Mitali Perkins often discusses how stories can serve as windows and mirrors for readers. “The best novels let young people gain insight into other lives as well as reflect realities in their own lives,” she writes. It is vital that readers have the opportunity to see themselves in stories, as well as for readers of other backgrounds to both explore different experiences and attitudes and gain an appreciation for the similarities that exist. The lack of representation of teens from a variety of ethnicities, abilities, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders and sexualities is problematic, but since Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is coming up in May, I’d like to focus on the troublesome lack of YA novels featuring Asian-American guys.
To be sure, there are also too few YA books about Asian-American females. However, there are quite a few more than novels with Asian-American male protagonists, and undoubtedly there are certain storylines in which this gender difference would make for a distinctly different novel (the eldest son of a traditional family that recently emigrated versus a younger daughter in a similar family, for example). There is no such thing as a single, universal Asian-American experience. And while more stories about Asian-American teens in general would reinforce this, more Asian-American male stories are needed in particular, since these books are severely underrepresented.
How bad is it out there? I maintain a list of YA fiction with Asian-American protagonists, including hapa characters. Revisiting this list—there are more books about teen Asian-American males than I remembered—well, numbers are relative. By my count there’s been a total of 10 books published since 2006: Borderline by Allan Stratton if you include an Iranian American protagonist (Iran is part of Asia); the post-apocalyptic-does-America-even-exist-anymore? zombie novel Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry; and Crossing by Andrew Xia Fukuda, which was first published as an adult novel even though it’s been cited on teen lists, so perhaps it’s more of a crossover. Add in a couple of books in which the Asian-American guy is not the only protagonist, plus one about a teen who can turn into a dragon.
Here’s my recollection of books with Asian-American protagonists—if I missed one, let me know:
The American by Justin Allen (Overlook, 2009)
All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg (Scholastic, 2009)
The Painted Boy by Charles de Lint (Viking, 2010)
Sophomore Undercover by Ben Esch (Hyperion, 2009)
Crossing by Andrew Xia Fukuda (Amazon Encore, 2010)
My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger (Dial, 2008)
Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Mismatch by Lensey Namioka (Delacorte, 2006)
Borderline by Allan Stratton (HarperTeen, 2010)
Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before by David Yoo (Hyperion, 2008)
Ten is hardly anything to cheer about, especially since I wouldn’t recommend all the books.
Admittedly, I haven’t read all 10 of these books. The poor reviews for Sophomore Undercover scared me off. I didn’t finish The Painted Boy, unable to get past what Kirkus called“[a] disappointing effort...overlong and underimagined...[with] too much telling rather than showing.” Mismatch suffered from didactic writing, as well as a generic voice and plodding storyline. The American has an interesting plot, but also flat, stereotypical characters and a disconcerting end.
Here's what I recommend. While Borderline follows a rather canned plot—Iranian-American teen Sami Sabiri's father is arrested by the FBI, accused of assisting terrorists—Stratton's blend of family drama and suspense is a fast-paced, sympathetic read. All the Broken Pieces, a novel in verse about 12-year-old Matt Pin who was adopted by an American family after he was airlifted out of Vietnam, is equally heartrending and lovely.
Additionally, Rot & Ruin, the 2010 Cybils winner for YA Fantasy and Science Fiction, went a little overboard in terms of East Asian philosophizing when it came to Tom's zombie hunting. Between this and that, uh, thing that would be a spoiler toward the end—you can probably guess what I'm referring to if you've read the book (I was all set to give Maberry props for doing what I thought he did, but no)—I'm not quite as high on it as other readers, though it's a good readalike for Justin Cronin's The Passage.
My absolute favorite of the bunch is My Most Excellent Year, winner of the 2009 Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. Augie Hwong is, in a word, awesome. I love him. He's one of three narrators in this largely epistolary novel, best friends and “brothers” with another of the narrators, T.C. Keller. Augie is athletic, dramatic, a huge fan of musicals, and initially has no idea he's gay, though it's obvious to everyone else. Some may consider Augie too-typically gay, but I was enchanted by the warmth and humor of My Most Excellent Year. Give it a try, I hope you will be, too.
Trisha Murakami blogs at The YA YA YAs. My Most Excellent Year is not just one of her favorite Asian-American YA novels, it's one of her favorite YA novels, period. As an Asian-American and YA librarian, she has decidedly strong opinions on Asian-American YA fiction, though she admits that her opinions on this topic may be skewed by being born and raised in Hawaii.