In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we asked six authors to discuss their new and forthcoming books for young readers and the importance of highlighting their culture through literature.

Justina Chen

Where did the voices for your central characters Dessie Mei and Donna Lee come from?

With Twice the Love, Dessie Mei is an ode to belonging. We’ve gotten so good at calling people out, we need to reclaim our lost art of calling people into community. Two of the most powerful community builders I have ever known are my beloved Mama and mother-in-law. Tragically, we lost both matriarchs within three weeks of each other just a few months ago. My mother-in-law, Nancy Johnson, was a firebrand in rural Virginia—and her spunkiness gave life to Dessie’s voice. When the local swimming pool banned Black children from taking lessons in the 1960s, Nancy said to her husband, “Do you think you could build me a swimming pool?” So he hopped onto his backhoe, dug out a pool on their fifth-generation farm where Nancy promptly began to teach swimming to anyone and everyone who wanted to learn. That is so Dessie Mei.

My kids always used to ask, “Why is Amah so popular?” Their grandmother, my mama, could make friends with one pat of a chair, [saying,] “Come sit down and tell me your story.” She could diffuse conflict with a soft sigh: “Ahhh, that’s not important.” Ann Chen was gentle and strong, kind and tough. In other words, her spirit imbues Donna. And here is an Easter egg: Dessie’s middle name comes from the Mandarin word for little sister, mei-mei. It’s also part of my mom’s nickname, Fu-Mei, meaning beautiful. And it is the homonym for an old family name on my mother-in-law’s side: Mae. And it is the middle name of my stepdaughter who is the perfect combination of these grandmothers.

How did you want to incorporate aspects of Taiwanese culture into this story?

Because adoption journeys are different and nuanced, I wanted the two long-lost sisters to have families with different cultural contexts. This is why Dessie is adopted into a white American family while Donna is adopted into a Taiwanese American family. These cultural differences reveal themselves in conflicts, big and small. For instance, let’s talk food! Dessie’s dad is an avid home chef and baker, and her mom approaches food as fuel for running. Meanwhile in Donna’s family, food is love and language. It is a conduit of belonging. The dinner table is not just about the dishes that are served, but how you serve them. In my family, we call it “food-pushing”: to show someone you love them, you push vast quantities of food and—importantly—the best portions of food. No guest can leave your home without a container of leftovers, so your love travels with them. And importantly, I wanted to contrast the respect for elders in Donna’s Taiwanese American family with the value of speaking your mind—even contradicting elders—in Dessie’s white American family. At the end of With Twice the Love, Dessie Mei, the girls incorporate the best of their different cultures into their way of being: showing respect while speaking the truth. This deep understanding of each other, this celebration of the best of us, I believe, is how we create community.

How do Dessie and Donna overcome challenges stemming from growing up in different cultures?

Steeped in this story is intense research on belonging, attachment theory, abandonment, complex trauma, and intergroup contact theory. So much of how we overcome challenges is in and through relationship—healing relationship. I wanted to show how we can each be blindsided and hurt—even through unspoken cultural differences. It’s like we are all speaking different dialects, even if the mother language sounds the same. So we talk out the hurt. We share our different perspectives, knowing that not one is right. We move toward each other. That is what Dessie and Donna do: they don’t give up on each other. Instead, they move toward each other over and over and over again. That is what I hope my readers will do: move toward each other.

With Twice the Love, Dessie Mei by Justina Chen. HarperCollins/Tegen, May 7 $19.99 ISBN 978-0-06-330652-3

Ying Chang Compestine

Why did you decide to revisit this particular period in your life for your memoir?

I chose to revisit the period of the Cultural Revolution in my memoir because it profoundly shaped who I am. As authoritarianism rises globally, sharing these poignant memories—like the terror of hiding under blankets to listen to prohibited songs and read banned English books—feels crucial. I hope this memoir is a powerful reminder of the importance of standing against authoritarianism.

How did you integrate Chinese history and culture into your memoir?

I use simple, clear language to draw readers into my childhood, where my father’s stories of distant lands of freedom starkly contrasted with the oppressive realities of the Cultural Revolution. At home, we cherished secret English lessons, while outside, we conformed by wearing Mao’s uniform and carrying his “Little Red Book.” Through the eyes of a young, scared, and confused version of myself, I recount harrowing historical moments like the violent intrusions by the Red Guards who ransacked our home and arrested my father to deepen the historical context and capture the era’s pervasive terror. Xinmei’s stunning artwork vividly conveys the chaos and fear, bringing that period to life.

My vivid memories provided a strong emotional foundation for the memoir, from the fear of my father’s arrest to the joys of secret English lessons and my dream of going to America, a free land where I could read what I wanted and speak what was on my mind. To ensure historical accuracy, I also read many historical books about that part of Chinese history.

What insights did you gain while writing your memoir?

Writing this memoir and observing current political trends have deepened my understanding of the urgent need to prevent history from repeating its darkest chapters. Reflecting on my experiences under oppressive communist rule—such as fighting for scarce food at the market or being forced to cut my hair to rid myself of lice in the absence of basic necessities—I realized the importance of sharing these harrowing stories with younger generations. These personal anecdotes illustrate the drastic measures people endure under tyranny and emphasize the need for vigilance in safeguarding our freedoms. By sharing my journey, I aim to motivate young readers to uphold democratic values, ensuring that oppressive histories do not repeat themselves.

Growing Up Under a Red Flag: A Memoir of Surviving the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Ying Chang Compestine, illus. by Xinmei Liu. Rocky Pond, $19.99 May 7 ISBN 978-0-593-53398-7.

Kaylin Melia George

What was the catalyst for this book?

When I was a little girl, I was absolutely enchanted by my mother’s beautiful bedtime stories of the Hawaiian islands. That was my mom’s way of carrying on our family’s tradition of passing down our ancestral stories. However, even at a young age, I noticed that these stories couldn’t be found on the bookshelves of my schools or libraries. As an adult, I realized this was because Pacific Islander peoples are rarely represented in children’s literature. I decided to create Aloha Everything to honor and share my mother’s stories. I like to think of this as my own way of continuing our family tradition of storytelling.

How did you want to incorporate aspects of Hawaiian culture into this story?

Every word and every brushstroke was cast as a love letter to the beautiful, rich, diverse tapestry that is our island’s culture. As a creator, the first thought at the forefront of my mind was always to represent that culture in the most truthful and sincere way possible. Doing so was a journey that I didn’t travel alone! Creating Aloha Everything began with years of research. During that time, I connected with my family and asked questions I’d never thought to ask before. I connected with cultural experts and learned about the history of hula and beyond. I connected with the community and discovered what students and educators wanted to see from a story about their home. Every conversation gave me a piece of the puzzle—a tiny glimpse into what our community feels our culture is “made of.”

Everything I found, I wove into this story about a girl who’s discovering the heart of her island home. She learns about the land—about the geological formation of the islands from volcanic activity and the ecological diversity of native and endemic species. She learns about the people—about origins of great sea voyages and the art of kapa beating and about hula, fishing, agriculture, astronomy, and language. She learns about the stories—about generations of courage and love and values preserved through the tales we tell. That’s what hula teaches her! It’s what I learned myself. At its heart, Aloha Everything is a coming-of-age story for this girl. But my hope for the book is that, as readers, we’re all learning and growing alongside her.

What was the most exciting aspect of bringing the cultural practice of hula to the page?

The most exciting thing in the world is to see the eyes of keiki light up when they learn something new! Kids are truly spectacular; they’re so courageous and never afraid to be challenged or to face questions about their world. Some children approach Aloha Everything for the first time knowing little more about hula than what they can glean from a bobbling dashboard doll. But they aren’t afraid to learn something new! They’re delighted to discover hula—to learn about its stories, its language, its values, and to learn what makes hula so special and important. Even for students who have grown up on the islands, they’re thrilled to find something new in the story that they’ve never known before. Children truly bring their aloha to the books they read, and, for that reason, the most exciting aspect of bringing hula to the page will always be watching children learn to love it. I’m forever grateful to experience that.

Aloha Everything by Kaylin Melia George, illus. by Mae Waite. Red Comet, $19.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-63655-112-8.

Makiia Lucier

What was the inspiration for this story?

There were no Pacific Islander characters in the books I read as a child. At the time, it did not occur to me to think, “This is not right. Someone needs to do something.” Decades later, it turns out I’m one of those someones. I’ve wanted to write a story about Pacific Islanders and Pacific mythology for a very long time. Dragonfruit is the result.

Where did the voice for your central character Hanalei come from?

In the beginning, all I knew about Hana was that she was a girl, far from home, who loved seadragons. That was it. I learned who she was by writing about her, draft after draft, throwing out the words that didn’t feel right and keeping the ones that did. It takes time to get to know a character and to understand who they are. How they think, how they speak, their weaknesses and strengths, the histories that have shaped them—it all came from trial and error.

How did you incorporate aspects of Pacific Island mythology into this story?

I grew up in the Pacific, but I knew very little about Pacific Island mythology. When I’m clueless about something, I always start at the library. I read books on Micronesian legends, Polynesian history, tattoo traditions from the 1700s, the history of spices in the Pacific, everything I could get my hands on. Interlibrary loan was my friend.

What I found is that Pacific Island mythology shares similarities with other world mythologies, like animal companions and magical objects. But with Pacific Island myths, everything is tied in some way to the island or to the sea. In Dragonfruit, the companions are fruit bats and banana spiders. There are seadragons everywhere. It is very clearly a book inspired by home.

Dragonfruit by Makiia Lucier. Clarion, $19.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-358-27210-6.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

What was the catalyst for creating this book? What role did the illustrator play?

The spark to create Simone came through a news article that illustrator Minnie Pham read in 2020 about the August Complex wildfires. During that very uncertain pandemic year, the wildfires in northern California had wiped out towns and the sky burned an apocalyptic red above San Francisco. Minnie and I are both Californians and have long lived with the threat and devastation of wildfires, but these events felt alarming and close in deeper ways.

When Minnie came to me with the idea and ingredients of the story of families escaping home, climate change, and art as therapy, I thought it was great in the way that the best children’s stories are: simple and elegant, and yet with the potential to have lots of meaning layered under the surface. Once Minnie handed off the baton, I used my imagination and storytelling abilities to shape the narrative. With this little girl, Simone, facing the enormous obstacle of wildfires, it was a matter of sticking closely to her perspective and herself. Once I knew who she was, small in stature but big in imagination, I placed her in the middle of catastrophe and tried to see the world through her eyes. My intention was to show this child’s view of the immense world.

It took me a few days to write the story, and I knew from the beginning that Minnie would have the much harder job. I was thrilled when I saw the storyboard. I can barely draw stick figures. Minnie’s lines are clean and spare, and yet evocative of so much emotion through the gesture, eyes, expressions, or movements of a character. And the girl who would become Simone was really adorable in Minnie’s rendition.

How did you want to incorporate aspects of Vietnamese culture into the story?

Family is arguably the most important aspect of Vietnamese culture. Vietnamese families are very interdependent and tightly knit, often more than in Western cultures, with a focus on respect and care of elders and the tribe as a whole. Thematically, I tried to show this intergenerational connection, the link not just biologically between Simone and her mother, but also through their life experiences, through ancestral patterns, storylines, and histories.

I knew that there had been severe flooding in the Mekong Delta at one point, and flooding is a periodic danger throughout Vietnam. There’s also the projected flooding of much of the coastline and the south in the event of rising ocean levels. It was easy, then, to imagine that someone like Má might have experienced a flood. Flooding also came to mind because water is an important contrast to fire, and the play between fire and water is a significant theme in the story. That contrast matches the contrast between generations, Simone’s and Má’s, who are yet linked by climate catastrophes and forced flights.

What was the most challenging aspect about writing a story about displacement?

Raising difficult topics with children isn’t easy, but I think children are perfectly capable of discussing some very serious things. We read stories to them about a big bad wolf displacing three little pigs and rendering them homeless and threatening to eat them; yet, there are concerns about speaking about something as real and immediate as natural disasters like flooding and wildfire.

I also find it strange that our children are normalized to manmade disasters, not just natural ones. Earthquake and fire drills are a reality we have to have, but mass shooter drills? We as a society have already gotten to the point where our children have to deal with the horrific absurdity of this kind of manmade disaster with guns, but we’re going to worry about discussing natural disasters or other manmade disasters like climate catastrophe that leads to climate refugees?

I hope that books like Simone can help children and adults begin conversations about pressing topics like climate change and displacement.

Simone by Viet Thanh Nguyen, illus. by Minnie Phan. Minerva, $18.99 May 7 ISBN 978-1-66265-119-9

Suma Subramaniam

What was the catalyst for this book?

Sometime in 2020, my agent, Miranda Paul, editor Elizabeth Lee, and I exchanged emails and brainstormed a story about a name that is long or difficult to say. It led me through a long and winding path of revelations and drawing inspiration from my own family history.

How did you want to incorporate aspects of Indian culture into this story?

I infused cultural details by decoding the significance of the lead character Kaveri’s name within the story and the back matter. Kaveri travels with her grandmother and parents to celebrate the Pushkaram festival in honor of the river she is named after. The Kaveri (also spelled as Cauvery) River extends for approximately 475 miles covering three states and a union territory in South India. The Kaveri Pushkaram is a festival that honors the river, and it occurs once in 12 years.

The characters in the story visit temples, watch performances, chant hymns, and participate in activities that are inherently practiced along the delta of Kaveri. They also eat ashoka halwa, which is a staple dessert at many Tamil weddings and ceremonies. Kaveri’s grandmother is a handloom sari weaver with the regional flair of South India.

Why was a story about embracing one’s name one you wanted to tell?

The story was born from having a long name myself, and the many times it was misspelled and mispronounced. Being Indian in America predisposes me to certain stereotypes, but it also allows me to access specific cultural strengths that are a big part of my identity, like having a name that is long and difficult to say. So I wrote this story to create a deliberate space in children’s literature and encourage readers to reflect on their cultural backgrounds, decode the significance of their names, and find strength and joy in embracing them.

My Name Is Long as a River by Suma Subramaniam, illus. by Tara Anand. Penguin Workshop, $19.99 May 28 ISBN 978-0-593-52293-6