Two kids deal with friendships and take stands for social justice in these stories that draw from real-life problems.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1338157796. Read ebook on Libby.
In a story based on the author’s own experiences growing up in the 1990s, Mia Tang is a young Chinese immigrant who hopes that they’ll finally be able to stop travelling and make a home at the hotel where her parents have found a job as manager. But even though the owner is Chinese-American, he makes the Tangs sign an exploitative contract – only paying them for occupied rooms, and saying they’re responsible for cleaning and anything that breaks in the hotel.
Despite the challenge, the Tangs are excited for the opportunity, and Mia takes over running the front desk when she’s not at school, so that her parents can clean and do the laundry. The work is hard, but there is an eclectic and friendly group of long-term residents that make it more pleasant.
Things are hard at school, too, where Mia is teased for wearing cheap pajama pants from the thrift store instead of jeans, and where the hotel owner’s son is in her class and determined to humiliate her there, too. At least she makes friends with Lupe, a girl who turns out to have more in common with her than she could realize at first.
Then, the owner threatens to sell the hotel out from under them. Mia will have to come up with a plan to save her family’s new home…
Mia and her parents worked so, so hard for so very little, and yet were still better off than the other Chinese immigrants who stopped by their hotel, that the first part of this book was especially heartbreaking. It was inspiring to see Mia learn to use her voice, write letters, and unite people both to save the hotel and work against injustice in her community. This book has won lots of awards, including the Asian-Pacific-American Children’s Literature Award and being a 2018 Cybils finalist. And I read it just in time not to have to wait long for the sequel, due out in September 2020!
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. ISBN 978-0062875853. Read ebook on Hoopla.
In the present day, Zoe has never met her father, but hasn’t wasted too much energy thinking about him, either. She has grown up with her mother and stepfather and is used to but still mad about the looks she gets from white people seeing a Black girl call a white man Dad. Her biggest goal is to be a kid chef on a TV baking show and eventually have her own cookbook published.
Then, on her birthday, she sees a letter from her father. A person who sounds like he cares about her, and is nice – not the monster she’d expected a convicted murderer to be. Secretly, because she knows her mother wouldn’t approve, she writes him back. She learns that her father still claims to be innocent, and that his court-assigned lawyer didn’t even bother to track down his alibi. The more Zoe learns about Black men in the justice system, the more determined she is to find the truth.
Way to go, Zoe! This mix of the everyday and social justice reminded me of A Good Kind of Trouble and The Parker Inheritance, while the baking reminded me fondly of Cupcake Cousins. Even though there are some deep, thinky issues here, Zoe’s baking experiments lend some fun and round out her personality, while her struggles with maintaining a platonic friendship with a boy through middle school are right on-point for everyone. The buzz around this book is well deserved!