There are very few books that tug at your heartstrings and touch your soul and all you want to do is bask in their glory, laugh and cry and do so much more. This is one such book. An own voices anthology of retellings of Asian myths and folktales, this is something a younger me would have devoured; but the older me definitely appreciates it more for what it represents – Asian kids finding their childhood tales in mainstream YA. I am amazed at how well the authors retold the stories that we know so well, but still managed to make them feel fresh and fascinating. And every author mentioning the original story which inspired them was just icing on the cake.
These are stories of love, loss, joy, grief and heartbreak and so much more, and I promise you will find something that you can connect to. And I may be biased, but all the stories here that were based on Indian myths were my absolute favorites and I know that I’m going to be reading them many more times. I recommend this book to all Asian readers and anyone else who is interested in reading diverse stories.
Please find the stories, their origin myths and my individual reviews below:
Forbidden Fruit by Roshani Chokshi
Maria Makiling – A Filipino Folktale
I’ve always had some trouble following Chokshi’s writing style and I had initial hiccups too, but it turned out well. It’s a story of Dayang, the spirit of the mountain, who just wants to be loved and is so high on emotions when she does, she doesn’t really think of the consequences. It’s a tale of loneliness, love, greed and heartbreak which left me feeling unsatisfied due to the unfairness of it all.
Olivia’s Table by Alyssa Wong
The Hungry Ghost Festival – A Chinese Tradition
A beautiful story about the importance of food, keeping traditions alive and working hard to provide some solace to poor, lonely souls; while also dealing with the utter grief of losing a parent, while being bullied at school for being non-white and navigating the heartbreak of losing your love.
Steel Skin by Lori M. Lee
The Woman and the Tiger – A Hmong Folktale
This is a sci-fi tale about a young girl who is grieving her mother’s death and also the death of her relationship with her father since then. She starts doubting that he might be an android, replaced during the android rebellion that also killed her mother; but when the truth is revealed, it rocks her world and she is devastated. This story is beautiful, full of love and loss and the importance of found family.
Still Star-Crossed by Sona Charaipotra
Mirza and Sahiba – A Punjabi Folktale
A story about an Indian American girl, growing up with some form of restrictions in her conservative family but also a mischievous mother, all the talk about eating Chole Bhature and drinking Limca and bhang on Holi, dancing to punjabi song remixes, a boy who seems to instantly recognize her but she is ony intrigued by – all of this was just wonderful and so familiar. A story of a love that outlives death, reincarnation and a connection that is so powerful – this was pure Hindi movie territory that I absolutely loved reading. Wish it were a full novel.
The Counting of Vermillion Beads by Aliet Te De Bodard
Tấ’m Cám – A Vietnamese Folktale
This is the story of two sisters who have been separated from their family and now live in a Palace with other girls as per the decree of the Everlasting Emperor, surrounded by an impenetrable wall. Tam and Cam are always together and their love for each other and the grief they feel when separated is wonderfully written. But this story is magical realism, which is not my genre at all, so I couldn’t totally understand the themes in the story.
The Land of the Morning Calm by E. C. Myers
The Chasa Bonpuli – A Korean Epic
Sunny is a Korean-American girl who is still dealing with the loss of her mom while her grandfather keeps insisting that she is still present as a gwisin (or ghost). When it’s announced that LMC, her mom’s most favorite online video game is being shutdown, she logs in one last time to feel connected to her again. The story incorporates Korean myths about ghosts and creatures and the underworld into a game so seamlessly, it’s absolutely thrilling to read.
The Smile by Aisha Saeed
The Story of Anarkali – A South Asian Legend
Any Hindi movie lover will tell you that Mughal-e-Azam is a masterpiece and I am no exception. So, actually reading a retelling of the love story of Salim and Anarkali which questions the power imbalance in a relationship between a courtesan and her prince felt glorious. The premise is basically about choice – when you literally belong to someone, do you really love them of your own free will? This story made me very nostalgic and happy and I coouldn’t love it any less.
Girls who Twirl and Other Dangers by Preeti Chhibber
Navratri – A Hindu Festival
This is definitely my favorite story of the book. The joy of celebrating Navratri, the garba, the puja, the sense of community, everything is described so perfectly, I was overjoyed. The original tale of Maa Durga and Mahishasur is also interspersed within the story which I thought was an excellent touch. I also loved the theme of girls standing up for themselves and demanding an apology when wronged – it goes so well with the festival celebrating the power of the female divinity.
Nothing into All by Renée Ahdieh
The Goblin Treasure – A Korean Fairy Tale
A tale about a brother and sister; the brother who can’t forgive her for her childhood mistake and a sister who undermines herself in front of him because she still feels guilty. This is a story about family and forgiveness – how you must give your loved ones a chance to turn around when they have made bad choices.
Spear Carrier by Rahul Kanakia
The Mahabharata – A South Asian Epic
A young American high school boy who has always wondered what it would feel like to be a hero, the meaning of heroism and what happens to those who die trying – is suddenly transported into a battlefield and asked to fight. He struggles with his loneliness, searches for his purpose and questions the ones in charge but never gets the answers he wants. This is basically a story of the Kurukshetra war told from the POV of one of the soldiers, making us wonder whether they really understood what they were fighting for. Mahabharata is my most favorite story (or epic) in the world and the Gita is too complex to understand, especially in condensed versions; that’s why the various philosophical musings throughout the story felt too dense and anyone who doesn’t have any idea about this epic will find it hard to follow.
Code of Honor by Melissa de la Cruz
Aswangs – A Filipino Folktale
The author takes a young aswang girl from the Philippines and connects her story to the Blue Bloods series set in Manhattan and I thought it was seamlessly done. Aida has been a nomad her whole life, traveling from country to country, always feeling restless, until a whispered conversation makes her heart go wild and she feels the need to come to NYC. This is the story of a girl who tries to live by a code because she is a monster living among humans, and just wants to find a family like her because she is tired of being alone.
Bullet, Butterfly by Elsie Chapman
The Butterfly Lovers – A Chinese Folktale
In a Civil war torn China, boys are the fighters, girls make the arms and marriage alliances are akin to trading goods. In this cruel situation, Liang dresses up as a girl to sneak into the armory but his whole life changes when he meets Zhu. This is a beautiful, heartbreaking story of star-crossed lovers whom even death couldn’t keep apart.
Daughter of the Sun by Shveta Thakrar
The Mahabharata – A South Asian Epic
The mashup of the story of Savitri/Satyavan with that of Shantanu and Ganga – this is the beautiful tale of a young girl who has been raised secluded and yearns for companionship. When she finds the moon to her sun, she defies curses and gods and death, ultimately getting back the love of her life with single minded devotion. The setting of the estate, the lake and the swans, the writing – everything was just pure magic.
The Crimson Cloak by Cindy Pon
The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl – A Chinese Legend
Another beautiful love story, this one of a goddess falling in love with a mortal man. She tries to leave him, so that he can marry and have his own children, but he follows her into the skies, declaring his eternal love and promises to keep her happy. It broke my heart to read about the goddess having to keep living even after the death of her beloved, trying to keep their memories alive.
Eyes like Candlelight by Julie Kagawa
Kitsune – A Japanese Myth
A little booy saves a fox knowing that it might be a Kitsune. Years later, when Takeo is trying to pray to the god Inari to provide rice for his village, he finds himself enchanted by a girl Yuki, who feels almost ethereal, until she reveals herself to be the same little fox. She agrees to help his village and he promises to come back to her, but fate has other plans. Another heartbreaking tale which was wonderfully written.