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A Round-Up of Awesome Asian American Protagonists in YA Lit

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Sharanya Sharma

Staff Writer

Growing up, Sharanya Sharma was frequently caught leaving home and tumbling into places like Hogwarts, Prydain, and Frell. These days, she spends most of her time running around after (adorable) children in Washington, DC, trying to teach them things like math and social studies and reading. Especially reading. All of her spare time (and change) is spent in bookstores, inhaling books and coffee. She's had a life-long love affair with middle-grade and YA lit, and hopes to write her own novel(s) in those genres some day. Blog: Inkstinedreads Twitter: @srsharms

Ah, the protagonist. The most important aspect of any novel, and sometimes the most challenging. But love ’em or hate ’em, without a protagonist, there’s no story. And the best protagonists, of course, are the ones that either speak to your human experience, elevating it in some way, or the ones that open your eyes to the experiences of others in a way you had never thought of before. Finding That Hero(ine), the one that makes you fall in love with them, that you cheer for and cry for, that you yell loudly at from your office at lunch time, that you think about long after the book has closed, is an indescribably amazing feeling.

So! With that in mind, here are a few (…and then some) awesome Asian American protagonists in YA literature! From the kickass to the troubled, from gay to straight, boys to girls to somewhere in between, from the ambitious, and the humorous, to the stoic, and even more that don’t fit in boxes, no matter how much people try to make them, these teen characters are ones we think you won’t easily forget.

Now, as we all know, Asia is a vast continent with an incredible variety of countries, languages, customs, and so forth. Naturally, I’ve tried to include as many titles as possible from each region. Sadly, I have not read every book on this list, though you can probably guess what I’ll be doing from now until the end of the summer, at least!

A couple of other notes on Asian American protagonists before we start. One, this is a list about protagonists who are definitively Asian American, and can lift up that experience. If you’re looking for books by these or other authors whose protagonists were born in their motherland or a different country, I highly recommend you check out places like Asian YA on tumblr, or lists on Goodreads, which will give you some amazing books by Asian American writers (and a few others) that are about characters from their countries of origin or elsewhere! Second, this also goes for sci-fi/fantasy novels (though there are definitely some sprinkled in this list!). In any books where the protagonist’s nationality was either a) a totally made-up world, b) a totally different planet or c) some combination therein, I decided not to include them, because, well, can a character be American if America doesn’t exist in the book? 

Alright! Are you ready? Ink you pens, revv your engines, and get ready for your TBR lists to explode, ‘cause here we go!

East Asian American Protagonists

  1. Jade Moon, The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
  2. Kimberly Chang, Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
  3. Genie Lo, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee
  • Jess Wong, A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo
  • Mercy Wong, Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
  • Samantha, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
  • Mei, Shadow Girl by Liana Lu
  • Maggie Chen, Paper Daughter by Jeanette Ingold
  • Emika Chen, Warcross by Marie Lu
  • Jordan Sun, Noteworthy by Riley Redgate
  • Cassandra Leung, The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie
  • Allison Sekemoto, The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa
  • Mei, American Panda by Gloria Chao
  • Patty Ho, Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen
  • Nix, The Girl from Everywhere byHeidi Heilig
  • Jason Zhou, Want by Cindy Pon
  • Syrah Cheng, Girl Overboard by Justina Chen
  • Frances, Bitter Melon by Cara Chow
  • Lara Jean, To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved Before by Jenny Han
  • Park, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • Vincent Wu, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung
  • Winter Kim, Vicarious duology by Paula Stokes
  • June, Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra & Dhonielle Clayton
  • Mina, Wait for Me by An Na
  • Patty Yoon, Good Enough by Paula Yoo
  • Holly Kim, Since You Asked by Maurene Goo
  • Chloe Cho, Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung
  • Joyce, The Fold by An Na
  • Desi Lee, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo
  • Katie Takeshima, Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Kettle, Nora and Kettle (Paper Stars #1) by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
  • Kiko Himura, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
  • Claire Takata, Ink and Ashes by Valynne E. Maetani
  • Benny Imura, Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry
  • Reiko, A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith
  • Hana Walker, Hana Walker series by Patrick Sherriff
  • Sue Hua, Mismatch by Lensey Namioka
  • It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura
  • Aiko Cassidy, Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible by Suzanne Kamata
  • Paul, The Unforgettables by G.L. Tomas
  • Okiku, The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
  • Kimberly Keiko Cameron, Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
  • Yen Tzu-Iu Year of the Horse by Justin Allen
  • Joseph Calderaro, Kimchi & Calamari by Rose Kent
  • Jay Li, The Painted Boy by Charles DeLint


    Southeast Asian American Protagonists

    1. Jessica Tran, Not Your Sidekick, C.B. Lee
    2. Mai, Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
    3. Kevin Luong, Seven Tears at High Tide by C.B. Lee
    4. Vicenza, Fresh Off the Boat by Melissa de la Cruz
    5. Jasmine, Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz
    6. Alex de la Cruz, Prom Queen Perfect by Clarisse David
    7. Andi & Bernardo, Tall Story by Candy Gourlay
    8. Sam, An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes by Randy Ribay
    9. Soledad, The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly
    10. Sophy, The Stone Goddess by Minfong Ho
    11. Maya, She’s So Money by Cherry Cheva
    12. Kanchana, Girl on the Verge by Pintip Dunn
    13. Matt Pin, All the Broken Pieces, Ann Burg
    14. Dixie Nguyen, Sophomore Undercover, Ben Esch


    South Asian American Protagonists

    1. Janna Yusuf, Saints & Misfits, S.K. Ali
    2. Cassandra Gupta, Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski
    3. Nina Khan, Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim
    4. Darian Friedman, Geekerella by Ashley Poston
    5. Asiya Haque, God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems by Ishara Deen
    6. Shabnam Qureshi, That Thing we Call a Heart by Sheba Karim
    7. Ash Mistry, The Ash Mistry Chronicles series by Sarwat Chadda
    8. Priyanka Das, Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
    9. Tara, Sonia, Anna, Shakti, & Ranee, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
    10. Samir, When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
    11. Dimple Lala, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier
    12. Nadira, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos
    13. Farah, The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi
    14. Naila, Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed
    15. Anjali, Stir It Up by Ramin Ganeshram
    16. Dimple Shah, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
    17. Naeem, Watched by Marina Budhos
    18. Maysa Mazari, A Love That Disturbs by Medeia Sharif
    19. Laxshmi Kapadia, Soulmated by Shaila Patel
    20. Tara Krishnan, Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana
    21. Ariana, Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai
    22. Julia, You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner
    23. Lagan Desai, Swimming through the Clouds by Rajdeep Paulus
    24. Sunita Sen, The Not So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins
    25. Amina, Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan
    26. Shanti Singh, Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
    27. Kiran Sharma, Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal
    28. Fadi, Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai
    29. Louis, The Lost and Found by Katrina Leno
    30. Hayat Shah, American Dervish by Ayyad Akhtar
    31. Asha Jamison, The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson


    West Asian American Protagonists

    1. Sophia Al-Maria, The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria
    2. Zomorod Yousefzadeh, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
    3. Sami Sabiri, Borderline by Allan Stratton
    4. Leila, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
    5. Daria Esfandyar, The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian
    6. Liyana, Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye
    7. Aysel Seran, My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga


    Whew! I hope you found a few (give or take fifty) books to add to your to-be-read lists! Obviously, readers, this is by no means an exhaustive set of Asian American protagonists in YA. Any books in this list that you love? Any I forgot to put in here? Let me know!

    Want even more young adult recommendations?