Viewing a country through an author’s lens is one of the best ways to understand a country or culture. But with millions of books on the market, how do you narrow down what you should read? Our picks after the jump are appropriate for a variety of ages and range from fiction to non-fiction, picture books, essay collections, historical fiction, and modern analysis. Some describe the first- or second-generation Chinese experience while others take place here.
Young Readers and Elementary School Students (Ages 4-12)
Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young (1996)
This version of Little Red Riding Hood features many twists and deviations to keep it interesting for those already familiar with the original. The book is beautifully illustrated, making it perfect for story time. Be warned – younger children may find the ending a bit scary.
The Dragon’s Egg by Alison Baird (1990)
The Chinese-Canadian main character, Ai Lien, finds a mysterious egg hatches into a tiny dragon. He helps her with homework and bullies, but what will happen when he inevitably grows too large to stay in the house?
Cee Cee’s World Adventures: Beijing Bound by Neela Eyuuni (2014)
This picture book written by a CCTV anchor tells the story of 10-year-old Cee Cee’s trip to Beijing and her adventures learning about Chinese history. Young readers will especially enjoy seeing familiar places such as the Great Wall and local markets. Find out more about the book and author here.
Dragonwings by Laurence Yep (2001)
Dragonwings follows Moon Shadow Lee as he moves from China to settle down with his father in San Francisco in the early 20th century. Although classified as historical fantasy, the book tackles themes like racism and the American Dream, making it a great resource for learning about Chinese-American history.
Young Adult (Ages 16-18)
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (2011)
Dream of Ding Village is set in Henan in the 1990s AIDS epidemic caused by black market blood trade. Powerfully told by a narrator from the grave, this historical fiction book touches upon themes of hopelessness, greed and misguided compassion.
The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun (2010)
This short story collection features translations of all of Lu Xun’s best-known stories, such as “Diary of a Madman” and “Tomorrow.” These works illustrate the poverty, obsession with social standing, and the mixed feelings about revolution in the early 1900s.
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (2010)
As suggested by the title, the book follows Shanghai girls Pearl and May from their time as society girls in China’s most modern city to detainees at Angel’s Island, the California equivalent of Ellis Island. There, they find themselves trapped and interrogated and have to stick together and remain true to themselves
Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin (2011)
Based on a true story, Nanjing Requiem follows American citizen and school principal Minnie Vautrin, who chooses to keep her school in Nanjing open even as the city erupts into turmoil following the rape of Nanking. Movingly narrated in first-person, Nanjing Requiem offers an insight to the desperation of war and the immense strength
China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom (2013)
Organized roughly in chronological order and sectioned off by questions, the book is a must-read for beginners looking to understand the complexities of the country many of us call home. It looks back on China’s history in analyzing the present and discussing the future, providing a comprehensive view on the changes China has undergone and will continue to undergo.
Fat China by Paul French and Matthew Crabbe (2010)
This book analyzes patterns of obesity and body image in China as the middle class grows and society becomes more westernized. The authors also discuss the likely effects of obesity on China’s development, especially on the healthcare system.
Debating China edited by Nina Hachigian (2014)
The essays in this book are organized into a collegial exchange between American and Chinese scholars on topics such as the media, human rights, and global responsibility. The back-and-forth format lets readers understand how each side views matters of common interest and what that means for US-China relations.
Death of a Red Heroine by Qian Xiaolong (2003)
The first book from the critically-acclaimed series follows Inspector Chen as he investigates the mysterious death of a public figure. This isn’t your typical crime novel because Chen isn’t your typical inspector; he’s also a poet, making allusions to Chinese poetry as skillfully as he navigates crime scenes and the politics of post-Tian’anmen Square China.
Get your hands on these books by visiting bookstores like Page One, buying them as e-books for your digital device, or trying your luck at the Roundabout book fair this Saturday. Happy reading!
Heather Budimulia is a rising college sophomore, beijingkids’ intern and 北京人in progress. Though originally from Singapore, she spent a decade in Beijing and since she learned to bake and fell in love with publication there, considers it her home. When not in the office or storing sleep for college, she’ll probably be in a coffee shop with a good book, her journal or a stranger (or all three).
Photos courtesy of Ian Collins (flickr) and Amazon