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For Your TBR: 2021 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature Winners

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Every January, my TBR list welcomes a handful of new titles when the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature winners are announced. The awards, which are given by the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), recognizes ten books that shed light on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) culture and experiences, written by debut AAPI authors.

When the 2021 results were announced on January 25, I couldn’t wait to see the winning titles — some of which I’d already read, and others which I immediately added to my list. This year, the stories offer AAPI perspectives on almost two centuries of life in America — from the Gold Rush era to early 20th century Hollywood to the World War II years, all the way to modern day. If you’re as ready as I am for some fresh perspectives to start this year, you’ll find more than 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 cover

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Winner)

Siblings Lucy (12) and Sam (11) set out into the dusty, bone-littered landscape of the American West, searching for a burial spot for their recently deceased father, whom they call Ba. Years earlier, Ba had been caught up in the Gold Rush, hoping to find fortune, but had ended up mining coal instead. Armed with nothing but the memory of their parents, Lucy and Sam are faced with the reality of racism and prejudice toward immigrants and challenging encounters with unromanticized American West characters. In their journey to find a place where Ba’s soul can rest, they end up discovering truths about their family and, more importantly, about themselves.

How to Pronounce Knife cover

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (Honor Title)

The experiences of Laotian refugees are brought to life in this collection of  stories featuring men, women, and children finding their place in North America. Thammavongsa explores the feelings of alienation that arise among refugees who are working hard to succeed while searching for their identities 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, a Regents professor and director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, takes a deep dive into xenophobia and its history in the United States, including how it affected large immigrant groups — Chinese, Irish, Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and more. Drawing from her extensive research, Lee explains how xenophobia manifests, why it has endured, and its future implications for the country. 

Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films by Arthur Dong (Honor Title)

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

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature: Young Adult Literature Category

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda (Winner)

Four years before World War II, as part of a school project, 10-year-old Japanese American Alex Maki is assigned a penpal who lives in France. After he gets over his initial disappointment that Charlie Lévy isn’t a boy as he’d hoped, Alex develops a true friendship with Charlie, a French Jewish girl. Over time, they grow closer, opening up to each other about their hopes and dreams. But their friendship is interrupted by Japanese internment camps and the Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe. Although they can no longer communicate, Alex hangs on to his hope that one day, he’ll be able to connect with Charlie again.

Displacement by Kiku Hughes cover

Displacement by Kiku Hughes (Honor Title)

In this expressively illustrated graphic novel, teenager Kiku travels back in time to a 1940s internment camp where she recognizes one of the relocated Japanese Americans as her own grandmother. Kiku lives alongside the other Japanese Americans, and although she’s sobered by the suffering and oppression they must endure, she also finds power in their incredible resilience, quiet resistance, and strong sense of community.

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

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (Winner)

Lily wants nothing more than for her grandmother, Halmoni, to recover from the illness that’s prompted Lily and her family to move in and help take care of her. One day, a magical tiger from one of Halmoni’s Korean folktales appears to Lily and offers to heal her grandmother. But of course, it comes with a price that Lily isn’t so sure she wants to pay. Lily turns to the people who love her the most to help her find the courage to do what she knows is right.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (Honor Title)

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

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature: Picture Book Category

Cover of Paper Son by Leung

Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus 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 image was Tyrus Wong, a Chinese immigrant. His story — from the time he was born Wong Geng Yeo in China to his move to America, where he worked for years as a janitor to pay for art school, to his big break with Disney — comes to life in this beautifully written and illustrated picture book biography.

Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim (Honor Title)

Danbi’s first day of school in America doesn’t go quite as she’d hoped. Her classmates stare at her in silence when she walks into the room. She doesn’t know the same dances as they do, nor does she know the rules of their games. But then Danbi gets an idea: She’ll teach her classmates a new game — one that brings everyone together in an unforgettable parade.


Maybe these stories will resonate with your own experiences, or maybe they will offer you an opportunity to see life through someone else’s eyes. Either way, these Asian Pacific American Award for Literature winners offer cultural insights and a range of emotion and intrigue that any reader can appreciate.

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