Great Books for Tween Girls: Families With Children From China
Interesting, Exciting, and Funny Books
Here is a list of the best books featuring tweens (ages 8-12)--both Chinese and Chinese-American--which have been published in the last few years.
This site cover mostly fiction books, but there are a few nonfiction books to see if you scroll towards the end. I've included a nice cookbook for tween to use as well as the granddaddy of all nonfiction--one of the Eyewtiness books, known for their stunning photos.
There is a little something for everyone here: mystery, fantasy, kung fu, folk tales, and funny stories with interesting characters.
New! The Magical Monkey King: Mischief in Heaven
I was intrigued by the tale of the Monkey King when I read a little about him in Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning book American Born Chinese. Since then, I have been looking for a concise, readable book which would introduce me to the legend which is so beloved by children in China.
I finally found what I was looking for in Ji-Li Jiang’s The Magical Monkey King. It’s a short chapter book written at about a 4th-grade level which tells how the Monkey King came to be and recounts his early adventures becoming king of the monkeys and his later conflicts with the Jade Emperor in heaven.
After reading this book, I have a much clearer understanding of the framework of the Monkey King stories, and I can see why he appeals so much to the children. In a way, he is a child turned superhero. He’s curious and clever, but get bored easily, which leads him into making mischief. He has a whole range of superpowers: he can turn himself into any animal, he can make himself invisible, he can leap 108 thousand leagues, and he can use his magic staff in battle. And, oh, yes, he is also immortal.
Not surprisingly, he is also a bit arrogant and impatient, traits which get him in trouble with the other immortals in heaven. He often has to endure some punishment from the higher powers, but he always bounces back for more adventures.
The author, Ji-Li Jiang is best known for her memoir Red Scarf Girl, which is about growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China. It has been compared to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl for providing a child’s view of what happens when repression and tyranny take over a country.
In The Magical Monkey King, Jiang turns to a lighter topic and shares the beloved tales of the Monkey King, who was born out of a stone mountain, proved himself worthy to be king of the monkeys, studied for several years with an esteemed monk, and eventually found himself appointed caretaker of the Jade Emperor’s Heavenly Peach Garden.
The story is written at about a 4th grade level, and the chapters are only 4 or 5 pages long, making them ideal for a read-aloud for much younger children, as well. Youshan Tang has provided several illustrations reminiscent of Chinese woodcuts.
If your child likes the Monkey King stories, I’d also recommend the movie The Forbidden Kingdom with Jet Li starring as the Monkey King. Jackie Chan is also in the movie, which is a comedy martial-arts film about an American teen boy who is transported to China to return the magical staff to the Monkey King.
New! A Funny, Illustrated Book About Middle School
When my daughter was little, I loved reading her books that told her about her Chinese heritage, books that related the folk tales of China, or that showed what life is like in Chinatown. But, I also wished that I could find books about everyday contemporary life that happened to have a Chinese girl who was trying to make friends or moving to a big girl bed, or any of the shared challenges that show up in life. That’s a long-winded explanation of something that now has a name: Everyday Diversity.
This chapter book by Booki Vivat fills the bill. Our main character is Anna Wu, a 6th grader who has lot of worries and anxieties about middle school, and just a tad overdramatic. She tells us “Nothing good ever happens in the Middles.” To prove her point, she mentions The Middle Ages, the middle seat, and being the middle child. The latter affects her especially as she is the middle child between an over-achieving older brother and a charming younger sister.
She has all the usual complaints about middle school: weird teachers, mean girls, bad cafeteria food. In addition, she feels left out of her circle of friends because she doesn’t have “a Thing.” When it comes to choosing an elective, she doesn’t really have a passion like science club or theater group. She is relegated to study hall, a place where nothing ever happens.
During the course of the year, though, she comes up with the idea of putting together a lunchroom barter system so that children can trade the food they don’t like with someone else who’s not too thrilled with an item in their lunch. They take it school wide and it’s a big success, but she can’t help feeling that it’s all going to come to an end somehow.
Vivat’s story is a nice exploration of finding your way in confusing times. I especially like that Abby learned that her older brother and study hall teacher could be much more supportive and helpful than she had thought. And she learns that a person’s Thing is fluid, especially during the middle school years.
The books has lots of illustrations, cartoons and doodles, much in the style of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, which makes it a short read and appealing to reluctant readers as well as any kid who likes humor.
It’s worth reading a little bit of Vivat’s bio. By looking around on the web, I found out that she’s an Asian-American woman (“Yes, my name really IS Booki ,” she tells us) who had originally intended to become a pharmacist—or maybe an elephant trainer, lol—but she kept coming back to books. Her circuitous career path seems to have informed the theme of her book that we are people in process. What we can do is take the opportunities and see where they will lead us.
New! A Book that Weaves Together Chinese Mythology and Folklore
I can’t think of any better way to introduce your child to Chinese folklore and mythology than to give them one of Grace Lin’s books to read. In her novels, children are often called up to go on quests to help their families. In their travels, they come across ancient stories that cleverly weave together into their own stories.
In this book, a girl by the name of Pinmei and her grandmother—a woman known as The Storyteller—live together on a remote mountain, not far from a young boy named Yishan who lives alone in his home.
It’s a peaceful life in which Pinmei spends hours listening to her grandmother’s stories, along with the villagers who have climbed the mountain to grandmother’s home to request embroidered garments for their celebrations.
But one day, the emperor’s soldiers come and take grandmother away, leaving Pinmei and Yishan to undertake a dangerous journey and come up with a plan to rescue her.
As the story progresses, Lin treats us to the stories in a variety of folktales and legends that weave together to explain who the emperor is and his desire for immortality.
As someone who has read quite a few children’s books about China, I was pleased with the little flashes of recognition I experienced throughout the book. I remember reading the story of the painter with the magic brush whose paintings came to life when they were completed. I recognized the name of the beautiful white horse BaiMa as the Mandarin words for “white horse,” and when the horse magically turned into LongMa, I knew that it was a “dragon horse.”
In her author’s note, Lin talks about how the Chinese number 6, 8, and 9 have a rich history that associates them with peace, good fortune, and longevity, and how she conceived or three companion books that would carry each of these as a theme.
In When the Sea Turned to Silver, she uses stories of magical horses, grasping tigers, and the Black Tortoise of Winter to show the consequences of a ruler’s quest for power and the surprising ways wishes can be granted.
A Chinese-American Book Reader
This sweet, short book is my new find for third or fourth-grade girls.
The main character, Anna Wang, is a fourth-grader who loves to read. Classic books like Little House on the Prairie and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and A Wrinkle in Time fill up her days and serve as an escape when school friendships gets complicated.
She feels pushed to the outside by a circle of friends, and having a mother who sometimes confuses English idioms makes her feel like even more of an outsider.
But, as the year progresses, she learns how friendships can grow out of acts of compassion.
This understated book doesn’t hit children over the head with its lessons, but instead lets children learn and discover along with Anna. Along the way, author Andrea Cheng tucks in wonderful insights into Chinese culture.
As a little bonus, the author includes instructions for sewing the little drawstring bags that Anna makes for her books.
A Baby Sister Adopted from China
This follow-up to The Year of the Book finds the Wang family at home with a new baby, a little sister adopted from China.
Big sister, Anna, is delighted to have a little one to play with, but she is concerned—along with the rest of the family—when the doctor says the new baby isn’t gaining enough weight.
While she tries to cajole her sister into eating more, Anna is also puzzling over what to do as a science fair project. You just know the two storylines are going to merge, and sure enough, they do. Anna hatches an idea with her friends to sing songs to the baby while she is eating, so that she will be distracted and forget that she doesn’t care for this strange new (American) food she’s being given.
It’s another gentle and charming entry in the Anna Wang series. A nice little extra is that the author includes a recipe for making bao zi buns.
The third in the series in advertised to be a trip to China. Anna (who will be a middle-schooler) and her mother will accompany friends on their adoption trip.
Anna Travels to China
Andrea Cheng spins another sweet and gentle tale in this book. Anna Wang travels to China with her teacher who is adopting a baby, coincidentally from the same orphanage where her sister is adopted.
The Wangs, a Chinese-American family, adopted Anna’s little sister a couple of years ago, and Anna is hoping to find out a little bit more about the place her sister lived the first year of her life. She also wants to visit China, where much of her extended family still lives.
I found it a little hard to believe that Anna’s parents would let their 11-year-old daughter travel all the way to China with a teacher, but I went along with it, as you have to give the book its premise and see how it develops from there.
Anna is in middle school now, and thinking about issues of identity. A girl she meets and befriends in China asks her “Do you think you are Chinese or American?” Anna thinks about how she feels more Chinese when kids in the US stare at her, but more American when she has trouble figuring out what people in China are saying. She replies that she feels like both. “That’s good,” says her friend. “Two is better than one.”
Anna’s orphanage visit doesn’t have any unlikely surprises: the workers are happy to see photos of the little girl they took care of, but they don’t have much other information on her.
This short book could also be a good one for a girl to read before she takes a heritage trip to China because she’ll be introduced, albeit very gently, to common experiences in China: people doing tai chi in the park, crowds and bustle, pollution, unfamiliar bathroom fixtures, and friendly and curious people.
New! An Exchange Student Comes to Visit
In this book Anna is looking forward to spending time with her friend, Fan, a girl she met in China. Fan gets a chance to come to America, a place she been dreaming of for most of her life.
It should be a wonderful time for both of them since they got along so well in China. But Fan doesn’t really click with her host family sister, a girls who is also Anna’s friend. Anna feels caught in between the two of them, trying to listen to their points of view and help them get along.
Like other Anna Wang books, this one is a quick read with lots of interesting things to learn about China and Chinese customs.
Girls Who Bonded in China
This sweet, poignant fiction book relates the story of two girls who have bonded in a Chinese orphanage and have vowed that they will find each other families if they are adopted out.
Eleven-year-old Wen is the first to be chosen and adopted into an American home. Before she leaves, she promises her friend, Shu Ling, that she will find her a family in America as well.
But Wen finds that life with her new family is harder than she thought. Learning the English language and American customs is difficult. She also has a nagging fear that her new family will send her back if she is not the perfect daughter. When her new family suddenly find themselves facing financial struggles, she despairs of ever finding a new home for Shu Ling.
Gradually Wen learns that her new family wants to help her, and together they work to increase Shu Ling’s chances for adoption. But they discover that they will have to hurry, because Shu Ling soon have a birthday, and will age out of adoption eligibility.
Author Carol Antoinette Peacock has crafted a touching, authentic, and fascinating story, drawing on real-life cases. An adoptive mother herself, she took great care to make her story plausible by talking with several older adoptees, sending surveys to adoptive families, and interviewing staff at adoption agencies.
A portion of Red Thread Sister’s proceeds will be donated to the charitable group Love without Boundaries.
Fantasy, Chinese Legend, and Adventure
A few years ago, a colleague at the library confided to me that she had put off reading this book, which was on a list of required titles, until the very last. She was coordinating a program called Battle of the Books in which grade-school children read a selection of chosen books and then have contests based on their reading. Of course, she wanted to read every title that the children did, but she didn’t really have any familiarity with China and wasn’t eager to read this particular book. But when she finally got around to it, she said to me “I really liked it!”
This is how it goes with Grace Lin’s book. I knew her as a wonderful picture book illustrator, but wasn’t sure if she could pull off a chapter book. She did so brilliantly. Brilliantly enough to win a Newbery Honor Award, one of the highest awards given in children’s literature
The story has a folk-tale feel, yet little by little Lin adds layers to it so that you feel that you understand the panorama of Chinese folklore, while also caring deeply about the girl at the center of it, little Minli from Fruitless Mountain.
In just a few sentences, Lin conveys the hardscrabble existence of Minli and her parents, living in a village that had become the “dull color of dried mud,” in a house that had barely enough room for the three family members to sit around the table. Minli asks her father to tell her the story of why Fruitless Mountain is so poor, and at once we are off into the first of a series of interwoven folk tales that reflects of families, happiness, and friendship. As a bonus, Lin illustrates every chapter heading with a drawing reminiscent of Chinese papercut style and includes several full-page, full-color illustrations as well.
In this book, Lin said she wanted to write a “fantasy crossed with Chinese Folklore” and make an adventure story in the tradition of a book like The Wizard of Oz.
Starry River of the Sky
In this companion book to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin once again weaves Chinese folk tales into an overarching tale of her own.
This time, a young boy named Rendi finds himself at the end of the line, living at an inn in a strange village where the moon never shines and the sky seems to cry and moan at night.
This book is for a child who likes a story with folk-tale qualities and who likes to work out mysteries. As the inhabitants of the in gather and tell their tales (many of which center on the Moon Lady), the answers to all the mysteries in the village start to become clearer and clearer.
It’s a story that provides insights into greed, forgiveness and going home again, all set deeply within the fascinating mythology of China.
Meet "Lucy Wu": a Girl with Chinese Heritage in a Great Chapter Book
If you are looking for a good-natured, interesting book for a tween girl, take a look at the new book The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. It's the story of a girl negotiating those tricky times when her plans don't exactly mesh with those of her family –and of how things sometimes turn out better than expected. Readers also learn a few tidbits about Chinese history along the way.
Tween girls will be able to relate to sixth-grader Lucy Wu, who thought her life would be perfect once her overbearing sister left for college. But then her parents tell her that she will have to share her room with a long-lost great aunt from China. And to top it off they want her to go to Chinese school on Saturday mornings instead of basketball practice, cutting her off from a sport she loves dearly.
Lucy is not at all happy and when auntie Yi Po moves into her room, a woman who smells of mentholatum and is in the habit of doing very early-morning tidying routines. Lucy builds her "Great Wall," placing the desk and bookshelves in the middle of the room to block out her unwanted guest. Even communicating with auntie Yi Po is difficult because neither of them understands much of the other's language.
But as the year progresses, Lucy discovers that her auntie is the only one who understands her desires, and the only one who can come to her rescue at a crucial point.
This is a good-hearted family story and a quick read for girls from 8 to 12 years old. One of the most charming aspects of this story is how it imparts a little knowledge of Chinese culture to the readers. We find out, for instance, that in China it's traditional for people to eat long noodles on their birthdays because they symbolize long life. We also learn the stories behind a few Chinese idioms when Lucy and her classmates are assigned to act them out. By understanding the story behind the phrase "someone wants to eat in the East and sleep in the West," we find out that the phrases similar to our saying that someone "wants to have their cake and eat it too."
We also learn a little about Chinese history through auntie Yi Po’s story of her life in China in the tumultuous 20th century.
All in all, this is a book well worth reading. It reminds us that sometimes those things that seem like our greatest obstacles are really our greatest opportunities.
The Year of the Dog (A Pacy Lin Novel)
Author Grace Lin says that she adored the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when she was young, and she works to bring readers the same sort of feel with tales of her childhood, only with a Chinese-American twist.
A Warm Family Story
This is a warm and friendly book, full of stories of being in a family, going to school, having a friend, and figuring out your talents. In her author’s note, Grace Lin talks about the Carolyn Haywood books she read growing up, with titles like “B” Is for Betsy. They were stories about normal American kids living in normal neighborhoods, with no magical beings, but she says that the books were magical to her. “When I read those books, it was if I was wrapped in a warm hug.”
Even so, these books didn’t quite speak to her about her life growing up Asian in a mainly Caucasian community. So she wrote this book, a book she would have liked to read as a child that showed what it was like to grow up in a Taiwanese-American household in a “real and upbeat way.”
When I re-read this book to prepare for this review, I was struck by how much we learn from it about Chinese culture. The whole book is infused with it. At the beginning, the family is celebrating the new year—which happens to be the Year of the Dog—and right from the start, we learn about what kinds of food are traditionally eaten and what kinds of customs surround the food. For example, there is always a tray full of candy so that the new year will be full of sweet things. Our main character, Pacy, can’t find enough of the Chinese melon candy to fill the tray, so she adds some M&M’s , a move her father approves of. “It’s just like us—Chinese-American.”
Pacy learns that the Year of the Dog is time when you’re supposed to find your best friend, since dogs are friendly and loyal. It’s also a year to find out what your talents are and what you want to do. In the next few weeks Pacy meets a girl named Melody who is also from Taiwan, and they instantly become friends. She also finds out that her school is having a contest for the child who can write and illustrate the best book, and she wonders if creating books could be her talent.
The book is peppered throughout with delightful little family stories the parents tell: how grandpa succeeded as a doctor by treating a patient for free, or how the mother practiced piano on paper keys that her mother laid out for her.
One more extra little treat is Lin’s charming little line drawings, which break up the text a little and provide interest for young readers.
Grace Lin’s follow-up book to Year of the Dog features the same warm tone and close family as her previous book.
This book also starts with the Lunar New Year dinner. The girls are bemoaning the fact that it’s the year of the rat, but their father tells them “In America…rats are looked down on. But Chinese people actually admire rats….They think the rat is very smart and charming…and he’s the first,”—meaning that the rat is the first animal of the Chinese zodiac.
Then, he tells “The Story of the Twelve Animals of Chinese New Year, or, How the Rat Was First.” If you haven’t heard of it, it’s well worth looking up to learn the legend of how the Jade Emperor commissioned a race to determine the order of the zodiac animals and how rat managed to place first.
Pacy learns that because the rat is the beginning of the zodiac cycle, The Year of the Rat signifies changes and fresh starts. But little Pacy likes things just the way they are, and doesn’t want anything to change.
Dealing with new things is the theme of this book, and Pacy learns to adjust to having her best friend move away while learning to accept a new boy at school. She also learns to confront some of her friends about their prejudices. Not everything in the new year is hard, though, and Pacy has lots of fun with new things going on, like being in a wedding for the first time and showcasing her artistic talents.
Again, the little stories-within-stories and line drawings make this book fun to read.
A Trip to China
In this book, the whole Lin family gets to travel to Taiwan, where they have extended family. This is a great book to read if your family is planning a trip to China. While the places you visit may not be exactly like the ones described in Taiwan,you will get an idea of the delights of traveling to a new country, coupled with the confusion of trying to figure things out.
My own daughter has a real affinity for this book because dumplings are her favorite food—just like Pacy, the main character. Lin does a mouth-watering job of describing them, especially the soup dumplings. Apparently, you bite into these and get a spoonful of soup in your mouth.
There are, of course, quite a few things Pacy feels uneasy about. She doesn’t really know her family in Taiwan, and she’s embarrassed that she has to wear a hot-pink dress that matches her sisters' for the trip. And her confusion in the bathroom in one of the restaurants will have readers laughing out loud. (What does one do, anyway, when you have a keypad next to the toilet? How many features are available, and what do you do if you simply want to flush?)
Most readers will also definitely love the description of the glamour photo shoot. Apparently, there are lots of business that dress you up and do a glamour makeover, and then take pictures. It’s much more common and less expensive than it is here in the States. Lin even includes her glamour shot as her author photo on the jacket of the hardback.
A Girl on Her Own in China
This book is one we chose to read aloud at my house, and we were all impressed with the simple, yet evocative style. I believe our family learned quite a bit about contemporary Chinese life from following the story of Chu Ju.This lovely book illuuminates Chinese culture while following this resourceful heroine on a journey across China.
When 14-year-old Chu Ju learns that her grandmother has plans to send away her new sister, she leaves home and sets off to find a new life in the countryside so that her sister can have a chance to stay with her family.
Through Chu Ju’s eyes, readers experience life in contemporary rural China. To get by, she learns several occupations: first , she works on a boat with a family that fishes for a living; then she learns how to tend to the silkworms in a silk factory; and finally she joins with an old woman and her son, planting rice and working the land.
Whelan specializes in writing stories of young women who are finding their way alone in a difficult and troubled world, finding satisfaction and independence along the way. Chu Ju’s House is no exception as we follow her on her path that leads to her own home and work.
For girls that are adopted from China, this book provides an honest, yet gentle look at Chinese cultural attitudes towards gender and lays out the hard choices that women and girls face.
Kung Fu Action Adventure
These books have lots of action for kids who like adventure series, and they shed light on several facets of Chinese culture, especially the philosophy behind kung fu and its styles.
Stone hooks readers in from the very beginning and spins a tale of kung fu monks (each of whom specializes in a certain type of kung fu, hence the Tiger, Monkey, Snake, etc. of the titles) on a journey to discover themselves, their links to each other, and their destiny.
As the story opens, the boys monastery is being attacked by a renegade monk, and grandmaster sends the teen boys out into the world, telling them they they need to discover how they are all related, and that they need to change the heart of the emperor.
As they proceed with their adventures throughout the seven books, the kung-fu action sequences and twists and turns in the plot will keep tween readers turning pages.
When I did this title for a book club, it turned out to be the one that got the children most excited about reading. They went on to read subsequent books in the series and were excited to tell me the newest plot twist they had uncovered.
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson
Sweet Historical Fiction
My husband read this book aloud to my daughter, and she loved it.
It's about a girl who emigrated from China to the United States in the 40's. At first she is intimidated by the strange language and customs of her new country, but when her class learns about Jackie Robinson, the first man to break the color barrier in professional baseball, she is inspired to make the most of her time in the land of opportunity.
Published in 1984, this book was one of the first to detail the experiences of a Chinese immigrant girl. It is smart, funny and touching all at once.
A Museum in a Book
A nonfiction book pretty enough to be a Christmas present? You bet.
Eyewitness books are known for their eye-catching visuals and interesting tidbits of information. They’ve been called “a museum in a book.”
This book has two-page spreads on family life, festivals, education, fashion--you name it, it’s probably there. You won’t find a whole lot of depth in two pages, but you can always note topics for which you want to find further books and information. It’s an easy book to thumb through, stopping when something catches your eye. I especially like that these books use actual photographs whenever possible.
This book includes maps, a timeline, a section on “famous Chinese people in history” and a CD of clip art.
A Simple, Straightforward Cookbook
This is the best Chinese cookbook for kids that I’ve seen. You won’t find any unusual ingredients or strange dishes that kids have to be cajoled into eating.
Each 2-page spread shows a picture of the ingredients and the preparation methods. The recipes are simple, but tasty, and the ingredients aren’t hard to find.
We discovered one of our family favorites here—4-color soup—and my daughter was able to help with most of the steps by the time she was four. It’s a surprisingly tasty soup that includes spinach, tomato, and carrots which give you 3 of the colors: green, red, and orange. The fourth color is supposed to be white, for mushrooms, but we substitute noodles because my daughter likes them better.
Recipes include spring rolls, shrimp and pork dumplings, long-life noodles (a must-know for new year’s and birthday parties), fried rice, Chinese omelette, and egg custard tarts.
Twelve year-old Hannah West, the sleuth and main character of this series, is a Chinese-American girl, adopted by a single mom who lives in Seattle. Hannah's mother makes her money by housesitting in trendy neighborhoods all over town. As Hannah moves from house to house with her mother, she finds new mysteries to solve in each place.
The mysteries are light and fun, and like every girl detective, Hannah has an eye for detail and a knack for piecing clues together.
These books have gone out of print, so there are no live links to them, but you can still find them on the used market.
In this book, Hannah and her mother are living on a houseboat in Portage Bay. Hannah is at first thrilled with the job because she’ll get to dogsit a Labradoodle, and someone is filming a TV series in the area. But then she notices suspicious things—people running around in black raincoats when it’s not raining who seem to be dumping something in the water, dead fish floating around. Something is certainly fishy, and Hannah will have to use her detecting skills to find out what it is.
A nice Nancy-Drew-like mystery with an environmental message.
In this book, Hannah and her mother move to the tony Millionaire’s Row, and of course she becomes attached to the dog next door, Izzie.
This time, though, Hannah lines up a cat-sitting job, and finds herself in the middle of a string of mysterious break-ins. Oddly the purported thieves don’t seem to be stealing anything. They are just rearranging furniture or adding decorated rocks to the décor. But then, antiques start disappearing from the homes. Hannah is in a unique position to observe what’s going on and figure out why. Could it have something to do with feng shui? Or maybe Antiques Caravan. the reality show that’s in town?
I’m noticing that dogs play a prominent role in the Hannah West books, especially in this one in which she is dogsitting an adorable basset hound named Elvis while his owner is in Hong Kong for a two-month business trip. Hannah and her mother are living in the Fremont area of Seattle, known to the locals as “The Center of the Universe.” Hannah starts her own dog-walking business there, but soon she find out that some people are pointing fingers at her as the culprit in a series of dog-nappings for ransom that started soon after she moved to the area.
A complete dog-lover, she is of course outraged by the charges and needs to use all her sleuthing skills to track down the real culprit.
© 2013 Adele Jeunette