Small & Mighty: A Review of Front Desk by Kelly Yang

front deskFront Desk by Kelly Yang
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books
May, 2018

Mia and her parents, recent immigrants from China, are managing a California motel in the early 1990s. It’s a family affair, as ten-year-old Mia finds herself responsible for checking in motel guests while her parents tend to the rooms and motel maintenance – though it sometimes feels like it’s Mia against the world. After a rough start including washing machine mishaps, bad grades, and arguments with her mother (who wants Mia to stick to math, something she considers Mia to be a “native” in), Mia hits her stride when she realizes the power of using her ever-improving English to help others, especially the motel guests she considers family.

Adventurous subplots and dynamic secondary characters add to the appeal of this compelling middle grade novel. Mia believes in herself and wants what is best for her friends and family, and though her quick thinking sometimes gets her in trouble, at the end of the day she is a force for good in her community. This book is fun, yet thoughtful, and shows that there’s no age requirement for taking action against injustice.

Commonalities, Not Competition: Newbery 2014

It gets to be this time of the year in the children’s publishing world and my anxiety starts to bubble to the surface of my being. Blogs are buzzing with reviews of novels, analysis of illustrations, and comparison of genres. Librarians ask each other, “What are your favorites this year?” Patrons ask, “So who do you think is going to win?” And while I love love love the ALSC awards, I want to take a step back and reflect upon what a few of these buzzing books have in common, rather than the spirit of competition that my air bubble is currently filled with. This perfectly fits with The Butler Center’s mission to encourage imagination and wonder through literature.

I generated the following list of books randomly from several sources. This is simply for observation’s sake, so if a book isn’t included, there is no intention or reason behind it (and I have had a chance to READ THESE!) Let’s check out some of the books:

  • Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
  • One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
  • The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Center of Everything by Linda Urban
  •  A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
  • Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Okay, so let’s the get obvious ones out of the way– most of these authors are women and they are all fiction choices. But this says more about me as a reader than about the Newbery contenders this year.

But let’s look at what’s underneath. When I take a close look, this is what I see:

1) They all ask important questions. Why are we here? How do I discover my own voice? What is the best way to make decisions? Where do I fit in? Can I change my own destiny, or is it just up to luck? Whether it is Georgie who is trying to navigate her own world amidst feelings of loss and coming-of-age discoveries or Flora going on adventures with a magic squirrel, these characters search, seek, and only sometimes find the answer. In other words, they make us think.

2) They are filled with important relationships. I think we know that humans instinctually want to connect with others, but each of these books explores friendship and family relationships with distinguished and dynamic depth. Cady searches for her long-lost parent. Willow loses everything she has and then finds family in a patchwork quilt of interesting human beings. The ghost of Jacob Grimm protects young Jacob Johnson Johnson, forming a kind of intimate bond between male characters. This level of authenticity is, in my opinion, rare in middle grade/YA novels.

3) They leave us with more questions, rather than answers. These books don’t tell us the way to live. There is no black and white, right or wrong. They explore questions along the way, but they leave the answers up to the reader. And isn’t that what great books are all about? Some of the best books I’ve read, I’ve finished the last page and thought, “Hmmm,” or “….huh….?” But then I think. I talk to other readers. I wait for it to sink in. And all of these books have sunk in because they don’t “fix” or “solve” anything. They explore, ignite, and wonder.

What Newbery buzz books are you excited about this year? What do they have in common with each other? How do the books inform each other when you compare them in the aggregate rather than in direct competition with each other?

A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff

9780399255175

I pick up a book for a number of reasons—good reviews, a fabulous cover, or because a friend or colleague gives a recommendation. Rarely does a book’s title encourage me to dive in. Even though A Tangle of Knots has all of the aforementioned things, its title is what really struck me.

Tangles and knots both suggest tension, complexity, and stress. I don’t know about anyone else out there, but the world has seemed to be a tangle of knots lately. I’m not sure when the tangle of knots began for me—maybe 9/11 was the first time I truly  comprehended catastrophe. Since then, and very recently, it feels like they just keep coming– the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. The Boston Marathon bombings. The tornado. The daily violence here in Chicago.

That’s just the United States. If I start thinking about the terrorism in Mogadishu or the violence in Syria, the knots get thicker and the tangles more snarly.

So what does this difficult stuff have to do with a middle grade novel? Well, I picked up this book in the middle of one of those really tangly, knotty weeks. I had read first-person accounts from the families affected by the Newtown, CT shootings at my doctor’s appointment. The Boston Marathon bombings happened. Then the tornado came. Yet, as I read Graff’s novel, a number of things changed for me. First of all, I let myself sink into the world of the novel and was distracted from my sensitivity for little while. Graff’s eloquent, imaginative story weaving and her sophisticated, third-person writer’s voice made it impossible not to be encapsulated by the book. Secondly, I laughed, probably for the first time that week. Lastly, the book was a window and a mirror.  I thought about the book’s tangle of knots, my own tangle of knots, and the world’s tangle of knots, and I accepted them all.

This acceptance probably has to do with the fact that the book is all about cake, and there is no way I can be in a bad mood when I am reading about cake. The protagonist, Cady, is an orphan searching for her place in the world. She has her own special Talent—she can meet someone and instantly know his or her favorite cake. I love Cady. The novel is rich with a puzzle of characters, but what I love about Cady is that she has lost almost everything, and she is not bitter. By the end of the book, I realized that Cady’s magic had nothing to do with her cake making—it is all about her heart. Add in a whimsical family, an old woman who has lost her ability to speak, a boy who has a Talent for spitting, a thief, several real cake recipes, and some blue suitcases–we’ve got a winner.

As I turned the last page, I stopped thinking about the horrific parts of past tragedies and turned toward the small miracles. The police workers on 9/11. The Boston marathoners who crossed the finish line and ran to the local hospitals to give blood. The interview with the woman who had lost her dog in the rubble of Oklahoma’s tornado (see attached video). I know people talk about the small stuff, but it truly is everywhere. And it’s written all over Graff’s novel. A ferret. Peanut butter cake.  A missing dinosaur bone.

And then I thought: tangles and knots. Yes, both suggest tension. But put in a different light, they suggest stability, support, strength. We tie knots when we want something to stay together. When my hair tangles, it comes together in clumps, and each individual hair is indistinguishable. Maybe sometimes we need to be individuals, to be untangled and free. But other times, especially hard times, we need to tie knots with each other, and learn to lean on each other for support and strength. Cady does.

Graff writes, “Cady was one of the biggest-hearted people Marigold had ever met—she tried harder than anybody else to make others happy…If Marigold had learned anything that week, it was that trying hard and being a good person didn’t always mean that good things would happen to you.”

We all know that bad things happen. But that fact doesn’t make Cady lose her sensitive heart or her willingness to stay positive, so it won’t make me lose mine, either.

I think my favorite cake would be a chocolate one; almost brownie-like, with a really rich, dense texture and chocolate frosting, warmed up with ice cream on the side.

What’s your favorite?

Jeb

JebI adopted a dog over spring break. Jeb is an indeterminate hound, sweet, affable, and a little bit goofy. He arrived in Chicago from an informal pipeline that extends down to Oklahoma, rescuing dogs from uncertain futures. We don’t know much about Jeb. He had no people to turn him in. He has no real history. It seems as though he has lived his life on the streets; things like the indoors are something of a mystery to him. Doors are a curiosity, regular meals are a revelation, and he had no idea what to make of stairs. He didn’t know if or when I was coming back. All of these things he had to figure out on his own. I couldn’t tell him. It was all left to trust, to consistency, to promise.

And he is starting to understand.

I mention this because it reminds me of our first experiences with books and with libraries, especially when we are children. It is nice to hear pretty words about access and service and commitment. It is nice to be told that the books and stories belong to us. But whatever you tell me about who you are and who I am to you, I will know the truth of these things through my experiences. If children are to trust that we will not judge their reading choices, we must celebrate those choices. If teens are to believe that their ideas have a place in our business, we must integrate those ideas. All library users will know the library through their contact with it, but young people, above all, will take those understandings to heart.

Just like Jeb.