Illustrated API children’s books offer lessons in identity

Nan Ma January 8, 2018 0

In Kat Zhang’s The Emperor’s Riddle, eleven-year-old Mia Chen is reluctant to leave her friends in America behind for a month-long trip in Fuzhou, China. Her only consolation is the company of her beloved Aunt Lin, who shares and understands Mia’s propensity for pondering and daydreaming. However, Aunt Lin goes missing shortly after she shows Mia an heirloom painting that connects their family to a Ming emperor whose hidden treasures, according to legend, have never been unearthed. Mia turns to the painting for clues and soon realizes that solving the riddles left behind by the emperor may be the only way to find Aunt Lin.

The Emperor’s Riddle is gripping in its suspense, which makes up for its occasional implausible storyline. For instance, it is difficult to imagine that adults would allow Chinese American children who speak limited Chinese to roam the streets and tourist sites of China on their own. However, what makes the book a satisfying read is not only the mystery it unravels, but also its portrayal of self-discovery and empowerment of the second-generation Asian American child.

As Mia tackles the riddles with the help of her family, she gradually learns to appreciate how her own identity is rooted in the larger context of Chinese history and heritage and gains a sense of belonging. Combining mystery with an exploration of bicultural identity, The Emperor’s Riddle is an important addition to young adult fiction.

Maya Lin: Thinking with Her Hands, by Susan Goldman Rubin, is an accessible, engaging, intimate portrait of an admirable and important artist. It chronicles the diverse and impressive opus of Lin’s work and the socially conscious vision that informs it. A compilation of absorbing narration and photographs, Rubin’s well-researched text captivatingly illustrates Lin’s artistic growth and social engagement. Lin’s biography is seamlessly interwoven with descriptions of some of her most representative works, including The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Civil Rights Memorial, The Museum of Chinese in America, and the Confluence Project. Maya Lin: Thinking with Her Hands is an informative and enjoyable read.

Bear’s Big Day, by Salina Yoon illustrates the complex range of emotions a youngster experiences when going to school for the first time. Bear, believing that big bears go to school alone, leaves his beloved stuffed bunny Floppy behind. Bear soon learns that growing up does not mean he has to part with his childhood friends. Through the use of bright colors and simple shapes, Yoon has created vividly expressive characters. Readers of all ages will be captivated by the colorful illustrations and find Bear’s emotions easily identifiable and relatable.

Author Akiko Miyakoshi delivers again with The Way Home in the Night. As with her previous work, The Tea Party in the Woods, Miyakoshi bestows ordinary scenes with magical quality and imbues a make-believe world with deep feelings. A mother rabbit and a lethargic bunny are on their way home. As the mother carries the youngster through quiet, darkened streets, neighborhood businesses close for the night and evening activities commence. The bunny’s five senses tune in to what unfolds behind neighboring windows: the baking of a pie, telephone ringing, someone watching TV, a dinner party. Beautifully illustrated, The Way Home in the Night is a heartwarming masterpiece.

In Spork, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, the titular character is neither spoon nor fork, and so is a misfit in the cutlery world. Eager to feel a sense of belonging, Spork tries to conform by first appearing more spoon-ish and then more fork-ish. However, his efforts prove to be futile as conventional spoons and forks continue to focus on his difference. One day, a messy thing appears and foregoes all cutlery customs, and Spork learns to embrace his difference. Spork, based on the author’s own exploration of her biracial identity, is a charming tale of self-discovery and acceptance.

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