Tag Archives: Middle Grade

Author Interview: Jane Kuo

Welcome to my second interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: In the Beautiful Country
  • Author: Jane Kuo
  • Cover Artist: Julia Kuo
  • Publisher: Quill Tree Books (an Imprint of HarperCollins)
  • Release Date: June 14th, 2022
  • Genre/Format: Middle Grade Historical Fiction, Novel-in-Verse

Synopsis

For fans of Jasmine Warga and Thanhhà Lại, this is a stunning novel in verse about a young Taiwanese immigrant to America who is confronted by the stark difference between dreams and reality.

Anna can’t wait to move to the beautiful country—the Chinese name for America. Although she’s only ever known life in Taiwan, she can’t help but brag about the move to her family and friends.

But the beautiful country isn’t anything like Anna pictured. Her family can only afford a cramped apartment, she’s bullied at school, and she struggles to understand a new language. On top of that, the restaurant that her parents poured their savings into is barely staying afloat. The version of America that Anna is experiencing is nothing like her dreams. How will she be able to make the beautiful country her home?

This lyrical and heartfelt story, inspired by the author’s own experiences, is about resilience, courage, and the struggle to make a place for yourself in the world.

Interview with Jane Kuo

Q: What is your favorite Taiwanese food, and what foods feel like home (however you define home for yourself) to you?

A: I really love ba wan, a dish made up of meat, mushrooms and bamboo shoots encased in a layer of sticky chewiness. I love the pinkish sweet and sour sauce that’s poured on top too.

Food that feels like “home” is a little more difficult to answer—I like food so much.  I would say the flavor that’s most nostalgic for me is soy sauce. Give me anything cooked in soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, and sugar and I’m good.

Q: What drew you to writing a middle grade book?

A: I didn’t start out writing a middle grade book. I knew I wanted to write about my family’s immigration experience, particularly our first year in America. I tried a bunch of different genres– memoir, adult fiction and even essay. Then, I stumbled upon telling the story from the vantage point of the girl, my proxy. I built the entire story around her voice.

Q: What made you decide to write In the Beautiful Country as a novel-in-verse?

A: I think it goes back to the whole idea of voice. It’s not so much I decided on novel-in-verse, it’s that the story—and really the voice—presented itself to me in this way.  The verse form allowed me to distill experiences into their most essential form. I didn’t have to write a bunch of exposition and because of the brevity of verse, I didn’t have to explain so much. I could just plop the reader into “moments”. It was very freeing to write with such little constraints.

Q: In children’s literature, there is a lot of emphasis on the child reader as the audience. Would you say this audience influenced your approach to writing In the Beautiful Country, and if so, how?

A: I am writing for a middle grade audience, but I was very careful not to “dumb down” the story in any way. I think kids go through a lot more than we give them credit for and I wanted to capture that on the page. But I’m not writing just for children. I think a good story is a good story for all.

Q: Immigrants and diaspora are often said to occupy a liminal, in-between space in society. What would you say is the power of exploring liminality in literature?

A: I’m particularly interested in immigrant and diaspora literature because of my own experience, and I guess the simple way of saying it is that I like seeing myself reflected on the page. Literature is such a powerful medium through which to explore not just liminality, but any human experience really. I know that when I read a good book, I feel as if my understanding of “the other” has widened. And I think that’s the beauty and irony of literature, that a very specific piece of writing rooted in a particular space and time has the ability to transport the reader and lead to understanding and perhaps, empathy. When we encounter the other, we see ourselves.

Q: In my opinion, verse as a literary form encapsulates the expression “less is more.” Did you ever find yourself cutting lines or details while writing In the Beautiful Country? If not, what aspects did you find challenging about writing it?

Honestly, it was painful to cut lines, even though I knew it had to be done. It’s like that quote from Stephen King, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

One of the most challenging parts was cutting because even though I spent a lot of time writing the book, I was self-conscious about the word count and wanted to puff things up. At the same time, I really appreciate books that are short. So, I figured I’d return the favor.


Add In the Beautiful Country on Goodreads.

Pre-order In the Beautiful Country:

About the Author

Jane Kuo is a Chinese and Taiwanese American writer who grew up in Los Angeles. She is an author, a nurse, and a nurse practitioner. Jane graduated with a degree in English Literature from UC Berkeley, where she studied under Bharati Mukherjee, Ishmael Reed, and Robert Hass. Also, she once borrowed a pencil from Maxine Hong Kingston. 

Jane lives in California with her husband and two kids. Her first novel, In the Beautiful Country is inspired by the events of her childhood.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

[Blog Tour] Book Playlist for Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!

Hello again! If you missed my review for Bounce Back, please refer back to that post for more information about the book. This post is for the playlist I curated.

For this book playlist, I decided to lean into the 90s-00s shoujo nostalgia I mentioned in my review. All five of the songs I picked are from anime, and four out of five are in Japanese (the other being from an English dub of an anime). Of those five, three come from magical girl anime from that time period, specifically Sailor Moon (the original, not Sailor Moon Crystal!) and Cardcaptor Sakura (not the more recent Clear Card), which were formative pieces of media for me. The central themes of this playlist are the uncertainty and growing pains of adolescence as it relates to self-confidence and friendship.

Full YouTube Playlist

1. Platinum – 坂本真綾/Maaya Sakamoto (Cardcaptor Sakura Season 3 Opening Theme)

Selected Lyrics (translation source uncertain, but possibly by the uploader of the video linked):

A world yet unseen…
No matter what awaits me there,
Even if it’s not the ideal
I won’t be afraid
The birds travel on the wind
On a journey from today to tomorrow

I want to convey it, I want to shout it
I am but one entity in this world
But like a prayer, like a star
Even with a small light, someday
I want to become stronger and stronger

2. “らしく”いきましょ/“Rashiku” Ikimasho (I’ll Go As “Myself”) – Meu (Sailor Moon SuperS Second Ending Theme)

Selected Lyrics (translation taken from Anime Lyrics.com, credited to Alex Glover <kurozuki@nwlink.com> ):

Lalala
Never give up, keep on trying
I’m betting it all on this game
My heart is pounding with joy
In the age of adolescence
It’s okay to rewrite
What is in your loving profile

3. Chase the Core – 佐久間貴生/Takao Sakuma (Skate Leading Stars Opening Theme)

Selected Lyrics (translation taken from Anime Song Lyrics and refined by me):

Chase the core
Seek out your yet unseen potential
Feel your heart
Seize your freedom now
You’ve learned enjoyment, right?
You can’t lie to yourself
Be proud of your best moment
Let’s do this
Chase the core
The frozen time, start moving
Come on, let’s go!

4. Tell Me – Queen of Hearts (Cardcaptor Sakura: The Movie Insert Song)

This song is dedicated to Lilico and Nala.

Selected Lyrics:

Now there’s clouds on the horizon
And it’s starting to feel like rain
Now I hope you’re realizin’
I want you back again

So tell me
Are we gonna talk about it?
Are we gonna still be friends?
(Tell me)
You don’t ever have to doubt it
This doesn’t have to be the end

5. しょっぱい涙/Shoppai Namida (Salty Tears) – 阪本奨悟/Shougo Sakamoto (The Royal Tutor Opening Theme)

This song is for Nicco the guardian spirit.

Selected Lyrics (translation taken from Anime Song Lyrics, edited by me):

Tens of times, tens of times
You gave my back a push
I no longer want to cry these salty, such salty tears

Promises and bonds
Do they really mean anything?

“I want you to understand me.”
“I want someone to help me.”
My heart is screaming that
But I’m not being honest with myself

Tens of times, tens of times,
I kept lying
But why, tell me why
Were you the only one to remain here for me

That’s why I’m not running away
From myself nor from you anymore


Thanks for listening! (And I promise I haven’t forgotten about the Jade Fire Gold playlist that I was supposed to post for my last blog tour. Unfortunately, I got hit by a massive schoolwork/depression combo at the time and wasn’t able to do it on schedule. It’s coming later this week.)

[Blog Tour] Review for Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!

So…it’s winter already, and there are only 6 more weeks left of 2021…Sounds fake but isn’t. I’ve been drowning in schoolwork since it’s the last one-third of the semester, but I managed to carve out some time for the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages for a new middle grade graphic novel release, Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!. You can find the tour information on the Colored Pages site.

Book Information

Title: Bounce Back
Author: Misako Rocks!
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan
Publication Date: November 16th, 2021
Age Range/Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Synopsis

Friendship, a new school, and a bit of magic converge in this full-color graphic novel.

Lilico’s life in Japan is going well. She has great friends and is the captain of the school’s basketball team. She’s happy!

Then comes her parents’ news: they’re moving to America! Before she knows it, Lilico finds herself in Brooklyn, New York, forced to start all over. And that won’t be easy with her closest friends thousands of miles away or a school bully who immediately dislikes her.

Luckily, anime-loving Nala and Henry eventually befriend Lilico and with help from them—along with her guardian spirit who looks a lot like her cat, Nico—Lilico just might figure out where she fits in.

Review

Before I move on to the substantial aspect, I just want to note that the first thing that struck me when I looked at the cover for Bounce Back was a wave of nostalgia. The art style is highly reminiscent of some popular shoujo manga from the late 90s and early 2000s that I grew up with. In particular, I was reminded of the artwork of Natsumi Matsumoto (St. Dragon Girl, Yumeiro Patissiere) and Arina Tanemura (Full Moon wo Sagashite, The Legend of Princess Sakura, Idol Dreams), but there are others from the same era whose works that I’m not familiar with feature that cutesy, huge-eyed look (Mihona Fujii, Natsumi Ando).

The talking cat on the cover calls back to Luna and Artemis from Sailor Moon, and the story even mentions that resemblance on-page.

It’s always interesting to see how trends emerge and then go out, and when I saw Bounce Back, I felt like I was having a retro moment (not in a bad way though). I definitely feel like this book pays homage to those older shoujo manga.

Blending a shoujo manga-like style with a full-color left-to-right Western graphic novel format, Bounce Back delivers a charming and heartfelt middle grade story about a Japanese girl adapting to her new life in New York City.

Since this is a novel rather than a serialized comic spanning multiple volumes, it definitely feels denser than the typical shoujo manga. There are multiple interwoven plotlines introduced and resolved within the 250-odd pages: Lilico’s adjustment to a new culture; her friendship with the two resident otaku of her school, Henry and Nala; her ascendance to basketball stardom; a blossoming romance with Noah, a popular boy who’s the star of the boys’ basketball team; and the ever-present tension with a basketball teammate Emma who is Nala’s ex-BFF and also the catty Mean Girl of their school.

Throughout all of these events, Lilico’s guardian spirit, borrowing the body of her cat Nicco, acts as her mentor, confidante, and conscience. Though Nicco doesn’t give her a transformation pen to become a superpowered warrior, he does help Lilico tackle the difficulties of social relationships, acting as messenger and liaison in critical moments. He is the embodiment of unconditional love and friendship and a source of comfort that Lilico can depend on. Honestly, I wish I had my own Nicco to snuggle.

At first I was a bit apprehensive about Nala and Henry since interest in Japanese culture can easily slide into fetishizing Japanese people as a whole. Thankfully, their weebiness tones down a bit after the beginning and they establish bonds where they can talk to Lilico about things like fashion and interpersonal relationships rather than Japanese things. The two of them act as valuable guides to Lilico at school.

Though Noah plays a role in helping Lilico come into herself as the star of the girls basketball team and makes a sweet love interest, the primary focus of the story is friendship dynamics and the growing pains that come with them. The bigger question seems to be: How far will Lilico go to gain acceptance in her new school, and can she still be friends with Nala while trying to placate Emma and the rest of the girls on the basketball team?

One of the nice things about the art is that the full-color format allows for darker-skinned characters to shine. Shoujo manga from Japan has a colorism problem where everyone is pale by default despite the range of skin tones in the real life Japanese population, and darker-skinned characters are typically either absent or subject to negative stereotypes. In Bounce Back, brown-skinned Nala is an avid cosplayer and clothing designer who gets to be artsy and versatile while rocking colorful Harajuku-inspired fashion.

In a more general view, the ink wash texture and color patches that don’t quite touch and completely fill the outlines in the backgrounds create a softness that is easy on the eyes and brings out the earnest feelings of the tween characters. The creator’s use of exaggeratedly large eyes along with closeups of the face also helps convey a range of emotions ranging from comedic to sober while underscoring the youthfulness of the characters.

Overall, Bounce Back is a story that brings comfort in the face of big life changes, delivered in a cute and colorful package.

In my next post I’ll be sharing my little playlist I put together for this book.

AmazonBarnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Bookshop.org | GoodreadsIndieBound | Indigo | Kinokuniya USA

About the Author

MISAKO ROCKS! is the creator of Biker Girl and Rock and Roll Love. A self-taught artist from a family of law-enforcement officials, Misako moved to the United States from Japan as a teenager. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Reflections on 15 Years of Taiwanese Diaspora Children’s Literature

Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.

In this article and personal essay, I trace the 15-year history of #OwnVoices Taiwanese representation in English language children’s literature, with a primary focus on middle grade and young adult novels (including graphic novels). I also reflect on what Taiwanese representation means to me, discuss some of the difficulties of finding Taiwanese representation, and draw attention to some of the gaps in Taiwanese representation that I want to see filled in the future.

The First Taiwanese Diaspora Children’s Novels

2006 was a watershed year for Taiwanese representation in English language children’s literature. In February of 2006, The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin was published. In April of 2006, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen (referred to here on out as Nothing But the Truth) came out. Later that year, the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang1 was released. These three books were my first exposure to Taiwanese representation in English language media and, if I’m not mistaken, the first of their kind, at least in traditional publishing.

In 2006, I was 13. That spring, my parents attended the North American Taiwanese Women’s Association Annual Conference, where Grace Lin and Justina Chen—as well as Alvina Ling, the editor for their respective books released that year—were the guest speakers. My parents returned from the conference with a set of signed books from the two authors, personalized for me and my younger sister2. Avid reader that I was, I devoured both The Year of the Dog and Nothing But the Truth in no time.

Although I had consumed plenty of media with Taiwanese people up to that point, courtesy of my mother’s love for Taiwanese romance dramas, this was the first time I’d really encountered any stories featuring Taiwanese people like me in diaspora. Reading The Year of the Dog and Nothing but the Truth, I felt seen in a way that I had never experienced before.

As for American Born Chinese, I didn’t read it until several years later as an older teen. However, Gene Luen Yang was the first among all the Taiwanese children’s authors that I got to meet in person. In 2010, he appeared as one of the author guest speakers at the Montgomery County Teen Book Festival, which was hosted at my high school that year. Because of my limited book-buying budget, I did not get a copy of American Born Chinese signed when I met him. Instead, I asked him to draw a llama (one of my obsessions at the time) for me since he was taking doodle requests from readers. I remember him looking at me with surprise and telling me that it was the first time he could remember getting such a request. Needless to say, I felt special. I kept the signed llama drawing safely tucked away in a folder, and it remains among my treasured mementos of my high school years.

The following year, I met Justina Chen at the same book festival. As a member of my school’s Literary Club, I had the special privilege of volunteering as an author escort for the festival every year, making sure that the author in my care knew where to go for each session and that they had access to pencil, paper, water, and tissues as needed. Justina was one of the authors I served that year. I was so stoked. Her debut had left a deep impression on me when I read it several years prior, to the point where I emulated aspects of the book’s epistolary format and writing style in my own personal journal narrating my life in 8th grade. It was a book that helped me realize that I could write stories about people with my own background and get published. The personalized inscription she’d written in my copy of the Nothing But the Truth, “Taiwanese girl-writers3 are STRONG & SMART,” stayed with me for years.

The Search for Representation

Fast forward several years to my undergrad life. In 2014, I declared Asian American studies as a second major after having a quarter-life crisis about my future career and feeling that aerospace engineering had lost all of the appeal it once had when I was applying to college. As a result of taking multiple classes relating to race and media, I understood the importance of representation in shaping perceptions of marginalized groups. With a newfound hunger for books representing Asian Americans, I began a quest to read as much Asian American literature as possible. For various reasons, I had practically stopped reading for leisure altogether starting in my freshman year of college, so I had a nearly four-year gap to catch up on. While I did seek out a number of adult titles, I also returned to children’s literature, which had fostered my love for reading to begin with.

Since their respective 2006 releases, Grace Lin, Justina Chen, and Gene Luen Yang had all published more books. Of the three, only Grace Lin had written any with explicitly Taiwanese main characters, found in two additional books about her fictional alter-ego Pacy: The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days. Dumpling Days was especially important to me because it emphasized Pacy’s specifically Taiwanese American identity. The Year of the Dog had mentioned Taiwan as the place where Pacy’s parents had immigrated from, but the language of the story used Chinese as a descriptor. Since writing The Year of the Dog, Grace had undergone her own journey of understanding the differences between Chinese and Taiwanese; Dumpling Days reflected that evolved understanding. I distinctly remember reading the following passage from the book and posting a photo of it to Facebook:

“You’re Taiwanese-American,” Mom said. “And, no matter what, that’s what you’ll always be.”

Forever, I thought. I’d always be Taiwanese-American, no matter if I spoke Chinese, made my eyes bigger, or was called a Twinkie. Even if I didn’t like it. Being Taiwanese-American was like making a brush stroke. The mark couldn’t be erased, and the ink and the paper could never be separated. They were joined forever.

“Mom!” I said, grabbing her arm before she walked away. “For my name chop, can I have my name carved in Chinese and English? Can they do that?”

“Yes.” Mom nodded, a little surprised. “I’m sure they can. I’ll order them today.”

“Good,” I said, and I felt as if I had just taken off a winter coat after discovering it was summer. I was glad I had found my identity.

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Sometime in 2015, after catching up on all of Grace Lin’s middle grade novels, I wrote her a fan letter, a physical one sent by snail mail4. I wrote about how important her work was to me, among other things. As promised on her author website, she wrote back. Since I hadn’t met her in person yet at the time, this letter was the next best thing on the reader fan bucket list.

I did eventually meet Grace Lin in person a few years after, at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans. Despite the weight it added to my luggage, I brought along all of the middle grade books by her that I owned and didn’t already have signed. At that same conference, I also met Alvina Ling, whom I mentioned earlier, the editor behind a good number of the Taiwanese American children’s books that exist today. Like 2006, 2018 was the year of the dog. It had been twelve full years, a whole zodiac cycle, since I’d first read The Year of the Dog, and I was meeting the author and editor of that book in person. It felt like my childhood had come full circle.

Dumpling Days was published in 2012. Between 2006 and 2012, the only other children’s novel with an #OwnVoices Taiwanese American protagonist that came out, besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, was Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas by Pauline A. Chen5. Published by Bloomsbury in October 2007, this short middle grade novel did not have nearly the same amount of exposure as the Taiwanese American-authored books of 2006, which received various awards and accolades between them (notably, the Asian Pacific American Book Award/Honor and the Printz Award). I had to order it from a third-party seller on Amazon because it was out of print.

Upon reading Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, I discovered, much to my ire, that the synopsis on the dust jacket referred to Peiling as Chinese even though the content of the book mentioned her Taiwanese heritage, and the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) on the copyright page also labeled it as being about Taiwanese Americans. Amazon’s synopsis for the book said Taiwanese rather than Chinese, but that error in the book bugged me all the same because it mirrored the constant microaggressions about my identity I’d faced throughout my life and still have to contend with even today.

A Golden Age of Taiwanese Diaspora Representation

After 2012, there was a dry spell of almost five years where, to my knowledge, no middle grade or young adult novels with #OwnVoices Taiwanese representation were published. While Grace Lin had managed to build a successful career writing Asian main characters, the publishing industry was still largely hostile or apathetic to diversifying its output at the time. Then in 2014, We Need Diverse Books was founded, representing a critical turning point for diversity in children’s literature. The seeds of change planted that year bore fruit for Taiwanese representation in summer 2017 with the publication of Want, a sci-fi dystopian YA novel by Cindy Pon set in a near-future version of Taipei. I was already a fan of Cindy through her Chinese-inspired YA fantasy duologies, but Want was extra special because it was Taiwanese through and through.

Around the same time that Want was published, several other Taiwanese diaspora authors had started breaking into the kidlit industry with agents and book deals. That year, I decided to put together the inaugural Taiwanese American Heritage Week author interview series on my blog to shine a spotlight on them. Out of the five featured authors from 2017, four write for young readers: Cindy Pon, Gloria Chao, Emily X.R. Pan, and Judy I. Lin6.

Since that 2017 interview series, Gloria Chao has published three books featuring Taiwanese American main characters (American Panda, Our Wayward Fate, and Rent a Boyfriend), and Emily X.R. Pan has published one (The Astonishing Color of After) with a second book on the way in 2022. Their debuts both came out in early 2018, but I had a chance to read them in late 2017 thanks to some friends and acquaintances who sent me advance reader copies. Although neither really claimed any “firsts” in Taiwanese diaspora children’s literature (with maybe the exception of mental illness representation in The Astonishing Color of After), they still felt groundbreaking in their own way. The only other contemporary YA with a Taiwanese American main character in existence at the time was Nothing But the Truth, which had resonated with my younger self but felt rather dated in 2018. These new debuts heralded what I like to think of as a mini Golden Age of Taiwanese diaspora representation in children’s literature. A few #OwnVoices Taiwanese diaspora books a year isn’t much when the total of children’s publishing amounts to several thousand books published annually (most of which are very white), but it’s a welcome step up from the near invisibility of the past.

As far as middle grade is concerned, I’ve been heartened to see fantasy series inspired by Taiwanese geography, history, and culture appear in recent years. Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen trilogy was the first to come along, with book 1 in the series published in 2018 (the year that I interviewed him). In 2019 and 2020, Cindy Lin (no relation to Grace Lin) published a fantasy duology drawing on her Taiwanese heritage, mixing Japanese and Chinese influences that reflect Taiwan’s layered colonial history. Neither one is prominently as marketed as Taiwanese-inspired, and it would be easy for a cultural outsider to miss those influences and think they’re simply Chinese or more broadly East Asian, but to me, there were obvious aspects to both stories that pinged the “look, a Taiwanese thing” alerts in my head. Fantasy set in alternate universes obviously carries different implications for representation than fiction set in the real world, but seeing those little bits of Taiwan in fantasy books was still affirming in its own way.

The Struggles of the Search

One thing I think is important to note about Taiwanese representation in children’s literature is how hard it can be to find it even where it exists. This difficulty is in part a function of the fluid, dynamic, and contested nature of Taiwanese identity, as well as the publishing industry’s biases in labeling and classifying books by authors of color.

Just recently, Pew Research Center released a report in which they analyzed U.S. Census data, and they made the decision to count anyone who wrote in Taiwanese for their ethnicity under the Chinese category in a blatant act of erasure and data manipulation. The problem is not that no Taiwanese people are or identify as Chinese, but rather the assumption that all Taiwanese people are Chinese and identify as such. For those who aren’t aware, people who trace their roots to Taiwan typically identify as exclusively Chinese, exclusively Taiwanese, or both/either Chinese and/or Taiwanese, with the first being the least common and on the verge of fading out completely. I won’t explain the history behind this trend in too much detail, but suffice to say that due to this Venn diagram of identification patterns, it’s very easy for Taiwanese representation to fall through the cracks if the book uses the term Chinese in the synopsis and/or promotional materials.

While gains have been made in representation for people of color in literature, the labeling of race/ethnicity by publishers and catalogers is often either done tokenistically or discouraged, especially when it comes to talking about the content of children’s books. When a book is about [or is perceived as being primarily about] racial/ethnic identity, it is usually labeled with that specific race/ethnicity in the synopsis and in the LCSH, if those are provided on the copyright page. However, for books that are not primarily about identity or racism, the likelihood of the character’s race/ethnicity being mentioned in the synopsis or LCSH goes down. This may sometimes be done with the intention of reducing the Othering of people of color as a “marked category” in opposition to whiteness, but the reality is that gatekeepers often treat race and ethnicity as unimportant and irrelevant in stories that aren’t about identity struggles or racism. In these cases, the “colorblind” approach to labeling stories dominates, which ultimately erases how people of color move through the world differently from white people beyond experiencing racism. The tendency to only label race and ethnicity for “issue books” also stigmatizes racial/ethnic difference by tying it exclusively to trauma and suffering.

Given the above problems, I sometimes have to do a lot of digging to find Taiwanese representation. Many Taiwanese diaspora books appear on my radar through book deal announcements and official synopses that explicitly state that they are Taiwanese. However, those summaries don’t always mention a character’s ethnicity. Some of the gaps are filled by my book community network since I follow tons of people who talk about racial/ethnic diversity and representation and make a point of mentioning it for all the books that include it. However, it’s impossible for me to see every single tweet, and my network doesn’t always catch everything.

To compensate, I spend a lot of time at bookstores just methodically combing through the books on the shelves, hunting for any POC representation that slipped through the cracks. Author last names and cover illustrations are my first indicators that there might be POC representation in a book. Then, I check the synopsis.

For many ethnicities, the name of a character alone is a fairly reliable indicator of their ethnicity, but for Taiwanese people, most of whom have Chinese family names, last name alone isn’t sufficient. While Taiwan uses a different romanization system for personal names than China, there is overlap in the romanization of certain sounds and therefore names, and the correlation between romanization and country of origin isn’t quite one-to-one. If the synopsis doesn’t have any conclusive information, I check the copyright page for LCSH tags. Unfortunately, not all publishers include LCSH assignments in the book. Another option is to Google the author’s name and “Taiwanese” to see if anything comes up.

If all else fails, I start skimming the book or read it to see if it references a particular label or country. This is how I figured out that the main character in The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh is Taiwanese American prior to its publication. The ARC I received did not have the LCSH tag “Taiwanese Americans—Fiction” that appeared in the final version, so it took a bit of reading to find what I needed. I followed a similar process to ferret out the existence of the Taiwanese representation in This Is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio.

The Future of Taiwanese Representation in Children’s Literature

Despite all the gains made in the past few years, there is still so much more I want to see in terms of Taiwanese representation. One experience I’m desperately craving more of is that of people who identify as Taiwanese and only Taiwanese. There are only a few I can think of in the Taiwanese diaspora children’s books that exist right now (one of these being Lily LaMotte’s middle grade graphic novel Measuring Up). There’s an entire array of microaggressions and political tensions that come with that experience that hasn’t been fully explored yet in children’s literature, only hinted at in a few places.

I also want to see more queer Taiwanese representation. I can only think of one queer Taiwanese main character in children’s literature by a Taiwanese author (Poppy from Dear Twin by Addie Tsai). Even though Taiwan is touted as the most queer-friendly Asian country, I don’t really see that reflected in diaspora narratives.

Another type of representation I want more of is books with disabled Taiwanese characters. In particular, I crave stories about mentally ill Taiwanese characters and the complexity of navigating multiple cultures that don’t make much space for those tough conversations about trauma. On a related note, I also want to see the history of the White Terror explored in children’s literature. It’s a heavy topic, but a necessary one to reckon with Taiwan’s history and the intergenerational trauma that lingers in the diaspora.

Additionally, I think the intra-Taiwanese diversity of origin and migration histories needs to be reflected in children’s literature. Taiwan is home to many different groups: the dozens of Indigenous tribes, the Hoklo and Hakka people who have been in Taiwan for hundred of years, and the Southeast and South Asian people who migrated to Taiwan more recently—and beyond. The diaspora is spread out across different parts of the U.S. as well as outside of the United States and so far there haven’t been any books with multiracial Taiwanese main characters that are by multiracial Taiwanese authors.

Translated Children’s Literature from Taiwan

Another area of Taiwanese literary growth I long for is more English language translations of children’s literature from Taiwan. The Western Anglophone literary sphere is rather averse to translated literature with the exception of adult literary fiction, leaving behind everything else that doesn’t conform to elitist standards of artistic value. Taiwan has a much smaller publishing industry than the U.S., but it still has much to offer—in general and as far as children’s literature is concerned. The Taiwanese government’s Ministry of Culture has a sub-agency called the Taiwan Creative Content Agency that maintains a site, Books from Taiwan, showcasing some of the literature from Taiwan with the intent to convince foreign publishers to acquire the rights to these titles. There are so many titles on the list that have caught my eye and made me wish I were an industry professional who could acquire them and/or translate them. Some are books I will eventually buy in Taiwan to read in their original Traditional Chinese form, but I want others who can’t read Chinese to be able to enjoy them, too.

Among the books I hope to see translated are several comics, sometimes referred to in English as “manhua,” the Mandarin equivalent of the Japanese word “manga,” to distinguish their origins. Unlike their Japanese (and to a lesser extent, Korean “manhwa”) counterparts, Taiwanese comics do not have the same global distribution and cultural influence. During the summers I spent in Taiwan in my youth, I read multiple manhua series by Selena Lin (林青慧), nicknamed Taiwan’s 漫畫小天后, the “little heavenly empress of comics,” and I wish there were more people I could talk to about her work.

Bilingual/Multilingual Children’s Books

Last but not least, I wish there were bilingual/multilingual books for children by Taiwanese authors, in English plus any languages commonly spoken in Taiwan. Unfortunately, the Anglophone supremacist tendencies of publishing means that the use of non-English (and more broadly, non-Western European) languages is discouraged to cater to an assumed monolingual English-speaking audience. As far as children’s books are concerned, Spanish is probably the only language with bilingual books available in a significant number. I own one bilingual children’s book in English and Mandarin that’s not explicitly meant for language-learning purposes. It’s called Alice in Dreams艾莉絲夢遊記 and was a limited print run picture book written by Hsuan-fu Chen and Scott Alexander and illustrated by Martin Hsu. There are more out there, but they are mostly independently published, some through crowdfunding, making them more difficult to find and obtain.

Writing the Stories I Want to See

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I write children’s literature in addition to maintaining this blog. I hope to fill some of the gaps in representation I’ve identified through the stories that I myself write. I’m not query ready yet at this time, but I’m getting there, slowly but surely. Hopefully, in a few years, you’ll see my books on the shelves, too.


Footnotes:

  1. The protagonist of American Born Chinese is identified as Chinese American, but one of the major supporting characters is from Taiwan, so I counted it here, with consideration for the long-lasting influence ABC has had in children’s publishing.
  2. I also have an older sister, but at the time she had mostly stopped reading English language novels, and she was a bit older than the target age for the books, so I’m guessing that’s why my parents didn’t have it personalized to her as well.
  3. This was prior to realizing I was trans, when I still identified as a girl.
  4. Grace Lin doesn’t accept emails from young readers for privacy and safety reasons, so instead you can write physical letters to her. If you include a self-addressed and stamped envelope with your letter, she’ll send you the response with bookplates and bookmarks!
  5. Not to be confused with Pauline F. Chen, a Taiwanese American doctor and the author of an adult memoir called Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflection on Mortality.
  6. Judy is actually Canadian, not American, but I included her because I believe that everyone in Taiwanese diaspora is welcome to be featured and celebrated in the heritage week series.

Bibliography of Books Referenced by First Publication Date

 Here’s a list of all the middle grade and young adult books with Taiwanese representation (or that are inspired by Taiwan, in the case of secondary world fantasy) organized chronologically by first publication date. I incorporated as many as I could into the body of the article, but there were at least two I didn’t touch on here but are featured in this week’s author interviews. If I’ve missed any #OwnVoices middle grade and young adult books with Taiwanese representation that are already published, please let me know. I’ll be talking about upcoming releases with Taiwanese representation in another post featuring upcoming books by Taiwanese authors more broadly, regardless of content.

  1. Lin, Grace. The Year of the Dog. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006.
  2. Chen, Justina. Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006.
  3. Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. First Second, 2006.
  4. Chen, Pauline A. Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2007.
  5. Lin, Grace. The Year of the Rat. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2008.
  6. Lin, Grace. Dumpling Days. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012.
  7. Pon, Cindy. Want. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017.
  8. Yeh, Kat. The Way to Bea. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017.
  9. Chao, Gloria. American Panda. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  10. Pan, Emily X.R. The Astonishing Color of After. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  11. Lien, Henry. Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword. Henry Holt & Company Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  12. Lien, Henry. Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions. Henry Holt & Company Books for Young Readers, 2019.
  13. Lin, Cindy. The Twelve. HarperCollins, 2019.
  14. Tsai, Addie. Dear Twin. Metonymy Press, 2019.
  15. Chao, Gloria. Our Wayward Fate. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019.
  16. Chang, Victoria. Love, Love. Sterling Children’s Books, 2020.
  17. Gregorio, I.W. This is My Brain in Love. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020.
  18. Lin, Cindy. Treasures of the Twelve. HarperCollins, 2020.
  19. LaMotte, Lily and Ann Xu. Measuring Up. HarperAlley, 2020.
  20. Lin, Ed. David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College. Kaya Press, 2020.
  21. Chao, Gloria. Rent a Boyfriend. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020.
  22. Yen, Jennifer. A Taste for Love. Razorbill, 2021.

If you liked this post, please consider tipping me since it totals just over 4000 words and took a lot of labor. Thanks!

Author Interview: Lily LaMotte

Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.

The third author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Lily LaMotte on her debut middle grade graphic novel Measuring Up, illustrated by Ignatz-nominated cartoonist and illustrator Ann Xu.

Synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Cici has just moved from Taiwan to Seattle, and the only thing she wants more than to fit in at her new school is to celebrate her grandmother, A-má’s, seventieth birthday together.

Since she can’t go to A-má, Cici cooks up a plan to bring A-má to her by winning the grand prize in a kids’ cooking contest to pay for A-má’s plane ticket! There’s just one problem: Cici only knows how to cook Taiwanese food.

And after her pickled cucumber debacle at lunch, she’s determined to channel her inner Julia Child. Can Cici find a winning recipe to reunite with A-má, a way to fit in with her new friends, and somehow find herself too?

Interview:

Q: This is a question I ask most of the Taiwanese authors who I feature, and it’s also relevant to the theme of Measuring Up: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food?

A: That’s a good question! I have to say my mom’s dumpling soup. When we visit my parents, my mom, my kids, and I sit around the kitchen table to wrap the dumplings. It’s one of those things that not only is delicious but creates memories. At home, although I don’t make dumpling soup, my husband, son, and I will do movie night where we make and eat potstickers while watching that night’s movie pick.

Q: At times the publishing industry fetishizes youthfulness in authors, putting spotlights on the so-called prodigies who get published at a young age. However, everyone’s path to publishing is different, and there is value in learning from people who transitioned into the industry at an older age. What has that process been like for you, and how has your life experience before becoming an author informed your writing?

A: I think that as we age and gain life experiences, we bring some of that into our writing. I started my writing journey twelve (!) years ago. I am pretty sure that I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say at that time. Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults changed how I thought about my writing. Prior to Hamline, I had taken writing classes, webinars, gone to SCBWI conferences to further my craft but it wasn’t until I went to Hamline where we were involved in intense discussions about diversity that I thought it would be possible to write a diverse character and story.

Q: I saw from your other interviews that you were drawn to writing for children because of your experiences reading with your kids when they were younger. Children’s literature contains a wide array of subcategories segmented by age. What drew you to writing middle grade in particular?

A: I write middle grade because those stories of families and friendships speak to me. Despite my advance age, I think about family and friendship relationships because they are universal no matter one’s age. I also write picture books and have my debut picture book CHLOE’S LUNAR NEW YEAR from HarperCollins coming out Winter 2023. I had such fun reading board books and picture books to my kids when they were that age. I want to capture some of that fun in my writing for both the picture book and the middle grade groups. There is also less cynicism and more happy endings. I really like happy endings!

Q: I think it’s super cool that you had Gene Luen Yang as a writing mentor since he was one of the first Taiwanese American children’s authors I ever read when I was younger (around 14-15). When I first met him at the book festival hosted at my high school, I asked him to draw me a llama, and I still have the drawing saved. What was your favorite part of working with him?

A: I love that you still have the llama he drew for you!! Gene is not only a wonderful mentor but just a wonderful person all-around. He is so smart and was able to steer me through my story. And he did it in a way that was so supportive.

Q: I read in another interview that you had to do extremely detailed panel descriptions for Measuring Up. As someone who’s interested in writing a graphic novel script someday, I’m curious about the process of working with an illustrator. I know that you and Ann Xu collaborated through your editor. What was that triangulation like? Did Ann surprise you in a good way with any of her interpretations? And what is your favorite page or panel from Measuring Up, illustration-wise?

A: Ann is an amazing illustrator and I am so happy she not only illustrated MEASURING UP but is now working on UNHAPPY CAMPER coming next summer. As part of working with Gene, he required extensive illustration notes. It was the first time I thought about story details in that depth and I think that it helped me tremendously in figuring out who my characters were so that I could write their story. When my script went to Ann, I pulled out some of the descriptions so that she could bring her own brilliance to the book. I love the full-page panel when Cici is at the restaurant and sees herself for the first time as belonging to a place like that. I described the page as having Cici surrounded by puzzle pieces of the restaurant and equipment. I specified certain things that I knew would be restaurant versus home equipment to be helpful to the illustration process. Ann blew me away with that fantastic page. I love it so much that I created fabric with that image to make tea towels for giveaways.

Q: I love the variety of dishes that show up in the cooking competition. Did you have any systematic/meaningful way of deciding what each challenge would be and which dishes each character would make, or was it more random?

A: I thought about what kind of person each character in the competition would be so that I could decide what dish the character would make. As far as the challenge in each round, I wanted to make some of them kid-friendly but also have meaningful challenges like the sweet potato which has such a strong link to Taiwan.

Q: I’m super excited for your second graphic novel, Unhappy Camper, and can’t wait for it to hit the shelves. The premise of going to a Taiwanese American summer camp is super appealing to me because it reminds me of my own experiences attending TAA summer conferences as a kid, except those were geared toward adults with a few children’s activities on the side rather than being for children/youth. Can you tell us a little more about Unhappy Camper?

A: I’m not sure what I can say yet except that it is a sister story where my protagonist’s sister loves everything Taiwan. But for my protagonist, not so much. It isn’t until my protagonist goes to a Taiwanese American summer camp that she reclaims her cultural heritage. There’s crafting, singing, language lessons (much to her disappointment) with a tiny bit of what makes the Pacific Northwest so special.

Thank you for thinking of me for Taiwanese American Heritage Week!

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

Lily LaMotte is the debut author of the middle grade graphic novel MEASURING UP from HarperCollins/HarperAlley. When she isn’t writing picture books and middle grade graphic novels, she’s cooking up new recipes. Sometimes, when she sees the gray clouds outside her window in the Pacific Northwest, she loads up the campervan for a writing retreat camping trip with her husband and two dogs.

She is a graduate of Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Author Links:

Website – http://www.lilylamotte.com
Twitter – @lilylamotte
Instagram – @lilylamottewrites

Mini Reviews: 5 Southeast Asian Reads

So, I was looking through my drafts trying to delete things I didn’t need anymore when I came upon this ancient post. It was complete except for a missing cover image, and I’m not sure why I never posted it. It’s from 2017, I think? But anyway, here you go.

The Land of Forgotten Girls

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly – MG, Contemporary, Filipino American MC, Own Voices

The Land of Forgotten Girls is a poignant book that shows the power of words and stories. Sol (Soledad) and Ming (Dominga) are poor and trapped in Louisiana with their abusive stepmother Vea. In order to cope with this suffocating environment, Sol tells stories to Ming, stories passed down from their late mother as well as stories of her own making about their magical “aunt” who travels the world. These stories offer an escape for Sol but also blur the line between fantasy and reality for Ming, who is younger and impressionable. As a result, Sol is forced to grapple with whether her stories harm more than they help, whether fiction is the same as a lie.

In the absence of any loving parents, Sol finds comfort and companionship in her best friend Manny, who’s Mexican; a quiet neighbor in her apartment building, Mrs. Yeung, who’s Chinese; as well as an albino girl named Caroline who she once tormented but apologized to. With Manny and Caroline, Sol braves the neighborhood junkyard, the domain of a terrifying man she calls Blackbeard, and finds treasure and hope in the most unlikely of places. If you like stories about sisterhood, friendship, and adventure, this may be the book for you.

For a review from a Filipino reviewer, I recommend reading Glaiza’s review.

Content/Trigger warnings: bullying, abuse, racism, colorism

Something in Between

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz – YA, Contemporary, Filipino American MC, Own Voices

Something in Between doesn’t pull its punches and takes you on a rollercoaster ride of feelings. Jasmine de los Santos has it all: she’s set to be valedictorian, she’s captain of the cheer team, and she’s going to attend a top college. However, all of that unravels when she finds out her family’s visas expired years ago and they’re in the U.S. illegally. This news shocks Jasmine but doesn’t get her down completely. America is the home she identifies with, and she’s not getting deported without a fight.

Life goes on, and with the threat of deportation looming, Jasmine tries to take advantage of the time she has left before her family is forced to leave the country. During this time, she dates the handsome and rich Royce Blakely, son of a Congressman, who may be the key to obtaining legal status for her family. Their relationship is passionate but also turbulent because Royce’s dad’s stance on immigration politics place him on the opposite side of the battle Jasmine is waging on behalf of her undocumented family. The juxtaposition of their backgrounds brings into stark relief the intersections of race and class.

While I wasn’t the biggest fan of the romance subplot, I loved the de los Santos family dynamic and the complicated friendship Jasmine had with Kayla. Overall, this book provides a humanizing narrative of immigration, citizenship, and belonging in the U.S.

For a perspective from a Filipino reader, I recommend reading Sue’s review.

girl-on-the-verge

Girl on the Verge by Pintip Dunn – YA, Contemporary, Thriller, Thai American MC, Own Voices

Girl on the Verge is one of the most intense and mind-blowing contemporary YA novels I read in 2017. This was my Goodreads review immediately after finishing:

I didn’t intend for my review to be a haiku but the universe had the syllable count planted in my subconscious somehow so here you go:
holy fucking shit
what the hell did I just read
I need to lie down

Now to elaborate. The main character, Kanchana a.k.a Kan, is Thai American and lives in a predominantly white town in Kansas. At school, she stands out because she’s Asian, and at home, her grandmother laments that she’s too Westernized, and her way of finding a middle ground between the two cultures she’s immersed in is to design clothes.

Kan’s struggle to fit in takes on a new dynamic when her mother takes in a white girl named Shelly to live in their home. At first, things seem to work out since Shelly is eager to please and integrate into Kan’s family. However, Shelly’s presence becomes uncomfortable and even threatening when it becomes apparent that she’s morphing herself into Kan 2.0 and even trying to steal Kan’s boyfriend, Ethan. As Kan investigates Shelly’s past, she discovers shocking secrets about her own family.

Although Girl on the Verge starts out on a similar note to other contemporary stories exploring second generation Asian American identity, the thriller plotline highlights the theme of identity and belonging in a unique and gut-wrenching way. The parallels between Kan’s experiences as the girl who stands out too much and Shelly’s as the girl who nobody notices and the contrast in how they respond to feeling alienated, is fascinating and terrifying.

Trigger warnings: physical assault, sexual harassment, kidnapping, murder

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings by Many Ly – YA, Historical Fiction*, Cambodian American MC, Own Voices

*It’s not historical as in older than 2000, but it’s not quite contemporary anymore since it was published in 2008 and probably takes place in the early 2000s based on technology cues.

The writing style for this book wasn’t out-of-this-world amazing, but the characters and themes made the story engaging and sentimental. For me, this is a book that really captures gracefully the complexity of family and community and intergenerational loss and love.

The narrative alternates between the present, which explores the aftermath of Grace’s grandmother passing away, and Grace’s past when her grandmother was still alive. At first, the focus is mostly on Grace’s difficulties with not knowing her own father and Cambodian heritage. Then, as she immerses herself in the Cambodian community in St. Petersburg, Florida, she learns more about her mother and grandmother and the reasons behind her alienation from her roots.

As we eventually see, the three generations of women in Grace’s family all struggle to balance self, family, and community as 1st, 1.5 and 2nd generation Cambodian American women, respectively. I empathized with Grace’s experience, and through her journey into her family’s history, also empathized with her mother and grandmother’s perspectives and decisions. This is definitely not your typical realistic fiction YA because of its strong focus on family and community over school/romantic/friendship drama (which were pretty much absent from the story), but it’s a powerful and important story regardless.

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai – MG, Contemporary, Vietnamese American MC, Own Voices

Listen, Slowly features a 12-year-old second generation Vietnamese American girl visiting Vietnam with her family and connecting with her heritage while her grandmother searches for her long-lost grandfather who disappeared during the Vietnam War.

The title feels like an apt description of the dynamic between Mai and her heritage. Although she can’t speak Vietnamese very well, she can understand it better than she lets on to her extended family, thus much of her time is spent listening to them.

The listening she does is also figurative. Her initial reactions to spending multiple weeks in Vietnam is dismay that she will be separated from her best friend and her secret crush (referred to as “HIM” throughout the story) and the summer outings of her friends and classmates. She initially sees Vietnam as her parents’ heritage more so than her own.  Bridging the psychological distance between herself and Vietnam takes time. Through a friendship with a boy who’s learning English with the hope of going to the U.S., she begins to appreciate the language and culture of her heritage.

[Blog Tour] Review and Fanart for Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field by Angela Ahn and Julie Kwon

Hi, everyone, and happy Year of the Ox! I’m pretty busy with school, but I’m still trying to do book reviews and blog tours. Today’s review is for Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field, written by Angela Ahn and illustrated by Julie Kwon. I read Angela Ahn’s debut novel, Krista Kim-Bap, back in 2018, so it was nice to get a chance to review this second novel of hers. This blog tour is hosted by Hear Our Voices Book Tours and you can find out more about the other tour stops on their tour launch page.

Book Info: 

Publisher: Penguin Random House
Release Date: March 2, 2021
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

Synopsis:

Eleven-year-old Peter Lee has one goal in life: to become a paleontologist. But in one summer, that all falls apart. Told in short, accessible journal entries and combining the humor of Timmy Failure with the poignant family dynamics of Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Peter Lee will win readers’ hearts.

Eleven year-old Peter Lee has one goal in life: to become a paleontologist. Okay, maybe two: to get his genius kid-sister, L. B., to leave him alone. But his summer falls apart when his real-life dinosaur expedition turns out to be a bust, and he watches his dreams go up in a cloud of asthma-inducing dust.

Even worse, his grandmother, Hammy, is sick, and no one will talk to Peter or L. B. about it. Perhaps his days as a scientist aren’t quite behind him yet. Armed with notebooks and pens, Peter puts his observation and experimental skills to the test to see what he can do for Hammy. If only he can get his sister to be quiet for once—he needs time to sketch out a plan.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop.org | Book Depository


Review:

If you look up the word “wholesome,” this book should be there as an example. There’s so much to love in this book, which addresses several important issues for kids while being fun and uplifting.

The most obvious thing that attracted me to the book is that it features a dino-lover! I mean, a lot of people like dinosaurs, but when I was younger, I was obsessed. Like Peter, I owned tons of dinosaur books, and while I didn’t have much of a dino figure collection, I had plenty of dino plushies to go around. Science museums were my catnip, and like Peter, I did even think about becoming a paleontologist. Peter’s obsession is arguably more intense and directed since he is actually practicing the work of paleontologist by keeping a detailed field journal, digging in a simulated excavation pit, and so on. But either way, the dinosaur love really made me feel seen.

While they didn’t resonate with my own experiences, I still loved the family dynamics of the Lees. Peter lives with his dad, mom, and younger sister, and his maternal grandparents are still a regular presence in his life. His younger sister L.B. (short for “Little Beast”) is something of a prodigy, which means Peter can have intellectual conversations with her despite their 3-year age gap (he’s in 5th grade, she’s in 2nd), but she’s also just a kid, a ball of irrepressible energy, and an annoying brat at times. Even so, Peter still loves her and feels responsible for her as an older sibling. Their back-and-forth banter was one of the highlights of the book.

Peter’s parents come off as a little strict and uptight at first glance because they’re constantly trying to get their kids to do academic enrichment activities, but they are clearly acting from a place of care, and they do encourage Peter’s passions. His grandparents, by contrast, are much more laid back and doting. Peter calls them Hammy and Haji (derived from “halmeoni” and “harabeoji,” the Korean terms for grandmother and grandfather, respectively), and he can count on them to be a voice of moderation when his parents are being overly pushy. He cherishes them greatly.

This book is something of a love letter to diaspora kids. Peter is a third generation Korean Canadian (his grandparents immigrated to Canada), so he doesn’t have quite the same experience as someone who’s second gen like me, but his family still keeps ties to their roots. He’s one of three Korean kids at his school (him, his sister, and an upperclassman named Samuel), where he feels drawn to Sam and creates a Korean solidarity bond with him. While being one of few Korean kids at his school is lonely, and Peter does experience some insecurity over not knowing Korean, racism and identity struggles aren’t the focus of the book. His Korean heritage is simply the canvas on which the events of the story unfold, informing his interactions with the people and the world around him.

The true focus of the story is two-fold: dealing with the disappointment of finding out that the reality of your dream job isn’t what you expected, and coping with powerlessness when a loved one is sick and your family is hiding it from you. Both of these themes are explored and woven together in a really lovely way, and both felt intensely relatable for me as someone who has experienced both.

Peter goes on an excavation trip and realizes that digging for hours under the sun in clouds of dust doesn’t work for him and his asthma. The coolness of paleontology becomes eclipsed by the grueling, tedious work it requires. This reminded me of my own experience with aerospace engineering, one of my two undergrad degrees. I applied for the major as a space-loving nerd, thinking it was a great match for me, but when I started taking the classes for the major, I realized I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. The feelings of failure and disillusionment that come with this realization are quite painful, and this book takes Peter and the reader through those stages of extreme emotions with compassion.

At the same time, Peter realizes his Hammy’s health is declining, and the adults are keeping secrets from him about something. He eventually discovers that Hammy is developing dementia and will likely need to move into a nursing home too far away for them to visit regularly. Unable to bear the thought of growing apart from his grandmother, Peter sets to work on a special project for Hammy that leads to an epiphany about his relationship with paleontology and the skills he cultivated through that passion.

One of the things I really loved about this book is that it didn’t treat science and art as mutually exclusive or in competition with each other. Peter draws as part of his field journal entries, and even after he decides to “break up” with paleontology, he still uses his artistic skills and even explores a creative path with them. As someone who has always loved both science and art, I thought this was a nice theme to have.

Lastly, the narrative format of this book is a huge part of what makes this book such an immersive experience. The chapters are Peter’s field journal entries with the date and the current “conditions,” which range from the literal weather to more abstract representations of Peter’s emotional state. The cute illustrations by Julie Kwon help us visualize Peter’s perspective and add personality to the pages. I can’t wait to get a physical copy of the book.

Content/Trigger Warnings: bullying, ableism, hospitalization of a family member

Fanart:

I’ve been experimenting with digital drawing, and it’s still pretty new to me, so excuse the roughness of the drawing. Here’s Peter with two dino friends (not drawn to scale).


About the Author:

Angela Ahn was born in Seoul, but her family immigrated to Canada before she could walk. Armed with a BA, BEd, and MLIS, she worked for several years as a teacher and a librarian, but lately has been working from home, taking care of her two children. When she can, she writes novels for kids. She’s lived most of her life in Vancouver, B.C., with brief stints working in Hong Kong and Toronto. Although she likes to blame her parents for her atrocious Korean language skills, she will admit that she was a reluctant learner. Angela’s proud to say that her children are bookworms, and that every member of her family has a stack of novels by their bed. She’s grateful to be able to write books where her children can see faces, just like theirs, on the front covers. Angela’s first book, Krista Kim-Bap, was published in 2018 and her second book, Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field, will be released March 2021.

Author Links:

Twitter | Instagram | Website | Goodreads

[Blog Tour] 5 Books to Read After Lupe Wong Won’t Dance

Hello and welcome to the second half of my stop on the blog tour for Lupe Wong Won’t Dance hosted by Colored Pages. You can read my review of the book here if you haven’t already.
Since I love middle grade books and want to spread the love, I thought I would feature and recommend some middle grade novels by Asian and Latinx authors with similar themes or vibes as Lupe Wong Won’t Dance.

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

I reviewed this book several years ago and knew that I would read everything by Erin Entrada Kelly after I finished it. Blackbird Fly features a Filipino American girl who wants to be a famous rock star but is struggling to fit in at her predominantly white school, where she ends up on a horrible list called the Dog Log ranking the girls considered the ugliest in their grade. This book gets very real about racism and bullying but emphasizes the beauty of true friendship.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears features a Cuban American protagonist and captures the essence of middle school perfectly: the troubles of fitting in among peers, the frustration of butting heads with your parents, puberty and the confusing aspects of people around you developing crushes and acting weird. It also tackles classism and the experience of being poor in an environment where everyone else is rich and the alienation that comes with it.

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

My Year in the Middle is set in 1970 in Alabama and features an Argentinian American girl who loves to run track and is figuring out her place in a school where classrooms seating is segregated into Black and white. Lu is a passionate, sensitive protagonist whose personality jumps off the page. This story provides a nuanced view of racism in history and sets a great example in showing young readers how to stand up for what is right in spite of doubts and peer pressure.

Pippa Park Raises Her Game by Erin Yun

Pippa Park Raises Her Game is a modern reimagining of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Pippa is a Korean American girl from a lower class background who attends a private school on a basketball scholarship and has major impostor syndrome from having to hide her family’s laundromat from her classmates. Unfortunately, an anonymous troll on social media threatens to expose her secret.

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom by Booki Vivat

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom is the first in a hilarious middle grade series featuring Abbie Wu, who is an anxious Asian American tween trying to keep her head above the water as she enters the dreaded institution known as middle school. The story is told in a combination of simple but expressive doodles and prose that’s super dynamic and fun to read. If you’re prone to catastrophizing and overthinking, you’ll probably find this book super relatable.

[Blog Tour] Review for Lupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera

Hello again! I hope everyone is faring okay. I just started school last week and am trying my best to juggle school and blogging. This week I’m pleased to be a part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages for a middle grade debut novel featuring a biracial Mexican/Chinese American protagonist.

Title: Lupe Wong Won’t Dance
Author: Donna Barba Higuera
Publisher: Levine Querido
Publication Date: September 8th, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Contemporary

Synopsis:

Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues. She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she’s not gonna let that slide.

Not since Millicent Min, Girl Genius has a debut novel introduced a character so memorably, with such humor and emotional insight. Even square dancing fans will agree…

Review:

There’s nothing like middle grade fiction to remind me of my bygone days as an awkward tween/teen. In some ways, reading Lupe Wong Won’t Dance felt like peering into my own middle school memories. This book really evokes the way school is basically your entire life, your peers and teachers have the power to make your existence a living hell, and having friends you can lean on means everything.

The story is told in first-person narration from Lupe’s point of view and is imbued with the humor and emotional honesty expected from a kid who’s trying to assert her will in a world where she only has so much control over her life. I honestly related so much to Lupe’s stubborn opposition to the concept of square dancing. If I had been forced to dance as part of my P.E. class I would have hated it with every fiber of my being as well. Unlike me, however, Lupe actually acts on her will and begins a campaign to cancel the whole affair, with mixed, surprising, and even hilarious results.

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance is a wonderful representation of different friendship dynamics and the ups and downs of those friendships. The struggles of causing and mending a big falling out with your best friend, watching your close friends make other friends who either hate you or don’t vibe with you the same way–all of these experiences are explored in the story, along with the exhilaration of having friends who will stand up for you and make you feel less alone.

I enjoyed the family dynamics portrayed in the book. Lupe’s brother is annoying yet somewhat endearing, and her mom is the epitome of “I love you but please stop embarrassing me.” Her grandparents on both sides are doting, and her grandmothers have a funny competitive streak against each other. The book touches on grief a bit as Lupe’s father passed away prior to the start of the story. Her obsession with meeting the baseball player Fu Li Hernandez is motivated in part by the resemblance he bears to her dad in her mind.

Aside from grief, the story also addresses issues like bullying and racism. Lupe’s mixed race background isn’t the primary source of conflict or the main focus of the story, but some of the microaggressions surrounding that are present. More salient to the plot is the hidden history of square dancing and quintessentially “American” traditions that are steeped in racism and how schools can work to make educational environments safe and inclusive for students of color.

One last thing I liked about this book was the representation of one of Lupe’s best friends, Niles, who’s autistic. I was pleasantly surprised by the way Niles’ sensory issues and boundaries around touch and other neurodivergent traits were brought up in the story organically and without too much fuss. He receives accommodations for certain things, such as navigating crowded hallways, something that I think is important to depict and normalize in children’s literature. Disabled people exist and we deserve equal access to education just like everyone else.

If you’re looking for a diverse middle grade story that will make you laugh and maybe even cover your face in secondhand embarrassment, read Lupe Wong Won’t Dance!


Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Indigo | BAM!

About the Author:

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration. ​

Donna’s Middle Grade and Picture Books are about kids who find themselves in odd or scary situations.​ From language to cultural differences in being biracial life can become…complicated. So like Donna,  characters tackle more than just the bizarre things that happen to them in their lives. 

Donna likes to write about all things funny, but also sad, and creepy, and magical. If you like those things, she hopes you will read her books! ​

Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs. 

Author Links: 

Website – https://www.dbhiguera.com/
Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18946765.Donna_Barba_Higuera
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/donnabarbahiguera/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/dbhiguera
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/donnabarbahiguera

Check out the other stops on the tour!

Schedule

September 8th

Polly Darling’s Books and Tales – Interview and excerpt 
Salty Badger Books – 15 thoughts while reading
El Blog de Aldara –  Playlist 

September 9th 

Melancholic Blithe – Review
Book Lover’s Book Reviews – Review 
Binge Queen – Review 

September 10th

Ecstatic yet Chaotic – Review
Tasting Pages– Review 
Scorpio Reader –   Review

September 11th

Her Book Thoughts – Favorite Quotes
Marshmallow Pudding – Review
Dinah’s Reading Blog – Journal Spread 

September 12th

Yanitza Writes – Review
Loveless Degrees – Review 

September 13th 

By My Shelf – Playlist
READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA – Book recommendations based on book
Nox Reads – Reading vlog video

September 14th 

Too Much Miya – Review
Sometimes Leelynn Reads – Review as GIFs
distinguished detective phantom – Mood board / Aesthetics

[Blog Tour] Books to Read After We Are Not Free

This is the second part of my tour stop for the We Are Not Free tour hosted by Colored Pages.
As I noted in my review, at the end of We Are Not Free, the author provides a bibliography of further readings, and I’d like to add a few recommendations of my own for novels by Japanese American authors that address Japanese/Japanese American experiences during World War II.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

The Last Cherry Blossom is a middle grade historical fiction book that chronicles the tale of a young girl who experiences and survives the bombing of Hiroshima. This book takes you through a lot of emotions as you witness the tragedy through the eyes of Yuriko, who lives in the shadow of a terrible war whose purpose she does not understand but whose effects she feels deeply nonetheless. It’s a moving story of family secrets, love and loss, survival and hope. It is based on the author’s mother’s real life story. For more on the background of this book, you can read my interview with Kathleen Burkinshaw from 2017.

This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

This Time Will Be Different is a contemporary young adult novel that centers on CJ, a Japanese American teen who is still trying to figure out her life and spends her time helping her aunt Hannah at the flower shop her family has run for multiple generations. When her family is pressured to sell the shop to the very people that swindled them back during the era of Japanese American incarceration, CJ finds a sense of purpose and ignites a campaign for reparations that polarizes her family and her community. This is an engaging story that depicts a teen dipping her toes into social justice activism and being realistically messy that also has a complex portrayal of mother-daughter relationships.

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda

This Light Between Us is young adult historical fiction novel with an emotionally gripping and harrowing portrayal of World War II and Japanese American incarceration. It depicts the war through the eyes of a Japanese American boy named Alex and his pen pal, a Jewish girl named Charlie living in France. This book totally blew me away when I read it earlier this year. I felt completely immersed in Alex’s world, as if I were experiencing the events alongside him as he moved from home to internment camp to the battle front in Europe. The letters and bond between him and Charlie were sweet and a ray of light in the looming darkness, a testament to deep friendship. The parallels between Alex and Charlie’s lives as minorities facing persecution were striking and skillfully emphasized. The complexity of Japanese Americans’ feelings about their citizenship/identity and serving in the military were also explored in a nuanced and thought-provoking way.

Displacement by Kiku Hughes

Displacement by Kiku Hughes is a young adult graphic novel that weaves fact and fiction, jumping between present and past. In this book, a fictionalized version of the author/artist Kiku is suddenly transported to the time of World War II and experiences incarceration alongside her late grandmother, who was a teenager at the time. Displacement is a timely, poignant, and introspective examination of history, family, and intergenerational trauma, as well as the need to make sure history does not repeat itself in the present. The dominant color palettes of brown and orange and blue-green-gray convey the muted atmosphere of the camps very well. I also really loved the use of lines, shadows, and silhouettes to convey movement and contrast. Displacement makes a perfect complement to We Are Not Free because it includes some of the same locations: San Francisco, Tanforan Assembly Center (San Bruno, California), and Topaz City, Utah. You can see the details and events brought to life in a different medium.

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor was Divine is an adult historical fiction novel. It was my introduction to Japanese American incarceration in fiction. I read it in one of my Asian American studies courses, Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Literature. Like We Are Not Free, When the Emperor was Divine narrates the events through multiple points of view, following the four members of a single family forced into the camps. While the viewpoint characters in We Are Not Free are all teens or young adults, the ones in When the Emperor was Divine are either adults or younger children (ages 11 and 8). The characters are also nameless. This authorial choice creates a sense of narrative distance that contrasts with We Are Not Free, but it is still evocative in its own way, like watching a black and white film.


Don’t miss out on the other stops in the blog tour!

August 30th

Book Rambler – Welcome post & interview

Mellas Musings – Favorite quotes

Debjani’s Thoughts – Review Only

Sophie Schmidt – Review in Gifts

August 31st

The Reading Fairy – Review Only

Her Book Thoughts – Favorite Quotes

What Irin Reads – Review Only

September 1st

Sometimes Leelynn Reads – Author Interview

The Confessions Of A Music And Book Addict – Review Only

Emelie’s Books – Mood Board

Too Much Miya – Fanart /Art related to the story

September 2nd

Yna the Mood Reader – Favorite Quotes

The Writer’s Alley – Review Only

Marshmallow Pudding – Favorite Quotes

September 3rd

Div Reads – Reading vlog

Clairefy – Review Only

Know Your Books – Favorite Quotes

September 4th

READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA – Book Recommendations Based on Book

Per_fictionist – Favorite Quotes

Mamata – Review Only

September 5th

Wilder Girl Reads – Review Only

Lives In Books – Book Recommendations Based on Books

A Fangirl’s Haven – Review Only