These books with Asian characters spread East Asia to Central Asia, to Asian-Americans living in the US. I have recommended these to my ESL students, and to kids with multicultural backgrounds, who identify with the characters who often are going through a balancing act of cultures and trying to fit in with mainstream culture. I choose books with strong characters of a variety of backgrounds for my own sons, who are adopted from China, Ethiopia, and the US.
But these books with Asian characters are not only for kids who identify with their cultural heritage. Reading books about people from who are struggling and dealing with kid and teenage angst (whether it’s in the West Bank, a Japanese internment camp, or New York City) allows kids identify with characters who might have a different cultural heritage. Instead of “othering,” the readers feel the same emotions and frustrations, and understand that despite their differences, kids around the world are looking for friendship, and want to do their best in their activities. These books with Asian characters I have chosen have very relatable characters, so your readers will connect with the characters and remember their stories.
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Chapter Books with Asian Characters
The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng. My daughter says this books is great for kids who love to read, as it mentions classic literature throughout the story. Chinese-American, Anna, has some girl drama with her friends and turns to reading to balance her loneliness and learn about friendship.
Extra Credit by Andrew Clements. When Abby has to do extra credit to pass English class, she gets a pen-pal from rural Afghanistan. She and Sadeed explore cultural differences, and learn about their own communities as well.
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Lucy Wu, basketball star, has her Chinese great aunt staying with her for the summer. Plans are ruined, but she finds a way to come out on top!
Paper Wishes, by Lois Sepahban. Manami is forced into a Japanese internment camp during World War II and is unable to bring her dog alone. This historical fiction novel is quite somber- keep the kleenex nearby.
Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan. This is a very charming story about a Muslim, Pakistani-American girl who wants to fit in. The usual friendship hardships that happen in Middle School, plus a strict father and plenty of cultural traditions help to tell the sweet story. Pay attention to the ending and get ready for some good conversations and questions from kids.
Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari. This thrilling mystery takes place in urban NYC. With graffiti art, parkour, yoga, and strong sibling relationships, the Indian-American characters work together to learn about their family history.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee. Millicent Min is a brilliant student, but just wants to be accepted by her peers. As a Chinese-American, she’s navigating pressure from peers, her parents, and school, and her voice draws readers in.
Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee. This is the laugh-out-loud companion book to Millicent Min, who is tutoring Stanford Wong, a basketball star failing school. Very funny!
Kimchi & Calamari by Rose Kent. This is a solid story that sensitively explores an adoptee from Korea, and his struggle to research a school project about his ancestors.
Unidentified Suburban Object, by Mike Jung. Chloe Cho is tired of dealing with Asian stereotypes and racism, as a Korean-American living in an all-white town. Kids will identify with Chloe’s desire to fit in while she balances her cultural identity.
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord. Shirley Temple Wong is a Chinese immigrant to New York, and gets swept up in baseball fever, cheering for the Dodgers. A great read for kids to understand what a new immigrant faces.
Momotaro Xander and the Dream Thief, by Margaret Dilloway. Xander Miyamoto discovers that an old Japanese folktale is part of his history, and he in facts has warrior powers, and must use them to save his family and friends.
Where the Streets Had a Name, by Randa Abdel-Fattah. Palestinian Hayaat attempts to journey from Palestinian territories to Jerusalem for a family obligation. It’s a lovely story that explores a Muslim-Christian friendship.
Boys without Names by Kashmira Sheth. This books is set in a Mumbai sweatshop, where Gopal works in horrible conditions with his friends. They survive by telling stories and redefine the meaning of family. Extra material on child labor and modern slavery.
Funny in Farsi, by Firoozeh Dumas. Really humorous read about an Iranian family growing up in the US, and their encounters with fast food to late night comedies.
Listen, Slowly, by Thanhha Lai. Written by an incredible author, this story tells how a girl spends the summer in Vietnam with grandparents, and discovers the beauty of her heritage.
Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan. When a bully is bothering 2 students (a newcomer from India and a kid from the US) they join together agains the bully and end up becoming friends. Great book to talk about empathy.
Ninjas, Piranhas, Galileo, by Greg Leitich Smith. This humorous story is set during a science fair, and touches on adoption (from Japan), and balancing cultures and friends.
The Land of Forgotten Girls, by Erin Entrada Kelly. After a family tragedy, two sisters move from The Philippines to Louisiana, and try to find hope and start anew.
Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed. Set in Pakistan, Amal is crushed when she has to leave school to care for her siblings. There are a lot of hardships she has to overcome, and shows perseverance and persistence to achieve her dreams.
Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo. This is required reading at my kids’ middle school for 6th graders, and they both thought the book was a difficult topic, but they were glad they read it. Set in Pakistan, Iqbal is a slave boy working in a rug factory. He has to stand up for what is right despite impossible odds, and ends up escaping and rescuing many other kids.
The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis. Parvana is a young girl in Afghanistan, on an impossible mission. She has to disguise herself as a boy to earn money and support her family when her father is arrested.
Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata. This might be a difficult book for kids who are adopted and/or struggling with attachment issues. Jaden is adopted and has trouble at home. When his family travels to Kazakhstan to adopt another baby, he wonders if they are replacing him. It is a very happy ending and a great story about second chances.
Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-fattah. This is a typical teen story of trying to fit in, attract the eye of a cute boy, with an added depth of wearing the hijab, and the prejudice a Muslim girl faces in the US.
Warcross by Marie Lu. When the popular game Warcross starts to take over take over, teenage hacker Emika glitches herself into the action. A thrilling, sci-fi based in Tokyo for kids in late middle school/early high school.
What an amazing list of books with Asian characters! Here are the book covers in order as they appear above: