Middle Grade Fantasy Books with Asian Protagonists

Posted by Gabrielle Bujak

 

[Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev from Pexels]

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Turning Red released earlier this month on Disney+, and as Pixar fans will know, it’s been 13 years since the studio featured an Asian lead in one of their films (remember Russell from Up?) and it’s the first time an Asian lead has the spotlight as the main character. This is a major milestone for not only Pixar (who’ve historically featured white, male or nonhuman protagonists), but American animated film in general.

Young audiences are searching for characters and stories they can relate to, and for young Asian viewers, especially girls, Meilin Lee’s sweet and hilarious coming-of-age story checked that box (see Tabitha Yuen’s review for Teen Vogue).

Similarly, books have the power to make readers feel seen. For any young readers looking to explore narratives with Asian protagonists, the following list of middle grade fantasy books is an exciting place to turn to after a Turning Red watchthrough.

 

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

Les Miserables may not be an average first pick to retell for middle grade audiences, but Christina Soontornvat pulls it off beautifully in the Thai-inspired A Wish in the Dark. Young prisoner Pong is this story’s Jean Valjean, the prison warden’s daughter Nok is comparable to Javert, and other characters like Ampai will remind readers of Enjolras, but the fantastical elements of the Governor’s gift to create lights, the mystery of where this gift originated, and the thematic exploration of law vs, justice, rich vs. poor, and right vs. wrong make this a stand out book deserving of its Newbery medal.

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When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

If you’ve read or watched A Monster Calls, Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger is a great read-alike. Though more contemporary than fantasy, the fantastical elements of the story really shine in the parts with the tiger and the Korean folktales she spins for Lily, and small commentary on things like expectations of Asian girls in American society to be a Quiet Asian Girl (“QAG” as Lily’s sister Sam puts it) make for relatable content for young Asian readers.

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Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Despite its 400-page length, Erin Entrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Sea is a quick read. Inspired by Filipino folklore, this story is full of mystery, hardship, wonder, and triumph. The main story tells of Lalani Sarita, her life on a secluded island surrounded by a feared mountain, and her dangerous wish which catalyzes a supposed doomed voyage across the sea. Scattered between these chapters are fables of the hungry trees that eat men’s souls, a bitter birdwoman out to avenge her sister, and other creatures who play a part in Lalani’s travels as she searches for a way to help her village.

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Girl Giant and the Monkey King by Van Hoang

If you’ve heard of the Monkey King or Sun Wukong, you know he’s comparable to other trickster characters like Loki from Norse mythology, Māui from Polynesian culture, or kitsune from Korean folklore and coyotes from Native American folktales. If you haven’t heard of him yet, Van Hoang’s Girl Giant and the Monkey King is a great introduction. The main character, Thom, is super-powered, she’s on a timed mission to retrieve a magical staff, and she’s thrown into a fantastical world of mythical creatures like demons and dragons, so it’s packed with archetypal and beloved tropes. Book two, Girl Giant and the Jade War, released this past December, so make sure to check that out as well!

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The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao

The chosen hero trope paired with the contemporary-setting quest to find a magical item never gets old, and that’s proven once again in Katie Zhao’s The Dragon Warrior, though everything’s not as it appears. There’s secret warrior society, demon battles in the middle of a Lunar New Year parade, a journey spanning across Chinatowns, a hidden island and legendary spear, and deities and dragons. Remember to check out book two, The Fallen Hero, when you’re done, especially if you’re interested in the Monkey King myth from Girl Giant and the Monkey King!

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Force of Fire by Sayantani DasGupta

Humans, demons, and evil shapeshifting snake lords, oh my! If you’ve heard of Sayantani DasGupta’s Kingdom Beyond novels, you’ll be thrilled to know there’s a second series following fire rakkhosh demon Pinki, and if you haven’t, don’t worry. You can jump right into Force of Fire without knowledge of the previous Kingdom Beyond novels (though feel free to check out Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond here). Despite descending from a line of resistant fighters, Pinki’s inability to control her fire abilities leads her to make questionable decisions and side with the snake overlords, but things are ever-shifting in this humorous and fast-paced adventure of moon maidens, elemental rakkhosh, and comedy-loving ghosts.

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Rick Riordan Presents books

There’a a solid list of fantasy middle grade adventures to enjoy in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, especially narratives focusing on familiar bonds and featuring Asian protagonists:

Pandava series by Roshani Chokshi

When twelve-year-old Aru lights the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture’s cursed Lamp of Bharata, she unintentionally frees an ancient demon, the Sleeper, who’s sole mission is to awaken the God of Destruction. Aru must journey through the Kingdom of Death and find the reincarnations of the five legendary Pandava brothers, protagonists from the Hindu epic poem, the Mahābhārata. With four books already released and the fifth releasing later this year, now’s a good time to dive into book one, Aru Shah and the End of Time.

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Thousand World series by Yoon Ha Lee

Book two, Tiger Honor, released earlier this year, but you’ll want to start with book one, Dragon Pearl. In this Korean-mythology-inspired space opera thirteen-year-old Min runs away from her impoverished planet to track down both her older brother and the mystical Dragon Pearl he’s rumored to be after. There’s fox-magic (not unlike Mei’s red panda shapeshifting), space pirate and gamblers, and vengeful ghosts.

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Pahua and the Soul Stealer by Lori M. Lee

After eleven-year-old Pahua accidentally unleashes an angry spirit from the neighborhood’s haunted bridge, Pahua must travel through the spirit world with the help of her unique abilities, her best friend cat spirit, and a warrior shaman to save her brother’s stolen soul. Based on Hmong oral tradition, there’s a lot to enjoy in this standalone fantasy adventure from an exciting climax to shocking twists.

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The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim

Despite having memorized every healing spell she’s heard, Riley remains a saram, a person without magic, and has no chance of getting initiated into the Gom clan, a powerful lineage of Korean healing witches. When she and her sister Hattie attempt a spell to share Hattie’s magic with Riley, Hattie’s life ends up hanging in the balance. Riley must embark on a fantastical journey to track down the last fallen star and save Hattie’s life.

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These are just a few available middle grade fantasies featuring Asian protagonists, but new books are always releasing! Keep an eye out for the upcoming: Shinji Takahasi and the Mark of the Coatl by Julie Kagawa (releasing next month) and Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao (coming May 3rd). Or dig back into other recent releases like Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed.

 

Still not enough options? Try some of these past blog posts for similar book recommendations:

Gabrielle Bujak

Gabrielle Bujak

Gabrielle likes a lot of things and dislikes very little. Retired ice cream cake decorator, occasional farmhand, and reminiscing library worker, she spent her childhood dreaming of fighting fires and her college days writing about Bong Joon-ho before he was cool. Now, she preaches the importance of dental hygiene; chats up books, movies, and comics via the Quirk blog; and legally climbs silos. Whether the legality of the silo climbing makes her more or less interesting is up for debate. Email gbujak@quirkbooks.com if you want to review our titles or feature our authors.