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?

Tommysaurus Rex

Tommysaurus RexTommysaurus Rex
by Doug TenNapel
Graphix, 2013

Opening the pages of one of Doug TenNapel’s book is a bit like pressing play for a David Lynch film: you feel the certainty in your gut that it’s going to be a surprising and unique experience, an hour or two of bizarre, sometimes even disturbing images you’ll never forget seeing. The difference is, with Lynch’s work, I’d usually prefer to look away; with TenNapel, I can’t tear my eyes from the page.

Before the warped worlds of Bad Island and Ghostopolis, before the philosophical minefield of Cardboard, Doug TenNapel wrote Tommysaurus Rex, now beautifully republished in full color (contributed by Katherine Garner). In this middle grade graphic novel, a boy named Ely loses a pet dog and gains a pet dinosaur. Ely knows in his heart that the tyrannosaurus – playful, good-natured, and in need of training – is some manifestation of his old dog Tommy, despite its also having memories of Cretaceous life (and death). The mechanisms for the dinosaur’s rebirth and reincarnation are largely unstated, and blissfully so; TenNapel’s masterful storytelling presents a confident, fantastical logic that shrugs off the dull necessities of reality. The reader is happy to shrug them off, too.

In Tommysaurus Rex, TenNapel nods to fellow monster creators: Ray Harryhausen, visual effects artist who innovated new stop-motion animation techniques in the 1950s and ‘60s, makes a cameo appearance in Ely’s story. Bill Watterson was a clear influence on the artist; like Calvin and Hobbes, Ely and his fellow humans are drawn with occasionally zany stylistic expressions, while Tommysaurus is almost frighteningly realistic. Yet despite its allusions and tributes, the style and story stand alone. Calvin and Hobbes cuts with wit and cynicism, but through its perfectly messy imagery and fantastical conceit, Tommysaurus Rex rings loudly and truly with heart. One moment you might recoil from the image of a tyrannosaurus digging into a bloody feast of a cow carcass; the next, you’re holding back tears as a bully expresses regret or a friend says good-bye forever. TenNapel always surprises me somehow, except I always know I need to hold on for dear life (and keep the tissues within reach).