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May 1, 2024

Booklist celebrating innovators in the AAPINH community

By Chris Pineda and Rhishti Shrestha

Our theme for this year’s Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian (AAPINH) Heritage Month is “Advancing Leaders Through Innovation.” For this booklist, we selected twelve picture books celebrating a diverse group of leaders–athletes, engineers, members of Congress, physicists, singers, activists, and adventurers – who have one thing in common: they thrive on challenges. Many of the biographies in our list were written by authors who have a personal connection to the subjects of their books: Emeline Lee and Reem Faruqi wrote about their grandparents, Simran Jeet Singh wrote about a fellow Sikh, Christina Soontornvat about a fellow Thai, Dawn Bohulano Mabalon about a fellow Filipino, and so on. This goes to show that the spirit of innovation lasts only as long as the generations who pass it down. We hope these stories inspire you and your young readers to do the same.

bonnie's rocket, celebrating innovators in the aapinh communityBonnie’s Rocket by Emeline Lee, illustrated by Alina Chau

Bonnie’s Rocket is a heartwarming story about an aspiring engineer and her Baba, Lau Tung Kwan, who was himself an engineer for NASA’s Apollo 11 space mission – and the author’s grandfather. In the book Bonnie builds her own model rocket while her father, several states away, designs the life-support systems in the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. Through handwritten letters, Baba becomes Bonnie’s cheerleader, boosting her confidence and reminding her that hard work always pays off. After the successful Apollo 11 mission that sent the first astronauts to the moon, Baba goes home in time for the launch of Bonnie’s own handmade rocket.

building a dream, Celebrating Innovators in the AAPINH CommunityBuilding a Dream by Darshana Khiani, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Building a Dream: How the Boys of Koh Panyee Became Champions takes us to the fishing village of Koh Panyee, which is built on stilts off the coast of southern Thailand. This is the true story of a group of boys who had a simple dream: to have a place to play soccer. But in their floating village, grass and sand were in short supply, so together the boys gathered tools, wood scraps, and old barrels to build their own soccer pitch. For weeks they worked tirelessly until they finished their floating wooden pitch. The challenges of practicing on a swaying pitch helped them develop better footing, balance, and ball control. And even though the boys lost their first game, in the eyes of their community, they were already champions.

fall down seven times, stand up eight; Celebrating Innovators in the AAPINH CommunityFall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Toshiki Nakamura

Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight: Patsy Takemoto Mink and the Fight for Title IX brings to life the legacy of Patsy Mink, the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress. In the 1940s Patsy wanted to go to medical school, but she was rejected by all 12 colleges she applied to simply for being a woman. She went to law school instead, eventually becoming the first Congresswoman from Hawai’i. While in Congress she championed Title IX, the civil rights law prohibiting gender discrimination. As a result, Patsy opened doors for women to participate in education, sports, and other institutions from which they, like her, have been previously excluded. Patsy’s life is a true testament of the Japanese proverb: fall down seven times, stand up eight. With tremendous resilience, she faced every adversity and never gave up.

Fauja Singh Keeps Going, celebrating innovators in the aapinh communityFauja Singh Keeps Going by Simran Jeet Singh, illustrated by Baljinder Kaur

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon is all about perseverance. Born with weak legs that “looked like sticks,” Fauja Singh did not take his first step until he was five years old. Yet that first step was all he needed. Step after step, year after year, he grew stronger and more determined. He got married, started a family, and reminded his children every morning: “Today is a chance to do your best.” At 81, Fauja left his village in Punjab to join his family in England, where running became a way for him to connect with his new home. At 89, he ran his first marathon in London. He has since completed over 160 marathons, becoming the first 100-year-old to run the 26.2-mile distance. A true inspiration, Fauja Singh is especially beloved by runners, people with disabilities, and the Sikh community.

journey for justice; celebrating innovators in the aapinh communityJourney for Justice by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta, illustrated by Andre Sibayan

Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong is the first biography written about an unsung hero who worked alongside Cesar Chavez. As the assistant director of the United Farm Workers, Larry Itliong led the fight for higher wages and safer working conditions for Mexican and Filipino farmworkers. The book introduces us to young Larry and his journey as a Filipino farmworker and union rights leader. After experiencing racism and struggling to make a living wage, he became an organizer for the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). In 1965 he led thousands of Filipino farmworkers in a strike against grape growers in Delano, CA, an event that caught the attention of Cesar Chavez. Larry then traveled all over the nation as an advocate for farmworkers, not to mention a pillar of the Filipino community.

a life of service; celebrating innovators in the aapinh communityA Life of Service by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth follows Senator Duckworth through her early life in southeast Asia. Her father worked as an American aid worker, and Tammy often accompanied him to camps in Cambodia. When her family moved to the United States, they endured hardship and lived on public assistance. With her family on the verge of homelessness, Tammy found work by selling flowers on the curbside. She studied hard and eventually became a helicopter pilot for the National Guard. While on active duty in Iraq, she suffered a devastating injury that left her with both legs amputated. During her recovery, she helped other veterans get health care by negotiating with elected officials. She ran for the House in 2012 and became the first woman with a disability to be elected. She was also the first member of Congress to be born in Thailand and the first senator to give birth while in office. Senator Duckworth is a true survivor, her commitment to service an inspiration to all Americans.

Milloo's Mind; celebrating innovators in the aapinh communityMilloo’s Mind by Reem Faruqi, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi

Milloo’s Mind: The Story of Maryam Faruqi, Trailblazer for Women’s Education begins with a reader. “When she read, her thoughts danced, her mind breathed, and her heart hummed,” writes author Reem Faruqi in this story about her own grandmother Maryam, founder of the Happy Home Schools in Karachi, Pakistan. Milloo’s Mind recounts Maryam’s journey as an inquisitive young girl who, in the 1930s, was told to “stay home like other girls.” Instead, she defied expectations and graduated at the top of her class. She became a teacher, her first classroom taking up space in the house she shared with her husband. Maryam spent the rest of her life building schools, inspiring thousands of girls to pursue their love of learning.

momo & uncle yetiMomo & Uncle Yeti by Sibani Karki, illustrated by Oleg Goncharov

Momo & Uncle Yeti: Adventures in New York City breathes life into the popular Nepali dish, momo, and the mythical Himalayan ape, yeti. In this magical world, Uncle Yeti has an enormous appetite. His search for delicious international cuisines takes him to New York City. Momo, who has been scaling the snow-capped Himalayas, gets a postcard from Uncle Yeti saying he was lost in New York. Flying from Kathmandu to the JFK Airport, little Momo is the author’s representation of her own experience of moving to the United States, meeting people from all over the world. As we follow Momo on a journey to retrace Uncle Yeti’s footsteps, the city itself becomes a character with its hustling, bustling energy.

punky alohaPunky Aloha by Shar Tuiasoa

Punky Aloha celebrates a young Polynesian girl’s first adventure through her hometown in Hawai’i. Using her grandmother’s magic sunglasses, Punky goes on a solo mission to get “the best butter on the island” for Grandma’s famous banana bread. Along the way she meets several characters in need of her help: a pig dragging mangoes to her piglets, a bee collecting pollen for her hive, and a young boy crying from a scraped knee. Punky’s definition of aloha – “Be helpful. Be giving. Be brave.” – is her compass as she skateboards through her bite-sized journey of self-discovery.

queen of physicsQueen of Physics by Teresa Robeson, illustrated by Rebecca Huang

Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom is about the “First Lady of Physics.” Wu Chien Shiung was born in China in 1912, and her parents supported her education by opening the first girls’ school in their hometown. She excelled in science and moved to California to study physics at UC Berkeley, where she experienced discrimination in the form of sexism and racism. She overcame these barriers by conducting groundbreaking experiments in nuclear and particle physics. Despite being rejected for the Nobel Prize three times, she continued her work in beta decay and became the first woman president of the American Physical Society.

she sang for indiaShe Sang for India by Suma Subramaniam, illustrated by Shreya Gupta

She Sang for India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice for Change tells the story of the first Indian musician to sing at the United Nations. Born in 1916, Subbulakshmi grew up in a time when girls and women were “not free to sing everywhere,” prohibited from performing in most public places. With hope, determination, and grit, Subbulakshmi set out to change the hearts and minds of her neighbors, then her countrymen, then people all over the world. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who invited her to sing at protests, Subbulakshmi dedicated her life – and her voice – to freedom, justice, and social change.

we are hereWe Are Here by Naomi Hirahara, illustrated by Illi Ferandez

We Are Here: 30 Inspiring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Have Shaped The United States is a labor of love. Detailing the lives of 30 trailblazers in the AAPINH community, each mini-biography is a testament to courage, curiosity, and creativity. This anthology includes profiles of famous celebrities like Dwayne Johnson, Bruno Mars, and Keanu Reeves, as well as: Arab-American writer Etel Ednan, transgender swimmer Schuyler Bailar, tennis champion Naomi Osaka, and indigenous poet Craig Santos Perez. As Theodore Gonzalves put it in the book’s foreword: we are here, and we are everywhere.

“No one is powerless when we come together. No one can make us invisible when we demand to be seen.”

– Amanda Nguyen, founder and CEO of Rise

If you’d like to purchase any of these books, we recommend doing so either through the author’s website or through Bookshop, a certified B-Corp that donates a portion of each sale to independent bookstores around the country.

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