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Two children's books about middle schoolers between cultures

In two books, 'Listen, Slowly' and 'Blackbird Fly,' middle schoolers caught between U.S., Asian cultures

A recent report from the University of Wisconsin's Cooperative Children's Book Center reveals the persistence of a diversity gap in literature for children and adolescents. In 2014, only 112 books for young people featured Asian/Pacific and Asian/Pacific American characters — an improvement from the 69 that were published in 2013 but still negligible considering that more than 2,500 juvenile titles are published every year. Authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo, critics Junko Yokota and Sarah Park Dahlen, and publishers like Lee and Low Books are among those leading the call for a better balance of stories in the children's literary landscape. But because Asian Americans hail from a variety of nations, cultures and ethnicities, and speak many different languages, a broad range of voices is needed.

Two new books for middle grade readers provide delightful, relatable characters whose families come from Vietnam and the Philippines — young women negotiating their cultural identities while trying to fit in with their middle school peer groups.

Thanhha Lai's "Listen, Slowly" (HarperCollins: 272 pp., $16.99, ages 10-up) is the story of 12-year-old Mai Le, who is dreaming of Laguna Beach and a certain boy in her class when her father and grandmother decide she'll spend her summer in Vietnam with them. Her grandmother, Ba, has learned that Mai's grandfather, once thought dead, may have survived as a prisoner of war. While her physician father engages in humanitarian work, and Ba searches for her long-lost love, Mai spends time in the small village where Ba grew up. Through prose so evocative we can feel the heat caressing Mai's skin as she lands, Lai transports the reader from suburban California to modern-day Vietnam.

The first part of the novel dives into the intergenerational conflict: Mai's father and grandmother struggle to immerse her in her heritage, while Mai mostly wants to stay connected to friends back home, like the effervescent, yet superficial Montana. A Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winning author, Lai's deft storytelling moves from Ba's war-era flashbacks to Mai's reluctant adjustment and eventual acceptance of village life, facilitated by two adolescents there: her cousin Ut and former exchange student Anh Minh. As Ut and Anh Minh unlock the Vietnamese language and culture for Mai, the three become friends. The serendipity that Mai finds is contrasted with the news that Ba has been waiting a lifetime to hear. While the book's target audience is for readers in the middle grades, even many teen readers will find much to love about Lai's sophomore novel.

Like Mai in "Listen, Slowly," the narrator of Erin Entrada Kelly's delightful debut, "Blackbird Fly" (HarperCollins: 272 pp., $16.99, ages 9-up), finds herself between cultures. Analyn "Apple" Yenko was born in the Philippines but is growing up in Louisiana, the only child of a single mother. Apple loves the Beatles to the point of obsession (her favorite is George Harrison), and dreams of becoming a rock star someday too. She is quirky and fun-loving, but between pressure by her mother to keep in touch with her culture and the awkwardness of being the only Filipina American at her school, her life is complicated. She is mislabeled as Chinese by her peers and asked offensive questions about her family's cuisine.

Everything changes when the boys at school put Apple on the dreaded Dog Log, a listing of those who are not popular, and she is socially ostracized. She quickly learns who her real friends are when former pals Alyssa and Gretchen distance themselves from her so that they are not tainted by association. Of course, Apple makes new friends, including Evan Temple, a new boy from California, and Helena, another girl who was placed on the Dog Log.

While the basic plot is well-trodden ground for this age level and genre, what sets Kelly's book apart is the combination of a quirky narrator and many details about living in a first-generation Filipino American household. Although the racist and xenophobic remarks by the Dog Log creators are never punished by adults, this reflects the kinds of bullying that many middle schoolers experience daily. Through her love of music, learning to embrace her culture and her new friends, Apple starts to soar like the eponymous blackbird of her favorite Beatles song.

Thomas is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and is co-editor of "Reading African American Experiences in the Obama Era."

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