Category Archives: Pan-Asian Pacific American

Avatar: The Last Airbender | The Rift (Part One) created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Avatar Rift1Although our son incessantly watched various versions of the Avatar series on television and even more often on DVD, I had little knowledge for years of who’s who or what’s what. The casting controversy of the 2010 film version disastrously directed by M. Night Shyamalan is what actually made me take close notice (not to mention the ridiculously official email requests for assistance with finding the nameless “Asian-looking” faces for the anonymous large crowd scenes; nasty replies flew back!). And then 2006 and 2013 National Book Award finalist Gene Luen Yang took over the printed storyline in 2012, and I’ve been utterly hooked since!

The third and latest three-part adventure from Yang and company, The Rift, hits shelves mid-March – get your pre-orders in now! To find out how the city of Yu Dao – which both the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom cohabit peacefully – has become “the example” that the other colonies are all trying to emulate, you’ll first have to read The Promise and then The Search to get the full picture – highly encouraged!

While celebrating the announcement of Yu Dao’s new coalition government, Aang is visited by the spirit of Avatar Yangchen, Aang’s predecessor “four Avatars ago.” She’s obviously in distress, but Aang is unable to hear her warnings. He later realizes that he’s being called to observe the Yangchen Festival, “one of the highest holidays on the Air Nomad calendar,” which “hasn’t been celebrated in over a hundred years.”

Gathering Katara, Sokka, metalbending buddy Toph Beifong, and three Air acolytes, Aang flies Appa (their fluffy mode of transport) to “a cliff overlooking the ocean” where the festival traditionally begins. As the motley crew parades down to the meadow, what they see, smell, and experience is not the “sacred place” it should be: “This is what Yangchen was trying to tell me,” Aang comes to understand her silent entreaty. Keeping the newfound peace here is going to be quite the challenge.

Yang makes Rift especially contemporary, adding environmental health to issues of loyalty, power, parent/child filial duties, sacred bonds, gendered expectations, and (of course) much more. Intertwined with all that swashbuckling flying and bending entertainment are always subtle reminders to think and act beyond one’s comfort zones. Lessons to be learned for us all.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Avatar: The Last Airbender | The Search (Parts Two and Three) created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Avatar Search 2-3

Okay, for the latest full Avatar experience, might I suggest you do a bit of catch-up homework first: To find out what prompts this eponymous ‘search,’ you’ll need to read the three-part Promise which reveals why family relationships matters so much, especially to Aang and Zuko; then you should pick up Search Part One to catch up with the gang’s quest to find Zuko and Azula’s long-missing mother, Ursa. A moment of gratitude is also in order that 2006 National Book Award finalist Gene Luen Yang continues to script these all-new Avatar adventures. Whoooo hooooo indeed!

Part Two finds the Fire siblings once again testing their rivalry, until Zuko warns Azula, “Look, we can spend the rest of the day – the rest of our lives – fighting each other, but it won’t get us any closer to mother.” Cooperative for the time being, brother and sister, together with Aang, Katara, and Sokka, arrive in Ursa’s native village, Hira’a, where they meet Noren and Noriko of the Hira’a Acting Troupe. Although the devoted couple can’t seem to offer any detailed information about Ursa, Noriko mentions that Ursa’s first love Ikem was thought to have run off to the Forgetful Valley when Ursa left to become Ozai’s wife. Warned that it’s “a dark, dangerous place [from which] no one who enters ever returns,” Zuko nevertheless determinedly announces, “We’re going to Forgetful Valley.” What the Fire Lord commands, the Fire Lord gets.

In Part Three, Aang calls forth the Mother of Faces “who walks through the Forest once a season, and “grant[s] one favor to one human.” But the one human in line for that next favor has already been waiting far too long, and Aang justly tells Zuko, “I’m sorry … we’ll keep looking for Ursa on our own.” Of course, brash Azula has a different plan, and her greed and anger set in motion a race for the truth.

Once again, Yang leads his creative team through epic feats, not to mention including an inspired nod or two toward age-old fairy tales (Snow White with a twist) and swashbuckling myths (royal siblings-in-rivalry Zeus vs. Poseidon or Athena vs. Ares). Zuko’s personal search, not only for his beloved mother but his very identity, results in more questions than answers … which proves to actually be a very good thing, because surely that means more Avatar escapades to come!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Avatar: The Last Airbender | The Search (Part One) created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Avatar Search1To find out what prompts this eponymous ‘search,’ you’ll need to read the three-part Promise – which reveals how Aang and Zuko are actually family (surprise!), and why family matters so much. “Family is in essence a small nation, and the nation a large family … in treating a family with dignity, a ruler learns to govern his nation with dignity,” an elder expounds to a gathering of young leaders in the city of Yu Dao, “the prototype for a new kind of city, one that unites the four nations.”

Aang, of course, is there, as is Zuko … who is solemnly affected by the wise man’s words: “I put my father in a prison and my sister in an institution. My mother’s been banished for years. What does that mean for my nation?” Zuko questions. And so the all-important search begins … for answers, for family. [Speaking of family, how thrilled are we that 2006 National Book Award finalist Gene Luen Yang continues to script these all-new Avatar adventures?!!]

Once upon a time, Ursa and Ikem were in love, expecting to spend forever together. But then-Fire Lord Azulon had other plans, determined to bind his family line with that of then-Avatar Roku’s. And so the stage was set for destruction: Ursa wed Fire Prince Ozai, who forced her to cut off all ties to her family and her hometown of Hira’a. After Ursa bore two royal children, she disappeared without a trace.

Years later, Zuko is convinced that finding his mother is the only way to achieve lasting peace. He releases his violent, unpredictable younger sister Azula in exchange for vital information she has about their mother; at his request – and against their better judgment – Aang, Katara, and Sokka join the antagonistic siblings on a journey back to Hira’a … but answers, of course, are rarely obvious and family dysfunction is never easily overcome.

Zuko’s about to discover the secret of his life (literally!) … and, of course, when he does, the volume ends (!) right there (!!!) and we’re forced back to waiting, and waiting. At least June is only a month away, harrumph. Who made the mistake of insisting patience is a virtue?

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Avatar: The Last Airbender | The Promise (Part Three) created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Avatar Promise 3Okay, since this is the third and last part of this specific Avatar series, let’s go back and catch up here … and yes, order matters!

Part Three opens with war – in the pouring rain, wreaking havoc on earth, throwing around fire as lightning threatens, the air aswirl in chaos and destruction. The Fire colonies will not budge out of the Earth Kingdom, and the Harmony Restoration Movement is not even close to reaching peace.

Friendships and alliances are threatened and tested; worst of all, looms the titular ‘promise’ Aang made to kill Zuko, at his request, “if you ever see me turning into my father.” As tempers flare, Zuko finds himself battling his father’s demands, even as the former Fire Lord Ozai remains imprisoned. Torn and twisted, Aang must find a way to reclaim peace, even if it means challenging the ones he most loves and respects.

On the brink of vast, irreparable destruction, the Avatar teaches us, of course, that violence is never the answer – indeed, banding together for peace proves most powerful of all. If we can train young minds through such entertaining adventures now, surely the next generations will make that peace a lasting reality? I’ll willingly stick with that narrative …

Oh, and speaking of sticky – check out who and how boba tea got invented back in the day. Talk about an Uncle Iroh (who was voiced in the animated series by the legendary actor Mako before he passed away!) ahead of his time! So surprisingly sweet, indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Publisher Interview: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press

Early this year, at almost 18 years old, Kaya Press flew the nest. Leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of New York’s publishing world, the non-profit indie specializing in “books from the Asian diaspora,” moved offices across the country to Los Angeles. Now comfortably ensconced in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity on the University of Southern California campus, Kaya has a new address, new community, new books, new staff, and is definitely basking in new energy.

With all the latest changes, the one Kaya constant is Sunyoung Lee… although she does have the fairly new title of “Publisher and Editor.” Founded in 1994 by Soo Kyung Kim, a postmodern Korean writer, Kaya was originally intended to house a journal of Korean literature-in-translation, which eventually morphed into Muae, a spirited anthology highlighting the newest in Asian Pacific American writing that Library Journal named one of “The Best Magazines of 1995.” Muae fell victim to the Korean economic collapse of 1997, but under the bolstering management of Juliana Koo and Lee, who took over that year as managing editor and editor, respectively, Kaya managed to survive – and thrive – living up to its namesake: “Kaya was the name of a tribal confederation of six Korean city-states that existed from the middle of the first until the sixth century CE,” their website officially explains. “Although the Kaya kingdom was an iron-age culture, it is remembered as a utopia of learning, music, and the arts due to its trade and communication with China, Japan, and India.”

Kaya Press channels that international history, feeding its artistic vision by regularly pushing the boundaries of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) diaspora through the titles the tenacious press has published thus far. A small sampling might include an enhanced reprint of the groundbreaking 1937 classic East Goes West by the first Korean American novelist Younghill Kang; American Book Award-winning The Unbearable Heart by Japanese German American poet Kimiko Hahn; Chinese Australian Brian Castro’s already-major-award-winning-in-Australia novel, Shanghai Dancing; the lauded Commonwealth Prize-winning Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, which was the first novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States; and Migritude by Kenyan-born, South Asian-descended, citizen-of-the-world performance artist Shailja Patel.

The word “kaya” echoes the diversity of its authors: in addition to its ancient Korean representation, in Japanese, Kaya is also “summer night” or a type of yew tree that withstands harsh environmental conditions; in Malay, kaya means “rich”; in Indonesian, “prosperous”; in Tagalog, “to be able”; in Sanskrit, “body”; in Turkish “rock”; in Zulu, “home.”

For Lee, home is where the press is. In order to sustain it, she’s worked endless day jobs and freelance gigs – from Billboard magazine to Publishers Weekly – in addition to teaching the requisite composition classes, to pay the bills so she could nurture Kaya well into its teenage years. Now that she’s settled into rooms of her own at USC, Lee’s ushering out the next set of Kaya titles: Lament in the Night, which includes two 1920s Japanese American novellas by Shōson Nagahara, translated by Andrew Leong; The Hanging on Union Square, an experimental novel originally published in 1935 by H. T. Tsiang; Water Chasing Water by Seattle-based poet Koon Woon; and Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s debut poetry in Magnetic Refrain.

It’s been a full decade since we officially talked about Kaya. So, what’s your latest, greatest news?
The biggest news, as you know, is that we moved to LA this year. We’re publishing a bunch of new books, and a lot of wonderful new people are working with us. This is the largest group of people we’ve had involved with Kaya. USC gives us funding to pay for two part-time grad students – they’re 25% part-time – and we also get a lot of volunteers. Their involvement – both undergraduate and graduate students – means while they learn hands-on about the publishing process, I’ve been able to do more strategic work, to put more energy into Kaya, and that’s been really gratifying. [... click here for more]

Publisher interview: “Feature: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press,”, December 2012

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, .Translation, Chinese American, Japanese American, Korean American, Pan-Asian, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Avatar: The Last Airbender | The Promise (Parts One and Two) created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Reacting to the final page with ‘oh, crud’ is actually a good thing, especially if it’s something like ‘OH, CRUD … I have to wait until SEPTEMBER to see what happens next?!!’ Talk about manga interruptus!

For those of you with kids of a certain age, you’re probably pretty familiar with the Avatar animated series, and know that it’s Asian-influenced at the very least, even though the creators are themselves not of Asian descent. If you know the series, then you probably remember some of the casting hubbub around the 2010 live-action film, The Last Airbender: South Asian American director/screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan (who apparently found out about Avatar when his daughter wanted to be Katara for Halloween one year; oh, the irony!) cast the main characters with all-white actors, with the exception of young Brit Dev Patel (yes, Slumdog himself) as the main antagonist. Plenty of folks were none too pleased to have Hollywood whitewash (again) an Asian-themed story with non-Asian actors, not to mention the one brown ‘bad’ buy chasing around the pale white ‘good’ guys. I chose not to see the film, but I did send an angry response when the casting company actually emailed me personally about finding “real” Asian actors to populate the film’s backgrounds. Yes, they did!

Anyway, I’m putting that controversy aside (for now), because I’m rather quite gleeful that the latest Avatar incarnation happens to be authored by none other than 2006 National Book Award finalist Gene Luen Yang. [Yang's American Born Chinese became the first-ever graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. Making history, however, is never easy: Yang's nomination set off a virulent chain of detractors and many more supporters slugging it out as to whether graphic novels are NBA-worthy.]

Yang’s brave new world begins in peace. In Part One, the Hundred Year War is finally over. Fire Lord Ozai sits in prison while his son Zuko now leads the Fire Nation. In order to “restore the four nations to harmony,” Zuko agrees to remove the many Fire Nation colonies from King Kuei’s Earth Kingdom, as the Harmony Restoration Movement commences. Fearful of inheriting his father’s evil power, Zuko elicits a difficult promise from Avatar Aang that Aang will “end” Zuko “if you ever see me turning into my father.” In spite of Zuko’s initial commitment to peace, he finds his subjects don’t support his decision (“traitor” and “coward” are favored monikers); the Fire colonies have existed for many generations and the people will not surrender what they are convinced is their hard-won right to remain in the Earth Kingdom.

In Part Two, the rift between the Fire and Earth nations has grown significantly; without a resolution in three days, war will commence. The Fire colonies will not budge; the Earth Kingdom demands the return of their ancestral lands. Meanwhile, metalbending friend Toph has a competition of her own to deal with when Kunyo’s firebending students return to reclaim their school, and Aaang and Katara get distracted by the “Official Avatar Aang Fan Club” (much to Katara’s annoyance) on their way to convince King Kuei to meet with Zuko and find a solution together. Ironically, Zuko has reluctantly been pouring tea for his imprisoned father and listening intently to the former Lord’s less-than-peaceful advice … uh-oh …

The three days are up … now what? This is where “OH, CRUD” comes in, because yes, we’re talking almost four months to find out what happens. Part Three ain’t due out until the end of September. Egads! Manga interruptus strikes again!

Tidbit: Okay, fellow fans … anyone else out there see less-than-subtle similarities with Israel and Palestine? Colonies, settlements, “you can’t have balance if one nation occupies another.” Please do chime in!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Asian American Plays for a New Generation edited by Josephine Lee, Don Eitel, and R.A. Shiomi

This is not your parents’ (or your grandparents’) Asian American theater. That I can even say that is proof of massive progress. What a difference a few decades makes … you won’t find any Japanese American internees or migrant farm laborers here, no Gold Mountain gold rushers or transcontinental railroad workers (although Charlie Crocker does get a sly mention).

Truly, these are indeed “plays for a new generation” – we’re talking 9/11 in Zaraawar Mistry’s Indian Cowboy, transracial adoption in Kurt Miyashiro, Rick Shiomi, and Sundraya Kase’s Walleye Kid: The Musical, Hong Kong handover in Aurorae Khoo’s Happy Valley, an APA Oscar nomination in Sun Mee Chomet’s Asiamnesia, the voiceless-no-more Hmong in May Lee-Yang’s Sia(b), a new kind of inter-Asian colonialism in Clarence Coo’s Bahala Na (Let It Go), and the over-the-top reclamation of just about every stereotype in Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman.

But before you let out that “WOW!” here’s another unprecedented fact about these plays to marvel over, as co-editor Rick Shiomi, the co-founder and artistic director of Minneapolis/St.Paul-based Mu Performing Arts, writes in his “Afterword”: “Mu Performing Arts participated in the development and produced the world premieres of all but one of the plays in this anthology. The question that comes to mind is ‘How on earth did this happen?’”

How, indeed! Really, we’re not talking either coast where most APA theater participants and experts tend to congregate – or at least we think they do. Even Shiomi confesses to his own initial concerns about the (very) few APA artists trying to “survive without an Asian American community” while “buried deep in the hinterland of the Midwest.” And yet, somehow, Shiomi’s Mu Performing Arts, founded in 1992, has grown into the second largest pan-Asian performing arts organization across the country. This marvelous book is irrefutable testimony to its not-so-quiet powerhouse status. The drama continues … hopefully for decades to come.

Tidbit: Come meet Rick Shiomi today at the Library of Congress! Click here for details.

For those of you who missed the event, his fellow panelist Lia Chang shares some of her photographic memories. Click here to view!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, Pan-Asian Pacific American

My Mom Is a Fob: Earnest Advice in Broken English from Your Asian-American Mom by Teresa Wu and Serena Wu, foreword by Margaret Cho

For those of you searching for an antidote to the Tiger Mom brouhaha, this is it! I kid you not. Picture this … following my husband around as he’s trying to put away laundry, book in hand, trying to read aloud while wiping away the tears so I can see the type on the page, both of us giggling and snorting to the point that our tween son gets out of bed to tell us, “Okay, first of all, you both really need to be quiet. Second of all, here’s one more goodnight kiss so we can all go to sleep!” [Is my son not the sweetest or what?]

Teresa Wu and Serena Wu, two childhood friends, created the massively popular blogs and in 2008 while both were still in college. E-traffic was near instantaneous and they now average almost 70,000 visits a month! WOWOWOW! So of course the next step from fabulously successful blog was to go into publishing. They even managed to get Margaret Cho to write a few touching pages of tribute to both her fobby parents; her highly public parental impersonations have certainly kept us all rollicking for years!

F.O.B., in case you didn’t know, is short for ‘fresh off the boat.’ Use of F.O.B. (and its variants FOB, fob, fobby, fobbish) came with derogatory judgment and not a little eye-rolling. But the hip new APA generation – possibly led by Wu and Wu – has apparently reclaimed the term, transforming its meaning into “the heartfelt, hilarious, and thoroughly unique ways that Asian mothers [and fathers] adapt to American culture.”

Sure, all our parents say a lot of memorable things, but immigrant Asian parents seem have a whole language of their own – and that cultural and generational divide can sometimes only be bridged with humor … of the guffawing variety! Check out the cover: that’s one fob Mom’s way of eating popcorn so she doesn’t get her fingers greasy. Our teenage daughter, by the way, found the idea ingenious and is intent on trying it herself.

Will you find Tiger Moms here? Yes, you might notice a few overlaps with expectations for perfection and brutal honesty. But where Amy Chua is traveling the coast to coast insisting her memoir is more David Sedaris than Parenting 101 (I must insert here that I am SOOOO thoroughly relieved and lucky to have read and reviewed that book in a total vacuum, long before it made headlines!), the Wu buddies will be sharing the last laugh.

  • I am in San Diego to haunt the house with your brother.
  • Can I have a … crappuccino?
  • Hi. This is your mom. Or your friend. If you do not fit into one of these categories, please do not call me. Thank you.
  • Waaaaa! You got so fat! You look like a fat person swallow your face! … stay fat too long and he [the hubby] gonna look for pretty skinny girl and what happen to you? Fat, ugly with babies and no man. Poor you! … How can I not worry? I only one worry for you! Did he take life insurance out on you?
  • To get boy, eat lots of meat three months before action.
  • I’m so happy that you finally got the chemistry going with the right boy. Enjoy the ride, and let the future unveiled by itself. Latin American makes the best lover. I’m glad he is not the combination of … tall, handsome, and be the doctor. Flawless person is an insane!
  • you still virgin? you know .. . . . . . no balloon, no party ok? Ok
  • Because if you do [any public displays of affection], I take picture and send it to Grandma. And then when Grandma get heart attack, you pay hospital bills.

OMG. I’m ROTFLMAO so hard, I can hardly type!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011


Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Koko Be Good by Jen Wang

When I first read Jen Wang‘s spirited debut graphic novel, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how quirky, unique, and just plain delightful Melanie Griffith once was in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film, Something Wild. Not that the plots are overly similar, but that contagious wild-child spirit infuses both works … making them both such fun adventures.

Jon’s long-distance relationship is finally about to become local … or, rather, global, as he is three weeks from quitting his job, reuniting with his girlfriend, and moving with her to Peru. Quite an unexpected commitment from a guy who’s never even left the country before!

While out for drinks with co-workers, he gets his anachronistic tape-recorder (with a very important recording on it) stolen by Koko, who happens to be putting on quite an acrobatic, high-flying show with her underage friend Faron. Turns out Koko is a bit of an exhibitionist, a free-loader, not to mention a peripatetic whackjob; she’s also ingenious, imaginative, and irresistible. When Jon and Koko meet again, an onlooker remarks, “You feel that? Something magical just happened.” Thanks to Wang, yes, this debut is magic indeed.

Koko decides being “Good” is her future: “I’m going to be the hero I was meant to be.” Inspired by Koko’s spirited world view, Jon decides it’s time to take charge of his own life, as hard and painful as that might be. And Faron, too, realizes that hiding his love of musicals or getting sent away to work for his uncle in Austin is not going to lead to a meaningful future anytime soon. Three lives, multiple intersections, unlimited possibilities …

Wang’s fabulously energetic drawing style keeps the characters in constant motion as their lives change and evolve in unexpected and surprising ways. From flying dishes to street demonstrators to runaway wheelchairs to tearful goodbye kisses, Wang’s careful details create an irrepressible brave new world of lost souls hoping to find meaning … and each other. Wang is simply WOW.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010

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

In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage: A Survey of New & Notable Books in The Bloomsbury Review

I’ve been doing an annual New & Notable roundup of APA titles for The Bloomsbury Review for more than a few years now. This year’s installment is running a little later than usual. I know you can’t see it here, but the roundup is referenced in the left column of the cover of the latest Summer issue  (the main cover article on Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – see below – is also mine, whoo hooo!). So here’s the article

In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage
May was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The good news: the list of new books to share gets longer every year. The bad news: My old eyeballs just can’t keep up with the plethora of titles! Here are my latest findings … and apologies right now for the titles I’ve missed! [... click here for more ...]

Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage,” The Bloomsbury Review, Summer 2010

Readers: All

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Nonfiction, Pan-Asian Pacific American