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9 Books Considering Culture: Coming of Age as Children of Immigrants

Stack of books with words 9 books considering culture: coming of age as children of immigrants

by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)

In this bookish fave, I wanted to share some of my favorite middle grade and young adult lit recommendations that comment on the experience of children of immigrants. While each story is unique and their life experiences are all quite different, these books have common threads, such as an examination of the different facets that create identity and an exploration of the periodic tension between the parents' native culture and the culture in which the child is growing up. Don't miss the bonus TV series recs at the end—those are some of my favorite shows!

Middle Grade Recommendations

Kelly Yang's Front Desk - We discussed this amazing book during our 2019 Global Read Aloud episode, and we all loved it so much! This sweet story focuses on Mia, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the US who helps them run a hotel by working at the front desk. She is passionate about writing, and her family is determined to help other immigrants find their way in the US. This is a brilliant, uplifting story that could be read by upper elementary students (but which would also be a good fit for older students and adults!). I can't wait to read Three Keys, book two in this series!

Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese - In this graphic novel, three seemingly separate stories unfold, one that focuses on Jin Wang and his life trying to fit in at his school, another about the legendary Monkey King of Chinese fables, and a third about Chin-Kee, a painfully stereotypical character who enters Jin's life at school each year and wreaks havoc. The stories intertwine in a brilliant and unexpected way, and through that culmination, Yang shares a beautiful, powerful message with the readers. I loved this one so much.

Young Adult Lit Recommendations

Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X - In this novel in verse, Xiomara struggles with her relationship with her conservative Catholic mother. She wants to have a boyfriend and to attend a poetry club at her school, but her mother forbids those activities and wants Xiomara to be more devout. They clash throughout the book as Xiomara finds her voice through poetry. (We love all of Acevedo's books on the podcast! Check out our discussion of With the Fire on High in episode 89.)

Isabel Quintero's Gabi: A Girl in Pieces - This brilliant book, told through Gabi's journal, focuses on her experiences as a senior in high school, looking toward her future. In her diary, Gabi is navigating her best friend's pregnancy, her father's drug addiction, her other best friend coming out, and her relationship with food. She seeks to find and accept herself and discovers that writing is a way for her to find her path forward. (We also love Quintero's picture book, My Papi Has a Motorcycle, illustrated by Zeke Peña—it's a favorite at our house!)

Emily X. R. Pan's The Astonishing Color of After - In this gorgeous novel, which is one of my all-time favorites, the protagonist Leigh discovers after her mother's suicide that her mother has become a bird, and her quest to follow the bird leads her all the way to her mother's native Taiwan, where she meets her grandparents for the first time and journeys into her mother's complicated past, learning about her own heritage along the way.

Erika Sanchez's I'm Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter - This powerful story takes on grief, depression, the pressure of familial expectations, and so many other important topics. After the unexpected loss of her older sister, Olga, Julia finds herself unmoored and with tremendous pressure coming from her mother. She also becomes increasingly focused on figuring out a mystery about Olga's life that unfurls after Olga's death.

David Yoon's Frankly in Love - I absolutely loved this novel which focuses on Frank Li, the child of Korean parents who feels that he is often in the in between of being neither American nor Korean enough. We experience the ups and downs of his growth as Frank struggles to find his way with relationships and with navigating his parents' expectations.

Nicola Yoon's The Sun Is Also a Star - I am here for everything Nicola Yoon writes! This one focuses on the chance meeting of two young people, Natasha and Daniel. Natasha's family is on the brink of being deported from the US back to Jamaica. Daniel is in the city to complete his interview for the school his family wants him to attend. Happenstance brings their lives together for a fateful day as Natasha fights for her family's right to stay in the US.

Ibi Zoboi's Pride: A Pride and Prejudice Remix - This remix of Jane Austen's novel focuses on Zuri Benitez and her sisters who live with their parents in Brooklyn. The Darcy brothers and their wealthy parents move in close by, displaying a very different lifestyle than the one that Zuri's family has known. Zuri struggles to ground herself as her community, her beloved Bushwick, changes and shifts, and she has to figure out where she belongs in the changing landscape. (We also loved American Street on the podcast; we talked about both of those books in episode 61. We also discussed Zoboi and Yusef Salaam's recent novel in verse Punching the Air, in our November book club discussion on episode 150.)


Bonus Recs

3 TV Series I'm Loving featuring Immigrant Family Experiences

Never Have I Ever - Sara shared this brilliant Netflix series with me. This one follows Devi as she gets ready for a new year at high school after a really traumatic previous year involving the death of her father and a temporary paralysis of her legs. She's determined to make a fresh start. It's hilarious and heartwarming, and I can't wait for season 2!

Kim's Convenience - This one focuses on the Kim family, the parents of which immigrated to Canada from Korea, and I loved the entire series so much! We follow the lives of the parents who run the convenience store and of the twenty-something children, Janet and Jung, who are trying to find their way as adults. I'm ready to watch this whole series again from the beginning soon!

Fresh Off the Boat - This series follows a Taiwanese couple and their three children as the family moves from Chinatown in DC all the way to suburban Florida, where they try to find success with a Texas-style steakhouse restaurant. (I recently learned that this one is based on Eddie Huang's memoir also titled Fresh Off the Boat, so I'll be reading that soon!) We started this one recently, and we're loving it!


Have you read or watched any of these? What did you think? What do you recommend? Let us know in the comments below (scroll all the way down to comment!) or share your thoughts with us on social media (@unabridgedpod).

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