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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Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

I’ve searched many moons for a nuanced kid’s book that explains India’s struggle with British colonial rule prior to the country’s independence in 1947. Supriya Kelkar’s middle grade novel Ahimsa (Tu Books, 2017) is that book. It provides a lucid, thoughtful explanation of the ethos and evolution of India’s journey to self-governance–and acts as a welcome antidote to Empire defenders with their rallying cry of “But the railways!” Nope, dudes.

It’s 1942, and Gandhi, jailed by the British, has urged Indians to go on a strike to compel the British to “Quit India” already. Gandhi has asked for peaceful civil disobedience, based on the principle of ahimsa or non-violence, to never hurt anyone. Young Anjali, all fired with patriotism, decides to paint a large Q (short for “Quit India”) on the local British officer’s house. After all, the British won’t hang a ten-year-old girl…or will they? Anjali’s mother used to be the officer’s secretary, but then resigned. Or was she let go? It’s all very complicated, but one thing is clear to Anjali: her duty lies in fighting injustice, beginning with a little well-intentioned vandalism.

And then the Gandhian movement comes to Anjali’s backyard, when Anjali’s mother becomes a freedom fighter. Ma’s first step is to burn all their British-manufactured clothes. (Why? Because India’s raw cotton was exported, at pitiful rates, to Britain, whose mills processed it into cloth that was sold right back to the hapless Indians. The freedom fighters vowed to hand spin their own yarn on a spinning wheel, and have that yarn made into coarse cloth locally, rather than patronize mill-made British cloth; many activists burnt their British-made outfits as a gesture of rejection.) Ma’s gorgeous wedding sari, her father’s work clothes, Anjali’s dresses–even her beloved gold-embroidered Diwali outfits– are all gone. And Anjali’s father isn’t happy–maybe those clothes could have been donated to the poor?

Anjali is courageous, stubborn, intelligent, and most importantly, capable of critical thinking. Even as she’s protesting the indignity of British rule, which treats Indians as unfathomably inferior to whites, she gradually realizes that many Indians are just as culpable of cruelty to their own people. The caste system she’s never questioned (she’s upper caste) treats low caste people (called untouchables) inhumanely—just as horribly as the British treat Indians. And once sensitized to injustice, Anjali is forced to question her own attitudes–towards Muslims, towards the caste system and its deep roots in Hinduism, and even towards Gandhi, whose Hinduism-based approach to helping lower castes might have more than a whiff of condescension.

This can all seem a bit preachy, but Kelkar paces the novel beautifully, sans info-dumps–we learn about India and British colonial rule along with Anjali. Perfect reading for 7-14 age group. And the problem Anjali faces is a universal one–people resisting change when it results in the loss of their (unfair + unearned) privilege and power. It’s lovely to watch Anjali’s  speedy transformation from one of the NIMBY crowd to a principled fighter who does the right thing even when it’s hard physically, intellectually, and emotionally. And it’s equally satisfying to witness the journeys of the supporting characters. Take Ma, whose attempts at caste integration begin as well-meaning but insulting charity. But by reflecting, and listening to other perspectives, she moves from token gestures to genuine empathy.

Sometimes Ahimsa feels a bit like it’s ticking off boxes–Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, she has a pet cow (who’d make the perfect emotional-support animal!), and she lives with an ultra-conservative great uncle who freely vocalizes on the dangers of women working outside the home, disrupting caste barriers etc. etc. Kelkar, however,  injects the plot with enough twists that it never feels predictable, and in all, she does a superb job of balancing historical detail with the honest-to-goodness confusion of a ten-year-old figuring out her role in a turbulent world. Ultimately, Anjali captures our hearts with her vulnerability, her compassion, and her determination to be the change she wishes to see. And we learn, along with Anjali, to never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.

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Kelkar was born and brought up in the Midwestern United States, and for readers unfamiliar with India’s freedom struggle, she’s included a helpful Author’s Note which provides a more detailed social and historical context for the events in the book. Fun aside: the author’s great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale was a freedom fighter who worked with Gandhi. She “was imprisoned for civil disobedience, fought for women’s rights […]. After independence, [she] went on to become a two-term Congresswoman.” Woo-hoo!

 

Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins has a godly talent for taking on big issues in unfamiliar settings and turning it all into absorbing, magical Middle Grade stories. I admired Bamboo People, and adored Secret Keeper, and I’m firmly in the love end of the like—>love scale for Tiger Boy (2015). This novel tackles  profound moral dilemmas involving integrity, ambition, and sacrifice, all in Perkins’s trademark preach-free manner. And it’s set in the Sunderbans, an archipelago of islands that’s home to a unique mangrove forest, all of which straddles the southern part of Bangladesh and a small bit of eastern India.

Landsat 7 image of Sundarbans, released by NASA Earth Observatory , from Wikipedia.

The Sunderbans (“beautiful forest” in Bengali) is home to the Bengal tiger, whose population in recent years has dwindled so much that it’s considered an endangered species. The low numbers are partly due to deforestation and the rigours of a shared habitat with villagers, but mostly due to poaching for illegal trade in body parts and skin. Yep, we humans mostly suck.

Young Neel lives in near-poverty in an island village in the Sunderbans. He’d rather be swimming than studying for the scholarship exam for admission to a prestigious Calcutta boarding school. Oh, the English and Bangla exam portions are fine, but Neel (like a certain other young protagonist) has met his Waterloo in geometry. Moreover, he doesn’t want to go away to the city–he loves his family and his village. “The sights, sounds and smells of the Sunderbans were as much a part of him as his dark skin and curly black hair.” But his father, although a skilled carpenter, is short of work, and Neel’s scholarship (and his subsequent professional career) could be the ticket to a better life for his family.

Just as the headmaster catches Neel playing truant, big news comes their way–a tiger cub has escaped from the nature reserve nearby, and it’s hiding in their village! Neel is immediately aware of the danger–the mother will come in search of her cub. And there’s an additional menace–a rich city dweller named Gupta, who’s been buying up land in the forest, often forcibly evicting the occupants and wantonly cutting down rare Sundari trees, is searching for the cub too. Gupta is offering a large bounty for the tiger–and it’s not out of altruism.

TigerBoy.jpg

Neel and his sister Rupa (who would have been deemed an awesome scholarship candidate if she were but a boy, you know?) set out in secret to search for the baby tiger. Since this book is called Tiger Boy, you know that Neel (aided by geometry, no less!) finds and rescues the cub. His family could sorely use the reward money for his mother’s medicine, but Neels knows he must return the cub to the forest rangers. Can he avoid getting his father into trouble, dodge Gupta and his evil henchmen, and hand the tiger over to the rangers — and pass that terrifying geometry exam?

Since this is an MG novel, everything works out, but not once does Perkins sacrifice nuance, and the ending features a hugely satisfying yet unforced tying-up of loose ends. I really relished the elegant plotting, and I love her characters. As always, they’re mostly helpful, good-hearted people doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, and if they behave less than well, it’s usually due to ignorance or duress, rather than spite. And yes, it’s hinted that greedy Gupta gets his comeuppance. The text is accompanied by lovely illustrations from Jamie Hogan.

Much incidental information about tigers, conservation and the Sunderbans has been gently infused into this fast-paced, gripping novel, and there’s also a substantial afterword that includes plenty of learning resources. Tiger Boy won the 2016 South Asia Book Award for Grades 5 and Under, as well as whole other bunch of prizes; color me unsurprized. Check out more about the book at http://www.tigerboy.org/.

Five fun novels for the 9-12 group

Summer demands that you toss aside gravitas-lit in favor of lighter reads. Here are five of the best from my summer’s Middle Grade haul.

1. Joanne Levy’s Small Medium at Large (Bloomsbury, July 2012) gets my vote for Miss Congeniality; it’s impossible not to like this delightful book. After being struck by lightning, twelve-year-old Lilah Bloom discovers she can hear ghosts. Lilah, who is cheerful and nice and funny, must sort out her divorced father’s non-existent love life, fructify her crush on Andy (whose father’s ghost talks to her), co-ordinate her first ever bra purchase, and more. Perhaps ghostly intervention will make it all easier for her? Or not;  ghosts come in different varieties, some nuttier than others.

Lilah’s world is satisfyingly idyllic– there are no bad guys, just the occasional misguided girl or spirit, and the adults are mostly obliging and understanding. (It’s unrealistic, yes, but  hey, we’re talking about a girl communicating with spirits anyway.)  Levy has a relaxed yet polished style, which, along with her warm sense of humour, makes for addictive reading. I have nothing but awe for such apparently effortless prose, the sort that makes the unwise believe writing is easy. I’m obsessively checking Levy’s website for tidings of a sequel, as you will on finishing this one.

2. I love Eva Ibbotson’s work, but I’d somehow missed one dog And His boy, which was published (by Scholastic) in 2011, the year after her death. Hal lives with his materialistic parents in a posh house in London, and has an Xbox and iPod and Roboquad,  but all he’s ever wanted is a dog. His mother however can’t bear the thought of messing up her white carpet and artistically-raked gravel. When Hal gets a white terrier named Fleck for his birthday, he’s ecstatic, but learns his parents have secretly rented Fleck just for the weekend. He decides to run away with Fleck to his grandparents in Scotland, and joining his adventures are other dogs from the pet rental agency, and a friend Pippa.

Hals’s journey has more than a touch of  The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but this one is classic Ibbotson–her sympathy for those who aren’t focused on material success and her concomitant scorn for those who prize appearances above humanity, and her championship of animals and all small vulnerable beings will be familiar to those who’ve read Which Witch or Island of the Aunts or her romances (any of her books, really). Beautiful writing, with so much heart in it.

3. The Silver Bowl (HarperCollins, 2011) by Diane Stanley: The handsome young Prince Alaric lives in the palace of the King of Westria, where Molly is a scullery maid assigned to polishing the silver. Molly has visions, but they haven’t bothered her in the recent past, until one day, she handles a ceremonial silver bowl which sends her a vision of a curse leading to the death of the royal family. Molly along with her friend Tobias (“Donkey boy”) must save Alaric, find a way to break the curse and restore the throne to the rightful prince.

Two things made this book stand out for me. One, the intelligence and ease of the writing–for instance, Stanley has her characters makes mistakes not to further the plot, but because it is in keeping with their personas.  Two, Stanley subverts many tropes commonly found in such fictions. Not everyone wants to be a prince(ss). Beauty isn’t always equated with worth.  The heroine isn’t afraid to air her  intelligence–and the prince doesn’t mind asking for and accepting advice. Great messages all, and the book isn’t message-y at all!

4.  Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince (Scholastic, April 2012) has one of those colossal plot twists that demands you re-read past 200 pages so you can better appreciate the author’s gift for utterly hoodwinking the reader. Megan Whalen Turner  has always been my champion for this sort of thing, but Nielsen comes close.

Three orphans  are chosen by a nobleman as potential candidates to impersonate a missing, presumed-to-be-dead prince. What starts out as a weird competition escalates into war when the three realize that once a prince is chosen, the remaining two boys will be killed. The story is narrated from the viewpoint of one of the children, the rebellious Sage who constantly questions authority (need I say more about loving this character?) The pace is stupendous, the plotting artful, and all characters are richly drawn. This one is the first part of The Ascendance Trilogy, but fear not! The loose ends will keep you salivating, but the story is complete in itself.

5. Vanished by Sheela Chari : Do scroll down to the post below for more details about young Neela’s adventures involving a mysteriously vanishing veena!