Picture This . . .

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Picture This . . .

Picture Books That Bring Asia and the Pacific Islands into Focus

Thanks to a congressional act in 1992 Asian/Pacific American Month is annually observed in the month of May. May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.

Below I have highlighted one or two picture books for children that depict Asian and Pacific Islanders, their fables, traditions and/or cultural heritage from days of yore. All of these tales tie in references to actual events, holidays and/or artifacts from the various cultural groups that comprise Asian and Pacific Islander heritage. 

Picture Books featuring East Asian culture (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese...)

Henry and the Kite Dragon by Bruce Edward Hall 
Set in the segregated 1920s, Henry, an eight-year-old resident of New York City's Chinatown, is enamored with Grandfather Chin's beautiful handmade kites. Henry and his young friends jump at the chance to learn and assist Grandfather Chin as he builds, decorates and flies the elaborate, acrobatic beauties -- only to be repeatedly destroyed by the children in neighboring Little Italy who throw rocks at them. The Chinatown kids' frustration with the boys from Little Italy quickly builds up to an unprecedented confrontation between the two during which there is a revelation as to why the rocks are thrown and how the problem can be resolved with a little bit of communication, cultural understanding, and courtesy.

Yoko’s Show-and-Tell by Rosemary Wells
Yoko the kitten is surprised with the arrival of a Japanese family heirloom doll from her grandparents, obaasan and ojiisan, just in time to celebrate a Japanese holiday, “Girls Day,” (Hina Matsuri) on March 3. Despite her mother’s “Big No” voice forbidding her to take this delicate, treasured item to school, Yoko sneaks the doll into her school bag, eager to share her cultural heritage during show-and-tell. Yoko does not suspect that school bus bullying would interfere with her plans and is saddened and fearful of repercussions when her special doll is seriously damaged. Some young children’s impetuous natures and juvenile judgement are recognizable in this story, and Mama cat briefly acknowledges the teachable moment, then helps provide a smile-inducing solution to the problems at hand.


Picture Books featuring Southeast Asian culture (Burmese, Cambodian, Filipino, Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese...)

Hush! A Thai Lullaby by Minfong Ho
A protective Thai mother gently cautions and chastises the indigenous animals into a noiseless hush as her baby sleeps. From the tiniest "Wee Wee" of the mosquito to the "Hoom-Praa!" of the majestic elephant, each nearby animal is coaxed into quiet restfulness with the lilting refrain, "Can't you see that Baby's sleeping? ...[D]on't you cry, [my] baby's sleeping right nearby." Only the exhausted, dozing mother is unaware that perhaps not everyone is resting after all. Baby and mother's home on a verdant farm in Thailand is brought to life by Holly Meade's lovely depictions in cut paper and ink, which earned her a Caldecott Honor in 1997.


Picture Books featuring South Asian culture  (Afghan, Bangladeshi, Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Tibetan...)

Divali Rose by Vashanti Rahaman
Illustrated with a combination of subdued and defined oil pastels, Divali Rose uses coloquial speech to emphasize themes of community, cultural identity, prejudice and the ethics of truth-telling…conspicuously tricky subject matter set in the cultural melting pot within the country of Trinidad. As the festival of Divali approaches, Ricki anxiously awaits the blooming of two of his Grandfather’s special “Divali rosebuds” in the front yard. When Ricki’s zeal causes the treasured flower’s accidental breakage, he must weigh the consequences of confessing his error or allowing his newly immigrated Indian neighbors to suffer his grandfather’s accusations of theft. Ricki remarks that their family is Indian too, his grandfather's bigotry implying that their family’s long history as Trinidadian residents is superior to that of their fresh-off-the-boat neighbors. Thus the stage is set for a life lesson about truth, trust and cultural acceptance. Rahaman's author's note shares child-friendly facts about the Hindu holiday Divali, and the people and dialects of Trinidad that merely scratch the surface of the deeper transcultural complexities of expatriation and racial bias.

Ganesha's Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel & Emily Haynes
Patel and Haynes have crafted a fictional origin story for the epic poem, the Mahābhārata that will appeal to children. Mythological Hindu deity, Ganesha, is a child who may look a bit different since he has the head of an elephant, but his love of sweets will be relatable to most children. Ganesha and his trusty magical pal, Mr. Mouse, embark on a mission to collect as many sweet treats (especially the traditional Indian “laddoo”) as possible, but their dogged pursuit of sweeties and Ganesha’s careless snacking lead to a broken tusk, frustration and humiliation. It is only when Ganesha meets a poet named Vyasha that he realizes that the broken tusk, this very special tooth of his, can serve a nobler purpose and creative function that will be treasured for centuries! An animator and storyboard artist, Patel’s bold, ornate graphic illustrations pop off the page in Pixar-esque style to delight the reader and bring the colors and patterns of India alive.


Picture Books featuring Pacific Island culture (Maori, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian...)

The Impossible Voyage of Kon-Tiki by Deborah Kogan Ray
Ray uses primary source materials and quotes from the journals of Norwegian anthropologist, Thor Heyerdahl, to recount the humble little Kon-Tiki raft's dangerous voyage from the Peruvian coast to the shores of Polynesia in 1947. Aware of the Pacific Islanders' local legends about their "ancestors from across the sea" and noting the resemblance of carved statues from both cultures, Heyerdahl was determined to prove the impossible--that Polynesian peoples of Fatu Hiva may have in fact descended from ancient South American Incans who sailed the vast Pacific on "primitive rafts."  Each page of the Ray's tale commences with a revealing quote from Heyerdahl's journal which documented some of the events during the 101 day journey across 4,300 nautical miles. Undaunted by nay-saying scholars, Heyerdahl believed in the possible connections between the mythic Polynesian Tiki and the Incan god Kon-Tiki Viracocha. Ray's supplemental notes and bibliography suggest resources for readers to learn more about this intrepid traveler/researcher/ecological advocate and the fascinating, culturally rich areas he explored off the coasts of Asia and Africa.