By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By Carol Goodman
Viking Books for Young Readers, 2017
Meet Kiku, Madge, Joe, and Walt, four 13-year-olds who find themselves at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and pulls the United States into World War II.
As everyone tries to figure out what this means for the country, it quickly becomes clear that the teens will play a role. An eccentric museum curator is seeking four brave individuals — or knights — to track down the hidden pages of an ancient book of Arthurian legends, the Kelmsbury Manuscript. That manuscript holds the key to preventing another attack on American soil.
The four teens answer this call — despite being repeatedly told that they’re just kids — and soon find themselves developing extraordinary powers and experiencing the thoughts and feelings of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, and Lancelot.
In this story, Goodman combines history with fiction, myth, and folklore and brings together four very different people to work toward a common goal: Kiku, a Japanese American girl whose father has been taken away following the Pearl Harbor attacks; Madge, an Irish American girl who lives with her aunt after her mother dies and her father has a breakdown; Joe, an American Indian who lives on the streets of New York after hitting his school principal; and Walt, a recent Jewish immigrant from Germany living with American relatives after his parents sent him stateside to be safe from the Nazi concentration camps.
As the team works together to try and stop another attack against the United States, Goodman shows that their differences are no reason for them to distrust each other. If anything, it brings them closer as a team, as they also work to protect Kiku from the authorities and comfort Walt when they learn the fate of Jews in Europe.
Although “Metropolitans” is a fantasy adventure story, Goodman lays it all down on a foundation of the very real themes of friendship, loyalty, and trust, as well as love, betrayal, and forgiveness.
By Esther Friesner
Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012
As the only daughter of the leader of the Matsu clan, Himiko should not have any care in the world. But instead of basking in the pampered princess life with only concerns of a future husband to worry about, Himiko wants to do something meaningful with her life and contribute to her clan.
Initially she wants to become a hunter, but that doesn’t work out and readers quickly learn that Himiko also has a secret. She can speak with the spirit world. One thing leads to another and Himiko soon finds herself training with the clan’s shaman in secret.
With so much working against her — from a father who only wants her to be a good daughter, to a society that values females so much less than males, to peers who only want to be her friend because of her status in the clan, Himiko eventually figures out who she is meant to be and what she is meant to do for her clan.
“Spirit’s Princess” combines fiction, fantasy, and folklore with history as Friesner imagines what teenaged life for Queen Himiko of Third-Century Japan, before the country united under one ruler, could have been like.
Himiko is a strong character who may not know exactly what she wants all the time, but she knows what she doesn’t want and has no problem rejecting those things just because they are expected of her.
In addition to Himiko, we catch a glimpse of a life of duty for all of her family, as they try to fulfill different roles for the good of the clan.
From Himiko’s eldest brother who struggles with the idea of finding a wife when he has fallen in love with a young woman from a different clan, to her two stepmothers whose children suffer through life-threatening illnesses, Friesner shows the struggles of life during that time period.
American Born Chinese
By Gene Luen Yang
First Second, 2006
Jin Wang has just moved to a new school, only to learn that he is the only Chinese American student. The Monkey King is doing his best to prove his power and be accepted by the other gods. And Danny is an all-American boy whose life gets interrupted whenever his cousin Chin-Kee, a personification of the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, comes for his annual visit.
In “American Born Chinese,” Yang tells the stories of these three seemingly different characters, as they go about their lives and try to figure out who they are and where they belong in their respective worlds.
Yang combines modern life with folklore in a graphic novel that depicts what life can be like not just for Chinese Americans, but also many Asian Americans as they try to navigate growing up between two cultures. Whether it’s the assumption that anyone who is of Asian descent are automatically friends, to the difficulty others sometimes have in pronouncing their names, Yang shows Asian American readers that he understands and non-Asian readers some of the struggles people can go through just because they are a little different.
In addition to the story, Yang draws in readers through his artwork, which can tell the characters’ stories without any words. The saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words and that is true as Yang’s drawings are engaging and really show the characters’ ups and downs — sometimes through a single series of facial expressions. Sometimes, you don’t need words to explain what you mean.
While “American Born Chinese” may be targeted toward middle-level readers, Yang tells a universal story that anyone at any age can enjoy, as there is always going to be a time when we question who we are and where we belong in this world.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.