Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk might just be in my top five middle-grade books ever. EVER. My review could have been three times as long as this piece, and I still wouldn’t have run out of good things to say about Kelly Yang’s control of her material–and her magnificent heroine.

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(A slightly edited version of this piece appears in Asian Review of Books, Hong Kong.)

It’s 1993, and ten-year-old Mia Tang’s parents have just been employed by Mr Yao to manage Calivista Motel in Southern California. The Tangs are excited and optimistic despite all the hardships they’ve faced since immigrating to America not that long ago. In China, Mia’s parents were engineers; Mia took private piano lessons; an uncle was a doctor. In America, the Tangs are viewed primarily as poor non-white immigrants who don’t speak good English. Mia loves English, but her mother thinks she ought to focus on math, because Mia will never surpass a native English speaker; she’ll be a “bicycle among cars”.

Front Desk, Kelly Yang (Arthur A Levine Books, May 2018)

The fictional exploration of the social demotion caused by immigration is hardly new, but rarely has it been portrayed with such warmth and urgency as in Front Desk (Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2018). Mia’s parents labor endlessly cleaning rooms and managing guests, but never satisfy the “coal-hearted” owner Mr. Yao, who daily discovers creative reasons to shrink the family’s paycheck. As newly-arrived immigrants with little English and no footholds in America, the Tangs are all too easily exploited. “We’re immigrants […] Our lives are never fair,” sighs Mia’s mother. Mia insists on helping her parents by taking over the motel’s front desk. After all, how hard can it be to buzz customers in, assign a room, collect their payment, and hand over a key?

Adventures and misadventures ensue. Mia botches a wake-up call, inadvertently admits a belligerent drunk, forgets to collect keys from departing guests, and more… errors all gleefully accounted for by Mr Yao. Mia’s father believes they must accept their fate. But Mia’s friend Lupe gives her the inside scoop about America: there are two roller coasters in the country, one for the rich and one for the poor. On the rich one, “people have money, so their kids get to go to great schools. Then they grow up and make a lot of money, so their kids get to go to great schools.” And round and round they go. But on the poor roller coaster, “our parents don’t have money, so we can’t go to good schools, and then we can’t get good jobs. So then our kids can’t go to good schools, they can’t get good jobs, and so on.” If Tangs are to jump off the bad roller coaster and onto the good, Mia must figure out America.

Mia takes charge. She placates an irate guest with a free soda, for “in America, everything had to do with money”, and cannily sets up a tip jar on the front desk. She makes customer service notes and feedback cards. When the washing machine and the cable both break down, she realizes, “[Americans] could live with dirty towels for a day or two, but they needed their TV.” She witnesses racism when the cops harass an African-American motel guest, but also glimpses the American ideal of freedom that tempted her parents to leave China—an ideal that might provide the springboard to jumping coasters.

Mia’s proudest achievement, however, is her new fluency in English (thanks to hard work and a thesaurus-dictionary). Mia writes thank you notes and an A+ school essay, and then moves on to bigger things—a reference letter for an employee, and even a convincing lawyer’s notice. She’s a Bugatti, not a bicycle; what will she achieve next with her power?

Front Desk provides (ultra-timely) social commentary on the immigrant life in America, but to me, it’s primarily a great story, with adventure, suspense, boatloads of humor, a suitably wicked villain, and an endearing heroine. And what a heroine Mia is—clever, resourceful, courageous, helpful, and, most importantly, able to view mistakes as learning opportunities. Mia is the poster child for Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory; given enough time, this ten-year-old could spin straw into gold. The writing itself is as strong as the characterization—there isn’t a whiff of cliché, and Yang never tells us the obvious; every event is mined deep for true emotion and insight. I wouldn’t delete a single line in the book.

Mia’s story is based on Kelly Yang’s own experiences running the front desk in her parents’ motel. Yang went on to Berkeley and Harvard Law, and now runs a writing program for children; color me unsurprised that her career focuses on spreading the power of the written word. Front Desk is testament to how a great story can grab you by the heart and never quite let go: a classic of the genre.

 

 

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Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes

Most Hindus have a favorite god or ten, and chances are Ganesha will top the list. He’s worshiped as the remover of obstacles and the lord of beginnings, the god of intellect and wisdom, and he’s invoked as a patron of letters during writing sessions, and as the god of arts and sciences. And he’s particularly appealing to kids–he rides a mouse and is fond of sweets and has an elephant’s head, and has plenty of fun adventures. (Yes, theology is notably absent in my childhood memories of Ganesha.)

I requested Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth for review from Chronicle Books (Raincoast Books in Canada) because I liked Sanjay Patel’s previous book Ramayana–Divine Loophole. Patel is an animator at Pixar, and favors unvarnished text and clean-edged colorful illustrations that are utterly devoid of the soft-focus sentimentality that tends to permeate this sort of narrative. And yup, I asked for this book because I’ve been  searching for kidlit that explains religion without being all pompous and preachy and exceptionalist and smug and superior, and oh, panning for gold in my kitchen sink would have been a more productive quest by far. If you tend to answer your child’s questions about god(s) with a wary “Well, some people believe…”, you know what I’m talking about.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is based on the myth in which Ganesha is asked (by Vyasa) to record the verses of the epic poem Mahabharata. When Ganesha’s pen breaks, the resourceful god breaks off his tusk and uses it as a stylus to keep writing.  There are a number of versions of this story–it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that each Hindu family cherishes its particular oral history of this myth; my preferred interpretation is the one where the tusk is said to symbolize that no sacrifice is too great in the pursuit of learning. Patel however changes some major plot points–this book is not a re-telling as much as a re-invention of the tale. Those looking to take offence will be amply satiated.

The young Ganesha, cruising with his magical mouse (“Mr. Mouse”) searching for sweets, finds a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Laddoo. He pops the shiny blue treat into his mouth… and breaks his tusk. He tries to fix the tusk back on, but failing, hurls it away in frustration, whereupon it hits an old man walking past. That’s Vyasa the poet, and he asks if Ganesha will be his scribe for a special poem so long that “all the pens in this world would break before it was done.” Ganesha agrees to try out his tusk for the job.

(All book images from Sanjay Patel’s website Gheehappy.)

The tusk works great, so Ganesha sits down to record the Mahabharata, getting up only one hundred thousand verses later. And there’s still some laddoos waiting for him.

What a  sweet little story! I really enjoyed the ending (which reminded me of Max’s warm supper in Where the Wild Things Are) and the absence of a moral (well, “Don’t eat jawbreakers” doesn’t qualify IMO). The portrayal of the Ganesha as a child first and god second makes kids connect with the story in an elemental way–Ganesha is shown jumping rope, dancing to music, and ringing bells with his trunk.  The illustrations are superb–they’re drenched with color, and they beautifully reconcile traditional Indian motifs with computer-generated graphics. And while I did have context for the myth, my son has never heard of the Mahabharata, and he enjoyed the book because “it was scary when the tusk broke, but I like that the tusk helped him draw.”

Patel says the plot has been changed to “develop an original and, we hope, fun picture book” but I’m pretty sure many (Indian) readers will ask why he  didn’t stick to the original myth (the jawbreaker laddoo episode has been inserted purely to ramp up the entertainment quotient for kids). Well,  I understand the question and sympathize to some extent, but I personally think re-inventions and re-interpretations are true to the spirit of the religion–strict adherence to a text isn’t a characteristic of the Hindusim I know.  Look at this statue I found during a google image search for Ganesha:

That’s Ganesha with a computer, and his mouse is the computer mouse. I’ve seen statues of Ganesha playing cricket, strumming a guitar, holding a laptop and so on, and I think these are respectful yet fun, serving as an acknowledgement of Ganesha’s ubiquity in everyday Indian life. I’d recommend Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth to atheists, believers, the confused and the indifferent and oh yes, to all varieties of kids.

Note: For further reading on this topic, you’d probably do well to check out The Broken Tusk by the incomparable Uma Krishnaswami.  I haven’t read it (yet), but you can’t go wrong with her work.

Bookslut interview with Sheela Chari

When Neela agrees to bring her veena (an Indian stringed instrument that is an older and much bulkier sister of a sitar) to her sixth grade Instruments Around the World unit in her Boston school, she’s chiefly worried about performing in public without embarrassing herself. But then Neela’s four-foot veena, packed in its special wheeled case, vanishes while she’s taking shelter from the rain during her walk back home from school. The veena has a history of disappearing and reappearing; could it be cursed? How can an eleven-year-old track it down, especially if it might have resurfaced in India? And does the dragon carving on the instrument mean something special?

Sheela Chari’s middle-grade (MG) novel Vanished (Disney Hyperion, 2011) is a rollicking mystery that seamlessly incorporates multicultural elements into the fast-paced plot. Vanished was chosen as the 2012 Children’s Literature Honor book by APALA, and was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award. Chari, who was born in Bangalore and moved to America when she was three, lives in Boston with her family.

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Chari on this month’s Bookslut.

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“Before Vanished, my writing was generally literary, and without a lot of action. When I decided to work on a children’s mystery novel, I had to deal with a very clear story arc. Which was great for me! I learned how to structure my novel, how to space out clues, and how to make my chapter endings more urgent and page-turning. I was very conscious that a middle grade reader might get impatient with a lot of narrative and description. Essentially, I learned to read my writing like a reader, instead of as a writer alone. If I ever write an adult novel, I will apply a lot of what I learned to the writing of it as well.

[…]

I also wanted to create a certain kind of immigrant on paper — an Indian-American girl who was comfortable enough in her skin that the thought most immediate on her mind wasn’t “How do I fit in?” but “How do I solve this mystery?” A story about such a girl couldn’t focus on all that made her different.”

Check out the rest of the interview here.

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Vanished was one of my favourite reads of the year, and I urge you to pick up a copy now! And visit do Chari’s website at http://www.sheelachari.com/

I am cucumber, hear me roar: Fast Food by Saxton Freymann

I always thought I’d be one of those mothers who set a balanced meal on the table and felt her job was done, but in this too, as with so much else about parenting,  I’d underestimated the intensity of my emotional investment. Eating doesn’t come easy to my 5-year-old, who sees mealtimes as a detour on the way to fun things. My solution is to lie (a lot). My son has been hoaxed and coaxed into trying different foods with the promise of superpowers (carrots give you x-ray eyes) and brain function enhancement (okra makes you better at math). Also:  variably-colored poo (beetroot).

So I was very delighted to chance upon Fast Food–a picture book showing that veggies and fruit can be fun, fun, fun.

Fast Food features fruit and vegetables artfully carved into different forms of transport–blimps and bicycles and submarines and all things between.  Given the natural affinity between kids and fast-moving objects, this concept is an obvious winner. While my son loved the banana airplane and the radish Santa on his red pear sleigh (Santa’s beard is made with cauliflower), I was very taken with  the snow pea skateboard, the orange wheelchair, and the okra rocket zooming towards an onion-ringed Saturn.  None of the ingredients have been colored or tinkered with in any way apart from some judicious carving, and little ones will have great fun recognizing the fruits and vegetable that make up these pictures.

There’s very little text, and what is there is in clear unfussy rhymes, with a calm good sense shining through each page.

“Sometimes you’ll want to travel far./Maybe then you’ll choose a car.
It might be wise if more of us/would ride together in a bus!”

And I love, love  Freymann’s gentle, playfully composed sculptures. Here’s a big yellow school bus.

This post obviously cries out for more images, but I can’t find any  via google search, so you’ll have to go to amazon.com and check the “Click to Look Inside” link to see more. And they are all awesome, from scallion man (who actually looks rather like Fido Dido)  to red pepper fire truck guys. Freymann is fiendishly talented–give him a putty knife and some eggplant and potato, and you’d probably have an edible Mona Lisa in an hour. He’s authored 7 other books featuring carved food, and if they are anything like this one, I’m in for a treat. Oh, if only all fast food were Fast Food.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

I’m an ardent devotee of kids’ immigrant fiction, but often such books feature an incredibly earnest message. I wasn’t young Gandhi when I was twelve; why are most protagonists in these novels are so very virtuous? And why is their virtue rewarded by acceptance and popularity, when real life is infinitely less fair?

If you’ve ever asked these questions (and found only half-baked answers), you should rush to pick up Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again.  Lai’s  memories of childhood haven’t been transmogrified by adult notions of correctness, and her narrative about a young Vietnamese girl transplanted to racially-charged 1970s Alabama is utterly convincing. Oh, and  her prose beats the pants off most YA writers in business today. I reviewed this book for the Asian Review of Books recently, and it was a real pleasure.

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It’s 1975 in Saigon, and ten-year-old Hà is busy celebrating her birthday, waiting for the papayas to ripen, and solving fiendish math problems at school. Father’s away, fighting in the war, but Hà, her three brothers and Mother have managed—until now, when war has arrived at their doorstep. The family boards a ship leaving Vietnam, and finally end up in Guam, where they are sponsored by a family from Alabama. But now they “must consider the shame/of abandoning [their] own country/and begging toward the unknown/at the lowest level/on the social scale.”

The notion of social demotion caused by immigration lies at the heart of Thanhha Lai’s award-winning novel in verse, Inside Out & Back Again. In Vietnam, Mother is a secretary who designs baby clothes on the side; she is prosperous enough to consider buying a car, and sees her children becoming engineers, doctors, poets and lawyers. Immigration forces them to begin anew, disadvantaged by language, religion and race; the family is, at best, met with condescension (Mother observes that “the pity giver/feels better/never the pity receiver”), and at worst, with ignorance and hatred—a brick is thrown through their window, and eggs at their front door.

So, the Buddhist family joins the Del Ray Southern Baptist Church in Alabama, hoping that the neighbors will now stop slamming doors in their faces. Mother finds work sewing at a factory, while Brother Quang, a former engineering student, works as a mechanic. The compromises are all one-sided, and Hà often thinks she’d rather be in wartime Saigon. School is unforgiving—she’s called pancake face and Ching Chong, is asked if she eats dogs, and is poked and prodded till she starts hiding in the bathroom during lunch time. And academics are no better, for although she could probably win the Math Olympiad, she speaks no English, and is utterly humiliated and enraged when her teacher asks her to count till twenty—and the class claps. “So this is/what dumb/feels like.”

But there are good people too, of course, who help the family, and with time, Hà makes friends and learns English—enough to combat the school yard insults with some judicious taunting of her own. I was particularly taken with a scene when some students yell Boo-da, Boo-da (Buddha) at Hà, and she turns and yells Gee-sus, Gee-sus right back. What a rare pleasure—a fictional Asian character who doesn’t win over her enemies by modeling herself on Gandhi. Nope, Hà overpowers her chief tormentor (whom she calls Pink Boy) in a classic schoolyard fight. And when Brother Vũ, all dressed in black, picks her up from school on a “gigantic motorcycle”, the rout is complete—Hà is now cool. This book is targeted at eight-to-twelve year olds, and Lai knows her audience—she doesn’t advocate violence (far from it), but neither does she insist on a restraint unnatural for this age.

The Young Adult novel in verse has gained popularity in recent years, seemingly as much as gimmick as a genuine attempt to stimulate the reader’s aural imagination, but  Inside Out & Back Again gives a rare organic synthesis of story and form. The confessional, intimate tone of Hà’s first-person narrative and the intensity of her emotions find their logical expression in the short, sharp cadences of verse. Verse demands to be read out loud, and Hà’s attempts to pronounce English words add further richness to the phonological experience. “He says, Steven./I hear SSsì-Ti-Vân.”  If you didn’t sound that out loud, well, you must be missing an ear or two.

Lai infuses Hà’s  story with energy and insight and fun, and her prose will appeal to readers of all ages, for her thoughtful, poetic observations make us see the familiar afresh though Hà’s eyes. Here’s Mother, stitching with “the needle a worm/laying tiny eggs/ that sink into brown cloth.” There’s Hà, biting into a cookie “dotted with chocolate raindrops”. Tales of immigration and assimilation may now be commonplace; Lai’s writing is anything but.

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This novel won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Click here to read a 9-page excerpt (PDF file warning!)

Multicultural Kidlit Giveaway: A Lion’s Mane by Navjot Kaur

Update: Please scroll to the end for the giveaway winner’s details.

“As I went to pick up my son at the end of his second day in Kindergarten, he appeared at the exit door with his patka [turban] almost off his head. I thought to myself, they probably had Gym class. But that wasn’t the case. I was quickly informed that another Kindergartener had pulled my son’s patka off his head while he sat on the carpet in class. […] I questioned whether it had been an action of curiosity? I hoped that the response would be positive but it was not. Bullying, in Kindergarten.

We came home and I held it together the whole way. Once we cuddled and I reassured him when he asked, “You going to tell [boy’s name] to say sorry to me?” I went into another room and cried. I’m not sure why I felt so defeated for that tiny moment but I did. But […] I gained my strength and prepared next steps.”

Vancouver-based mother/teacher/writer Navjot Kaur’s next step was to write a picture book that explained the visible symbols of her Sikh culture, so children would understand why her son looked different. A Lion’s Mane  (Saffron Press, 2009) tells children about the significance of the dastaar (turban, likened to a lion’s mane in this book), the name Singh (lion), langar (the Sikh community kitchen that serves food to all) and other central tenets of Sikhism. Founded in 15th century India, Sikhism emphasizes service and justice, and abjures its followers from cutting their hair–hence the turban for males. (Post 9/11, Sikhs faced escalating hatred as they were often mistaken for Muslims. Nasty every way you look at it.)

Kaur’s book is notable for the intelligence of her approach; rather than merely explaining/extolling her faith, she has her young protagonist show us how Sikhism’s emphasis on the lion is echoed in other cultures. The book thus affirms the importance of preserving cultural identity while denying exceptionalism, and that’s winning strategy for those of us experiencing multiculturalism in our daily lives. (My son’s kindergarten class of 15 made-in-Canada kids includes four East Asians, one Egyptian, one Australian and one South Asian (him), so you can see why I think this book is important and urgent.) Reading about Richard the Lionheart, the Chinese Lion Dance and even lion rugs in ancient Iran, children learn that across cultures, lions have many  (positive) associations–regality, strength, courage, and really awesome roars. Show me a child who wouldn’t want to identify with that? And if one’s faith happens to require a mane-like length of cloth wound to create a turban, well, that’s a great way to mark an affiliation with Sikhism–and with other cultures around the world. What a positive, inclusive message.

The book is also visually lovely, with illustrations drenched in rich color.

The red turban waves across each page, unfolding different qualities associated with lions. The above illustration (click to enlarge) explains the significance of the mountain lion in Hopi culture, and the turban says “nobility” and “guidance”.

And one more, because it’s so cheerful.

Others thought the book was pretty great too–A Lion’s Mane won a Skipping Stones Honor Award in 2010.  The suggested reading age for this book is six, but the illustrations will appeal to the very young, while the text, which is fairly abstract, will suit nine and ten-year-olds. Those in multicultural surroundings will identify, while those in more homogenous environments will learn; I can’t decide which is the more important. In sum: this book ought to be read by kids of all spots and stripes.

You can buy this book for $18.50 here; a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Seva Canada, a charity that helps restore sight to blind children. The book is  eco-friendly, printed on kinder gentler recycled paper. And it’s  a hardback, so it’s handy to bop haters on their heads. I’m also giving away a copy of the book to readers of this blog; to enter, please leave a comment telling me you’d like a copy. The giveaway ends March 21,  is open to those with Canadian/US mailing addresses, and the winning comment will be picked by the reliably whimsical Random Number Generator.

If you are invested in kids, kidlit, and/or multiculturalism, do consider spreading the love about this book and giveaway. For the rest of Navjot Kaur’s story, and to read more about the genesis of the book, please visit her site here.

Update: Random number generator picked a commenter #5 as the winner; that’s Nupur! I’ll be emailing you shortly, Nupur, for your mailing address. Thank you to all those who entered–I read your comments with much admiration, and  I wish each of you could win a copy.

The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack

I learned about the picture book  The Story About Ping via its famed Amazon.com review (over 10,000 helpful votes and counting), back when I didn’t have a child and parenting seemed an undesirable, incomprehensible, unimaginable task reserved for Other  People.  Ping is a little yellow duck who lives on a “wise-eyed boat” on the Yangtze river with his family and the  boatman.  Every morning, the ducks leave the boat to look for food, and when they return at dusk, the last duck gets spanked by the boatman. One day, Ping realizes that he’ll be the last one in, and runs away to avoid getting spanked.  He has all sorts of adventures, narrowly escapes becoming a duck dinner, and with much relief, returns home to his parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and forty-two cousins.

The book was written in 1933,  and has its fair share of issues–the illustrations, for instance, show a Chinese boy who’s the same color as Ping. And, the spanking.  “But why did the boatman spank the last duck?” asked my four-year-old, very disturbed, and I didn’t have a good answer, for even if every single duck was on time, one would always get spanked. I think one of the hardest things to explain to young children is that sometimes, shit happens. At this age, we parents are constantly trying to establish causality and consequences, as in: “If you keep banging that glass door, it’ll break, and if does, I’ll give you a time-out for bajillion years.” Getting my son to understand that things happen without a reason (and that people are sometimes nasty just for the heck of it) has been challenging, but necessary–he’s increasingly coming up against a real world that isn’t always nice, the cosmic spank that can’t be dodged.

But children are freakishly changeable. My son maintains a reading log for school, and he’s supposed to pick his favorite out of every 10 books read and draw a picture. Of course he picked Ping. Why? “Because I like the duck getting spanked,” he said, and laughed madly.

And what about the review (1999) that started it all?  Ping is apparently a Unix networking utility (whatever that is), and the reviewer very cleverly analyzes the book in terms of the latter. As in “The book describes networking in terms even a child could understand, choosing to anthropomorphize the underlying packet structure. The ping packet is described as a duck, who, with other packets (more ducks), spends a certain period of time on the host machine (the wise-eyed boat). At the same time each day (I suspect this is scheduled under cron), the little packets (ducks) exit the host (boat) by way of a bridge (a bridge). From the bridge, the packets travel onto the internet (here embodied by the Yangtze River).”

[…]

Who Should Buy This Book

If you need a good, high-level overview of the ping utility, this is the book. I can’t recommend it for most managers, as the technical aspects may be too overwhelming and the basic concepts too daunting.

Read the rest of the review on the Ping program creator’s page at http://ftp.arl.army.mil/~mike/ping.html (you have to scroll down).  Sadly, Mike Muuss,  the man who created Ping, died in a car crash in 2000.  Really bad shit happens.