Audio Picks for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Don't miss these 12 stellar middle grade and YA audiobook selections.

May is Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month. Why May? The first Japanese people immigrated to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the transcontinental railroad—built mostly with immigrant Chinese labor—was completed on May 10, 1869. In 1977, Congressional legislation commemorating U.S. Asians and Pacific Islanders was initiated and became public law in 1992, designating May APA Heritage Month. Still, despite a North American presence older than the nation—Filipino sailors landed in California in the 16th century—Americans of Asian descent are too often viewed as foreign and “other.” Books are full of opportunities to share, learn, and enjoy all manner of experiences, and audiobooks can make those experiences more immediate. Amid growing Islamophobia, many of these 2018 and 2019 APA titles feature Muslim American characters, created by Muslim American authors. So pull up a chair or grab a headset, and listen in.


Middle Grade

Everlasting Nora by Marie Miranda Cruz, read by Amielynn Abellera. Macmillan Audio.
If the middle grade Filipino American market had an audio representative, Abellera would be the reigning voice. Already the narrator of two of Newbery Medal winner and Filipina American Erin Entrada Kelly’s three middle grade titles, she is an energetic cipher for Cruz’s feisty 12-year-old Nora. Losing her home and father to fire, Nora moves with her mother, Lorna, into Manila’s North Cemetery shantytown, where the living coexist with their dead. They survive by doing other people’s laundry, but Lorna gambles away their meager funds playing mahjong. When Lorna disappears, Nora relies on the kindness of strangers to get her back.

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, read by Priya Ayyar. Listening Library.
In her first-ever diary, 12-year-old Nisha records her family’s perilous journey from Pakistan to India during the 1947 Partition. Ayyar is an ideal narrator, embracing Nisha’s evolution from reluctant and reticent to bold and brave. The addition of Hiranandani’s reading of her author’s note—in which she reveals her father’s family’s 1947 exodus along Nisha’s family’s route from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur—is especially gratifying.

The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller, read by Jennifer Kim. Listening Library.
In one of those “dorky old composition notebooks,” seventh grader Natalie is “supposed to observe something that interests us and spend all year applying the scientific process to our capital-Q Question.” She takes an unconventional approach, filling the pages with salient observations about her brilliant botanist mother, who can’t seem to get out of bed. Natalie concocts plans to spark her mother to care again and rallies friends to prove her hypotheses. Surprising results follow.

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, read by Priya Ayyar. Listening Library.
In a small Pakistani village where everyone knows everybody else, young Amal wants nothing more than to go to school and become a teacher. When she inadvertently insults the overprivileged son of a powerful landowner, her family must commit her to indentured servitude as punishment. Encouraged by the kindness of the estate matriarch, Amal figures out how to fight for justice.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang, read by Sunny Lu. Listening Library.
Mia Tang is only 10, but she runs the front desk of the motel where her immigrant parents are overworked and underpaid by the greedy owner, Mr. Yao. Despite drawbacks, Mia has made wonderful new friends, especially among the long-term guests, while her parents use the empty rooms to provide a temporary safe haven for other immigrants. Though her family is remarkably resourceful, abusive Mr. Yao—and his spoiled son—still controls their lives, until Mia hatches a plan to save them all.


Young Adult

Internment by Samira Ahmed, read by Soneela Nankani. Hachette Audio.
Following precedent set by real-life Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, Muslim Americans are rounded up and incarcerated in an alternate but all-too-familiar United States after the 2016 presidential election. Layla, 17, and her parents are forcibly removed from their L.A. home and transported to desert prison Mobius. Layla finds surprising allies—even inside barbed wire—willing to fight for freedom. Nankani also voiced Ahmed’s debut, Love, Hate and Other Filters.

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi, read by Joy Osmanski & Jacques Roy. S + S. Audio.
In debut novelist Choi’s quirky love-story-of-sorts, narrators Osmanski and Roy convincingly propel two misfits toward each other. Osmanski’s Penny is slightly detached, avoiding her mother’s orbit by escaping to UT Austin, hoping to find a whole new world. Roy voices Sam, Penny’s roommate’s 21-year-old ex-uncle-by-marriage (got all that?). Penny and Sam’s chance second meeting involves a panic-not-heart-attack. They fatefully designate each other “emergency contacts,” and their texting begins....

Mariam Sharma Hits the Road by Sheba Karim, read by Soneela Nankani. Harper Audio.
Mariam, Ghazala, and Umar are three best friends, their aural personalities immediately differentiated by chameleonic Nankani. Despite sharing Pakistani American and New Jersey backgrounds, their families couldn’t be more different. When Ghaz gets shamed by their pious Muslim community for posing (scantily clad) for a clothing ad that appears sky high in Times Square, her conservative parents lock her in her room. Mariam and Umar orchestrate her breakout, embarking on a road trip through the South that gives Mars the chance to confront her deadbeat dad, while Umar contemplates coming out to his homophobic parents.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, read by Michael Levi Harris. Listening Library.
Darius Kellner, 16, is a self-described “fractional Persian”: His mother is an Iranian immigrant, his father a “Teutonic Übermensch.” But like Dad, Darius is clinically depressed, and their only noncombative interactions involve watching Star Trek episodes. When Darius’s grandfather falls terminally ill, the Kellners trek 32 hours to Yazd, Iran, for an overdue family reunion. The visit proves life-changing, as Darius experiences his first true friendship.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, read by Priya Ayyar. Harper Audio.
Best-selling author Mafi grounds her latest in reality in this can’t-turn-away, timely story about teens falling in love despite intolerant peer pressure, difficult family situations, and cultural divides. This post-9/11 coming-of-age story of Persian American teen Shirin should be an effective catalyst for engaging important family conversations.

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh & Elsie Chapman, read by Kim Mai Guest & Vikas Adam. Harper Audio.
Myths and tales with East and South Asian roots get vibrantly reimagined by 15 best-selling, award-winning authors of Asian descent. Alyssa Wong, a fifth-generation Chinese American, sets hungry ghosts in Arizona, where “there’s a long history of Chinese immigrants.” E.C. Myers uses gaming and cosplay to create a “mash-up of the greatest hits of Korean mythology and folk literature.” Aisha Saeed gives agency to a dancing courtesan of the Mughal Empire. Guest narrates 12 of the 15, occasionally faltering on Asian words. Adam affectingly reads the rest. Quibbles aside, the impressive collection lingers.

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, read by Stephanie Hsu. Hachette Audio.
Assisted by a huge red bird, mysterious strangers, and all the people who love her, 15-year-old Leigh begins the aching journey back to life, laughter, and even first love after her mother’s suicide. Hsu reads with youthful rawness, embodying the broad spectrum of Leigh’s experiences across realities, oceans, cultures, and family histories.

Terry Hong reviews for Library Journal and blogs at “Smithsonian BookDragon.”


SLJ illustration/Getty Images

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