Skip to main content Accessibility

Books to educate, celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which commemorates the contributions of this diverse community.

When President Joe Biden recognized the observance last year, he noted that throughout U.S. history, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people “have represented the bigger story of who we are as Americans and embodied the truth that our diversity is our strength as a Nation.” He cited AAPI accomplishments ranging from “historic Oscar-winning performances in film to achievements across business, culture, sports, and civil rights.” These historic accomplishments also include Biden’s vice president, Kamala Harris, the first vice president of South Asian descent.

The AAPI community represents 20.6 million people in the U.S. – or 6.2% of the country’s population, according to the census. Its diversity encompasses an incredibly wide array of languages, religions and cultural traditions. For example, when 2020 census materials were produced in 59 languages other than English, 23 of those languages were of Asian origin.

What’s more, the AAPI community is the fastest-growing population in the U.S., increasing by 81% from 2000 to 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the spirit of this monthlong observance, the Southern Poverty Law Center Asian American and Pacific Islander Affinity Group offers the following book recommendations to learn more about this community.

American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang

This is a powerful middle-grades graphic novel that touches on identity and belonging. The book intertwines three seemingly unrelated storylines: a story of the only Chinese American teenage boy at his school, a Chinese fable and a very stereotypical Chinese visitor who keeps embarrassing his cousin at school.

Caste Matters

by Suraj Yengde

As a first-generation Dalit scholar, Suraj Yengde dares to tackle Brahminical doctrines and disrupt ingrained beliefs about caste in Indian society. He draws from his harrowing experiences of growing up as a Dalit, a member of the lowest stratum of the traditional Indian caste system, but also shows the incredible strength of the community.

China Men

by Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston’s poetic account of her family beautifully disrupts the “perpetual foreigner” trope commonly ascribed to Chinese Americans and many other AAPI communities. She weaves multiple folk stories into the novel, reflecting the diversity of what it means to be American. China Men won the 1981 National Book Award for General Nonfiction – Hardcover.

The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority

by Ellen D. Wu

This is an excellent overview of the factors that led to the perpetuation of the “model minority” myth in the U.S., particularly post-World War II. It focuses on how efforts by government officials, academics, journalists and others transformed the country’s perception of Chinese and Japanese Americans from being the subject of persecution – 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act and WWII-era internment of Japanese Americans, for example – to, as Wu puts it, being “lauded as well-assimilated, upwardly mobile, and exemplars of traditional family values.”

Exclusion and the Chinese American Story

by Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn

Classroom lessons about the history of Chinese people in the U.S. too often focus on the railroad work of the 1800s while overlooking much more. This book provides a fuller story of the Chinese American experience from a Chinese American perspective. Author Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice program provides a compelling account for children in the middle grades.

Famous Adopted People

by Alice Stephens

A fast-paced novel about a Korean-born adoptee who searches for her mother with an adoptee friend. After a series of strange events, she delves into a dark, but humorous journey with unimaginable characters. Skip the overview so you can be completely surprised by the plot twists.

The Fishermen and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast

by Kirk Wallace Johnson

This book is about the events leading up to the 1981 case Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association v. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan that took place in Texas. The case, which centered on a terror campaign by the Klan group against the Vietnamese fishermen, was one of the SPLC’s early cases against a hate group. The book details the legacy of the case, including how the Vietnamese community on the Gulf Coast is faring today.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

by Jennifer 8. Lee

This book delves into the history of Chinese immigration in the U.S. and food as a factor in society’s perception of Chinese Americans. Its title is apt: Fortune cookies are widely acknowledged to be an invention of a Japanese American restaurateur in the early 20th century, and the amorphous nature of what constitutes “Chinese food” in the Western world is a recurring theme. Lee also served as producer of the documentary The Search for General Tso, which covers much of the same territory, including a focus on the Chinese diaspora from the mid-20th century to current day.

From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement

by Paula Yoo

This young adult nonfiction book is an engaging, critical explanation of the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man fatally attacked in a Detroit enclave amid rising anti-Asian American sentiment. The book examines the aftermath, including the organizing and cross-ethnic activism that occurred. Chin’s name may not be taught in classrooms, but his story is vital to understanding our country, the Asian American movement and so much more.

Seeking Fortune Elsewhere

by Sindya Bhanoo

Sindya Bhanoo, who grew up in Georgia and wrote for several local publications, pens thought-provoking short stories about South Indian immigrants. The stories are beautifully written with captivating details that will resonate with any child of immigrants.

They Called Us Enemy

by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott

This is a young adult graphic novel about George Takei’s experience of being incarcerated at Rohwer War Relocation Center with his family during World War II. This memoir of the Star Trek actor examines questions such as, what does it mean to be an American and who gets to decide. An SPLC employee, who previously taught the book to sixth- to eighth-grade students learning English as a second language, said both students and teacher found the book moving and thought-provoking.

Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South

by Adrienne Berard

This book tells the story of Lum v. Rice, a school desegregation case centered in the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Rosedale. The case, brought on behalf of a Chinese immigrant family, cemented racial segregation in schools. Water Tossing Boulders provides a fascinating lesson about the ways our current immigration system is rooted in the anti-Asian sentiment of the 1800s.

What My Bones Know

by Stephanie Foo

In this memoir, writer and radio producer Stephanie Foo shares her story of childhood trauma and how it kept appearing in her life and in her body years later. A beautifully written and fascinating read that takes Foo to her hometown of San Jose, California, and reveals family secrets in her birth country of Malaysia, this book provides the reader with an education about generational trauma and unpacking complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Illustration at top: Some recommended book titles to consider through Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month include The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee, They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Caste Matters by Suraj Yengde and others. (Credit: SPLC)