Tag Archives: race

Three Keys by Kelly Yang

by Kelly Yang
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Three Keys is the sequel to Front Desk, and Mia Tang and her crew are back. Her best friend, Lupe, is an undocumented immigrant, and this story revolves around the election of Governor Pete Wilson and his Proposition 187 which had devastating effects for undocumented immigrants (and even documented ones – there was a palpable fear in the air, lots and lots of racism and plenty of hate crimes). With their various gradations of immigration status, Lupe, Mia (who has a green card), and Jason (who was born in the US to naturalized-citizen parents) struggle to figure it all out. (Well, Jason does, and Mia helps him. Jason’s parents are still terrible and his dad even votes for Prop 187, even as their own money troubles are escalating and they downsize to a smaller home.)

On a personal level for Lupe, her mom returns to Mexico voluntarily (because her mother has died) and then is unable to cross the border again. Her father becomes worried about her and goes to the border to find her, but gets detained by immigration police. Lupe comes to stay with the Tangs at the motel for months and there are some really heart-wrenching scenes about their separation. Hank and Mia find an immigration lawyer to take the case pro bono. There are scenes of rallies and protests and the fear calculus of attending them for the various characters. The economics of the weeklies’ finances is not explored at all but rather they are made to seem financially comfortable, which is far from realistic.

Mia’s teacher is another person whose mind she helps to change, through her writing as in Front Desk. Mrs. Welch shows some racism toward Mia at the beginning of the school year, and wears a Pete Wilson pin. However, she comes to visit Mia and Lupe at the motel one day and sees the “Welcome to America” classes for immigrants that some of the motel’s weekly residents teach and starts to listen more and more to Mia. Mia also writes a letter to the editor of the newspaper and gets published. Mrs. Welch tutors Mia in writing, teaching her grammar formally which helps Mia greatly. When Prop 187 passes, Lupe leaves school, being tutored by Mia’s mom in math. This also sets Mia’s mom on a path to becoming a teacher, and there’s a sweet moment between her parents about her dad enabling her mom to pursue her dreams.

Turning Point by Paula Chase

by Paula Chase
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

13-year-old Rasheeda is not looking forward to this summer, her first without her best friend, Monique, since moving in with her aunt in The Cove. Though the take ballet together, only Monique and Jamila, the best in their class, were selected and given scholarships to attend Ballet America, a 3-week intensive in another city. That leaves Sheeda home with just Tai, Mila’s best friend, and her church friends, a group which is splintering for different reasons. Oh and Mo’s brother Lennie, who is flirting with Sheeda like crazy.

Sheeda struggles with her precarious placement on the edge of adulthood, chafing against her aunt’s strict rules, but also seeing that they are there for a reason. There is an incident when an older boy, Lennie’s cousin, touches her in a way that she doesn’t like, and Lennie doesn’t stand up for her. He says, “I wouldn’t have let him hurt you,” and internally her response is, “He did hurt me, though.” Chase stops just shy of making explicit the connection: emotional harm IS harm. Harm doesn’t need to be physical or visible to be harmful. I think for 6th-8th grade readers, it might have been worthwhile to have stated this. But either way, that scene is very important and I’m glad it’s in there. It would be a great example to male readers of why consent is so important – and so murky sometimes.

The other important storyline is Mo and Mila off at the ballet intensive. They are grateful to have each other, and especially be roommates, because they are the only two Black girls there. (Curiously, their identities are not held up against anyone else marginalized, like say any boys, for comparison, but the storyline is rich enough on its own.) They share a bathroom with Katie and Brenna, who are White, and of course race, and racism, comes up. Mo is cast in the “angry Black woman” role and explains very clearly why she is frustrated by Katie’s and Brenna’s actions and words. Unfortunately, this does put her, and Mila to a lesser degree, in the role as Katie and Brenna’s teacher, but I think the microaggressions are very well shown. In a somewhat parallel situation to Sheeda’s, Mo is hurt by Katie’s failure to come to her defense in a hurtful situation – again, one that the other person didn’t recognize as hurtful.

I could go on and on about this book and the other relationships in it, but the only other one I want to mention is the one touched on most briefly: Sheeda’s relationship with her mother. I think the most telling way that Sheeda grows up is that she wants to hear her mother’s voice just to comfort her, and her mother is unable to give her any genuine attention. From the moment she answers the phone, it is all about her and her problems and her anger at Rasheeda’s aunt (her sister). Sheeda hangs up after a while, and seems to understand that her aunt is who she has, who will care for her in all the ways. Even if they don’t always agree, she’s her mother now.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

by Kelly Yang
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

5th grader Mia Tang and her family move to yet another town in California. As Chinese immigrants in the 1990s, they are stuck in low-paying, unskilled jobs and the instability that accompanies them. But this time will be different – they will manage a motel together, as a family. But their boss, Mr. Yao, is cheap and pays them very little, even though (or maybe because?) they live at the motel rent-free. It doesn’t help that Mr. Yao’s son, Jason, is in Mia’s class at school and is well on his way to being a terrible person like his father. Mia’s new friend Lupe is the daughter of immigrants as well and the two hit it off fast. Lupe even helps Mia enter a contest to win a motel in New Hampshire.

Then there are the weeklies – the residents of the motel, who pay by the week. One weekly, Hank, is an integral part of Mia’s story, as they help each other. Over the course of the school year, this motley crew becomes a family, and Mia’s English improves to the point of actually helping people with her writing: a letter of recommendation for Hank to get a job, and a threatening letter to another immigrant’s boss who is trafficking immigrants to his restaurant and then confiscating their passports. She proves her mom wrong, that she’s not a bicycle among cars when it comes to competing with her classmates in English.

I loved the author’s note that most of the story was autobiographical. Even the harder parts, like when Mia’s mom gets beaten up by a thief. I was sort of glad that the motel giveaway didn’t really happen, because that, and its resolution, seemed pretty unrealistic. I was still moved by how it all came together, though, and I think young readers will love it (I would have, at age 10). Even Jason seems not to be quite as much of a lost cause as he did at the beginning, and it appears that he, Mia, and Lupe become friends in the sequel, Three Keys. Not much is made of the economics of the weeklies, and in fact they seem to have, if not plenty of money, at least not the bone-scraping poverty outlined in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Racism toward Black people is an important part of the storyline, but the racism and discrimination that Mia experiences is similarly brushed aside, which was disappointing but understandable.

Jada Jones, Rock Star by Kelly Starling Lyons

by Kelly Starling Lyons
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Jada Jones is a 4th grader whose best friend has just moved away. Now she’s faced with sizing up the rest of her classmates for potential substitute friends. I won’t give away what happens, but I loved her process. This seems like a solid early chapter book series, especially for those readers with a love for science. Jada – and her jokes and love of rocks – are utterly loveable. Lyons nails the complicated lives of elementary students and their interpersonal relations.

Double Review: Two by Jason Reynolds

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You
by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Reynolds says over and over that this is NOT a history book, and I have to agree because this was way more readable than a history book, especially because it felt like Reynolds was talking directly (and pretty informally) to me. Also, though it went chronologically, Reynolds made connections between different historical events that I had never seen before (some events I had never heard about). He did seem to be very focused on Angela Davis; the last section of the book sounds like the whole history of the country comes back to her. And maybe it does – I’m new to learning about her life. The main thing that blew my mind was the idea that the American Revolution was fought over slavery – in the same way that the South wanted to keep slavery in the Civil War, apparently the colonies wanted to keep slavery in the Revolutionary War. There were other interesting connections and explanations but I don’t want to spoil them – go read it!

Ghost
by Jason Reynolds
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

In the first book in the Track series, we meet Ghost, aka Castle Cranshaw, as he is discovering an innate ability to run and learning for the first time what it means to be on a team. He stumbles across a city track team with a cab driver for a coach who becomes almost a guardian angel for Ghost, bailing him out of a few scrapes. Ghost struggles to deal with his feelings and trauma of being chased by his abusive father out of the house with a gun. (His father has been in prison for the past three years because of it.) Befriending the other team newbies, not to mention Coach, helps Ghost start to work through it, while giving him something productive to do with his youthful energy rather than continuing to get in trouble.I read this as an audiobook and the reader was great – really nailed Ghost’s voice!

One Little Bag by Henry Cole

One Little Bag by Henry Cole
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

We passed this little gem all around the children’s department at my library, gasping and awwwing all the way through. I would be shocked if it’s not a finalist for the Caldecott. From his website, Cole seems to be talented across different media; I had to double-check that I had the right Henry Cole’s website, but it appears he is, in fact, the one behind Big Bug, Three Hens and a Peacock, and And Tango Makes Three.

One Little Bag is a wordless and mostly color-less story of a boy who reuses a paper bag throughout his whole life. It starts by following a log in its journey to become the bag, and the note after shares how Cole’s environmentalist background, and experience reusing a paper bag in childhood, led to the story. Then we follow the bag as it holds a child’s lunch every day, and then goes on to play a role in the big events in his life. In each spread, the only spot of color is the light brown of the bag (or log before it’s a bag). The story is lovely and sweet, and also stars an interracial couple.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

by Linda Sue Park
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

14-year-old Hanna and her father have just moved to LaForge, Dakota. It’s 1880 and LaForge is a new town. Hanna’s father is able to rent a house for them and start construction on a store where he’ll sell dress goods – fabric and sewing materials for people to make their own clothes. Hanna has two goals: finish her studies and graduate from school, and make dresses in her father’s shop. But racism stands in her way.

Hanna’s mother was Asian, which means that Hanna is half-Asian. Her mother was actually half Chinese, half Korean, which, as Park discusses in the author’s note, was Park’s way of inserting her own Korean self into the Little House on the Prairie books, which she was obsessed with as a child. Hanna’s mother died after a long illness brought on by the rioting in Los Angeles, where they used to live, against the Chinese community in 1871. As long as Hanna’s white father is the face of their family, the two of them can get established in the town. But as soon as Hanna shows up at school and people take one look at her face, things start to fall apart. Parents pull their children from school, her presence “causes trouble” because the town drunks assault her, and people start to boycott the store before it’s even opened. But Hanna has managed to make two key friends and they help turn things around. It’s a middle grade novel, so all ties up neatly and ends well, yet I could see sequel potential (there’s a boy Hanna likes, but I worry that going down that road would lead to a very unrealistic tidy ending, which would be annoying).

Park does an amazing job of describing life on the frontier, especially details of dressmaking, which I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how things work currently, much less 140 years ago. there is the commentary on the racism that Hanna faces, where even the sympathetic white people were only willing to bend the rules of society and help to a point, and Hanna boldly pushes them to be true allies. She also offers some commentary on the Native Americans that Hanna befriends and how they were treated, which she also expands on in the author’s note. I also especially appreciate her eloquent phrasing of my own thoughts: “I also can’t help pondering which of our current and widely held attitudes will be fond lacking by future generations. Is our vision any clearer than that of our forebears?” In her acknowledgements, Park lists a number of Native people (and their tribal affiliation) who helped her, both well known and not. If I hear that Debbie Reese has offered thoughts on this book, I’ll be sure to share them, as well.

Black Lives Matter books for First Graders

A teacher friend recently asked me for books for (her colleague’s) first grade class to read aloud. The class was pretty vocal in their rejection of the picture books she’d tried being too babyish, and she wanted something a bit more concrete about the unrest happening around the country. Here were my suggestions – by far not a complete list:

Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters – better for slightly older kids (School Library Journal lists it for grades 4-7) but I really like it – the poems tell a story of a black boy and a white girl, especially with microaggressions that younger kids may be able to understand as a way to ease into the more blatant examples of racism, for starting a conversation.

The Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul. This is my favorite for littler kids who don’t know the exact issue (and adults may not want to get into details for a variety of reasons) but are picking up on the adults’ anxiety.

Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard. Shows how a white girl and a black boy talk about the same police murder of a black man with their families in slightly different ways.

Not My Idea by Anastasia Higgenbotham. This is less of a story and more of a nonfiction read. I don’t love the illustrations, especially as a read-aloud for a class, I think collage illustrations are hard to see, though a virtual read-aloud could be different since each child could conceivably be close enough to see. I read this one a while ago and remember not loving the text either, but that it could be a good jumping-off place for a conversation about recognizing white privilege.

The Wall In the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee and The Sad Little Fact (click link for my review) by Jonah Winter are a bit off-topic but excellent political satire for this moment in history.

New Kid by Jerry Craft

9780062691200

by Jerry Craft
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Jordan is starting 7th grade at a private school worlds away from his Washington Heights, New York neighborhood. He has to figure out how to fit in when everyone there seems to be rich and/or white and makes assumptions about him. Craft does a great job of portraying a day full of typical micro-aggressions (being called by another Black kid’s name, a bumbling teacher who’s always asking if anyone’s offended by something he just blurted out, being awkwardly stared at whenever the topic of race comes up). Jordan tries to make friends with a rich Black kid named Maury, but they have nothing in common. He eventually becomes friends with the rich white (but also modest and unpretentious) kid, Liam, who is assigned to show him around on the first day, and eventually also becomes friends with another Black kid, Drew. Jordan and Drew joke around about their micro-aggressions and get called out by a teacher who fancies herself an ally but is arguably the worst offender. My coworker’s and my favorite bit was the description of a book the boys are encouraged to read because it has a Black protagonist, which is hilariously described as being a gritty tale of urban grit and grittiness (or something – I had to send the book onto the next person in line so I can’t quote from it directly). It reminded me a little bit of The Hate U Give in how the main characters code switch in their two very different environments.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

9781432849269

by Dashka Slater
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In October of 2013, an agender teen named Sasha fell asleep on their bus ride home. When they woke up, they were on fire. Dashka Slater tells the story of how this happened, who Sasha was, who Richard, the teen who set Sasha on fire was, and what happened after. It’s told in a narrative nonfiction style that worked extremely well and there were only two things that bothered me.

One was that each chapter was very short, ranging from a half page to maybe 5 pages at the longest. While this worked very well for keeping suspense (and keeping me turning pages quickly), it also had the effect of creating a somewhat disjointed narrative, and making me think that Slater couldn’t write a longer chapter on any given topic. The book’s five sections did help me see the overarching themes, and it was roughly chronological, but it felt made for someone with the attention span of a flea. Having recently read similar adult narrative nonfiction such as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I felt that the short chapter style shortchanged both the readers and Sasha and Richard.

The other thing that bothered me was that Slater went into some detail about restorative justice and in the end it seems that nothing really happened with that. I felt a bit betrayed by that, since I was getting pretty invested in having that tie everything up with a nice, neat bow. But as it is, the story is one of forgiveness and learning more about people who are different. There is a lot about the gender spectrum and pronouns and romantic orientation (which is different from sexual orientation) and overall I think an important and well-told tale.