Not fully Asian, not really white.
For many AAPI people, myself included, the feeling of being trapped between two cultures is all too familiar. We often find ourselves torn between our full-Asian heritage and the non-Asian communities we call home. But many of our friends in the AAPI population balance opposing cultures within their own families, which comes with a totally separate set of joys, challenges, heartaches, and uncertainties.
I recently finished Mariko Turk’s The Other Side of Perfect, a YA novel about Alina, a half-Japanese, half-white ballet dancer trying to find her way after recovering from a ballet-ending injury. As a former classical violinist, I was immediately drawn into Alina’s world and was intrigued by the way her half-Asian heritage influenced her perspective on American ballet. Alina quickly became one of my favorite part-Asian characters, which inspired me to think more about the part-Asian experience in America.
It turns out I’m not alone. Part-Asian people’s perspectives have been gaining visibility recently — partly because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s words about her own experiences as a part-Asian American. Even before that, Pew Research found that, of the 6.2 million Americans who identify as multiracial, at least 22% are part-Asian — which means more and more young adults are going to find themselves grappling with their racial identities. In fact, Teen Vogue recently published a series of portraits of part-Asian young people. So, it seems there’s no better time to shed light on YA books about part-Asian characters — and to applaud Mariko Turk and authors like her for exploring their stories. Here are ten YA books about part-Asian characters that invite part-Asian readers to recognize themselves in the characters — and give all of us a glimpse into the varied perspectives of part-Asian people.
YA Books About Part-Asian Characters: Stories Set in America
Whether these part-Asian characters stand out in a mostly white Midwest town or are surrounded by other BIPOC characters in a bigger city, their mixed heritage still evokes complicated emotions.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Kiko Himura is certain her real life will begin just as soon as she lands a spot in Prism, the art school of her dreams. When Kiko doesn’t get accepted into Prism, she goes back to navigating a dysfunctional relationship with her mother and her increasingly confusing emotions about her half-Japanese heritage. When an abusive uncle moves into her family’s home, Kiko jumps at a friend’s invitation to leave her small Midwest town to explore more art schools on the west coast. Once she’s away from her home’s oppressive environment, Kiko discovers truths about herself and her past and finally finds the courage to tackle the fears that have been holding her back.
Nothing But Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen
Patty Ho, a half-Asian, half-white high school sophomore, doesn’t fit in anywhere — not at home where she feels like the inferior sibling, and not at school where feels too Asian around her white friends. Now that she’s heading off to attend math camp at Stanford University, she’s worried she won’t fit it there either. But she’s pleasantly surprised when she meets an attractive Asian guy she thinks her mom might actually like and a roommate who isn’t afraid to break all the rules. When her mom comes to visit and threatens to pull Patty out of the camp because she’s having too much fun, Patty re-examines everything she’s always known and believed and begins to see her life and relationships in a different light.
Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi
When pop star Leanna Smart walks into the bodega where college dropout Pablo Rind works, Pablo’s life is turned upside down. Suddenly, Pablo is swept up in Leanna’s glamorous lifestyle — private planes, luxury hotels, and fans screaming her name. It’s a far cry from Pablo’s humble life in Brooklyn where he’s not only trying to find his way out of debt and figure out what to do next, but also navigate expectations from his divorced parents: his ambitious Korean mom and his artistic Pakistani dad. When Pablo and Leanna’s relationship can no longer compensate for their very different lives, Pablo is finally ready to figure out exactly who he wants to be and what he wants to do — despite everyone else’s expectations.
From Little Tokyo, With Love by Sarah Kuhn
Teenager Rika Rakuyama is no stranger to feeling “other.” She’s a half-Japanese, half-white adopted child of a same-sex couple — and she has a temper that defies the Asian-girl stereotype. Still, she loves her family and enjoys her life. But when she begins to suspect that Hollywood actress Grace Kimura, whom Rika spots in Little Tokyo, is her biological mother, Rika feels an urgency to get some answers that might finally give her a sense of true belonging. In her search for the truth about her mother, Rika ends up learning some truths about herself.
When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Beth Claire’s half-Chinese and half-white identity often makes her feel alienated from her own extended family — especially after her white father leaves following her parents’ divorce. So, she’s grateful for her close-knit group of friends. She can’t imagine life without Grace, Brandon, Sunny, and Jason. One day, when Beth is spending time with Jason, for whom she harbors secret feelings, she witnesses an act of violence in his home. She and her friends vow to protect Jason, but when their devotion to him isn’t enough to save Jason from a life-altering decision, Beth must decide how much of herself she’s willing to give up for her friend.
The Other Side of Perfect by Mariko Turk
When a devastating injury abruptly shatters her long-held dreams of being a professional ballet dancer, Alina Keeler’s world comes tumbling down around her. Now that she’s stuck at the regular high school all day instead of leaving early to attend her pre-professional ballet classes, she lets herself get dragged into joining the high school musical. Although she’s still not over ballet, she warms up to the show and quickly makes friends, including a boy who she thinks could become more than a friend. With a little distance from her old life, Alina finally starts to recognize that ballet wasn’t so perfect after all, with its subtle racism and traditions of never questioning anything. Now that she’s surrounded by people who truly listen to her and respect her opinions, she discovers that as a part-Asian artist who is still passionate about the craft, she has a lot to contribute to ballet — even if she’s not the one on stage.
YA Books About Part-Asian Characters: Stories Set Mostly Abroad
These part-Asian characters have the opportunity to consider their multiracial identities away from their home countries. Most of them travel to places that are connected to their Asian heritage.
Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Darius Kellner, a self-described “fractional Persian” — his mom is Persian, his dad is white — doesn’t quite fit in at school, at home, or with either set of relatives. As Darius struggles to find a sense of belonging, he and his family travel to Iran, where Darius discovers he still doesn’t quite fit in. He can’t speak the language and his grandparents don’t understand why he has to take medicine for his clinical depression. But when Darius meets another boy, Sohrab, a friendship blooms and for the first time in his life, Darius feels he fits in with someone, somewhere — just by being himself.
Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee
Valora Luck is a talented acrobat who feels stuck in her life in England. When she finds herself with a passenger ticket for the most extravagant ocean liner on the water, she can’t wait to reunite with her twin brother, who’s working on the ship. She settles on a plan to track down the part-owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus, who’s a passenger, so she and her brother can go to New York and work as circus performers. When she’s turned away at the gangway, learning that Chinese people — even half-Chinese people — aren’t allowed into America, she manages to stow away and disguise herself. But when she finally finds her twin, she’s surprised to find that he has no interest in living the future she’s dreamed for both of them. But if there’s one thing Valora isn’t willing to do, it’s to give up easily.
The Astonishing Color of After Emily X.R. Pan
When Leigh Chen Sanders gets a visit from a red bird in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide, she knows this bird is her mother. The bird urges Leigh, who is half-Chinese and half-white, to go to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. Leigh arrives in Taiwan, still grieving her loss and trying to reconcile complicated emotions around the fact that on the very day her mother killed herself, Leigh kissed her best friend and secret crush for the first time. Leigh spends the summer unearthing family secrets, chasing ghosts, learning about Taiwanese culture, and ultimately coming to some realizations about herself.
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Just as Jay Reguero is settling into one last semester of playing video games at home before heading to the University of Michigan, he gets shocking news: His Filipino cousin, Jun, has been murdered by police in the Philippines for using drugs. Circumstances around his death seem suspicious to Jay, but his family refuses to talk about it. So Jay, who carries a sense of guilt about living an insular, assimilated life in suburban Michigan as the son of a Filipino father and white mother, makes the radical decision to fly to the Philippines and uncover Jun’s story. Jay spends his spring break in the Philippines learning hard truths about Jun’s life and choices, the country’s president’s problematic politics, and most importantly, about himself.
Whether racial identity serves as a prominent theme or subtly informs the protagonists’ choices, each of these YA books about part-Asian characters is completely unique and complex — just as each multiracial experience is. I can’t think of a better reason to dive into these stories and get a fresh perspective from these part-Asian characters.
Looking for more AAPI-authored reads? Catch up on Book Riot’s recommended titles.