In honor of Women’s History Month and International Working Women’s Day, I have a really special kids booklist for you: 12 titles about badass Asian women! I am so excited about this list. When I was growing up I never read books about girls or women like me. Ever. At home or at school. Almost everything was about white folks and sometimes about non-Asian people of color. Words can barely describe what a difference a roundup like this would have made; how seen I would have felt; how many more possibilities I could have dreamed for myself.
Asian and Asian American girls and women are still pretty invisible in US society. Some progress has been made but we have a long way to go. It’s telling, for instance, that there aren’t many English-language kids books on Asian women. I wasn’t sure I could even find enough titles to create this roundup. I couldn’t find any kids books, for instance, about Grace Lee Boggs or Yuri Kochiyama (please comment below if you know of something). I’ve been working on this post for months wondering if it would ever happen. But I did. And they’re here.
Making this list was such an affirming experience for me. Please read these books to/with the Asian and Asian American girls in your lives. Support us by reading these books in your families, asking your schools and local libraries to purchase, or by purchasing yourself (remember to buy from independent sellers and try to avoid Amazon). I hope you enjoy this list as much as I enjoyed making it.
Astronaut Kalpana Chawla: Reaching For the Stars
by Ai-Ling Louie, illustrated by H. Rick Pettway
KALPANA CHAWLA (1961-2003) was the first South Asian Indian woman to go to space. Chawla was born in Karnal, India, the youngest of four children. As a child she dreamed of flying and loved to draw airplanes. Chawla came to the US for graduate school where she earned two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering. Upon graduating, she began working at NASA. In 1997, Chawla joined the six-astronaut Space Shuttle Columbia crew and became the first Indian woman to go to space. She died on her second Columbia mission in 2003 when the shuttle disintegrated during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. In her honour, India renamed its first satellite of Met-Sat series to “Kalpana-1.” Scholarships, streets, universities and institutions in India and the United States have also been named in her honour.
The Cambodian Dancer: Sophany’s Gift of Hope
by Ai-Ling Louie, illustrated by H. Rick Pettway
SOPHANY BAY (1953- ) is a dancer and activist who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Sophany was born and raised in Cambodia. She became an accomplished traditional dancer, even performing for royalty. Eventually she had children of her own. But her country was thrown into turmoil after the Secret War. The Khmer Rouge regime rose to power and killed her three children. Sophany was able to escape alone to a Thai refugee camp. She was resettled in San Jose, California, as a refugee. Sophany became a counselor for Cambodian survivors, community leader, and human rights advocate. She created a program to teach Khmer dance to Cambodian American children and help them heal from intergenerational trauma. In 2013, Sophany was one of few Cambodian American witnesses to testify against the Khmer Rouge for the horrific crimes they committed.
Malala’s Magic Pencil
by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët
MALALA YOUSAFZAI (1997- ) Malala is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. In Pakistan, daughters are often seen as less valuable than sons. Still Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who ran a girls school, was determined to give his daughter every opportunity a boy would have. But when the Taliban took over the Swat valley, where Malala lived, they imposed harsh rule and banned girls from going to school. Malala spoke out publicly against the extremist group and was shot in the head when she was 15 years old. Miraculously, Malala survived and became even more outspoken on behalf of girls education. Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. She is currently studying at the University of Oxford. Through the Malala Fund, which she started with her father, she continues to fight to ensure all girls everywhere receive 12 years of free, safe, quality education.
Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home
MALICHANSOUK KOUANCHAO (1971- ) is an award-winning Lao American visual artist, web and interactive designer. Malichansouk was born in Laos and fled the Laotian Civil War with her family when she was five years old. The family were resettled as refugees in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1979. Malichansouk went to the University of Minnesota where she earned a Bachelor’s degreee in Fine Arts, with minors in Chinese and East Asian studies. Her multidisciplinary work today explores the relationship between art, transformation, and communal healing. She has worked on murals and mosaics. She is also a social justice advocate for refugees, cluster bomb survivors and Southeast Asian deportees, and helps raise awareness about the US Secret War in Laos.
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines
by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Carl Angel
MAYA LIN (1959- ) is a Chinese American artist and designer who skyrocketed to fame at only 21 years old when her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. won a national competition. Maya was born and raised in Ohio to Chinese immigrant artist parents. Her father was ceramist and her mother was a poet. Growing up with her brother, Maya was one of few Asians in Ohio. She did not have many friends and stayed home a lot, instead focusing on school. She went to Yale University where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Art and Master’s degree in architecture. It was when she was a Yale student that she won the competition for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial; now thought one of the most influential post-WWII memorials. Maya has since had a prolific career creating many diverse projects such as sculptures, buildings, installations, and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Ruth Asawa: A Sculpting Life
by Joan Schoettler, illustrated by Tracy Van Wagoner
RUTH ASAWA (1926-2013) was a Japanese American sculptor known for her wire sculptures, public commissions, and her arts education activism. Ruth was born and raised in California, the fourth of seven children, to Japanese immigrant farmer parents. Because of racist laws, Ruth’s parents were not allowed to become citizens or own land, so they were truck farmers. The family struggled to make a living. Then, during World War II, Ruth was imprisoned with her family during the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. After the war, Ruth faced a lot of anti-Japanese hostility but succeeded in studying to become an artist and art teacher. In the 1950s Ruth began receiving recognition for her looped wire sculpture. She went on to exhibit widely, win public commissions, and establish a public high school for the arts in San Francisco, which is now named after her.
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story
by Paul Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang
ANNA MAY WONG (1905-1961) was one of the first Asian American movie stars and the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Anna May Wong was the third of her father’s eight children. She became infatuated with movies as a child and started acting early, appearing as an extra in her first film when she was 14 years old. She dropped out of high school to pursue a full-time acting career, received her first screen credit at 16, and then her first leading role at 17. Still, Anna May faced a lot of racism and sexism in Hollywood. She was often typecast into orientalist roles, or passed over for major roles in favor of white women. Anna May was vocal about her frustrations, however, and persevered despite it all. Her long acting career in silent and sound film, television, stage, and radio (both in the US and abroad) helped break down barriers for future Asian American actors.
Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee
by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Carl Angel
MARGARET “MAGGIE” GEE (1923-2013) was one of the first Chinese American women to become a US pilot. Maggie was born in Berkeley, California. Her father died when she was young, and Maggie and her five siblings were raised mostly by their single, hard-working mother. During World War II, Maggie worked as a draftswoman at naval shipyards. When she was 20 years old, Maggie used money she had saved to learn to fly. She became one of only two Chinese women in Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) (the other was Hazel Ying Lee) and one of the first Chinese Americans to fly military planes in World War II. Maggie was also a political activist, mathematician, computer scientist, and physicist. After the war, she worked as a physicist and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. She received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.
Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark
by Heather Lang, illustrated by Jordi Solano
EUGENIE CLARK (1922-2015) (aka “The Shark Lady”) was a Japanese Mixed American icthyologist known for her studies on sharks and other fish, and for pioneering the field of research scuba diving. Eugenie was raised in New York City by her Japanese mother and Japanese stepfather. Her white father died when she was two years old. She went to college and became a marine biologist in the 1940s. Over a career that spanned a half century, Eugenie discovered several fish species. Her passion, however, was studying shark behavior and dispelling fears about them through education and advocacy. There were very few women, even less of Japanese American descent, working in the male-dominated field of marine biology at the time. Eugenie helped dismantle sexist stereotypes in her field and show that women of color, and all women, have great contributions to make to science.
Vera Wang Queen of Fashion
by Ai-Ling Louie, illustrated by Cathy Peng
VERA WANG (1949- ) is a internationally-renowned Chinese American fashion designer. Wang was born and raised in New York City by affluent immigrant parents. Out of college, she was hired at Vogue as a rover and worked her way up the ladder to become one of the magazine’s youngest editors. Fifteen years later, however, Wang was turned down for the Editor In Chief position and she left to work as a designer for Ralph Lauren. But only briefly. At age 40, she decided to take a leap, resigning from Ralph Lauren to become an independent bridal wear designer. Wang opened a small boutique in New York City in 1990, and began to build her brand, as she says, “brick by brick, client by client, store by store.” She grew her business into an empire and today, Vera Wang is one of the most respected names in fashion worldwide.
When Everything Was Everything
by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, illustrated by Cori Nakamura Lin
SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY (1981- ) is a Lao American spoken word poet, playwright, and community activist. She was born in a Thai refugee camp after her family fled the Secret War and migrated to Minnesota in 1984. When the family first arrived in the US they had nothing. Vongsay used to harvest cucumbers in the fields with her parents. When she grew up, Vongsay achieved Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in writing, public policy, and arts and cultural leadership. Today, Vongsay’s focuses on amplifying refugee voices, through poetry, theater, and experimental cultural production. She has produced many acclaimed written works. Her award-winning poem “When Everything Was Everything” is taught as part of the St. Paul Public School language arts curriculum, and was published as a children’s book in October 2018.
Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity
by Sarah Suzuki, illustrated by Ellen Weinstein
YAYOI KUSAMA (1929- ) is an internally-renowned Japanese contemporary artist. Yayoi was born and raised in Matsumoto, Japan. Entranced by lights, patterns, and smooth white rocks in the riverbed near her home, she began making art at an early age. When Yayoi grew up, she trained briefly at the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts. But she was really inspired by American Abstract Impressionism. Yayoi moved to New York City where she joined the 1960s avant-garde and pop-art movements. She became an influential figure in the New York art scene; famous for her work with patterns, bright colors, dots, loops, lights, and mirrors. Yayoi moved back to Japan in 1973 and has continued to make sculptures, installations, and other creations. Today, her art can be seen in museums all over the world.
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© 2019 Sharon H. Chang