We are in a time where critical race theory detractors threaten to soften, whitewash, and/or exclude the more unsavory (and blatantly racist) parts of American history. Therefore, it is vital for today’s youth to learn the oft-harsh truths about the challenges marginalized people have faced throughout American history. Sure, there are history books in school but they 1) frequently glaze over or omit vital events 2) can’t cover everything and 3) are painfully boring. 

So how do you present historical events/facts to kids in an innovative and engaging way? A graphic novel with rich characters and a storyline that combines their reality with a dash of time-traveling magic might do the trick. This is exactly what Marvel and DC Comics writer Amy Chu, her son Alexander Chang, illustrator Louie Chin, Third State Books, and The Asian American Foundation did with Fighting to Belong!, a three-volume comic book series for kids ages 8-13.

Fighting to Belong Cover Image
Louie Chin/Third State Books

Fighting to Belong! Vol. 1 introduces four middle school protagonists—Sammy, Tiana, Joe, and Padmini—who go on a journey through time with their guide Kenji to observe key events in Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) history from the 1700s through the 1800s. Nerdist spoke with Amy Chu about crafting this special project, her nerd cred, and how Fighting to Belong! can benefit all who read it. 

Nerdist: I know you’re an acclaimed Marvel and DC Comics writer now, but were graphic novels and comics a part of your childhood? And if they were, how did they shape you as a person?

Amy Chu: Nope! I was not one of those [people] who when they were six they picked up “issue whatever” and remembered the exact page when their life suddenly changed. It was not like that. I mean, as much as any regular kid growing up in America, I read comics. I’m sure I read Archie and occasionally Wonder Woman. I asked my mom about this by the way, and she said, “No, because we never had money to get you comics.” She was saving money so we could eat.

I actually started reading comics in college. I was not into superhero stuff but I was into things that were hot at the time, like Vertigo. I went to MIT, so it’s not like it was a “geeky” thing because everybody read comics. There was literally a comic bookstore in the student center… I was the weirdo who did not read comics. I was on the chess team. I was a huge Doctor Who fan in the ’80s. I’m geeky but I didn’t have that comics’ cred. Of course, now I have all the comics cred!

Yes you do! I love that you’re a Doctor Who fan. So am I! There’s a reference in Fighting to Belong! and I love it. 

Chu: Oh yeah! I didn’t know if you’d read the book yet. I put it in there! I was a little bit worried [the editors] were going to take it out, but they didn’t even notice it.

Well, I certainly noticed it! I enjoyed Vol. 1 and I’m glad this series exists. How did you learn about this project? And what was it about Fighting to Belong! that really resonated with you and made you want to get involved?

Chu: It randomly started because the head of The Asian American Foundation (Norman Chen) is an old friend of mine from MIT. We went on very different paths and now here we are back together with this one project. He [contacted me because] I’m the only one he knows from MIT who’s a comics writer. He said, “Why don’t we do this graphic novel?” And I’m like, “Of course!”

Louie Chin/Third State Books

I was actually very involved in Asian American activism in college, but also afterwards. It’s not like this is new ground for me. There’s a lot [of history that] I learned now, but a lot of the stuff in the book I learned in college and fighting for Asian American studies on campus… It’s nice to have funding and all these things coming together for a book. I believe it should have been done a long time ago. But I’m just pleased that I could be the one to get this going.

I’m so thrilled about it! Can you tell us, in your words, what Fighting to Belong! is about and what it aims to teach young readers? 

Chu: It’s American history with some of the omitted stuff about Asian American stories. It is through the eyes of some middle graders who are learning these stories as part of a school project. They essentially go back in time. There’s no TARDIS but there’s some Magic School Bus type magic to take them [into the past]. 

This particular volume goes as far back as the Manilamen, the first Filipinos who came to America. I don’t want to reveal the final ending because it’s actually not written, but they will present their school project and there will be some big revelations throughout three parts.

Courtesy of Amy Chu

No spoilers, of course. You talked a little bit about some of the historical events that you put into the book and that they were things that you learned at MIT. But what was the character development process like? Everyone has such distinct personalities, specifically Sammy, who is a jokester having a hard time seeing the past.  

Chu: Oh my God, it was so hard! I just got an email from somebody who said, “Congratulations, it must’ve been so fun!” I’m like, “Do you know how hard it is to do this?” To make every frame represent somebody, but feel real and be an entryway for kids to learn about history they would not normally learn about without being exceptionally dry is really, really hard.

I fully recognize we’re not representative of everybody. I co-wrote this with my son and he’s like a Time Lord. He’s an old soul. With Sammy, he was like “He’s not serious.” I said, “You got to have someone like Sammy.” When we teach history, it doesn’t have to be dry and serious to make it worthy. In fact, it should be the opposite. We needed to have engaging characters so that every single child in this country can feel and resonate with at least one of the characters. Right?


Chu: Sammy was great because he stood out among the others. Every good story has to have some character development and arc… The focus will shift to some of the other characters because immigration patterns will change. Padmini has to come to her own realizations too, as a South Asian. 

For sure. I really appreciated how the chosen events forced the kids to deal with some uncomfortable feelings related to violent behavior and discriminatory laws and practices. Why was it so important to get that messaging across?

Chu: We are seeing some movements of people trying to cherry-pick history, and we don’t get to do that. History is history. And I think it’s important to reflect what actually happens so we can learn from it. We can conveniently say, “Let’s forget about that and talk about how great everything was for everybody.” That’s not really teaching anybody anything that’s useful.

Kids are actually much more mature and smarter than we think when it comes to stuff like this. They can probably take it better than I can at my age. I do believe that we need to respect our kids and appreciate that they can read stuff and make up their own minds over certain things. The hard part is just making sure we’re accurately reflecting what happened in a way that is engaging for the kids…

We’re not very good overall about teaching forms of intersectionality. There’s often a lot of pushback sometimes about things like skin color and stuff like that. We are so many different shades. And there’s a lot of multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious… there’s a lot of things. We were trying to get that in Fighting to Belong! too and I feel like we did the best we could, given that it still needed to be within a certain page count. I’m not trying to write Lord of the Rings here. But I hope we got what we needed to get in for at least a chapter.

Yeah! I think the book strikes a really good balance. As a Black mom, I tell my kids that we need to learn history about other marginalized and minority communities. A lot of those struggles run parallel or intertwine with ours. And there are a lot of fights that people have been fighting, and we’re continuing to still fight those same things. 

Chu: Right. And I feel like it’s not taught properly. The only reason that Asian Americans were even allowed into universities was because of the Civil Rights Act. There’s a lot of things that we are not taught and we don’t fully appreciate.

Exactly. I know you’re not an educator by trade, but how do you think teachers and adults can use Fighting to Belong! to amplify and educate kids about AANHPI history?

Amy Chu: We deliberately did in a way that is hopefully engaging. I hope it’s not a hard ask to get a kid to read it. I think it’s good to get asked questions and things like that. [Kids’] other option is to really read a really dry textbook that may or may not be accurate. I think this is a no-brainer. Any parent should pick it up. 

Absolutely. You teased a little bit about the future because I know we have more volumes coming and that they’re going to indeed finish their project, but what else can readers look forward to in future volumes?

Chu: Well, it’s interesting… the cliffhanger that was at the end of this volume with Kenji was not in the original pitch, but I’m like, “This feels right. We need to get some stakes in here.”

There also has to be some realization about Kenji’s own past… we’re going to find out that his grandfather, who’s Japanese American was interned during World War II in the camps… Hopefully we bring the kids in there and there’ll be, of course, some uncomfortable truths there that people have to think about.

I love it. I’m excited.

Chu: That was a scoop for you!

It is much appreciated! Can’t wait for Fighting to Belong! To make a difference in kids’ lives. 

Fighting to Belong! Vol. 1 is currently available. Volumes 2 and 3 will be released in September 2024 and January 2025, respectively. Keep up with Amy Chu on Instagram and learn more about Third State Books’ partners for this project, Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change and the Asian American Education Project