Asian/Pacific-American and/or Middle Eastern Literature for Youth

Case-study
Darius the Great is not OK by Adib Khorram

Despite the particulars of the story in this book, which include father-son communication difficulties, depression issues, perhaps even homosexuality, the story is universal in its core. What I mean is that anybody that is an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, may experience the nostalgia, the love, and the sense of belonging so beautifully described in Darius story.

In a simple sentence, the book is about the first family trip to Iran to visit relatives, more specifically, a dying grandpa. However, what evolves from that single sentence is a whole experience of an adolescent piecing himself together including his identity, his self esteem, his depression, his longing for connection, his language, his culture, his family, and his friends.  

I said before I identified strongly with this book and I want to dig on this idea. I’m the daughter of immigrants who arrive to Venezuela from Italy. I grew up in Venezuela and I would say I’m Venezuelan, However, the influence of my family culture dripped into my soul daily from the Italian I heard to the food I ate. I remember, as a young child, when my parents called my extended family in Italy (Not facetime or Skype at the time but very expensive long distance calls) and I had to talk to people I never saw although I felt connected in certain ways. I also recall the awkwardness of talking to them, not knowing what to say or ask. It was like being 2 pieces of a puzzle that didn’t fit together but were part of the same image. Khorram, the author of this book, described that feeling masterfully.

Until my first trip to Italy when I was 8 years old, I never knew how much of that family was really a portion of me. However, as it occurred to Darius in his story, I felt at home. Same as him, I wished I could spend more time with my grandparents. I made a great effort in learning their dialect (all towns in Italy speak their own dialects) I discovered a lot about myself after that trip. Darius also learned the importance of food in his culture, the nuances of Farsi which is, as he says, a deeply context-sensitive language. Darius recognizes that, even though he has never been in Iran before, he is not a tourist “How can I be a tourist in my own past” (230) 

Some of the time, we don’t realize it but we, immigrants, carry our families and our cultures with us, always. What we carry transforms, dilutes, and grows with other influences. However, deep down, our origins are always there. This is what Darius discovers. He might be a fractional Persian, only by her mother’s side, but Persian nonetheless. He might feel at odds with his father, but there is an undeniable love tying them together. The sorrow for his grandfather demise couldn’t be greater if he were living there with him. His friend’s father’s death while in prison as a political prisoner, had also an impact on how Darius values his own life. A torrent of feelings are running through this book with intensity and, at the same time, described with delicacy.

Darius’ trip gave him not only his background but the solid platform to be himself. The discovery of who he is and where he comes from are the elements that will allow him to confront the difficulties and bullying he suffers back at home in the US.

In short, this is a sensitive, well-written book for young people that feel at odds with themselves because -in part- of their origins. It is a recognition of the importance of the family culture and the need to be proud of it.

List of resources

Organizations

Awards

Blogs and Websites

Reviews

Books

  • Multicultural Children’s Literature Through the Eyes of Many Children by Donna E. Norton
  • Multicultural Children’s Literature. A Critical Issues Approach by Ambika Gopalakrishnan
  • Hearing All the Voices by Mary Ann Darby; Miki Pryne
  • From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books by Kathleen T Horning
  • Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors Through Reading by Jamie Campbell Naidoo; Sarah Park Dahlen

“Top 5 Books” list

Project Mulberry
by Linda Sue Park

This is a surprising book. In the midst of a student project, the author crafts different faceted situations, not to mention also a meta story. Between chapters, the author and one of the characters strike conversations on issues within the narrative.

The reading has a series of layers that complement and enrich each other. Julia -the daughter of Korean immigrants- is working on a project with her best friend, Patrick, for a farming club. They devote a lot of effort and endeavor in winning the first prize. Their idea is to raise silkworms and make an embroidery with the silk threads. However, Julia is not convinced. She thinks the project is too Korean and she is not comfortable with that. She’d rather have something more American that might help her fit better in her school. The story, however, evolves and she becomes more and more excited with the project. In the meantime, they need to find Mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms and the only tree they located belongs to an African American neighbor, Mr. Dixon. Interestingly, the author draws a subtle racist image of Julia’s mother against Mr. Dixon. Similarly, Mr. Dixon assumed Julia was Chinese, when she is actually Korean. That generalization troubled Julia because it is a simplistic view of Asians. On top of that, Julia discover that Patrick has a worm phobia.

In short, the book tackles with mastery a simple idea. We are all scared of something. We may have a reason or not. Like, for instance when Patrick explains that Julia’s mother’s discomfort about Mr. Dixon is due to the mental association she created in her mind during the Korean war.

The point is that, we may realize it or not, but there are triggers that motivate our rejections and fears. Nonetheless, the important part is to conjure those phobias by interacting and learning about them. By the end of the story, Patrick admits that he hoped this project would help him overcome his fears. Julia’s mother seems more welcoming towards Mr. Dixon since he helped the kids in their project. Julia ended up being proud of their project that replicated some of the activities her mother did when in Korea. It is like all the characters moved a step forward overcoming their concerns. Even the author evolves through her meta conversation with her own creation.

In  short, this is a book of learning about others and about ourselves. It is about understanding and acceptance.
For ages: 9-12

Blackbird Fly
By Erin Entrada Kelly

This is a moving story about bullying and the difficulties of a Filipino adolescent to fit into her school, where she is considered not enough American, and home, where she is seen as too American.

Analyn -aka Apple- has a strong passion for music -mainly the Beatles- which was her father’s favorite band. She and her mother moved to the US after her father died when she was still a little girl. A single immigrant parent, Apple’s mother focused on providing for her daughter and pushed her to give her best at school while forbid any distraction -like music-. Conflicts inevitably arise at home because of that pressure, and at school when she discovers that she made the “dog list”, which is the list of the ugliest girls. Rumors and comments spread as bushfire. The only solace Apple finds is music. After borrowing a guitar from the band teacher, she starts learning and playing the instrument. Together with the Heleena -number one in the dog list- they discover their own talent while surprising everybody at school.

Music is, in the end, what finally made her reconnect with herself and her roots. Music is the bridge to reach her mother and herself. Music gave her the confidence she craved.

As an interesting note, each chapter connect with some of the Beatles’ songs like mirroring her feelings. The songs might not say much to young readers, but it adds an extra layer of pop culture that could entice them to research. It is an interesting approach to attract American children to this story, as well

Rice without rain by Minfong Ho
For Young Adults

This book is a window to Thailand and its political struggles. It explores the contrast between city and rural life, tradition versus new ways. It is a story of love and oppression. Although the book is not set in American soil, this is an important reading to comprehend some of the conflicts that are lived daily in many countries around the world. 

Understanding other cultures should include readings from situations and locations outside the United States to help paint a picture of the hardships and the motives that push people out of their home countries. Empathy requires not only to accept and incorporate the newcomers, but also to fathom how hard is the life in many places outside our borders
For ages: 9-14

Drawn together
By Minh Le

This is a beautifully illustrated picture books where grandson and Thai grandfather, who speak different languages, manage to communicate with each other through drawing. In a dialog without words, they share adventures and tell stories. They connect with each other and with their cultures.

The author, Minh Le, is Vietnamese-American and the Illustrator, Dan Santat, is an accomplished and award winning artist.

The illustrations are rich, entertaining, and exuberant. However, the most interesting part is the extraordinary ability of the artist to differentiate each creation, assuming who is drawing it, and to give it a visual language that describes each own world. Black and white ink drawings are meshed with some manga flavor colorful illustrations. Interestingly, some of the pages take the format of a comic book – including modern camera angles – when we are looking outside the characters own drawings.

This book is a beautiful combination of visual art and poetic approach to cultural differences.
Age range: 4-8

Thief of Hearts
By Laurence Yep

A conflict -developed in school- places two girls, a Chinese American and a recently arrived Chinese, in the midst of a journey towards the recognition of their own cultures.

The author, Laurence Yep, received in 2005 the biennial Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his contribution to American children’s literature.

Aware of his own culture, his books deal mainly with youngster’s feelings of alienation and not fitting into their surroundings. Written with a fluid narrative, they are easy to follow and relate. His stories provide valuable experiences where adolescents can see themselves reflected.

Khorram, A. (2018) Darius the great is not Okay. New York. NY. Dial Books

Case-study 2
The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

At a first glance, it seems to be a book about nostalgia and the sadness of leaving what it is known as home. However, as the book moves along, it gets an even more interesting approach. The main character, Aref, grows in front of our eyes as he gets a deeper understanding of his personal sense of belonging. The book is a poetic journey of discovery. The discovery of what is really important for him. It starts with his reluctance of sharing his possessions -with the family that will stay in his house – and takes us all the way to the real important riches that he will bring with him in his travels, memories in the form of little rocks.
I said I identified with the book. The reason is that I remember doing the same thing that Aref is doing before leaving for America. He is experiencing Oman with his grandfather, Sidi. He taught Aref that he has to look at things from different views. Wisely, his grandfather mentions three ways. The first one, when something is ahead of us, the second one when we are at it, and the third one when it is behind us. Taking it under a geographic or chronological lens, these words comprehend our human nature. I tried to experience my life in Caracas as much as I could, too. I tried to  memorize special people, places, sounds, and the flavors of my favorite foods. I wanted to make sure I would take the city with me. At least, the romanticized one that I wanted to keep in my mind. 

Aref talks about Halcyon, which he defines as a happy and peaceful period. I wouldn’t say that in my case the city was a peaceful place. It was known and familiar, though, which made it comfortable in many ways. Change, on the other hand, was hard and scary.

Aref has beautiful words to express his concerns of living in a different place. He fears of being against the grain

“English started at the left and moved right, Arabic words started at the right and moved left. What was backwards to one was forward to the other.
Would he feel backwards in Michigan or just the same as he felt in Oman” 

Complementing the above, there is a poetic passage in the book in which the main character describes what a hometown is for him

“What makes a place your own? What makes a home a home? It wasn’t something simple, like a familiar bench, or a fisherman’s yellow sweater vest with a hole in it, or the nut-man’s fat red turban. It was more mysterious, like a village with tiny stacked houses, so many windows, and doors with soft flickers shining out into the night. You weren’t sure who lived on any of them, but you felt you could knock on any door and the people inside might know some of the same things you knew and welcome you in -just because you all belonged there. They might tip their heads and say, “Oh yes, aren’t you the boy with the stones in his pockets? You want some soup? And it would be lentil soup, which you loved. Or maybe it was how the beach air smelled – salty and sweet in whirls. You didn’t have to do anything to feel comfortable here. You just walked outside, took a long breath and thought – Yes. Sure. Here I am”

The author definitely understands what it means to leave a home place for another. She has painfully sweet words to describe it and enough tenderness to guide young readers through the process. 

To conclude, I need to share one more paragraph of this lovely book which condenses a strong assertion

“Once you have been out on a boat looking back at where you live, everything seems changed. The blue water, the sea stretching, everything altered. Now the sea is a real place that can hold you. You will always know you might be elsewhere instead of solid earth. You are not tied to the ground”

That is precisely the experience of an immigrant. Once you leave your place, every place can be yours, if you take it.

I don’t have enough words to praise this little jewel of a book!

Authors

Linda Sue Park
Grace Lin
Laurence Yep
Naomi Shihab Nye
Minh Lê
Dan Santat
Uma Krishnaswami
Bao Phi
Erin Entrada Kelly
Justina Chen