Monday, January 12, 2009

Middle-Grade Historical Fiction Set in Asia

My nephew and niece are avid readers, principally of fantasy novels. Recently they read Linda Sue Park's historical novel set in 12th-century Korea, The Single Shard and adored it. My nephew raved about it on the phone to his father. So my brother asked me as the family "book expert" to find other great historical fiction set in Asia that he could give to his 14-year-old son and 12-year-old niece to encourage their interest in history. We are both historians and, of course, want to share our passion with them. (That doesn't mean we don't approve of their love of fantasy. We love fantasy too).

I posted my query to Child_Lit, a wonderful listserv that I belong to, composed of children's book writers and illustrators, editors, agents, college professors, librarians of all stripes, children's literature bloggers and reviewers and anyone else interested in children's literature.

I got a lot of replies, and was interested to note that most of the recommendations were basically for books set in Japan and China. I posted another query asking for books about the rest of Asia. That led me to an interesting chat with Tarie Sabido, a children's literature blogger from the Philippines. I'm sorry to note that no books depicting the Philippines are on the final list. Tarie did suggest some of the other Asian books. After considerable discussion on Child_Lit, Daphne Lee, a children's literature blogger from Malaysia, wrote an article ruefully noting that Malaysian writers were not writing children's books. She also posted the article on her blog with a list of some of the books that had been recommended on Child_Lit. Bibliobibuli, a Malaysian blogger friend of hers pointed out that some children's books had recently been written by Malaysian writers. A common conclusion was that Asian writers tend to focus on adult novels and to disdain writing children's fiction. Hopefully as these countries' literatures develop, this attitude will change. I expect my blogger friends will do their best to encourage such development.

Indian-American authors and bloggers Sandhya Nankani and Pooja Makhijani recommended to me more books on the Indian subcontinent. Another children's book writer noted that Australia is also part of Asia and recommended some books included on the final list, though I hesitated to dig for more Australian books. There are even some books on the Near East. Linda Sue Park herself recommended another of her own books as well as Geraldine McCaughrean's The Kite Rider.

The list grew and grew, and it includes fantasy set in historical periods, as well as young adult books that are probably too old for my nephew and niece but by this time people were requesting copies of the final list, so I kept everything on it save for current fiction recommendations. A few days ago I sent out an announcement that I had finished the list and people could ask me for copies. So far I've gotten about 30 requests, and one of my friends asked me to blog it or put it up on Facebook.

Well, I suppose since some of the books on the list are older books, it might fit within the historical aspect of this blog. I was surprised to note that I had some of the books myself from my childhood.

Historical fiction for children is why I love history. I read and reread books such as Jean Lee Latham's Carry on, Mr. Bowditch! as a young child. Even today I know a great deal about European and American history because of those books. I know very little about Asian history because I had few books on Asia. It seemed an alien part of the world so I never felt drawn to dig into the history. Thus I believe it is very, very important to provide books set in that part of the world for today's children. There are increasing numbers of books set in contemporary Asia, but proportionally fewer books set in historical periods. This list has a strong bias towards books set in China and Japan. Interestingly, a lot of the books set in China are juvenile memoirs of 20th-century China. While that is historically important, I rather wonder if they are not oversaturating the market? As for the books set in Japan, I think publishers must regard samurais as romantic and the equivalent of knights in medieval Europe. There's so much else that could be written about! I found only old books on certain parts of Asia, yet I am quite certain that there are interesting stories lurking about in the histories of all these Asian countries.

The concern my fellow bloggers showed about native Asian writers not writing their own countries' stories is important. Having grown up in these countries and immersed in their history, they can tell their stories perhaps with more ease than those writers who have to immerse themselves in the history and culture of the country and bring other perspectives to their writing. Now I do not want to say that a foreigner cannot convey a country's history and culture. There are many fabulous books out there written by people who are not part of the country and culture described in their books. However, I do think that people need both native and non-native writers' perspectives. People do agree with that. That is after all why the International Board on Books for Youth (IBBY) exists. It was set up after World War II to encourage international children's literature, and the development of indigeneous children's literature worldwide. It also encourages translation of these books. I hope that there are or will be in the future historical children's novels that are waiting to be translated and shared with us.

Here's the final list. It is not a comprehensive list. I am sure my readers will be able to add other books from their memories. While many of the books should be available in your local library or through interlibrary loan, quite a few of my international correspondents do not have access to libraries that include these books. So I include links to Amazon, either in the title or the image, when the books are still in print and to foreign booksellers when the books are not on Amazon. For those that are not in print, I recommend you search for them at I also want to point out that I've only read a few of these books myself so I can't say how great they are. I've put in brackets whether they are YA, whether they are fantasy, what country and time period they are set in, and if they are out-of-print, they do not have a cover image. That cover image is linked to Amazon, and yes, I am an Amazon Associate, but you can obtain the books anywhere. You are not being asked to buy them. I wanted to be able to use the cover images and admittedly get a little money for my labors (smile).

Deepa Agarwal
Caravan to Tibet (late 19th-century India and Tibet)

Lloyd Alexander
The Iron Ring (ancient India, fantasy)

Andrews, Roy Chapman
Quest in the Desert (1930s China and Mongolia, archeological expedition, out-of-print). I have this book in my collection and it's a great story. Andrews himself was an archeologist and the book is drawn from his own experiences.

Shirley Arora
What Then, Raman? (1950s India, out-of-print)

Tracy Barrett
Anna of Byzantium (1080 A.D., Middle East)

Rhoda Blumberg
Shipwrecked!: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy (1843 Japan and America)

Ruskin Bond
Angry River (1990s India)

Binya’s Blue Umbrella (1990s India)

Malcolm Bosse
Deep Dream of the Rain Forest (WWI Borneo)

The Examination (YA, 16th-century China)

Ordinary Magic (originally published as Ganesh, 1980s India and America)
Tusk and Stone (7th-century India)

Pearl S. Buck
The Big Wave (printed in 1948 and still in print, Japan)

Christopher Cheng
The Melting Pot: The Diary of Edward Chek Chee, Sydney, 1903-1904 (1900s Australia)
New Gold Mountain: The Diary of Shu Cheong (1861 China and Australia)
Seams of Gold (Gold Rush Australia)

Denis Clark
Golden Island (161 BCE Sri Lanka, now Ceylon, orig. pub. in 1939 and repub. in 1948). I have the 1948 paperback, which is very fragile. I read and reread it as a child.

Ying Chang Compestine
Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (YA novel about the Chinese Cultural Revolution)

Li Cunxin
Mao’s Last Dancer: Young Reader’s Edition (memoir)

Kara Dalkey
Little Sister (medieval Japan)
Heavenward Path (medieval Japan, sequel to Little Sister)
The Nightingale (retelling of Andersen’s tale set in medieval Japan). I have this book and it's another favorite.

Meindert De Jong
House of Sixty Fathers (WWII China)

Shashi Deshpande
The Narayanpur Incident (1942 India)

Peter Dickinson
Tulku (1900, China and Tibet)

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Conch Bearer (fantasy, India; 1st in trilogy)

The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (fantasy, India; 2nd in trilogy)

Shadowland (fantasy, India; 3rd in trilogy; pub. March 2009)

Neela: Victory Song (1939 India)

Mary Finn
Anila’s Journey (YA, 19th-century India)

Sid Fleischman
The White Elephant (old Siam [Thailand])

Susan Fletcher

Alphabet of Dreams (1 BC/1 AD, Persia and Palestine)

Shadow Spinner (story of the telling of 1001 Nights, ancient Persia)

Jean Fritz
Homesick (memoir of her childhood in China, 1915-1928). I have this book which is beautifully written.

Sherry Garland
Song of the Buffalo Boy (YA, 1994 Vietnam)

Jamila Gavin

The Blood Stone (17th-century India)

Wheel of Surya (India, 1947) [trilogy]
The Eye of the Horse (India, 1948) [trilogy]
The Track of the Wind (India, 1951) [trilogy]

Jon and Rumer Godden
Two Under the Indian Sun (memoir of the sisters' childhood in 1910s India)

Rumer Godden
Premlata and the Festival of Lights (mid-20th-century India)
The River (1920s India)
The Valiant Chatti-Maker (ancient India)

K.M. Grant
Blood Red Horse (Holy Land during the Crusades)

Subhadra Sen Gupta
Kartik's War (mystery set in 2nd century BC India)
Kartik and the Lost Gold (sequel to above)
Waiting for Tansen (stories set in Mughal India)

Theodore Acland Harper
His Excellency and Peter (Siberia after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905; printed in 1930 and the background is based on the author's own experiences as a mining engineer in Siberia during that period)

Erik Christian Haugaard

The Samurai’s Tale (16th-century Japan)

The Boy and the Samurai (16th-century Japan)

The Revenge of the Forty-Seven Samurai (18th-century Japan)

Lian Hearn

Across the Nightingale Floor (Feudal Japan fantasies; Tales of the Otori series)

Grass for His Pillow

Brilliance of the Moon

The Harsh Cry of the Heron

Heaven’s Net is Wide (prequel)

Minfong Ho

Rice Without Rain (1970s Thailand)

Sing to the Dawn (1960s Thailand)

The Stone Goddess (YA, 1960s Cambodia and America)

The Clay Marble (1970s Cambodia)

Sheri Holman
Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars, Korea, A.D. 595

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn (series set in 18th-century Japan)

The Demon in the Teahouse

In Darkness, Death

The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass

A Samurai Never Fears Death

Seven Paths to Death

Ji-Li Jiang
Red-Scarf Girl (memoir of the Cultural Revolution)

Loveleen Kacker
The Bastar Rebellion (1910 India)

Rudyard Kipling
Kim (19th-century India). This book was a childhood favorite of my grandmother, my mother, and myself.

Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window (memoir set in WWII Tokyo)

Kathryn Lasky

Jahanara: Princess of Princesses, India, 1627

Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven, Japan, 1858

Moying Li
Snow Falling in Spring (memoir of the Cultural Revolution)

Shirley Lim
Princess Shawl (Present-day Malacca and Singapore, and time travel to other parts of the region's history, principally to the 15th century)

Alison Lloyd
Year of the Tiger (Han China)

Geraldine McCaughrean

The Kite Rider (13th-century China)

Tamburlaine’s Elephants (14th-century India)

Ruth Manley
The Plum-Rain Scroll (fantasy trilogy set in ancient Japan)
The Dragon Stone
The Peony Lantern

F.N. Monjo
The Porcelain Pagoda (YA, a young girl's voyage from New York to Macao, China in 1822-1823)

Fritz Muhlenweg
Big Tiger and Christian (early 20th-century Mongolia and China, out of print)

Dhan Gopal Mukerji
The Chief of the Herd (1929)

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon (early 20th-century India)

Ghond, the Hunter (1928)
Hari, the Jungle Lad (1924)
Hindu Fables for Little Children (1929)

Kari the Elephant (1922, repub. 2008)

The Master Monkey (1932)
Rama, the Hero of India (1930)
[most are out-of-print]

Lensey Namioka
Phantom of Tiger Mountain (Sung-Dynasty China)
The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils (16th-century Japan, 1st in the Zenta and Matsuzo series)
White Serpent Castle (16th-century Japan, 2nd in series)
Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees (16th-century Japan, 3rd in series)
Village of the Vampire Cat (16th-century Japan, 4th in series)

Island of Ogres (16th-century Japan, 5th in series)

The Coming of the Bear (16th-century Japan, 6th in series)

Den of the White Fox (16th-century Japan, 7th in series)

Ties that Bind, Ties that Break (1911 China)

An Ocean Apart, a World Away (1921 China and America, sequel to Ties)

Shenaaz Nanji
Child of Dandelions (1972 Uganda, about the exiling of Indian Ugandans)

Donna Jo Napoli

Beast (Beauty and the Beast retelling, ancient Persia)

Bound (Chinese Cinderella tale, Ming Dynasty China)

National Museum of Australia
Making Tracks series (historical fiction by various writers inspired by artifacts at the museum)

Anne E. Neuberger
The Girl-Son (early 20th-century Korea, fictionalized biography)

Huynh Quang Nhuong
The Land I Lost: Adventures of a Boy in Vietnam (memoir of childhood in Vietnam)

Linda Sue Park

The Kite Fighters (15th-century Korea)

When My Name Was Keoko (WWII) [has alternating 1st-person chapters from a brother and sister]

Katherine Paterson

Sign of the Chrysanthemum (medieval Japan)

Of Nightingales that Weep (medieval Japan)

The Master Puppeteer (18th-century Japan)

Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom (Taiping Rebellion in 1850s China)

William Pène du Bois
The Twenty-One Balloons (fantastical, India and Krakatoa, printed 1947 and still in print)

Mitali Perkins
Secret Keeper (YA, 1970s India)

Kashmira Sheth
Keeping Corner (YA, WWI India)

Natsume Soseki
Botchan (memoir, Japan, 1906, readable by both children and adults; 1992 English translation by Alan Turney; also a 2005 English translation by Joel Cohn [image shown])

Jeff Stone

Tiger (Five Ancestors series, book 1, kung-fu fantasy in 1650 China) [The series has been criticized for being not historical enough]

Monkey (book 2)

Snake (book 3)

Crane (book 4)

Eagle (book 5)

Mouse (book 6)

Padma Venkatraman
Climbing the Stairs (YA, WWII India)

Yoko Kawashima Watkins

So Far from the Bamboo Grove (post-WWII Korea and Japan)

My Brother, My Sister, and I (sequel)
[there have been protests about teaching these in the schools. They are fictionalized autobiographies which apparently play about with history]

Ellen Emerson White
Kaiulani: The People’s Princess, Hawaii, 1887

Carole Wilkinson (fantasies set in Han China)
Garden of the Purple Dragon
Dragon Moon
Dragon Dawn (prequel)

Diane Lee Wilson
I Rode a Horse of Milk-White Jade (14th-century Mongolia)

Laurence Yep

Dragon of the Lost Sea (fantasy, China, 1st in series)

Dragon Steel (fantasy, China, 2nd in series)
Dragon Cauldron (fantasy, China, 3rd in series)
Dragon War (fantasy, China, 4th in series)
Lady of Ch’iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, Southern China, A.D. 531

Rainbow People (Chinese folktales, for ages 9-12)

The Serpent’s Children: 1849 (China and America)

Spring Pearl: The Last Flower (China, 1857)
[his other books seem to be mostly set in America]

Chun Yu
Little Green: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (juvenile memoir)

Guo Yue
Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing (memoir of the Cultural Revolution for 3rd-5th grade)


Tarie said...

Hi, Jenny! Thank you for putting together this fantastic post. It's really too bad that there are no middle grade historical novels set in the Philippines. :o(

Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny! What an excellent post. I'd like to add that apart from being a Malaysian blooger, I also write a children's books column for the Malaysian English language newspaper The Star. I also run a community reading initiative. And I am a freelance editor for Scholastic's Malaysian office and we are currently on the look out for writers who wish to write Malaysian stories for youth.

Coincidentally, I looked up the IBBY's Malaysian chapter this evening. I'd come across them late last year, quite by accident, and thought I would find out more. I'm afraid to say that I am disappointed at how they seem to be set up and run in Malaysia, but will perhaps write about that in a future blog post.

In the meantime, I look forward to reading more on your blog. My offer to send you books still stands, by the way.

All the best. - Daphne Lee

RM1(SS) (ret) said...

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Lewis (1920s China)?

Thanks for the list! I've only read three of these books, with three others on my list to be read - but I see I'm going to have to look for some more of them.

Christy Lenzi said...

What a great list--thank you for compiling it.

Are Suzanne Staples' novels too YA for the lineup?

RM1(SS) (ret) said...

Oh, and how about He Went with Marco Polo, by Louise Andrews Kent (13th-century China)?

Sally Murphy said...

What a wonderful list, Jenny. May I suggest also The Samurai Kids series by Sandy fussell and the Dragonkeepr triolgy by Carole Wilkinson. Both are Aussies but I think both series are available overseas,

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Thanks for all your comments! Tarie, do encourage people to write middle grade historical fiction.

Daphne, your Star article is linked in the blog post above. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that you find some writers who will do historical children's fiction set in Malaysia! I'll email you about those books. Do send me the link to the Ibby post when you do it. I'm curious.

Thanks for the suggestions James. I'll check them out too.

Christy, Suzanne Fisher Staples' books are not historical fiction, and that is what the list focused on.

Sally, Carole Wilkinson's books are on the list already. I hadn't heard of Sandy Fussell's books.

There's no way to make this list totally comprehensive but I do appreciate your suggestions! Thanks again.

a. fortis said...

Wow, what an incredible resource! Thanks, Jenny. I'll have to share this widely and add to my huge TBR pile. :)

Anonymous said...
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Reyes-Chow said...

Thanks for this list. I included it at the bottom of this post, so hope the word can be spread a little but more.

Ms. Yingling said...

Wow. Very complete list. The only one I would question would be Gay-Neck, which the students no longer find readable. It just moves around the library as kids make fun of the title!

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Thanks Ms. Yingling! The list was built from a lot of people's recommendations, so apparently Gay-Neck was remembered fondly by someone. At some point I do have to read these books myself, but my to-be-read pile is so huge it will be a long time yet. I'm sorry the kids in your library don't like the book. I was the kid who read everything, especially the oldest books, and I was grateful my school libraries still had them!

Tarie said...

Hi, Ms, Yingling! It's too bad kids don't like Gay-Neck anymore. But I certainly understand why. The title itself will have kids scoffing, and a lot of the language in the book is old-fashioned. I just recently read Gay-Neck and I found the story exciting. And I don't even like birds! Maybe a new edition should be released. Something with more contemporary language. It's too good a story to let just fade away.

Meagan McGovern said...

This is a fabulous resource! I'm looking for a similar list for historical fiction set in the Middle Ages/Renaissance. I'm having a lot of fun poking around your site looking for ideas!

shivani malhotra said...

Jenny it,s great to see list of books at one place. It really helped me to choose my favorite books. Thanks keep posting. Other wise i believe in Online book shopping sites to select books as per my interest.

R.A. Ratcliff said...

Great list - thank you.
What about the Little Pear books (loved those as a child and was told I'm related in some vague way to the Lattimores)

Gordon Carswell said...

Wow, thanks for the great list!

Amy said...

i read over the list, and have one of my favorite books to add: "Blue Fingers: A Ninjas Tale." I don't know the exact time, but it's set in Japan, and chronicles how a boy apprenticed to a fabric dyer becomes a ninja.

That said, thank you for sharing this list!

Trudee Bealka said...

My children's History Teacher changed the format in his class to include historical fiction. His collection however was lacking in the Asian/Chinese category. Knowing that I book shop at thrift shops and second hand stores regularly to donate to the school and classroom libraries, he asked me to keep an eye out for them. I keep your list in my purse and have found 15 of them so far. I read them and then hand them off to him for his classroom library. Whatever ones that I can not find through the thrift stores by the end of the school year, I'll pick up at Abe's. I have had a blast reading your list so far and look forward to completing it. Thank you so much for compiling it.