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Honoring Asian and Pacific Islander Trailblazers

Celebrate API Heritage Month with these biography picture books.

Looking for a way to honor Asian and Pacific Islander Trailblazers this API Heritage Month? Our friend, Maya Lê, creator of MaistoryBook, rounded up a list of her favorite reads about inspiring API heroes to learn about with your little one this month and beyond!

May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage month (APIH Month), a month to celebrate, appreciate, and recognize the culture, traditions, and history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. One way to honor APIH month is to read and learn more about Asian and Pacific Islander trailblazers.

To celebrate APIH Month, I've curated a collection of API picture book biographies that represent trailblazers from the different regions of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Check out these biographies with your little learners to honor API accomplishments and achievements.

East Asia

East Asia consists of the following countries: China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan. Celebrate East Asian trailblazers with these picture book biographies:

Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story

Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo, Illustrated by Lin Wang // Anna May Wong is a pioneer of cinema. Born in 1905, Anna May Wong grew up working in her family's laundry in Los Angeles's Chinatown. She aspired to be a movie star and pursued acting in Hollywood in the 1930s, but there were few roles for Asian Americans, and they were often demeaning and stereotypical. Despite this, she worked hard and gave her best performance, eventually crusading for more meaningful roles for herself and other Asian American actors.

It Began with a Page: Gyo Fujikawa

It Began with a Page: Gyo Fujikawa by Kyo Maclear, Illustrated by Julie Morstad // Gyo Fujikawa was a Japanese American artist who fought for racial diversity in picture books. Determined to show all types of children in the pages of her books, Gyo's work paved the way for publishers, teachers, and readers to welcome diversity into our world.

Maya Lin: Artist Architect of Light and Lines

Maya Lin: Artist Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk // Maya Lin, a visionary artist-architect, designed the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As a child, she was fascinated with studying spaces and grew up surrounded by art. This is the story of her journey from her early experiments with light and lines to her success in designing a national landmark.

Tu Youyou’s Discovery

Tu Youyou's Discovery by Songju Ma Daemicke, Illustrated by Lin // Tu Youyou, who grew up with a passion for science and medicine since childhood, discovered a treatment for malaria in 1969. She experimented with traditional Chinese remedies and eventually discovered a treatment through years of research. Her discovery is still widely used today.

Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight by Jen Bryant, Illustrated by Toshiki Nakamura // Patsy Takemoto Mink, a historic trailblazer who fought for fairness, was the first Asian American woman to be elected to Congress. Patsy faced challenges throughout her life but never gave up. She carved her own path, became a lawyer, ran for Congress, and helped create Title IX, which requires schools to treat boys and girls equally.

South Asia

South Asia consists of the following countries: Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Celebrate South Asian trailblazers with these picture book biographies:

A Girl Called Genghis Khan

A Girl Called Genghis Khan by Michelle Lord, Illustrated by Shehzil Malik // Maria Toorpakai Wazir is a Pakistani girl who faced discrimination and threats from the Taliban while pursuing her dream of playing squash. She received an award for her achievements, but was forced to quit the team due to threats to her life and family. Despite this, she continued practicing every day for three years in her bedroom, inspiring children with her perseverance.

Shakti Girls: Poems of Inspiring Indian Women

Shakti Girls: Poems of Inspiring Indian Women by Shetal Shah, Illustrated by Kavita Rajput // This book showcases the stories of 13 exceptional Indian women, from Mindy Kaling to Kasturba Gandhi, who have broken barriers and made a significant impact in various industries, including science, politics, activism, and sports.

She Sang for India

She Sang for India by Suma Subramanium, Illustrated by Shreya Gupta // M.S. Subbulakshmi was a famous Carnatic singer from India who used her voice to advocate for justice and peace. Despite facing barriers as a young girl in the early 1900s, she broke tradition and performed at small festivals, recorded her first album, and sang for India's freedom at Gandhi's request. Her incredible journey took her across borders and transformed her from a young prodigy to a woman who changed the world.

Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education

Malala: Activist for Girls' Education by Raphaele Frier, Illustrated by Aurelia Fronty // Malala Yousafzai fought for girls' education and stood up against the Taliban. She survived an assassination attempt at the age of fifteen and continued her activism. She became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen for her efforts to ensure education for all children worldwide.

Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet

Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby, Illustrated by Rebecca Green // Iqbal, a boy from Bangladesh, noticed his family was struggling with the smoke from the open fire his mother used to cook during the monsoon season. The smoke made it hard for them to breathe and was making them sick. When Iqbal learns about his school's upcoming science fair with a theme of sustainability, he decides to design a stove that doesn't produce smoke. With help from his teacher, he learns about solar energy cooking, which uses the heat from the sun to cook.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia consists of the following countries:Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Celebrate Southeast Asian trailblazers with these picture book biographies:

A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth

A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth by Christina Soontornvat, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk // Senator Tammy Duckworth is the first Thai American woman elected to Congress and the first woman with a disability to serve in the House and Senate. Despite facing challenges in her childhood and suffering serious injuries while serving in the military, Tammy never lost her determination to keep going.

The Floating Field: How a Group of Thai Boys Built their Own Soccer Field

The Floating Field: How a Group of Thai Boys Built their Own Soccer Field by Scott Riley, Illustrated by Kim Lien & Nguyen Quang // A group of Thai boys living on an island without much space, inspired by the World Cup, decide to form their own soccer team. They can only play twice a month on a sandbar, until they come together to build their own floating soccer field. This true story is beautifully illustrated and perfect for those interested in sports and overcoming obstacles.

The Cambodian Dancer: Sophany’s Gift of Hope

The Cambodian Dancer: Sophany's Gift of Hope by Daryn Reicherter, Illustrated by Christy Hale // The true story of a Cambodian refugee who became a dancer and teacher in the United States after escaping the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. She created a school of dance for children and taught them traditional Cambodian dances to keep their cultural heritage alive.

Girls Rock Indonesia

Girls Rock Indonesia by Claudia Bellante, Illustrated by Josefina Schargorodsky // Three young Muslim girls in a small village in Java, Indonesia discover their passion for heavy metal music after watching a Metallica concert on YouTube. Despite their worries about their parents, friends, and even their Imam's opinion, they continue to pursue their passion and eventually find new meaning in their lives and a unique way to connect to their religion.

Maria Orosa: Freedom Fighter, Scientist, and Inventor from the Philippines

Maria Orosa: Freedom Fighter, Scientist, and Inventor from the Philippines by Norma Olizon-Chikiamco, Illustrated by Mark Salvatus // Maria Orosa was a pioneering Filipino woman scientist who returned to her war-torn country and created super-nutritious foods to help her nation in a time of crisis. She is celebrated for her war exploits, scientific inventions, and contributions to Filipino cuisine, including developing new ways to preserve seasonal products and transforming rice bran into disease-preventing desserts.

Pacific Islands

Pacific Islander refers to people from the Pacific Islands of New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia, New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and Easter Island. Celebrate Pacific Islander trailblazers with these picture book biographies:

The Girl Who Heard the Music

The Girl Who Heard the Music by Marni Fogelson, Illustrated by Mahani Teave Marta Alvarez Miguens // Mahani lived on Easter Island and grew up taking music lessons on the island's only piano. She left the island to pursue her dream of becoming a great pianist and toured the world. However, she returned to the island and built a music school using recycled trash, solar panels, and a food garden to help build a more sustainable future for her home.

Ho’onani Hula Warrior

Ho'onani Hula Warrior by Heather Gale, Illustrated by Mika Song // Ho'onani is a girl who identifies as being in-between a girl and a boy. She wants to participate in a traditional kane hula chant at school, but she is unsure if she will be allowed to lead the all-male troupe. Ho'onani decides to try and learns to lead, gaining the respect of those around her in this empowering celebration of Hawaiian culture.

Sakamoto’s Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory

Sakamoto's Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory by Julie Abery, Illustrated by Chris Sasaki // Soichi Sakamoto was a science teacher who coached children from a Maui sugar plantation to swim using innovative techniques, building their strength and endurance with the ditch water's natural current. The children formed a swim club and became successful in swimming events worldwide. Eventually, they won Olympic gold, fulfilling Sakamoto's impossible dream.

Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku

Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku by Ellie Crowe, Illustrated by Richard Waldrep // Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku was a six-time Olympic swimming champion and legendary surfer. He grew up in Honolulu and learned to swim and surf at a young age. He won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle race at the 1912 United States Olympic team, and by the end of his twenty-year Olympic career, he had won six medals.

Amazing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who Inspire Us All

Amazing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who Inspire Us All by Maia & Alex Shibutani, and Dane Liu, Illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel // The book features 36 inspirational Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including Daniel Inouye, Kalpana Chawla, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The book contains quick and accessible biographies written with journalist Dane Liu, highlighting figures who have made significant contributions to policy, pop culture, and achieving their dreams.

While we prioritize sharing API fiction and nonfiction books especially during this month, we must be committed to sharing API stories all year long. Even when May comes to an end, keep these books on your shelf rotation to celebrate API Heritage and History all year long!

For more Asian and Pacific Islander picture books, read along with MaiStoryBook YouTube for interactive, shared-reading read aloud adventures where I ask questions throughout the story, point out main themes and ideas, and introduce vocabulary to keep little learners engaged and participating throughout the story.

Click here to read along with the FULL MaiStoryBook Asian and Pacific Islander Read Aloud Playlist.!

About the Author:

Maya Lê, Creator of MaistoryBook, is an elementary school teacher, artist, and curriculum developer. Passionate about equality and diversity in children's literature, she inspires a new generation of readers through her interactive read aloud YouTube videos, reviews of children's books on Instagram and Tiktok, book-inspired crafts, and live Community Storytime events.

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