsha Bajaj’s novel, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood presents the story of a bi-racial Indian-America girl who’s never met her father. She’s spent her life living in Houston, Texas with her mother being a happy, well-loved American girl who only knows one thing about her father: he is from India.

The story opens with Abby having an allergic reaction to coconut. After having to admit she knows nothing about the medical history of the father of her child, Abby’s mother realizes she needs to attempt to contact him, something she has not tried since she found out she was pregnant. After a very small window of waiting, she is finally able to contact her ex-boyfriend and as it turns out, he never received the registered letter she sent all those years ago explaining Abby’s existence. Abby not only has to deal with the shock that her father never knew about her—up until this point she believed he simply didn’t want to be a part of her life—but she also finds out he is a huge Bollywood star. The rest of the novel revolves around Abby traveling to Mumbai to meet her father and the other half of her ethnicity.

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Rebecca’s Journey Home by Brynn Olenberg Sugarman

cover of Revecca's Journey HomeRebecca’s Journey Home tells the story of the author, Brynn Olenberg Sugarman, bringing home her daughter Rachele (“Rebecca” in the story) from Vietnam. Instead of the “Sugarmans”, the family in the story is the “Steins”. While the title centers on “Rebecca”—the Vietnamese adoptee, the story speaks more of the family’s adoption journey. Therefore, young siblings anticipating the addition of an adopted child into their home (or young siblings recently experiencing such an event) can especially identify with this story. (more…)

Perfect Lil Blends by Luke Whitehead

cover for Perfect Lil BlendsPerfect Lil Blends: A Reality Book that Celebrates the Diversity  of Multicultural Children  is like a series of love letters from parents to their children accompanied by their children’s portraits. Compiled by Luke Whitehead, the founder of Mixed Nation, this is a photo essay of children of mixed heritage from almost every racial, cultural, and ethnic background. Yes, most of these children are exceptionally beautiful however, similar to, but more personal than, Kip Fulbeck’s photo essay book Mixed, each photo of a child is accompanied by a description of the child’s life interests and a note of dedication from the parents to the child, making this more than a vanity book of portraits. (more…)

The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say

cover The Favorite DaughterMany of us with foreign or (to Americans) impossible-to-pronounce names will relate to Yuriko’s conflicts in The Favorite Daughter—people make fun of and butcher her name so she wants an Americanized one without cultural or linguistic baggage. There’s also an additional layer of complexity to Yuriko’s identity—she’s mixed (there are two photographs of the real Yuriko in the book: she has blonde hair and Asian facial features). In addition, since the book begins with “Yuriko came to stay with her father on Thursday that week,” this may be a divorced family as well. Allen Say navigates all of these complexities with grace, subtlety, humor, and most of all, love.
Yuriko is upset that her classmates tease her after she shares a baby picture at school, and the new art teacher mispronounces her name. At home, she tells her Japanese father she wants an American name, “Michelle”. He goes along with it, saying “Michelle” is his new daughter, even introducing her as such to the owner of a Japanese restaurant. When she acquiesces to letting the owner call her Yuriko, he gives her a bundle of disposable chopsticks as a gift.
That weekend Yuriko and her father go to San Francisco because she has to draw the Golden Gate Bridge for the new art teacher. But first, her father takes her on a “real quick trip” to “Japan.” They visit a Japanese garden and a Japanese ink painting master gifts her with a painting of a lily, as Yuriko means “child of the lily” (a nod to a Caucasian mother?). He writes her name in Japanese, and Yuriko says, “I’m going to learn to write it.” Unfortunately, by the time Yuriko sees the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s covered with thick fog. She sulks, thinking her art project is doomed.
But things work out: Monday morning Yuriko returns to school owning her name/identity as well as a creative piece called “the Golden Gate in the fog” (disposable chopsticks and cotton). She signs the project Yuriko, not Michelle, to which her father responds, “That’s my favorite daughter!”
Recommendation: Highly Recommended. 4-8 years.
Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao.

I Am a Ballerina by Valerie Coulman

 cover I am a Ballerina    The pastel drawings of I Am a Ballerina are soft and subtle, and the story straightforward and sweet. Not overly pink and frilly, and not going too deep below the surface of a little girl exploring a new passion, this book would be a great read for children considering a new sport or interest.

            After watching a ballet performance on her birthday, little Molly decides that she is a ballerina. At first her parents’ response to her leaping around the house in imitation of the gazelle-like picture of a ballerina on her wall is, “Jump down, dear.” When she smears her face with baby-blue eyeshadow and rouge, announcing herself as beautiful as a ballerina, her mother tells her to, “Go wash your face, dear.” Finally, after she nearly knocks some things over, her father concedes: “If you’re going to be a ballerina, maybe you should take some lessons.”

            At Madame Cherie’s ballet school, Molly falls and trips, but it’s all part of learning. She practices and practices, and finally dons a merry-go-round horse costume for the ballet performance. The moment at the end of the book that Molly truly feels like she is a ballerina, however, is when her father lifts airplane-style: “It felt like flying. And then I knew…I am a ballerina.”

            As seen in some “diverse” children’s books, the author plays it safe, saying nothing about ethnicity or appearance, even though the illustrator makes a point of creating a distinctly mixed family. Molly’s father is Caucasian or mixed, with curly brown hair and a bushy moustache, whereas her mother is Asian-featured. In this case, however, since it’s a nice ballet story that’s realistic and not overly pink and filled with tutus, I don’t mind that Asian-looking Molly isn’t identified ethnically or culturally (for all we know, her father is her stepfather, or she’s adopted).

 

Recommendation: Recommended: 4-6 years

Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao

Yoko Writes Her Name by Rosemary Wells

cover Yoko Writes her name

Rosemary Wells’s Yoko Writes Her Name, a contemporary fable about linguistic difference, shows what kindergarten might be like for an ELL (English Language Learner) kitten or child. Through this book a child might learn some good lessons about diversity, forgiveness, and acceptance. Little gray tabby Yoko speaks and reads out loud in English, but writes in Japanese, and that is how the whole story and conflict begins.

The first time the teacher asks everyone to write their names, Yoko writes hers in Japanese, and the teacher acknowledges “How beautifully Yoko writes in Japanese,” but two other kittens in kindergarten whisper, “Yoko can’t write. She is only scribbling!” “She won’t graduate from kindergarten!” Things get worse when the teacher invites Yoko to bring a book from home to read to the class and she reads it from right to left, not left to right. “Yoko is only pretending to read!” “She’ll never make it to first grade!” the mean kittens say.

Yoko feels forlorn and dejected until a gray mouse seeks her out and admires her “secret language.” She teaches him how to write out numbers in Japanese, and soon all the little animals want to write their names in Japanese. On parent’s night, Yoko’s mother brings in a big Japanese alphabet and the teacher declares that Japanese will be the class’s second language.

Soon Japanese is everywhere in the classroom, and all the little animals, with the exception of the two mean kittens, learn to write their names in Japanese. On graduation day, the class writes their names in two languages on their diploma, but the two mean kittens hide in the closet, worried they won’t graduate. Yoko finds them and teaches them to write their names in Japanese—just in time to join the graduation march.

While this book makes Japanese seem easier to learn than it might be for a kindergarten teacher and her class, it’s a nice ideal of how such a conflict would be resolved in a fantasy world. The illustrations are adorable, and in the top corners of facing pages the author/illustrator provides a small picture of things like a cup or a dog, and its corresponding page is the Japanese translation. You or your child probably won’t pick up Japanese from this book if you don’t already read and speak it a little, but this is the kind of multicultural text schools and libraries should have to celebrate diversity and inclusion.

 

Recommendation: Recommended: 3-6 years

Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao