BookDragon is a book review blog produced by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). BookDragon is an education, outreach, and research initiative that features literary works which predominantly highlight the contributions of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans to the American experience and world cultures, two of the grand challenges of the Smithsonian Institution’s Strategic Plan. BookDragon is inhabited by Terry Hong.

To explore titles that might interest you most, be sure to use “Categories” to search by type of book and ethnic background, or “Tags” to find books by theme. If you’re looking for a fabulous book, period, click on “Absolute Favorites” under “Categories.” Thanks for visiting BookDragon!

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what did you eat yesterday? (vol. 1) by Fumi Yoshinaga, translated by Maya Rosewood

What Did You Eat Yesterday 1Before you open this tasty title, ask your stomach if it’s full. Any hint of hunger and you just might embarrass yourself salivating. The cover is already a toothsome teaser: salmon-and-burdock seasoned mixed rice, boiled bamboo shoots with konjac and wakame seaweed, eggplants and tomatoes with Chinese-style spicy pork. Oh, be still my growling belly.

While the food here is the obvious temptation, the narrative is not without considerable substance. Meet “tall and handsome” Shiro Kakei, who is “that pretty at forty-three” as to be deemed “creepy” by one of his jealous colleagues. As successful a lawyer as he is by day, he eschews long hours to pick up the freshest ingredients – always at the best prices so as to keep within the household budget – which he’ll transform into his next gourmet meal. He cooks with devotion for his boyfriend Kenji who is as carefree and fun-loving and as Shiro is disciplined and practical … especially about money. “Since we gays won’t have any kids to look after us in our old age, money is all we can count on,” Shiro chides Kenji when Kenji complains about Shiro’s “love” of money.

Blended in with tempting recipes (complete with enough detailed instructions to suggest you, too, could try this at home), each savory chapter reveals Shiro’s life as an attractive gay man in contemporary Japan. He’s in a committed relationship, although he had a past before he and Kenji set up house. He is out to his parents, dines with them regularly, but they’ve yet to invite Kenji to their home. “Your mother is prepared to accept all of you, whether you’re gay, or a criminal!” she assures Kenji, to which he silently retorts, “So I’m the same as a criminal in Mom’s eyes …”

He has a cooking buddy, Kayoko, a housewife whose family also enjoys Shiro’s chef-ly exchanges, to whom he confides his wish that his mother would “interact quite naturally” with him as Kayoko does. Her response is surprisingly disturbing: “It’s not like you’re my son. If my daughter suddenly told me one day that she’s a lesbian, I can’t say for sure that I’d be able to take it in calmly,” she admits. Well, with friends like that …!!

Volume 1 has certainly whet the appetite with bittersweet tensions and challenges, not to mention ever more delectable dishes to try. Will Shiro ever show his true self to his colleagues? How will his parents react to finally meeting Kenji, hopefully sooner than later? And will Kayoko and Shiro continue to make enticing meals together? Get your tastebuds ready: volume 2 hits shelves later this month.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2007 (Japan), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay, illustrations by Sophia Janowitz

No Matter the WreckageGoodness gracious! I have so much to tell you about this book! Allow me to lay out some pre-reading, preparatory directions:

First, go meet Sarah Kay through her 2011 TED debut. She is so expressive and impressive both, that watching her once will give you the magical ability to hear her read the rest of her poems.

Second, now that you’ve seen and heard “B” on a stage, go find the perfect little book of the same name because that will give you yet another enhancing experience, including introducing you to the whimsical art of illustrator Sophia Janowitz, whom Kay met when both were three months old, and are therefore bound together for life. Additional note: you’ll get to know Sophia in “Slivers.”

Third, check out Project VOICE, an organization that “inspires youth self-expression through Spoken Word Poetry,” which Kay founded and co-directs with her creative partner Phil Kaye (not to be confused with her brother Phil Kay, as Sarah is not to be confused with partner Phil’s sister Aurora Sarah Kaye; bewildered? click here to learn how they are not related, nor married, nor dating, but they are somehow “two sides of the same coin”).

Now, perhaps you’re ready for Kay and Janowitz both, and their gem-like latest collaboration, No Matter the Wreckage.

What you’ll find here are a decade of expressions from an artist as a child growing into a multi-talented, multi-faceted adult. From sibling rivalry to lost love, from strangers to ancestors, from waiting to arriving, from expectations to paradoxes, Kay writes with honesty, challenge, curiosity, and always commitment.

Perhaps because of her youth (she’s just 25), a few of her early-love verses are some of the weaker links, but she makes up for any adolescent angst when she moves out in the world, exploring inequity in South Africa in “Shosholoza,” exploring extended family history in “Hiroshima,” and promising to messenger someone else’s hopeless adoration in India in “Peacocks.” She returns often to the bond with her younger brother, which provides gorgeously resonating moments in “Montauk,” “Brother,” and especially “Ghost Ship,” which inspires the collection’s title from a slightly different line, “No matter your wreckage.” She watches her parents with questioning, sometimes frightened eyes in “Hands,” “Something We Don’t Talk About, Part I,” “Dragons,” and “Hand-Me Downs.” She reaches out to her own child-to-be, once again in “B,” which of course is included here.

No, trust me. You don’t want to miss a thing,” she tells an unnamed lover in the final line of the first poem. So perfectly placed is that welcome advice, because indeed, you truly will not want to miss a moment, a phrase, a performance by the stupendous Sarah Kay.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Hapa

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You*STARRED REVIEW
Celeste Ng’s debut is one of those aching stories about which the reader knows so much more than any of the characters, even as each yearns for the unknowable truth. “Lydia is dead,” the novel opens – blunt, unnerving, devastating.

She’s only 16, the middle of three children of James and Marilyn Lee, a mixed-race couple married years before the ironically named Loving v. Virginia finally invalidated U.S. anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. They’re initially drawn together by their differences: James, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, finishing his Harvard PhD; Marilyn, the only Radcliffe undergraduate determined to become a doctor, a gifted scientist among unbelieving men. When they bury their daughter in 1977, the Lee family – already fragile before the tragedy – implodes. James detaches, Marilyn seeks refuge, brother Nath blames, and youngest Hannah silently watches all. Each will search for a Lydia who doesn’t exist, desperate to parse what happened.

Verdict: Ng constructs a mesmerizing narrative that shrinks enormous issues of race, prejudice, identity, and gender into the miniaturist dynamics of a single family. A breathtaking triumph, reminiscent of prophetic debuts by Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, and Chimamanda Adichie, whose first titles matured into spectacular, continuing literary legacies.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, May 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under Chinese American, .Fiction, Hapa, ..Adult Readers

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

Execution of Noa P. SingletonThe timing is horrifyingly surreal: capital punishment emerged as a major topic this week, from the tragically innocent, to the mistreated guilty – and somehow, unrelatedly, I managed to choose this title. Once begun, I couldn’t stop until the final page.

“In this world, you are either good or evil,” Elizabeth L. Silver‘s powerhouse debut opens (with the chill factor markedly heightened by Rebecca Lowman who narrates with unrelenting control). “The gray middle ground, that mucous-thin terrain where most of life resides, is really only a temporary annex, like a gestation or purgatory,” explains Noa P. Singleton, Silver’s unflinching protagonist. “[Y]ou must choose one way of life or the other. … For me, it happened on January 1, 2003.”

At 35, Noa is sitting on death row in the Pennsylvania Institute for Women. Before her 10-year incarceration, she was the smart-girl jock who ran varsity track and graduated salutatorian, then studied biochemistry and engineering at UPenn. She waitressed, substitute taught, tutored, and was a lab research assistant – until she became a murderer. During her five-day trial, she didn’t defend herself: “I know I did it.”

Six months before “X-day” – as in execution – Noa receives two unexpected visitors: Marlene Dixon, a high-power attorney who is also the mother of Noa’s victim, and Oliver Stansted, a newly-minted young associate from Marlene’s office. Marlene has recently started a nonprofit organization, MAD: Mothers Against Death. After an agonizing decade of suffering the loss of her daughter, Marlene claims she no longer wants to witness another death; shockingly, she announces her intention to have Noa’s capital punishment commuted to a less terminal incarceration. All she asks for in return from Noa is to find out what really happened to her pregnant daughter that fateful 2003 New Year’s Day.

During those months that Oliver and Marlene work on Noa’s appeal, Noa begins to write the story she never told anyone. She recalls her childhood with a single mother who was better at marrying and discarding husbands than caring for her daughter. She remembers her closest childhood friend Persephone, and her first high school lover Andy. She recalls her estranged father’s jarring return into her life. And finally, she replays that fateful final day in Sarah Dixon’s stuffy apartment.

The revelations come fast and furious, plunging readers into that “gray middle ground,” making impossible any clarity between so-called good and evil. From the shattering secrets held in Noa’s name to Marlene’s crumbling façade as the perfect grieving mother to Oliver’s inexplicable devotion to Noa’s case, lawyer-turned-newbie-author Silver pulls off a superbly calculated novel about naive misjudgment, desperate consequences, and impossible justice.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich AsiansSuspend your disbelief before you open this book (or stick in your ears, so energetically read by actor Lynn Chen). You might also consider duct-taping your jaw shut because Manhattan-based Singaporean author Kevin Kwan insists on the veracity of the excesses in his outrageous, hilarious, train-wreck tragic debut novel: “So many aspects of and stories in the book I actually had to tone down!” he told Vanity Fair in an interview last year. “The reality is simply unbelievable. They say truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but there’s such a thing as believability when you’re writing a novel. I did a lot more simplifying and cutting out of the decadence and the excess than I did of adding it on … [My] editor was like No one will believe this. And I would say, But this really happened, and she’d reply It doesn’t matter. You’re going to lose readers because it’s going to seem so unreal that people would spend this much money, or do something this excessive.”

Now that you’ve been duly warned by the author himself, let the way-over-the-top eye-rolling, name-dropping, back-stabbing begin. What could have been just an old-fashioned, simple love story of poor little rich boy falling in love with the wrong (-classed) girl of his dreams, becomes a decadent confection of wealth and overprivilege gone awry.

Nick Young, NYU history professor, is going home to Singapore to be his childhood best friend’s best man. He asks his girlfriend, Rachel Chu – NYU economics professor – to join him. Oh, the implications of such an invitation! His cousin Astrid duly advises him to warn Rachel about their unique family… but, of course, he doesn’t.

Rachel, who endured a peripatetic childhood with a single mother who eventually found stability as a real estate agent in northern California, is naive enough to believe that frequent flyer miles could upgrade the happy couple into a Singapore Airlines suite for their journey east. By the time she lands in Nick’s entitled world (private jets, yachts, islands, couture duds in seven-figure euros, servants given as royal gifts), she’s caught in a viper pit filled with spoiled heiresses and unrepentant social climbers who abuse then dismiss her as unworthy competition for Asia’s most eligible bachelor. Even worse, the young pale in comparison to the craziest rich Asian mothers …

Against such stupefyingly shallow odds, can true love survive?

Regardless of your net worth or specific Asian affiliation, Kwan’s multigenerational saga will have you both cringe-ing and nodding in recognition, not to mention more than the occasional guffaw of shock. While the staggering fortunes represented here are what might appear in The Economist or Forbes, the dysfunctional antics of the immeasurably wealthy become fodder for farcical reality shows and grocery-aisle gossip rags. But, of course, timing is everything … because on beaches, long flights, and weekend veg sessions, Crazy Rich Asians provides just the right disposable distraction.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American, Singaporean, Singaporean American, Southeast Asian

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

Rules of SummerArgh! Here where I’m stuck for another month, three or four inches of snow greeted me this morning (so much for almost May!). But if anyone can convince me summer is coming, that would be the inimitable Shaun Tan. This, his latest title, immediately pulls me into saturated landscapes – just opening the pages releases a waft of mischief and melts my frozen curiosity. I realize that summer in Tan’s native Australia parallels our North American winter (or late spring, in some places, ahem!), but please allow me these few minutes of warm escape …

“This is what I learned last summer: …,” and so the Rules of Summer begins. A pair of brothers wander, hide, explore as if they are the only two humans in their surreal city playground, surrounded by endless possibilities and the most fantastical, whimsical creatures.

“Never leave a red sock on the clothesline,” the text commands. Because, as the mesmerizing picture on the opposite page reveals, that single sock proves to be a siren call which brings a behemoth, angry, red-eyed, red bunny into the back alley while a black bird calmly looks on.

“Never leave the back door open overnight.” Because who knows what sort of ill-behaved guests might move in and what they might do! “Never be late for a parade.” Because what you might miss will never come by again! “Never give your keys to a stranger.” Because in the short time you’re locked out, that stranger will replace you in your very own life! “Never wait for an apology.” Because while you’re trapped in your own dark, glowing anger, even the swirling snow won’t be able cool you down. Luckily, help is on the way …

The younger brother learns (sometimes the hard way), but he also makes mistakes and argues, even rebels and gets banished. Yet he also knows that he can rely on the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood: when he extends his hand, he finds another ready to pull him to safety. The rules may prove to be arbitrary – some might only exist to be broken – but brotherhood remains sacred.”That’s it,” declares the final text as the boys sit watching TV surrounded by reminders of their exciting exploits. At least until the next – and final – wordless page: already the brothers are plotting their next big adventure. Fueled by Tan’s infinite imagination, we’ll be begging to go along …

For more of Tan’s award-winning titles on BookDragon, click here.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Australian

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

Double BindThe title here is your first warning: Oxford Dictionaries describes ‘double bind’ as “[a] situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.” Think on that, then brace yourself as you open the cover (or hit ‘play’ to allow narrator Susan Denaker to lull you into false complacency): between these pages, you’ll lose all control of what’s real and what’s not.

To tell you too much would be such an injustice, so if you’re already a Chris Bohjalian groupie (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer and general go-to-when-I-need-a-good-story-stuck-in-the-ears), just read it without any further preamble, because that’s always the best way to discover new stories. If this is your first Bohjalian from his 16-thus-far (#17 coming in July), congratulations for picking a mind-blowing powerhouse, so go start already.

If you’re still with me, let’s start with Bohjalian’s opening “Author’s Note” in which he carefully lays out what’s true: the executive director of a Vermont homeless shelter shared with Bohjalian a box of “remarkable” black-and-white photographs taken by a once homeless man, Bob “Soupy” Campbell; both were “mystified” how such an obviously accomplished artist could go from capturing images of celebrities and newsmakers of the 1950s and 1960s to becoming homeless in Vermont. “We tend to stigmatize the homeless and blame them for their plight,” Bohjalian writes. “We are oblivious to the fact that most had lives as serious as our own before everything fell apart.” In deference to Campbell, Bohjalian includes some of his luminous photos throughout this book. He adds, “Obviously, Bobbie Crocker, the homeless photographer in this novel, is fictitious.”

The “Prologue” then begins with grave violence: “Laurel Estabrook was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year in college.” She was 19, biking on a dirt road not too far from school when two men in a van attacked her. In the midst of this description – unrelenting in careful details – of the most pivotal moment of Laurel’s young life, Bohjalian slips in two unexpected phrases you should not miss on page 3: “George Wilson (shot Jay Gatsby as he floated aimlessly in his swimming pool)” and “…even if she hadn’t grown up in West Egg …” Hold on to those clues …

By prologue’s end, the narrative intentions are set: At 26, Laurel works at a Vermont homeless shelter and is in possession of a box of photographs belonging to 82-year-old Bobbie Crocker, a former shelter resident who has just passed away. The photos fall into three categories: instantly recognizable famous people and places; a girl on a bike on an all-too-familiar dirt road; and scenes from the country club of Laurel’s childhood “once owned by a bootlegger named Gatsby” that include photos of society doyenne Pamela Buchanan Marshfield as a girl with an anonymous young boy about whose identity Laurel instantly “has a hunch.” Laurel must decipher the multi-layered story literally laid out before her, realizing she is somehow implicated.

Puzzled yet? [And no, you don’t need to be a Gatsby aficionado, just know the basic story of invented identities and unattainability. Literary heresy aside, Gatsby bores me, except when Elevator Repair Service performs it as their phenomenal eight-hour stage spectacle renamed Gatz.] Just beware: Don’t get too presumptuous too quickly – even as Bohjalian reveals clues in plain sight, full understanding probably won’t come until you go back and reread. Reality has rarely been so clearly, cleverly camouflaged.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Armenian American

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

This One SummerCanadian cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki‘s first collaboration, Skim, won enough major awards to make their second title an eagerly anticipated publishing event. Get ready because This One Summer hits shelves May 6. And here’s the bottom line: Summer is spectacular without a chance of sophomoric slump in sight.

“Okay. Awago Beach is this place. Where my family goes every summer. Ever since … like … forever,” Rose explains as the graphic novel begins. As soon as she arrives with her parents and dumps her suitcase, she goes in search of her “summer cottage friend,” Windy, who will be her constant companion on the beach, at the single sundries store, in front of the screen watching rented scary movies, and more. Windy’s house is often a refuge from the tension and bitter words Rose’s parents lob at one another – her mother is distant and withdrawn, her father angry and confused, and Rose caught somewhere in between.

But this one summer, high drama is also happening in the tiny waterside village among the local teenagers. Rose, who is a year-and-a-half older than Windy, listens closely when she can and learns that Dunc and Jenny are a couple, that a pregnancy might be someone’s unwanted reality. She tries out new words like ‘drunks’ and ‘sluts,’ and is duly disciplined by surprised mothers. As her parents’ relationship becomes more tenuous, Rose pushes away from her childhood toward new adolescent angst, fears, and shattering discoveries. Life after This One Summer ‘since … like … forever’ … will never be the same again.

Rose is a wide-eyed narrator, approaching adolescence with cautious wariness as she navigates through the troubled relationships around her, between young lovers who are just a few years older to parents who were supposed to stay together forever. The Tamaki cousins are undoubtedly two for two, once more capturing the uncertainty and doubt of growing up and pulling away, of knowing too much and not nearly enough. Given their hit record, their third time should be quite the charm.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Interrogation of Ashala WolfAs I feel I know so little about the literature of our Down Under friends, I admit I’m surprised to find I’ve posted almost 30 titles with Australian origins here on BookDragon thus far. If you were to pop-quiz me on Aussie authors, my instant answers would be Marcus Zusak (Mr. Book Thief himself), Oscar-winning writer and illustrator Shaun Tan, and graphic novelist Diana Thung. I certainly couldn’t name a single indigenous Australian author … until now.

Meet Ambelin Kwaymullina, an award-winning children’s writer and illustrator, who makes her novel debut with Ashala Wolf, Book 1 of the Tribe series. [Lucky Australian readers had The Tribe Book 2: The Disappearance of Ember Crow hit shelves in November 2013, with the second half of the series scheduled for 2014 and 2015; Stateside readers can only hope the next three titles will follow sooner than later.] Kwaymullina comes from generations of storytellers of the Palyku people of western Australia’s Pilbara region. “Aboriginal people of Australia have the oldest continuous living culture on earth,” she writes in her illuminating “Author’s Note.” “We are not a single homogenous group; we are many nations, and we hail from diverse homelands. We call our homelands our Countries.”

From her vast heritage, Kwaymullina creates the brave new world of Ashala Wolf, who “carries that ancient bloodline and has the deep connection to [her home] Firstwood that present-day Aboriginal people have to their Countries.” Somewhere, sometime in a post-apocalyptic future, children become the greatest threat to an all-too-controlling government desperate to keep what’s left of the world’s Balance. These children can start fires, cause earthquakes, shift clouds, fly, and more. Branded as Illegals when their abilities begin to surface, they’re shackled with power-inhibiting collars and imprisoned. Somehow, a few manage to escape. Firstwood is their Illegal haven, home to the Tribe and its 16-year-old leader Ashala. She’s a powerful Sleepwalker, which allows her to do anything in her dreams. In trying to save one of her own, she’s been caught at novel’s opening and is facing interrogation by an insidious official determined to break her with ‘the machine’ which will invade her memories and reveal all her secrets …

Yes, Interrogation might be labelled sci-fi dystopia, but its narrative twists and turns – not to mention its mind games, literally! – shatters any predictability. “[I]n writing about the Tribe,” Kwaymullina says, “I thought about the way the [Aboriginal] Elders draw you into a tale that is always more than it first appears. I thought, too, about the generations of Palyku women who have gone before me …” In blending past and future, Kwaymullina has undoubtedly found her own present Balance.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Australian

Migrant by José Manuel Mateo, illustrated by Javier Martínez Pedro, translated by Emmy Smith Ready

Migrant.MateoImagine a long scroll, that unfolds like a fan or an accordion. Each panel, when finally open, reveals a single, elongated picture, with sparse text to illuminate the densely populated illustration filled with mountains, animals, plants, people, that give way to trains, police cars, fences, highways, and a concrete jungle. On one side, the story flows in English. Gently flip it over, and you’ll find the same story in Spanish. More than a flat ‘book,’ Migrant is a uniquely unexpected, spectacularly composed art piece.

In a Mexican village that sits somewhere between the mountains and sea, a young boy plays hide-and-seek with his sister and dog. On the large farm where his father grows watermelons and papaya trees, the work is quickly disappearing. First Señor Augusto leaves, and then “the rest of the men who were farming did the same, because there was not enough money to continue planting.” The father ventures out, until “no one remained in town but the women and us children.” In desperation, the left-behind threesome take a dangerous journey north to Los Angeles in search of work and any news of the father’s whereabouts.

As familiar as the immigration story might be, the presentation here is unforgettable. [Click here for a stunning preview.] The ending “Author’s and Artist’s Note” explains that Migrant was inspired by the ancient Mesoamerican art of making paper from tree bark, called amate, on which stories were created in drawings or hieroglyphs. The long-ago Mesoamericans used a continuous sheet of amate that was gathered in folds rather than bound together as separate pages: “It’s called a codex,” the note explains.

Beyond the artistic context is a difficult overview of children who migrate north, sometimes without parents, in official numbers of about 50,000 a year. “They leave because of poverty, mistreatment, or violence,” but then must survive, all too often, even more difficult challenges getting to and living safely the other side of the border. “We seek not only to raise awareness but, above all, to safeguard [the children’s] memory. We wish to tell and to question this collective story that makes children defenseless and almost nonexistent to their own country and to the new one where they hope to find work.” Artist Javier Martínez Pedro, according to his bio, is especially aware of the plight of these forgotten children, because “he himself at one point illegally migrated to the Unites States.”

“[W]e have created this book: to demand these children’s right to exist.” The resonating amate speaks volumes, bearing witness to young migrants risking all to seek hope-filled new lives.

Readers: Children

Published: 2011 (Mexico), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, .Translation, Latin American, Latino/a