South Asian American youth literature and the bi-cultural experience

26 Feb

As a youth services librarian, and the mother of two children of bi-racial/bi-cultural heritage, I’m strongly committed to highlighting books mirroring a broad spectrum of cultural differences. I also find myself experiencing a renaissance of sorts, as I see a plethora of recently published multicultural children’s and young adult books. For example, during my childhood, I NEVER read a single book with an Indian-AMERICAN female main character~believe me, if I had, it would’ve changed my life! Now, I put “AMERICAN” in all caps, because reading a book about Indians is so not the same as reading a book about Indian-Americans. Seriously, after several arguments and debates with my own parents (both born in India) about the differences between the “way people do things in India” versus “the way people do things in America,” I’ve realized there is a BIG difference between the two.

My sons, both 3.5 and 1.5 years old, are the product of a bi-racial marriage- I’m Indian-American and my husband, Bryan, is Caucasian-American. It’s been a mission of mine, since before the boys were born, to find books accurately reflecting a bi-cultural sensibility. So you can imagine how pleased I was to recently discover children’s and young adult books with South Asian characters balancing dual heritages and cultural experiences.  With that said, I’m beginning my inaugural blog post (sorry, the introduction doesn’t really count as the “first” entry) discussing two books featuring bi-racial characters with South Asian heritage.

The Whole Story of Half A Girl by Veera Hiranandani

Released: January 2012

Publisher: Random House

Level: Middle-Grade/ages 9-12

The summer before sixth grade, Sonia Nadhamuni’s life is thrown into upheaval when her father loses his job and becomes depressed. Sonia and her sister, Natasha, can no longer afford to attend their progressive, but incredibly expensive private school, and their mother is forced to take extra hours at work. Sonia enrolls in a large, public middle school where her classmates don’t quite know what to make of her mixed Jewish American and East Indian heritage. Sonia also can’t decide whether to befriend popular cheerleader, Kate, or hang out with the very awesome and smart, Alisha, who’s not exactly at the top of the social totem pole. When Mr. Nadhamuni disappears, Sonia takes stock of her situation, re-evaluating her friendships and ultimately decides that her dual heritage makes her a “whole” rather than “half” a girl.

Hiranandani’s debut novel is heartfelt, discussing cultural identity, family dynamics, mental health, and the timely issue of economic hardship in such a way that’s not too heavy for a middle-grade reader. There isn’t a “happy” ending in this book–Sonia still has a lot of stuff to work out with her family, as well as with herself–but I felt that it ended on a moderately high note. Perhaps the most important take-away from the novel is seeing a truly realistic depiction of cultural differences. In that respect, Hiranandani nailed it.

The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

Released: January 2011

Publisher: Flux

Level: Teen/ages 14 and up

After a classmates calls her a “towelhead,” Asha Jamison who is half Indian, a quarter Mexican, and a quarter Irish is inspired by the negative experience. She and her best friend, Carey, who is half Chinese and half Caucasian, decide to start up a club, “The Latte Rebellion,” promoting awareness about students of mixed heritage. Oh, and they try to make bit of money on the side for a graduation trip by marketing t-shirts with the logo of their new project. Before they know it, the club gains traction, attracting a variety of socially conscious people. Soon, Asha and her friends are caught in the middle of a brewing political movement. Stevenson deftly handles complex issues related to race and identity, but also realistically depicts typical adolescent drama, including the heart-breaking end  of a lifelong friendship.

Gosh, how much do I adore this book?! Well, first of all, I loved that it was set in Northern California, in a location that was totally recognizable and identifiable to me. Not a big issue for most readers, but for this one, it was a personal issue. In fact, Sarah and I have our alma mater in common – we’re both UC Berkeley grads (Go Bears!), and it’s kind of nice to see that this book gives mad props to Cal. More importantly, The Latte Rebellion made cultural and racial identity issues its central theme – for some, this might feel heavy for a young adult book, but for those teens interested in political movements and cultural studies – this book speaks honestly, and directly to them.

ARCs provided by School Library Journal for professional review. The Latte Rebellion was reviewed for SLJ in February 2011. The Whole Story of Half A Girl was reviewed for SLJ in February 2012.


11 Responses to “South Asian American youth literature and the bi-cultural experience”

  1. Allison February 26, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    This is such a great, insightful post! It’s refreshing to see the bicultural experience depicted more in youth lit, and I hope to see even more of it on the horizon. I loved reading your thoughts on these two books!

  2. tadmack February 26, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Wow – I’ve never run across a story of a depressed parent who was a father. The Whole Story of Half A Girl sounds intriguing. And of course, mad props to Sarah’s book – I am kind of biased there, being one of her blogging partners!

  3. crunchings&munchings February 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    Hello from another YA blog that just started this month. Thanks for two awesome recommendations and a great post! I’m really looking forward to seeing what books you review in the future.

  4. jamie-m February 26, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    Nice post. Our blogs have similar names, mine is Mixed Reader! Glad to see another multicultural blogger.

  5. Michelle February 27, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    What a wonderful inaugural post. Well done, Lalitha. I agree with the previous commenter who said they had never seen a book where the depressed parent is the father. That sounds really interesting. Thank you for the the recommendations!

  6. Joanna February 27, 2012 at 6:06 am #

    Lali, your posts are so fantastically written. I’m glad you’ve decided to write this blog as I truly feel you’re making a valuable contribution not only to the profession of librarianship but also to the lives of those who are lucky enough to read these posts. Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have such a reader’s advisory guru on their staff, so this is the next best thing. Can’t wait to read your next review!

  7. lali28 March 2, 2012 at 3:03 am #

    Thanks, all, for your encouraging words!

    @Allison – There’s so much bi-cultural stuff being published right now–it makes me super happy!

    @tadmack – Yes, Ms. Hiranandani’s novel is really unique in that aspect–she did a remarkable job of handling mental illness with sensitivity. Also – I love your work, too. I’m just about to start Happy Families. 😉

    @crunchingsandmunchings – Thanks for commenting, Rebecca. I definitely want to check out your blog, too!

    @jamie-m – Thank you–your blog rocks, too!

    @Michelle – Thank you for the encouragement 🙂

    @Joanna – Aww, thanks! Well, not everyone is as lucky as I am to work with such an inspiring teen librarian.

  8. Ollie H. April 10, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    These books teaches very good lessons to young adults. You’ve written a very nice review for these books. great work! hope to hear more of your reviews soon.

  9. Cathy Ostlere May 20, 2012 at 1:19 am #

    It’s wonderful that more and more bloggers are covering the rich literature of South Asian YA. I’ve made a Pinterest Board for this category. Please have a look.

    • lali28 May 25, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

      Cathy~Thank you so much for your comment. I really enjoyed KARMA, and am so pleased that you appreciate my blog. I will definitely check out your Pinterest board.


  1. South Asian American Youth Literature and the Bi-Cultural Experience | - - April 12, 2012

    […] This article was originally published on Lalitha’s blog called : masalareader.wordpress […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s