I haven’t made a good book list in a while because I’ve been teaching a lot this year. That said, I, like many others, have felt helpless as we watch in horror at the rise in Anti-Asian hate crime in the United States and globally. One of the tools teachers do have to help address racism is to ensure that their classrooms have a proper representation of cultures, people, and stories. Don’t get me wrong; this is not all you need to do. Check out some anti-bias and anti-racism resources for ECE here, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. Here are some great picture books with Asian characters to add to your classroom library. Some of these books speak about specific aspects of various Asian cultures, and others simply have Asian characters. Make sure your classroom library has a mix as well.
Watch for another book list later this week with South Asian Characters!
This book list contains affiliate links.
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi is such a lovely book. The main character is Unhei, a little girl who has just immigrated from Korea. She is trying to decide on an easy-to-pronounce American name, and her new class helps by offering up suggestions and places them in a name jar. As she gets used to her new surroundings and develops friendships, she realizes she doesn’t need an American name after all. I loved this book because there are so many great lessons about being yourself, about being supportive of friends, and about being brave in new situations.
The Empty Pot by Demi . A fable about a young Chinese boy, a contest to become the next emperor, and the importance of honesty. Lovely pictures are definitely part of the appeal of this book. ( Review by Katy)
Pink Tiara Cookies For Three by Maria Dismondy is a story I think most of us can relate to. It’s about two best friends whose friendship is challenged. One friend welcomes another little girl, but not the other. I know as a young girl I dealt with this, and it was heartbreaking. Now, as a mom, I watch my son and his two closest friends deal with this often.
The author does a beautiful job recognizing the feelings of rejection, loneliness, and anger that children feel when this happens. The little girls in the story are probably a little more capable of expressing themselves than preschool-aged children, but that makes this book even more important. I used this book with both my children often when friendship struggles popped up. Not only when they were left out, but when I had a hunch, they were the ones doing the leaving out. Oh, and please don’t think it’s a girly book. It’s not. My son loved it. His exact words were, “This would be really good for teachers to read to classes.” I agree.
Eyes That Kiss In The Corner by Joanna Ho is a beautiful book that celebrates Asian eyes and identity. This is a story about noticing that you are different than others -in this case, a little girl noticing her eyes aren’t the same shape as her friends’ eyes and turning it into a celebration. Yes, her eyes are different than her friends’ eyes, but they are the same as her family’s, and that is beautiful. I love books that affirm pride in being who you are, and this book does that wonderfully. The illustrations by Dung Ho are the perfect icing on top of this magical cake.
Hush by Mingfrong Ho. Described as a Thai lullaby, is a simple and melodic story about a mother trying to make it quiet enough for her baby to sleep. Simple enough for younger children, older children will enjoy checking out baby’s shenanigans, and the mother tries to quiet her farm.
Peek: A Thai Hide and Seek by Minfong Ho is a sweet book about a father and daughter playing an epic game of hide and seek in the jungle, and the animals play along too. This book captures the playful relationship so many dads have with their little ones. I know it reminds me of my daughter and her dad’s special bond.
Drawn Together by Minh Lê is perfection. The story starts about the generational and cultural disconnect, but like in real life, all you need to make a good connection is one shared passion. Soon this grandfather and grandson discover that they don’t have to eat the same food, watch the same TV shows or even speak the same language to bond. All they need is to draw! Illustrations by Dan Santat weave this touching story together perfectly.
The Red Piano Andre Leblanc made me sob. This biography is about Zhu Xiao-Mei, a young pianist growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution. In a work camp during the day but at night, she sneaks out to a local village and into a home where a piano is hidden. It’s more than just her love of music. It’s her determination not to be broken by the authorities that shine through. When the piano is found in the village, it’s chopped for firewood, and she is punished further. When Chairman Mao dies, the work camps start emptying, but Zhu Xiao-Mei is the last to leave. The book isn’t clear about what happens next, and if you aren’t familiar with Zhu Xiao-Mei’s career as an international concert pianist, you may miss the greatest part of this story, not only did she get to leave the work camp, the authorities didn’t win, her passion was greater than their force. That made me sob. My son responded as most 8-year-olds would, “She must really like the piano. She owned the bad guys in the end!” Yes, she did.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is such an important book for children to read. This book is about how baseball helped keep children and families busy at Minidoka, the internment camp in Idaho during World War Two. A lot of adults don’t know much, if anything, about this part of American history, and this book is a good place to start teaching your child about it. From a child’s perspective, readers see the injustice and grief during and after confinement. Although my son knows a good bit about Japanese internment during WWII, this book personalized it for him, and baseball gave him something to connect him to the boys in the story.
Grandpa Grumps by Katrina Moore is an absolutely adorable book about a little girl, Daisy, and Yeh-Yeh ( Grandpa). He’s visiting from China and trying to get to know each other. Only he’s kinda grumpy. It takes time but eventually, they connect, and he even laughs! I don’t want to give away too much of this wonderful story, about a little girl and her grandfather, just trust me, it’s delicious!
Kokeshi: Yumi by Annelore Parot is overwhelmingly cute. The book is all about a little wooden doll ( Kokeshi ) named Yumi from Japan. Readers follow along with Yumi as she gets ready and goes to a costume party. The book has many dynamic elements in it that will delight your kids. I would not read it with an exuberant toddler because it’s not a board book, and with so many different kinds of lifts, folds, and flaps, it’s bound to get ripped. The illustrations are amazing, and the facts about Japanese culture like kimonos, sushi, and fish kites are woven perfectly into the cute story.
Snow White by Chloe Perkins will take you away to Japan but tells the same Snow White story you are probably familiar with. This is not an update, the prince still kisses an unconscious Snow White, which many people wish was removed, but I see it as an opportunity to talk about why we don’t do that. I love the illustrations by Misa Saburi, and they make me want to book a flight to Japan ASAP! I love that this book and all the books in this list give children a chance to imagine these tales and so much more than just the Disney rendition. There are so many ways to tell these stories.
My Name Is Yoon by Helen Recorvits is a book about a little girl from Korea who is adjusting to her new life in America. When her father shows her how to spell her name in English, she doesn’t like how it looks. It’s different, just like she is in her new country. At school, she doesn’t write her name even though she is able. Instead, she experiments with other words wondering how her teacher will react when she does. Her teacher is patient, and Yoon eventually decides that while her name may look different, it is still her name and still has the same meaning. The illustrations have an amazing dreamlike perspective to them and balance out the big emotions in the text.
The Falling Flowers by Jennifer B. Reed . The story is very sweet; it’s about a grandmother taking her young granddaughter on a surprise outing in Tokyo. It turns out that she is taking her to see the cherry trees in full bloom, just as her grandmother had done with her. It’s a nice look at the softer side of Tokyo, a city I know I always imagine as only steel, cement, and neon lights!
A Piece of Home by Jeri Watts is all about an intergenerational family immigrating from Korea to West Virginia and the struggles that come with immigration. It particularly tells the story of how a grandmother goes from being a confident and respected teacher to staying at home and struggling with those changes. Throughout, you can see the love through the struggles, and the illustrations by Hyewon Yum make sure of that. In time though, they all find their way, learn to communicate, and find confidence again.
The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida is a brilliant book because it sets the stage to teach children that the Americans that were detained and imprisoned in these internment camps were not villains. They were Americans living just like other Americans. Emi is given a bracelet from her best friend to remember her while she is away. The bracelet is lost, and after some time, Emi realizes that she doesn’t need a thing to remember a friend. The greater imagery for me is that the bracelet is what links her to the free world, and even though she is American, the government can’t see that, just like she can no longer see the bracelet. However, it is inside her, despite the inhumane treatment she is receiving, her sense of self and connection to her life outside the fence is there with or without the bracelet. The reason I am adding this book to the list is that not only does it show that you can be an included even when the world is against it, but just how terrible being excluded can be, and how it’s not just a kid issue.
Suki’s Kimono by Chieri Uegaki has been on my shelf for years. I really like this book; the message is fantastic! Suki loves her Kimono; she doesn’t care that her sisters think it’s not cool to wear it to school; her grandma gave it to her, and she likes it. I like that not only does she have confidence in herself, but some of that confidence comes from her Obachan having given it to her. She’s not 100% sure, but that’s what being brave is, doing something even if you aren’t 100% confident. Recognizing those times when we are putting up a brave face even if inside, we aren’t so sure. Being yourself is hard, and the author connects to that. She also creates a lovely strong heroine with ties to her grandmother.
Sumo Joe by Mia Wenjen is adorable. In full disclosure, Mia is an acquaintance, but in fuller disclosure, I wouldn’t promote this book if I didn’t think it was awesome. I am also pretty sure she sent it to me free… disclosures aside, it’s a really sweet book. The rhymes are fun, though a little choppy at times, the story is spot on. Three friends are practicing Sumo wrestling at home when Joe’s little sister barges in with Aikido! I especially appreciate the glossary at the end to help readers learn more about Sumo wrestling and Aikido after the story.
Apple Pie Fourth of July by Janet S. Wong is an awesome book. I am always awed by authors who can tackle complicated “adult” issues in the pages of a children’s book successfully. In this case, the issue is first-generation identity and immigration, at least that’s my take. The little girl in this book is sulking around her parents’ store on the 4th of July. They are busy making Chinese food for customers she is sure won’t come, she wonders who would want Chinese food on such an American holiday? Of course, there are layers about her connection to her ancestral culture and her own national pride. As a proud owner of a green card and a Canadian passport, I relate to this story and think many children will as well.
This Next New Year by Janet Wong is a great new to me book about Chinese New Year. I read it with my kids after dinner and they both really enjoyed it. My daughter liked the illustrations and the text itself was short enough to keep my 2 year old interested too. What this book did a great job of doing was explaining a few of the differences between Chinese New Year and New Year of January 1st and lots of the traditions. My son related well to the main character, a little boy about his age, and had many questions after the book that the author actually addressed in an author’s note at the end. Great book for PreK and up.
Goldy Luck and The Three Pandas by Natasha Yim is a retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears that takes place during Chinese New Year. Goldy Luck is asked to take some food over to her neighbors, but when they aren’t home, curiosity gets the better of her, and she gets into all kinds of trouble. What I specifically love about this version of the fairy tale is that Goldy goes home to think about what she did and how to make it right. I love that there is that addition to the more traditional telling of the story.
This is Our House by Hyewon Yum is a book I use often in my preschool class. The story is a simple and familiar one about the generations of a family that have lived in a house, but it is perfect for getting preschoolers to talk about their families. Who lives in your house? How has your house changed as you have grown? Do you still sleep in a crib? Does Grandma live with you? Etc… it’s become an essential tool for my teaching.
Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten by Hyewon Yum is a really touching book about child and parent being ready for kindergarten. The book is very effective in its simplicity. There are many spots where you can stop to talk about emotions. For example, how your students felt on their first day too. This is a great book for school and home. It reflects the emotions that happen during new experiences and building confidence when we overcome our fears.
Puddle by Hyewon Yum is a class favorite. Leaving in the PNW you can imagine we get many puddles and my students love jumping in them and reading about them. This book is a sweet look at being stuck inside when it’s raining but then deciding to venture out into the rain to play anyway.
Saturday Is Swimming Day by Hyewon Yum is a gem. I wish I had this book when my children were just starting swim lessons. I have reluctant swimmers and even though we live on an island they don’t love swimming. This book is all about a little girl just like them. She gets tummy aches before class, she isn’t confident and does not want to go. Luckily a patient teacher who doesn’t push her builds that confidence and before we know it, she’s floating like a starfish.
What picture book with an Asian main character did you wish I include? Tell me about it in comments!