Humanizing Asian Americans in the Classroom Through Children’s Literature

Asian American stories are often absent from classroom libraries. In this article, one educator explains why this gap is so harmful—and recommends ways to fix it.
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With the rise in anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes in the U.S.—rooted in historical antecedents of anti-Asian violence and exclusion—educators have an important role to play in centering Asian American communities in the classroom. Regardless of our student populations, the stories we highlight in our curriculum can result in a recognition of a shared humanity across differences.

Asian Americans have been in what we call the United States since before its inception, with Filipino sailors coming to what is now Louisiana in the 1750s. Yet xenophobia has followed Asian communities from the beginning—through discourse, such as phrases like “yellow peril” or “dusky peril” referring to Asian immigrants, and through racist policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and later the Immigration Act of 1917, which created the “Asiatic Zone of Barred Citizenship,” entirely excluding immigrants from numerous countries from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands.

Despite their long history in the United States, Asian Americans have faced and continue to face hate crimes and racism rooted in a larger historical trope that no matter how long communities have been here, they are “perpetual foreigners.” The research on identity-based bullying demonstrates that Asian Americans continually face incidents rooted in this notion of foreign-ness. For example, Asian Americans are often belittled for their names, the languages they speak, the food they eat, or their appearances. One in four Asian American young people report having been bullied, with most of these instances occurring at school.

Educators have an important role to play in interrupting such forms of hate.

The following books can offer an entry point to humanizing Asian American communities and centering their stories as part of the larger American story. Each subsection counteracts the myth of the “perpetual foreigner” and could help interrupt forms of bullying that have been documented towards Asian Americans.

Elementary School Resources

Books About Names 

A typical form of bullying that occurs relates to Asian Americans being teased about their names or the languages they speak. 

Always Anjali tells the story of a young girl, Anjali, who changes her name to Julie after she’s bullied for having a different name by other kids at school. The story follows Anjali in finding pride in her name and standing up to those who seek to belittle her.

The Name Jar tells the story of a recent immigrant from Korea, Unhei, and her fear about what the other children will call her. A classmate learns the meaning of her name and helps the class pronounce it correctly.

Books About Foods 

Another form of bullying relates to the foods children bring to school and the resultant shame children may feel about their cultural heritage. Stereotypes about what Asian Americans eat abound. Recently, a friend who is a middle school educator shared an incident from his classroom in which one student asked an Asian American boy in the Zoom chat if he eats dogs.

No Kimchi for Me and The Pho Team normalize Asian American foods and introduce them to readers of any age. The book My Family is from Different Places highlights families with mixed racial heritage and also includes a poignant incident of a girl feeling bad that her friends are not trying a dish her mom has brought to school.

Such resources can help educators broach these subjects and lead discussions with young ones about the power of respect and empathy.

Books About Appearance 

Many Asian Americans report being bullied for the shape of their eyes, and internalized dislike for eye shape can exist in Asian communities, as well. A new book, Eyes that Kiss in the Corners, shares a young girl’s pride in the shape of her eyes.

Ridicule and internally felt shame can also occur with regard to facial hair. The book Laxmi’s Mooch offers a nice counterpoint to this.

Books Centering Asian Americans in U.S. History 

The struggles to combat exclusion and the fight for equal rights can be introduced even in the early grades through stories that approach issues of injustice gently.

A Fish for Jimmy, inspired by the author’s family story, takes place in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during the 1940s. Taro sneaks out of the camp every night to catch a fish for his brother Jimmy to help make him stronger. The note to readers contextualizes Japanese incarceration for educators or parents to help children understand this painful chapter in U.S. history.

The book Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain tells Li Keng Wong’s story of being detained at Angel Island Immigration Station as a young child arriving from China to the U.S. in the 1930s.

And Journey for Justice: The Story of Larry Itliong introduces young readers to the story of Filipino-American Larry Itliong, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to fight for the labor rights of the essential farmworkers who feed the nation.

Books for Middle Grades

Several books for the middle grades humanize the stories of Asian American communities and draw from diverse cultural heritages to better situate the lived realities of the protagonists.

A four-part series by Sayantani DasGupta, Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond, introduces a South Asian American protagonist who faces bullying in her school for her heritage and for her mom passing out Indian sweets for Halloween but goes on to heroic feats in this intergalactic adventure.

In Kelly Yang’s books, such as the Front Desk, Three Keys and Room to Dream, an Asian American teen balances life in the U.S. and helping her immigrant parents run their family-owned motel. The stories weave together immigrant solidarity (the family helps house new immigrants in empty rooms) and teen coming-of-age angst of finding a path different from her parents.

Many other middle-grade novels that center Asian American realities have also emerged in recent years for educators and parents to add to their collections or library lists.

For many young people, the classroom is the first site of encounter for realities outside their own. By introducing stories that humanize groups that have been targeted historically and today—whether during designated months like Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month or beyond—educators can contribute to creating greater respect for diversity and equal treatment.

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