Asian-American Heritage Through Literature
Exposure to Asian-American literature should be integrated throughout the school year, but May's Asian-American Heritage Month focus is a good time for more in-depth study.
Creating a Balanced Collection
Our children need books that are culturally sensitive and offer authentic images of Asians and Asian-Americans. They need access to a balanced set of books that show all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. It is important to keep the following issues in mind:
- Distinguish between Asian and Asian-American literature. Asian-American experiences have their roots in their Asian homeland, but are naturally influenced over generations by living among other Asians and other ethnic Americans. Many Asian-American children may feel more connection to the U.S. than to the country of their cultural origin because they were born and raised in the U.S. Both kinds of books are necessary.
- Much of the literature about Asians that is used in classrooms is set in "long ago and far away" times. Using only folklore or historical fiction creates a one-sided view among students. Be sure to balance your collection and the books you teach by also choosing contemporary stories and informational books that include images of Asians and Asian-American people today.
- Some books contain images and portraits of Asians and Asian-Americans but are not really "about" being from a particular culture. These books are all right to include in a collection. But they don't go far enough. Be sure to also select books that are filled with rich details that are culturally specific.
Experimenting with Different Genres
It is important to make connections among books and to connect books to children's lives. Teachers and librarians can select meaningful themes like: Identity, Family Relationships, Immigration Experiences, and Sense of Belonging. These cut across cultural lines and allow readers to see similarities and differences across cultures. More importantly, seeing such similarities and differences highlights how individuals within a cultural group experience their lives.
Many books are available to help celebrate Asian-American Heritage Month. Books like The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn and The Demon in the Teahouse by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler are engaging as read alouds or page-turning independent reading. Both are mysteries set in historical Japan, and include many details that set the story specifically in Japan, but feature universal themes that appeal to readers in the U.S. as well.
Other examples of recommended books include:
Folktales: It's likely that children will already know familiar tales like European versions of Cinderella or Red Riding Hood. Reading books like Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young and Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China by Ai-Ling Louie offer opportunities to see similarities and differences as they compare and contrast them with the Western versions they should already know. Have students create Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting traditional American tales with Asian-American renditions.
Historical Fiction: Picture books that are ageless in appeal offer a wide range of opportunities to hear stories that invite reflection and to discuss important events of the past. Coolies by Yin tells the story of the contributions of the Chinese in building the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida shows what happened to Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, and Sadako by Eleanor Coerr tells the story of a little girl who died of leukemia following the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. These books could be read aloud to a class, followed by a discussion that helps set a context when introducing a unit of study.
Contemporary Realistic Fiction: Young children who read Dear Juno by Soyung Pak can delight in an exchange of "letters" between a little boy in the U.S. and his grandmother who lives in Korea as they find a way to communicate through photographs, drawings, and items they send to each other. As a follow-up activity, students can record a "journal", using only pictures, of a day in their life. Tape pages from the students' journals on the blackboard and have classmates create the text corresponding to the pictures. Reading a book like A Step from Heaven by An Na helps teen readers to see one example of a contemporary immigrant story, powerfully told in a way that blends a young girl's coming-of-age struggles with immigrant and family issues. Facilitate a pre-reading discussion of the sorts of challenges that immigrants might face in adjusting to a new culture.
Informational: The Emperor's Silent Army by Jane O'Connor tells of the fascinating find of the clay army in Xian, China. It combines history and modern times as it reveals how this enormous army was hidden for centuries and discovered only in recent years. Create a classroom timeline that highlights important dates in Asian or Asian-American history. Encourage students to add to the timeline as they continue to learn more about Asian-Americans' past.