A half-century and more ago, when I was growing up, there was a comic book series in the United States called “Classics Illustrated” which retold novels, myths and—my own favorites—history in a format normally reserved for Spiderman. These were probably not the most accurate introductions to Marco Polo or Caesar, but they stirred the imagination.
Ying Chang Compestine wrote her first children’s novel, Revolution is Not a Dinner Party, almost two decades ago. Despite receiving notes from readers asking for more stories set in her home city of Wuhan, she just could not come up with a compelling story or relatable characters. That is, not until the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020.
Dragons have been a staple of folklore across Asia, but in literature, at least in English, dragons have mostly been of the Western variety. This may be changing, at least in children’s books. Two authors have recently used dragons in their stories., both set in Japan, or a fantasy world based on Japan, and both feature relationships between pre-teens and their aging grandparents.
With half of the world going back to school now, two new picture books address issues that kids can encounter in the classroom. Sheetal Sheth’s Making Happy is illustrated by Khao Le. Anoosha Syed has written and illustrated That’s Not My Name.
In middle grade novels, the main characters are typically concerned about making friends, fitting in at school, and, in recent years, adapting to new cultures. But with Varsha Bajaj’s new novel, Thirst, the main character, Minni, has a life-and-death situation on her hands: Mumbai’s water supply. As the title implies, water is scarce for Minni’s family and their neighbors in the poorest areas of the city.
The trend of novelists to base stories on mythology and the ancient classics—Greek myths, the Iliad, and Beowolf—has more recently been extended to Asian sources. Young adult and middle grade literature, usually au courant with publishing trends, has also begun to embrace Asian mythology in recent years, with three new novels published just this spring.
Young adult novels often highlight teenagers’ angst with identity issues. While this phenomenon may seem American with its focus on ethnic identity, there are other diasporas in other places. Chesil’s debut novel, The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart, in an English translation by Takami Nieda, tells such a story set among the Korean community in Japan.