There are some great new books that offer a window into Asian American history and folklore. For a young adult/adult audience, Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a historical novel whose protagonist is a Chinese American teen, Lily Hu, whose family is caught up in the Communist scare of the McCarthy era in the 1950s in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In her senior year, Lily is drawn to another student, one with whom she can talk about her dreams of building rockets and her affinity for math. That other student is a girl and together the two explore the nightlife of 1950s San Francisco, specifically the Telegraph Club known for its male impersonators and lesbian clientele. As the two explore their burgeoning sexuality, they face opposition from family, censure from friends, and even possible criminal charges. There are not many books that take a peek inside this time in American history through this lens. It is the intersection between giddy first love, queer identity, Chinese American culture, and American history. Lo’s writing is luminescent and Lily is a startlingly brave character who fights to find her voice and stay true to herself despite great odds.
The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor is a graphic novel for readers in middle school though it is enlightening and illuminating for older readers too. Written and illustrated in gorgeous watercolors by Khor, the book is set in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885 just after the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It follows Chinese immigrants Mei and her father as they navigate the difficult and often violent racial tensions in the United States while working in the camp’s kitchen. Mei just wants to bake pies, be friends with the camp owners’ daughter, Bee, and tell stories to the camp children, but the politics of the time won’t let this be her reality. Drawing on the folktale of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Mei creates her own logging god Po Pan Yin (Auntie Po) and her blue ox to navigate the difficulties of life, but even this giant cannot turn the tide of prejudice and fear. A heartwarming coming of age story that shows how stories are used to cope and to reclaim identity. It also offers a glimpse into a not-often told slice of early American history that reminds us of the importance of owning your story.
The Legend of Auntie Po was shortlisted for the National Book Award and Last Night at the Telegraph Club won the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature.