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Every January my TBR list welcomes a handful of new titles when the winners of the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature are announced. The awards, presented by the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), recognize ten books that shed light on the culture and experiences of Asia-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and were written by first-time AAPI authors.

When the results for 2021 were announced on January 25th, I couldn’t wait to see the winning titles – some of which I had already read and others I immediately added to my list. This year, the stories offer AAPI perspectives on nearly two centuries of life in America – from the gold rush era to Hollywood in the early 20th century to the years of World War II to modern times. If you are so ready to open up new perspectives for this year, you will find quite a few among this year’s winners of the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature.

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature: Adult Fiction Category

How much of these hills is gold by C Pam Zhang (winner)

The siblings Lucy (12) and Sam (11) made their way into the dusty, bone-strewn landscape of the American West looking for a burial place for their recently deceased father, whom they call Ba. Years earlier, Ba had been involved in the gold rush hoping to make a fortune, but instead had mined coal. Armed with nothing but the memory of their parents, Lucy and Sam face the reality of racism and prejudice against immigrants and challenging encounters with unromantic characters from the American West. On their journey to a place where Ba’s soul can rest, they end up discovering truths about their family and especially about themselves.

How to pronounce the knife cover

How to pronounce knife from Souvankham Thammavongsa (honorary title)

The experiences of Laotian refugees come to life in this collection of stories depicting men, women and children finding their place in North America. Thammavongsa examines the alienation of refugees who work hard to be successful as they search for their identity in the space between two languages, cultures and value systems.

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature: Adult Nonfiction Category

America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee (winner)

Erika Lee, Professor of Regents and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, takes an in-depth look at xenophobia and its history in the United States, including its impact on large immigrant groups – Chinese, Irish, Italians, Mexicans, the Middle East, and more . Drawing on her extensive research, Lee explains how xenophobia manifests itself, why it persists, and what future effects it will have on the country.

Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films by Arthur Dong (Honorary Degree)

Writer and filmmaker Arthur Dong explores the Sino-American influence on Hollywood in this coffee table book that features interviews with actors, directors, and producers, plus hundreds of vintage photographs, movie posters, and more. Through extensive research and his own experience, Dong documents the history of Sino-American films from War of the Tongs (1917) to Crazy Rich Asians (2018).

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature: Youth Literature Category

That Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda (Winner)

Four years before the Second World War, the 10-year-old Japanese American Alex Maki was assigned a pen pal living in France as part of a school project. After overcoming his initial disappointment that Charlie Lévy is not a boy as he had hoped, Alex develops a real friendship with Charlie, a French-Jewish girl. Over time, they get closer and open each other to their hopes and dreams. However, their friendship is broken by Japanese internment camps and the persecution of Jews by the Nazis in Europe. Although they can no longer communicate, Alex holds on to his hope that one day he will be able to reconnect with Charlie.

Shift by Kiku Hughes cover

Displacement by Kiku Hughes (honorary title)

In this expressively illustrated comic, teenage Kiku travels back to a 1940s internment camp where she recognizes one of the resettled Japanese Americans as her own grandmother. Kiku lives with the rest of the Japanese Americans, and while sobering up in the suffering and oppression they have to endure, she also finds power in their incredible resilience, calm resistance, and strong sense of community.

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature: Children’s Literature Category

If you catch a tiger by Tae Keller (winner)

Lily just wants her grandmother Halmoni to recover from the illness that caused Lily and her family to move in and take care of her. One day, a magical tiger from one of the Korean fairy tales of Halmoni appears to Lily and offers to heal her grandmother. But of course it comes with a price that Lily won’t be so sure to pay. Lily reaches out to the people she love most to help her find the courage to do what she thinks is right.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (Honorary Degree)

Hanna has three goals: to go to school, to make at least one friend and to become a seamstress in her father’s business. As a semi-Asian girl who was the target of racial prejudice from her white neighbors in the American heartland in the 1880s, Hanna realizes that it will be difficult and sometimes even dangerous. But she is determined to find her own way to live in her community and work towards her dreams.

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature: Picture Book Category

Cover of Paper Son by Leung

Paper Son: The Inspirational Story of Tire Wong, Immigrant and Artist by Julie Leung and Chris Sasaki (Winner)

Everyone knows Bambi, but not many people know that the artist behind the iconic Disney picture was Tyrus Wong, a Chinese immigrant. His story – from his birth as Wong Geng Yeo in China, to his move to America, where he worked for years as a janitor for the art school, to his big break with Disney – comes alive in this beautifully written and illustrated book, picture book biography.

Danbi leads the school parade of Anna Kim (honorary title)

Danbi’s first day of school in America doesn’t go quite as she’d hoped. Her classmates stare at her in silence as she walks into the room. She doesn’t know the same dances or the rules of their games. But then Danbi comes up with an idea: She teaches her classmates a new game – one that brings everyone together in an unforgettable parade.

Perhaps these stories match your own experiences or they offer you the opportunity to see life through someone else’s eyes. Either way, these winners of the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature offer cultural insights and a range of emotions and intrigue any reader can appreciate.

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