Plus: Other books with diverse protagonists that she recommends.
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When Grace D. Li read about Chinese art that was originally looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace being taken from museums around the world she was intrigued. "As a Chinese American and someone who always love heists stories, I wondered what the heists would look like if the [thieves] weren't expert criminals, but Chinese Americans like me," she says. It inspired her to write her debut novel Portrait of a Thief (out now) about a group of Chinese American college students who pull off a series of heists.

Using popular films and nonfiction books as inspiration, Li built out the world the crew would inhabit. A fan of heist films including Ocean's Eleven and the Fast and the Furious franchise, the author was able to watch movies she loved and call them research. "There's a part of the book where the characters sit down and watch Ocean's Eleven. They're taking notes while they watch it and that was directly lifted from my own research process," she says. Li mixed in nonfiction reads about art crime and art history to make the story as realistic as possible. "I had a lot of fun figuring out how I would have their interests and abilities map onto these heist archetypes we're so used to," she says.

Through the five central characters Li explores the ideas of Asian American ambition and the expectations placed on young people who may have different ideas about what success means to them. Take central character Will Chen, who "represents a lot of the ideas of what the perfect Asian American child is," says Li: a Harvard student and oldest son who has spent his whole life striving for goals his immigrant Chinese American family has set for him. Still, the Will feels unsatisfied — and that lack of fulfillment leads him to start a heist crew: Irene, Daniel, Lily, and Alex. "They have such different experiences and relationships with China and their identities," she says. "The big thing I wanted to address in the book is that Chinese American identity is not a monolith."

Portrait of a Thief may just be hitting bookshelves now, but it's already inching closer to the screen, with an adaptation already in the works at Netflix. "Growing up I never felt represented, I never saw movies or shows with Asian American leads," says Li, who cites 2018's Crazy Rich Asians as a moment where she saw people that looked like her in pop culture. She's incredibly grateful to be working on the adaptation as Asian American representation is media is increasing. "This growing change would have meant the world to me when I was younger, and hopefully will open doors and offer new opportunities and experiences for the younger Asian Americans coming up right now," she says.

Here are some other books featuring diverse characters Li is currently loving.

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Credit: Penguin Random House

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Weike Wang's novel about a woman working on her graduate degree in chemistry is the first novel Li read with a Chinese American narrator in STEM. The unnamed narrator's life begins to fall apart both personal and professional, including her relationship with her boyfriend and science. "It was the first time I read something that captured my experiences and world in fiction," she says "It was pivotal in terms of my growth as both a reader and writer."

Picture Us In The Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Credit: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Picture Us In The Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Kelly Loy Gilbert's tale about a Bay Area teenager who is about to graduate from high school and wants to be an artist had Li sobbing at the end. It chronicles his relationship with his family and art and explore topics including socioeconomic status and immigration. "It is just so thoughtfully and tenderly done. After I finished it, I cried then called my parents," she explains.

On Rotation by Shirlene Obuobi
Credit: Avon

On Rotation by Shirlene Obuobi

Shirlene Obuobi's novel, which is set to release in June, is about a Ghanaian American medical student navigating her life and relationships in her 20s. "It was so meaningful to me because it was one of the very first books I read about a medical student. Also the main character and author are both children of immigrants," Li says, "It touches on a lot of the pressure that we experience and the expectations placed on us by our parents, and ourselves, to succeed in all aspects of our lives."

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
Credit: Park Row

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

A PhD student in astronomy doesn't know what to do after graduating in Morgan Rogers' novel and ends up marrying a woman she meets in Vegas. "It was just a lot of fun, but also deeply felt in terms of the pressures people of color face in terms of navigating the world, the juxtaposition of academic success and who a person is outside of their achievements and what it means to achieve your dreams," she shares.

Messy Roots by Laura Gao
Credit: Balzer + Bray

Messy Roots by Laura Gao

Laura Gao is a Chinese American who spent her early years in a Chinese city no one in Texas, where her family immigrated to, had heard of until the pandemic. In her graphic memoir Messy Roots, Gao explores her childhood and her experience during the pandemic when the city of Wuhan sudden became one everyone knew. "I found it personally very useful as a Chinese American for all of us who have gone through the pandemic to get this deeply personal story about identity in the context of China," Li says.

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