This post originally appeared on the blog Happy Days in First Grade.
Recently I had a very thoughtful, open discussion about the importance of children, especially Asian children, feeling represented and celebrated at schools. Growing up in the public school system in the 90’s, I was not exposed to much literature about my culture. I remember reading all the classics during read-alouds in my elementary classroom but rarely did I see main characters in books who represented and looked like me, spoke like me, or ate the things that I ate when I went home.
When I became a teacher and did some research on my own, I realized how much children’s literature celebrating Asian cultures really is out there!
If you are a teacher and have students who are Asian, please expose them to books of characters that represent them. As humans, we all have the need to be acknowledged and be “seen”, truly seen as who we are. Children are the same. They need to know that others share their experiences and that their culture is worthy of being celebrated and shared in the classroom as other cultures do! Even if you don’t have Asian students in your classroom, please find some time to read these as well to enrich your students with knowledge and understanding of the world around them.
With that being said, I would like to share with you some of my favorite books that celebrate Asian cultures for the primary grades.
1. Inside Out & Back Again by ThanhHa Lai
This book hits home for me. Just as the author, I was also a Vietnamese refugee. I share so much of her personal experiences of growing up as a Vietnamese American in a new country that is now home. The book is longer than the other books listed, but it is written as a diary in a poetry form and is simple for children to understand. I love this book and would recommend it for 2nd graders and up and would use it to teach empathy, character traits, and making connections.
2. Bee-bim Bop by Linda Sue Park
This sweet, rhyming book is about a little Korean girl who helps her mom prepare bee-bim bop, a dish with rice, meat, vegetables, and egg in a hot stone bowl. While some of your students will notice that there are differences between the food that the main character eats and them, there are still many similarities between them as well! Therefore, this book would be perfect for comparing and contrasting, making connections, and reading and writing procedural text!
3. Yoko by Rosemary Wells
Do you have students who bring food from home for lunch that is not the traditional American school lunch food? I remember packing some stir-fried noodles for my son one day when he was in PreK. He had it for dinner and loved it so much that he requested I pack the leftovers for him to eat at school. So I did just that and was so excited for him! When I picked him up, he said that his friends asked him why he was eating noodles and he said that he didn’t want to bring them to school anymore because it was different. When he said that, it broke my heart. Therefore, I love Yoko as it is a story of cat who brings sushi and red bean ice cream to school one day and is faced with questions and harsh words from her classmates. Reading this in the classroom will definitely allow for some good conversations about diversity, acceptance, and kindness!
4. Dear Juno by Soyung Pak
This sweet story is about a little Korean boy who receives a letter from his grandma who lives in a town near Seoul. Through their correspondence, the reader gains a better understanding of where Juno’s grandma lives and the close relationship between the two of them. Not only does this book give young readers a peek into life in Korea, but it also encourages young readers to make text-to-self connections and is also a good segway for students to practice writing friendly letters to their own grandparents!
5. Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia
In this book, Aneel’s grandparents from India visits him and his grandfather, Dada-ji tells him some of the most wonderful and adventure-filled stories that he has ever heard. However, he figures that to have the same powers that his grandfather had as a kid, he has to learn to make and eat the hot, hot roti Dada-ji ate!
6. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Children have always wondered about my name, Ha. Growing up, I always had kids question me about it and people still do when they first meet me, which I do not mind anymore. However, I wish so much that my teacher could have read this book to me when I was a kid as I was the one with the ethnically marked name and had secretly wanted to change my name. Now, I understand how my name has shaped me to be the person that I am today and how it is so much of my identify. If you have students who also have ethnically marked names, this book will help them to understand how special their name really is while it also helps other students to learn acceptance of differences.
7. Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges
This story is based on the author’s grandmother’s journey growing up in China and overcoming the traditional expectations of girls to become the person that she wanted to be. I love this book because not only does it speak of Chinese traditions and culture, it also has a positive message for little girls! After reading this, students may write and share their wish for themselves and their dream of what they want to be when they grow up.
8. Dim Sum for Everyone by Grace Lin
Have you ever tried dim sum before? It’s one of my favorite Asian dishes! Almost every Sunday, my family would go to a local Chinese restaurant to eat dim sum after church when I was a kid. The small dishes are dumplings filled with various meats and vegetables that are usually steamed or fried. They are flavorful, often served in mini bamboo steamers, and pushed around the restaurant in carts to patrons. I love dim sum, and I love that this easy-to-read book describes these beloved Chinese dishes to young learners in such simple and descriptive terms!
9. Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan
Set in the Hawaiian islands, this book describes how the main character celebrates the New Year with her family. It is filled with descriptions, details, and examples of how different Asian cultures blend together to make up her family. Students can easily connect this text to their life and understand how we all share so many traditions from other cultures within our family as well!
If you would like to celebrate a fun Asian holiday in your classroom, Chinese/Lunar New Year, which usually falls at the end of January and early February, would be perfect! During this time, many local Asian restaurants and grocery stores are decorated with red decorations and pictures of the new Zodiac sign. Consider visiting a couple and take pictures for your students to see. Better yet, encourage them and their families to visit a few and take pictures to share with the class.
If you need a quick and meaningful read aloud, I highly suggest my personal favorite, Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn.
Here are some resources to help you celebrate Chinese New Year with your students.
Ha is a 1st grade teacher turned 2nd grade teacher in Texas! She is in her 11th year of teaching and believes in hands-on, interactive, and differentiated instruction! She is also a wife to her high school sweetheart, mommy to her two sweet babies, and an avid traveler with babies in tow. For more fun teaching ideas and high-quality resources, you can find her @happydaysinfirstgrade on Instagram, Facebook, Teachers Pay Teachers, and her blog!