Asian teenage boys – they just might be one of the least represented demographics in English-language children’s literature. And this is on top of the disheartening fact that boys in general read less than girls. Yet, if you’re a teacher or parent in Beijing, that demographic makes up a pretty big proportion of your daily life – possibly even a majority.
Fortunately for you and your children, although such books are few and far between, there do exist a few recently published and high-quality reads that the handsome, dark-haired young man in your life might find just a little more relevant than the typical fare put out by Western publishers. Here are five recommended reads for a teenage audience, all starring Asian males grappling with issues that at times may feel particular to their race and gender, yet remain relevant to teenagers everywhere.
Girls for Breakfast
By David Yoo
Nick Park has gone his whole life blaming his descent into “social Siberia” on being Korean-American in an affluent white town. However, after utterly humiliating himself on prom night in front of the girl he likes, Nick spends graduation day reflecting on his past. Through his recollection of a lifetime’s worth of very painful – and wildly funny – mishaps, Nick comes to realize there might be other reasons for his maladjustment. Nick’s storied past includes leading a karate class on the playground after lying about being a fourth-degree black belt; his embarrassment at the way his father pronounces his friend Mitch’s name “Meetch”; and a whole lot of harebrained and ill-fated schemes revolving around his one overwhelming obsession: girls. On top of all that, there’s the Korean church his parents force him to attend, where the other kids call him “banana.” At their best, his antics are exercises in self-delusion, and at their worst, downright creepy, but by the end there’s hope that Nick just might figure out how to be comfortable with himself. Before you buy, take note that there is a good deal of swearing and sex talk throughout, but well, that’s what high school is like.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before
By David Yoo
Sixteen-year-old Albert Kim has decided to deal with the angst of teen life in a white suburban town by being an “intentional loser,” coasting along under the high school radar as a veritable mute with no friends, but also no drama. However, through a summer job at a nearby motel he winds up working alongside Mia Stone, the most popular girl in school. By the time school starts again, they’re an item, but alas, there’s no happily ever after for Albert Kim. Mia’s ex-boyfriend is Ryan Stackhouse, lacrosse hero and all-around school superstar, who has has just been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Albert soon finds himself on the wrong side of a community-wide wave of support for Ryan, and seems to be the only one to notice that, cancer or no cancer, Ryan is still a jerk who’s pulling the pity card to get Mia to care for him. Albert is alternately a dislikeable and self-involved dimwit, a hilarious narrator who will make readers laugh out, and so unbearably awkward that you’ll find yourself needing to put the book down when it gets too painful. Eventually, Albert realizes that even when it puts him in the slightly uncomfortable position of being vilified by the entire town, emerging from his shell and actually engaging with the world is still a whole lot better than living life as a zombie. Be aware of edgy language throughout.
By Ben Esch
Life is tough for Dixie Nguyen, a skinny, adopted Vietnamese-American kid in a small town where jocks rule. It doesn’t help that in his mission to be a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist, he’s always sticking his nose where he’s not wanted, trusty notebook in hand. But for Dixie, getting his head shoved into toilets and being called Pixie Dick by football-loving meatheads is worth it if he can crack what he’s convinced is a school-wide drug ring, perhaps with the help of that cute goth ex-cheerleader he keeps bumping into. This the author’s first novel and it shows – the plot abounds with wildly implausible moments and the action is jerky, but what it lacks in coherence it makes up for in humor. Anyone with a cynical appreciation for the absurd will enjoy the sarcastic jokes and kooky characters like Huggy Bear, the well-meaning guidance counselor. Some parents may find the content a bit too edgy, so be forewarned that in addition to a plotline centered around methamphetamines there are also some raw descriptions, particularly of being bullied, and humor that at times veers on the inappropriate. Overall, however, Dixie’s relentlessly upbeat good nature prevails, so rest assured that the book’s overall positive messages about perseverance, believing in yourself, and rooting for the underdog, are lessons that anyone can get behind.
American Born Chinese
By Gene Luen Yang
This graphic novel weaves together three separate story lines that eventually merge. One is the semi-autobiographical tale of a lonely Chinese-American middle-schooler grappling with racism both overt and unintentional in a predominantly white suburb, and more disturbingly, his own internalized racism which emerges when an immigrant Chinese student arrives at his school. The second is the traditional Chinese folk story of the Monkey King, who aspires to transcend his mere monkey status and become a god. The third is a sitcom, complete with laugh track, about a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy and his embarrassing Chinese cousin who intentionally embodies every possible negative Chinese stereotype possible – he wears a rice-picking hat, has buck teeth, and speaks chop suey Chinglish. Yang’s message of transcendence and acceptance won this book a nod as Finalist for America’s National Book Award, the first graphic novel to be recognized by the foundation.
Secret Identities: The Asian-American Superhero Anthology
Edited by Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow and Jerry Ma
For decades, a huge number of the behind-the-scenes folks writing, drawing, and animating superhero comics have been Asians, but when it comes to the actual characters who populate those comics, well, the best you can hope for is a diminutive sidekick practicing a few kung fu moves alongside some hulking white dude who reaps all the glory (and gets all the girls). Here to save the day comes this collection of original comics conceived by, written, drawn, and most importantly, starring powerful Asian superheroes – of both sexes. While some of the stories feel like forced history lessons (the building of America’s railroads, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII), the majority are witty, ebullient, and playful investigations into Asian-American identity, often involving sly send-ups of common stereotypes like Korean laundromat owners and the misperception that all Asians know martial arts. Some of the comics choose not to comment on race at all, simply giving us some good old-fashioned Nazi gremlin butt-kicking. The list of collaborators is an impressive who’s who of Asian-American pop culture, including several writers, inkers, illustrators and animators who have worked on Beavis & Butthead, Star Wars, and such comic-world monoliths as GI Joe, Planet Hulk, Batman, and The Flash; along with actors and other notables like Kelly Hu (Lady Deathstrike from X2: X-Men United) and Keiko Agena (Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls.)
Titles available on Amazon.com and at The Bookworm.