Readers of the Asian Review of Books may have noticed an increasing number of young adult (YA) books among its reviews. This is in part a function of increased coverage, but it’s also a result of there being more books to cover. As a genre, Asian YA has grown in both depth and breadth, a development which, as it turns out, is relatively recent and has been led, on the whole, by books which ethnically deal with the Eastern part of the continent. And since publishing is a business after all, one can presume the increase reflects changes in the market. Yet one can’t help but wonder whether it’s a leading or lagging indicator of changes in society, or if it’s entirely coincidental.
For many years, young adult literature pretty much consisted of books by Judy Blume and SE Hinton. These books included topics more risqué than such classics as Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time and The Catcher in the Rye. At the turn of the new millennium mature themes became more immediate and, perhaps coincidentally, gained even more widespread popularity. The 2002 Gossip Girl series was followed a few years later by Twilight and The Hunger Games. These were so popular that they were adapted into television and film series.
Asian-American authors and stories have been a part of YA literature going back at least to the early 1990s. Two examples, which are by no means exhaustive, include Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella, a memoir of her troubled childhood in Shanghai that was adapted from her adult memoir, Falling Leaves, and Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s Finding My Voice, a novel that would seem commonplace today as it tells of protagonist Ellen Sung’s frustrations as the only Asian student at her all-white high school in small-town Minnesota. Because it seemed to have been published well before its time, Finding My Voice was just re-released at the end of 2020.
Around 2011, authors like Marie Lu found great success with dystopian YA, starting with her Legend series, which had nothing to do with Asia. Ellen Oh’s Prophecy was the first YA fantasy novel in her Dragon King Chronicles series based on Korean folklore. Jenny Han co-wrote her Burn for Burn trilogy around this time, which featured one Asian character. Yet for YA books with Asian characters and Asian stories, it was all still something of a slow burn.
That appeared to change in 2014 when the character of Lara Jean Song Covey won the hearts of teenage readers in Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Lara Jean Covey is half-Korean and writes love letters to the five boys she likes at school, never intending to mail them. But they get out and all hell breaks loose. A typical American teenage tale, then, except the protagonist is biracial. The book became a series, and the series became a Netflix trilogy, the third of which should be released sometime early this year. In retrospect, this looks to be about the point when at least East Asian characters and stories went mainstream in YA fiction.
Although Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella sold upwards of 800,000 copies, it did not engender the movement in the late 1990s that is now all too visible. The later and more recent growth of YA fiction parallels a certain mainstreaming of East Asian culture in the US, perhaps particularly the pop culture which teens and young adults disproportionately consume. Asia is not just for Asians anymore. While movies and television programs with Asian-American characters like Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off the Boat, and of course the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series are still numerically under-represented, at least they are no longer anomalous. Even more notable is that Korean dramas, or K-Drama, have gained popularity in the US over the last decade thanks to Netflix and other streaming channels, with Chinese period dramas seemingly following.
It’s not that K-Pop or K-Drama were the first examples of East Asian culture permeating into mainstream America. Far from it. Kids have been trading Pokemon and Yugioh cards for decades and most Americans have heard (and a great many partake) of Nintendo, anime and manga. Yet K-Pop nonetheless provides an example of the cross-fertilization between YA fiction and other genres. K-Pop hit the Billboard 200 in 2009 and has maintained an increasingly domesticated presence in American pop culture ever since. Not all teens follow K-Drama and K-Pop, but in 2017 Maurene Goo published I Believe in a Thing Called Love, starring a Korean-American teen who uses K-Drama strategies to lure in a boyfriend. A couple years later, she published another rom-com, Somewhere Only We Know, about a K-Pop star who escapes her hotel in disguise one evening and falls for a young paparazzo. The story is a take (undoubtedly entirely obscure as far as teens are concerned) on Roman Holiday. This far-from-niche book is, furthermore, mostly set in the very overseas location of Hong Kong.
Over the past year or so, K-Pop has figured in other YA rom-coms, including the novel Shine by erstwhile K-Pop sensation Jessica Jung, and K-Pop Confidential from entertainment writer Stephan Lee, both set in Seoul, hardly, one assumes, a place familiar to many of the target audience.
These Korea-specific stories are part of a trend of ever-greater ethnic segmentation, with Taiwan-specific Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen joined by China-based My Summer of Love and Misfortune from Lindsay Wong. Both of these rom-coms came out last year and feature teenage girls who are sent to East Asia to learn more about their roots as their parents worry they are becoming too American. Pintip Dunn writes about Thai characters in her rom-com, Dating Makes Perfect, and Loan Le centers her story around Vietnamese teens in A Pho Love Story. Melissa de la Cruz writes about Filipino teens. Emiko Jean’s new novel out later this year, Tokyo Ever After, is pitched as The Princess Diaries meets Crazy Rich Asians.
Some authors have riffed on the classics. Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights is a Romeo and Juliet reprise set in 1920s Shanghai and Jenny Lee published Anna K, a reworking of Anna Karenina set on New York’s Park Avenue with Korean biracial teens. Asian-American YA has also come to terms with serious issues that are particularly Asian in nature or origin. For instance, Kelly Yang addressed rape culture in her novel, Parachutes and Emily XR Pan discussed suicide in The Astonishing Color of After, a novel of magical realism that mostly takes place in Taiwan. Thanhha Lai’s Butterfly Yellow deals with the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
The indications that Asian-American YA appeals to non-Asian readers are reinforced by the diversity in ethnicity of the protagonists of these new books: one doubts that the Thai-American community alone could support a book featuring Thai-Americans.
Some of the appeal may be thematic. Parental expectations have become a large part of Asian YA, especially in rom-coms. In many of these books, while parents don’t want their children to date in high school; they expect them to get into a good university and somehow be ready for marriage by the time they graduate. Gloria Chao was one of the earlier authors to discuss this in American Panda and readers can find similar conflict in books with protagonists of other ethnicities. But parental pressure is hardly restricted to Asian families.
Food often seems to be the connecting tissue in books as well as in life. In recent years it’s no longer uncommon for teens in the west to seek out banh mi, ramen, and Korean fried chicken as they might McDonald’s and Burger King. These interests are now reflected in their choices of YA books. Recently, authors Loan Le and Jennifer Yen built entire novels around Asian food. Both out in early 2021, Le’s A Pho Love Story takes place in rival Southern California Vietnamese restaurants while Yen’s A Taste for Love centers around an Asian bake-off contest sponsored by a Taiwan-style bakery in Houston. Pintip Dunn’s Dating Makes Perfect also features food and a lot of it. These books include the same parental expectation issues as other Asian American YA stories, but delve deeper into Asian culture with a focus on food.
There’s still room to grow. YA is relatively young; there is little in translation (at all, to say nothing of translations from East Asian authors). YA was very much an anglophone creation; it will perhaps take time for it to diffuse overseas and come back. (In several countries, the niche was to some extent occupied by graphic novels, an increasing number of which, including Asian ones, are now being translated into English.)
Despite the troubling rise in anti-Asian incidents during the Covid-19 pandemic, the East Asian YA trend shows little sign of slowing, nor does it seem to be a passing “fad” (as those that followed such commercial successes as Twilight). Does it indicate progress in underlying trends in society, at least among the young? It is perhaps no coincidence that it parallels rising affluence, new technology and social media which provide the means for cross-cultural exposure. Unlike cuisine and music, reading would usually require some identification, in this case cross-cultural identification, with the characters and situations in the books: this is surely a hopeful sign.