Teenagers growing up between cultures (as I like to describe internationally adopted, biracial, or immigrant kids) face some soul-sickening stereotypes in movies, books, and television:
1. The Noble Savage:
A person like me is wiser than everybody else.
2. The Exotic Stranger:
A person like me is more desirable because s/he is foreign.
3. The Token Sidekick:
A person like me is never the hero unless the story is about race.
4. The Under-Class- Man:
A person like me is always poor and uneducated.
5. The Accented Alien:
A person who sounds like me is either dangerous or funny.
6. The "Not-It" Reject:
A person who looks like me is never alluring or attractive.
Thankfully, many good stories ( i.e. the antidote to all of the above mentioned notions) are being published these days, featuring people originating in every corner of the planet. And these are the books I feature on my Fire Escape - books for teens (and a few adult books that appeal to young adults) that shatter one or more of the six stereotypes listed here.
One caveat: As I am sure it's also true of younger readers, I don't want to read only multicultural books. My soul is hungry for any hero's journey, any sense of place, any insight into the human existence or relationships.
As Hazel Rochman said in her now-classic Horn Book essay, " Against Borders:"
A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person - their meanness and their courage - then you've reached beyond stereotype ... Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but, most importantly, it finds homes for us everywhere.
American Eyes: New Asian American Short Stories for Young Adults
Ten young Asian-Americans re-create the conflicts that all young people feel living in two distinct worlds.
Before We Were Free
Twelve-year-old Anita isn't aware of the growing menace in the Dominican Republic until her relatives have fled to America and a fleet of black Volkswagens brings the secret police to the family compound to search their houses.
Ask Me No Questions
Nadira, 14, leaves Bangladesh with her family on a tourist visa to America, and they stay long after the visa expires. Their illegal status is discovered, however, following 9/11, when immigration regulations are tightened.
Marisol and Magdelena: The Sound of Our Sisterhood
When Marisol's mother sends her to live in Panama with her abuela (grandmother), the move puts Marisol's American values and her friendship with Magdalena to the test.
Quinceañera Means Sweet 15
Marisol and Magdalena are making plans for their fifteenth birthdays, but quinceañeras are expensive, and Marisol's mother doesn't know if she can afford a party.
Justina Chen Headley,
Nothing But The Truth (And A Few White Lies)
Little Brown, 2006.
Hapa (half Asian and half white) Patty Ho has never felt completely at home in her skin. When a Chinese fortuneteller divines a white guy on her horizon, her mom freaks out and ships her off to math camp at Stanford.
Front Street, 2005.
Neema, half Indian, half Australian, is dealing with a visit from her great-grandmother, Nani, who speaks only Hindi, and her unsettling feelings for a skateboarder named Gull Owens, with whom Nani has her own relationship.
Children of the River
Random House, 1994.
Sundara flees Cambodia with her aunt's family, leaving her own family behind for Oregon. As a Khmer, she's not allowed to date or even be alone with a boy; her marriage will be arranged.
Behind the Mountains
Scholastic First Person Fiction, 2003.
Leaving her home in rural Haiti, Celiane Esp̩rance and her mother are reunited with her father in Brooklyn.
Melissa De La Cruz,
Fresh Off The Boat
Vicenza Arambullo, 14, is a recent immigrant to San Francisco from Manila, where her family was wealthy. On scholarship, she now attends a private girls' school where she is an outcast.
Alphonsion and Benson Deng, Benjamin Ajak, Judy Berstein, They Poured Fire On Us From The Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys From Sudan
The Deng brothers and their cousin Benjamin were not yet seven when they fled their Dinka villages for Kenya during the Sudanese civil war, and moved to America in 2001.
Tanuja Desai Hidie,
Dimple Lala, an aspiring 17-year-old Indian-American photographer living in New Jersey, struggles to balance two cultures, at home and in the South Asian club scene, without falling apart.
First Crossing: Stories About Teen Immigrants
The teen immigrants featured in this short story collection come from countries like Cambodia, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Palestine, and South Korea.
Pearl Fuyo Gaskins,
What Are You? Voices of Mixed-Race Young People
Henry Holt and Co., 1999.
In essay, interview, and poetry, 45 mixed-race young people between the ages of 14 and 26, from all over the U.S., speak about their growing up.
Laurel Leaf, 1973.
Rejected by her classmates because she "talks funny," Phyllisia Cathy, a West Indian girl, is "forced" to become friends with poor, frazzled Edith, the only one who will accept her.
The Stone Goddess
Nakri Sokha suffers under the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. After the Vietnamese army liberates Cambodia, Nakri returns to her mother's village, where they decide to seek refuge in America.
Mona in the Promised Land
Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Mona's Jewish Westchester classmates hardly notice what everyone else finds hard to forget: Mona may be Jewish by choice (and voice) and American by nationality, but her surname is Chang.
When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it's her sister Lynn who teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow. But when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering - kira-kira - in the future.
Kiss the Dust
Tara, a Kurdish girl, has to flee with her family, first from a northern Iraqi city to the mountains, then to an internment camp, then on to Iran, and finally to England.
Marie G. Lee,
Chan and his sister Young move from Los Angeles to a small Minnesota town. Entering their junior year of high school, Chan must cope not only with racism on the football team but also with the tensions in his relationship with his strict father.
Marie G. Lee,
Finding My Voice
Pressured by her strict Korean immigrant parents to get into Harvard, high school senior Ellen Sung tries to find some time for romance, friendship and fun in her small Minnesota town; but the racism she encounters becomes impossible to ignore.
Isa repudiates her Korean parents' values and runs away with an albino boy, Hero. At the same time, she suspects that despite her mother's strict adherence to Korean traditional values, she is involved with another man, and Isa is determined to make the affair known. What begins as a child's unthinking fury at her mother soon leads to more deadly consequences.
Daughter of the Ganges: A Memoir
When Asha was six, a Catalan family was in the process of adopting twins but one of the children suddenly fell ill and died, leading the family to adopt Asha instead. Twenty-one years later, Asha takes a heart-wrenching trip back to India to uncover her native roots.
13-year-old Zazoo lives with her loving adoptive grandfather, who brought her from Vietnam to his French village when she was just 2 years old. A meeting with a Parisian boy incites her to learn more about the Nazi invasion of France.
A Step from Heaven
Front Street, 2002.
Young Ju grows from a toddler in Korea to a high-school graduate in California, desperately trying to be a 'true' American while her immigrant parents try to make her stay close to her Korean heritage.
When Suzanne Hua, a Chinese American, and Andy Suzuki, a Japanese American, meet in their high-school orchestra, their white classmates see them as a good match. But Suzanne's beloved grandmother can't forget the brutality of the Japanese who invaded China, and Andy's father talks about the "dirty, backward" Chinese.
Random House/Delacorte, 2003.
Violet unleashes conflicting feelings within her family when she explores her Cuban roots.
Random House, 2004.
Fifteen-year-old biracial Jasmine ("Jazz") is conflicted about spending the summer in Pune, India, where her mother has received a grant to work at the orphanage where she had lived as a child.
Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, 2002.
14-year-old Mardi isn't allowed to stray from her Brooklyn apartment but harbors a terrible secret about what she suffered in Haiti during the 1991 coup.
When I Was A Puerto Rican
Perseus Books, 1993.
Santiago and her ten siblings lived in a corrugated metal shack in Puerto Rico. When they head to New York, where her grandmother lives, she must rely on her intelligence and talents to help her survive.
Help Wanted: Stories
Ten original short stories about Mexican-American teens in central California, tied together by a theme of "needing help."
Dawn is a runaway from California with a foster mother who is a doctor helping in a refugee camp near Pakistan. Johar, 15, lives in Afghanistan. His aunt, a teacher, has disappeared, the Taliban has taken his brother, and Johar is left to care for his three-year-old cousin.
Finding My Hat
Scholastic First Person Fiction, 2003.
Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jin-Han grows from a Korean 2-year-old into an American teen whose mother dies.
The Joy Luck Club
Ivy Books, 1990.
Chinese American daughters find conflict, love and connection with their mothers, who are haunted by their early lives in China.
The Flight To Freedom
Scholastic First Person Fiction, 2003.
Yara Garcia and her family are forced to flee from Cuba to Miami, Florida. Tension develops between her parents, as Mami grows more independent and Papi joins a militant anti-Castro organization.
No Laughter Here
Akilah can't wait to start fifth grade with her best friend, Victoria, who has been in Nigeria for the summer. But Victoria has survived female circumcision, and Akilah is furious but sworn to secrecy.
American Born Chinese
FirstSecond Books, 2006.
A series of three linked tales in graphic novel form about Jin Wang, a teen who meets with ridicule and social isolation when his family moves from San Francisco's Chinatown to an exclusively white suburb; Danny, a popular blond, blue-eyed high school jock whose social status is jeopardized when his goofy, embarrassing Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, enrolls at his high school; and the Monkey King who, unsatisfied with his current sovereign, desperately longs to be elevated to the status of a god.
Girls For Breakfast
Nick Park, a Korean American, describes himself as "the only non-Anglo-Saxon student in suburban Connecticut," and blames his Korean looks for his lack of popularity and girlfriends.
Alem's father is Ethiopian and his mother Eritrean. With both countries at war, he is welcome in neither place, so Alem begins a new life in the United Kingdom.
Posted July 2007