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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Asian Identity

The Year She Left Us concerns the search for belonging and identity, both personal and cultural. Ari was abandoned in China as a baby, taken to an orphanage, then adopted by a Chinese American woman, Charlie, who raises her in San Francisco with the help of her sister and mother. Now Ari is 18 and angry, especially after a “heritage tour” to China. She’s told she should be grateful for being adopted into a family that looks like her, but she just can’t feel it and spirals into depression. Ari is the center of Kathryn Ma‘s debut novel, but her story intertwines with those of the other women–her adopted mother, grandmother and aunt–and turns into a multi-generational novel that some have compared to The Joy Luck Club.

Ma’s novel was inspired by a trip to China during which she stayed in a hotel where several international adoptions were being facilitated. “I began thinking about international adoption as a lens for looking at complicated questions of race, immigration, and the meaning of family. Would my main character, Ari, be one of the smiling babies I saw, or like the little girl crying as though her heart had broken?”

With Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird we move to the Japanese island of Okinawa, and a novel that moves back and forth between the present and the past. Both are times of war (WWII and Afghanistan) and both feature teenage girls who contemplate suicide. In the past, we have a pregnant 15-year-old who fears the approaching Invasion of Okinawa. In the present, an army brat in despair after her older sister is killed while serving in Afghanistan.

Having spent an idyllic part of her childhood living in Okinawa as an army brat herself, Bird is passionate about sharing the history and culture of the island, and particularly that of the WWII era which is little-known in the western world. More people were killed in the Battle of Okinawa than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, yet we never hear about it. Fortunately, this novel shares the island’s history in a way that both does justice to its horrors and remains engaging thanks to its fascinating characters.

Bird has written about teenagers before in The Gap Year and The Yokota Officers Club. The latter is also partly set in Okinawa.

MA, Kathryn. The Year She Left Us. 321p. HarperCollins. May 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062273345.  

Told in alternating chapters, this powerful debut novel recounts the story of four Kong women; Gran, Les, Charlie, and Ari. The title refers to the year that Ari, 18, spins out of control after a visit to the orphanage in China from which Charlie, her mother, had adopted her. Growing up in San Francisco and raised, as Ari says, by three mothers (“Four, counting the one who threw me away”), Charlie, her aunt Les, and her grandmother, there were early signs of Ari’s unhappiness and her unending search for a sense of belonging.  The teen is not alone in her search, for each of the Kong women have their own internal battles. As Les says, “to be a Kong woman was to be drawn straight into battle—sometimes with others, more often with oneself.” Ari returns home from her trip to China after a disturbing self-inflicted “accident” and is deeply troubled. She goes to Alaska in search of what might be an unlikely father figure but spends her time trying to avoid the “black ditch” that wants to suck her in. It is Gran’s trip to her homeland China, on her own quest, and her insistence that only Ari can come to her rescue, that begins to pull the young woman out of her deep despair. At times painful to read, this novel is ultimately about the power of family and reconciliation. Teens will be drawn in by the unique points of view of these four unforgettable women.—Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA

BIRD, Sarah. Above the East China Sea. 320p. maps. Knopf. May 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780385350112. LC 2013024336.  

Don’t let the pastoral cover fool you—inside is a compelling contemporary novel intertwined with a tragic historical fiction tale. This contemporary portion centers around Luz, who has grown up on military bases and is currently living with her (largely absent) mother in Okinawa, Japan. Her older sister was killed in Afghanistan just 13 days after she arrived there on active duty.  The parallel story is Tamiko’s—a native Okinawan who becomes a teenage nurse during World War II, but gets a rude awakening as to what the Japanese really think of their country cousins, the Okinawans. The stories intersect when Luz nearly drowns and believes she encounters a spirit that belongs to Tamiko. The bulk of the contemporary narrative takes place during the three-day festival of Obon, which honors the spirits of the dead. That Okinawa is so rich in heritage regarding these spirits allows the magical realism to be quite believable. The author also spent her youth at an Okinawan military base, as is relayed in the acknowledgements, and has researched the customs thoroughly. The parallel stories have immense teen appeal. Luz’s life as a military brat, her relationship with her sister and possible love interest Jake, and her search for her ancestors are resonant. But no less so is Tamiko’s life—forced to care for her mentally fragile older sister under horrific circumstances. All of the mysteries within the novel are solved, but one of the biggest isn’t uncovered until the final pages and teens will be turning pages quickly until it is.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.


  1. Dear Angela, Thank you SO MUCH for including my novel “Above the East China Sea” in this wonderful post. (And extra dollops of gratitude to Jamie Watson for her review. Am I allowed to say that I love it?)
    Angela, You’re right I am passionate about Okinawa and its too-little-known history. I also feel a great obligation to share the world of the military teen. I hope that your attention will help both the public and military teens understand the unique challenges of the world of the “brat” a bit better.
    All best from Austin, Sarah Bird

  2. Angela Carstensen says:

    I’m excited to see what the teens in my library think of it, too!