By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By Kelly Yang
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018
Things are starting to look up for Mia Tang and her parents. Two years after arriving in the United States, they’ve gone from living in their car to running and living at the Calivista Motel in Anaheim, California. While her parents focus on cleaning the rooms, 10-year-old Mia manages the front desk and tends to their guests.
Mia’s parents also hide immigrants, letting them stay in empty motel rooms for free—but if the motel owner Mr. Yao finds out, their family is doomed.
“Front Desk” is an immigrant story told from a young girl’s perspective and is based on some of Yang’s real-life experiences as a child. Mia’s story will stick with you long after you’ve put down the book. She’s strong and independent, with a fierce sense of right and wrong. My favorite moments are when she stands up to anyone who tries to make her or others feel small. Mia knows when people are doing something wrong and is brave enough to call them—usually adults—out on it.
One of the reasons this story has been challenged to be removed from schools is its portrayal of police officers, who racially profile her friend Hank, a Black man and one of the “weeklies” who lives at Calivista. I always appreciate it when books geared toward young people don’t sugarcoat the realities of life. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they haven’t been exposed to injustices. Oftentimes kids, especially BIPOC kids and those with immigrant backgrounds, are the ones caught up in it—and Yang knows this and portrays this in an age-appropriate way.
Yes, the racism, bullying, and exploitation of vulnerable populations Mia encounters might make readers uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from her story. Instead, we need to ask why we’re uncomfortable and what we can do to address these issues.
By Laurence Yep
Harper & Row, 1975
At the age of 8, Moon Shadow sails across the ocean from China to be with his father, Windrider, in San Francisco. It’s 1903 and Windrider has been in the United States since before Moon Shadow was born, so the father and son are meeting for the first time. Moon Shadow joins his father, working at a laundry business owned by other Chinese men, but he quickly learns Windrider’s dream is to build a flying machine like the Wright brothers.
Despite enduring mockery from other Chinese, poverty, being separated from his wife, and even an earthquake, Windrider is determined—and Moon Shadow is determined to help him.
Inspired by Fung Joe Guey, the Chinese immigrant who built a flying machine in 1909, “Dragonwings” is a story that touches on the struggles and dreams of immigrants in a time steeped in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiments. From the racist attitudes of whites, to referencing the Chinese Exclusion Act and lynchings, Yep gives readers insight to what immigrants at the time dealt with while trying to survive in a country that was happy to exploit their labor, but didn’t value them as human beings.
The Chinese characters in the book refer to white people as “demons” (though once Moon Shadow gets to know some of them, he starts calling them by their names), which is one of the reasons “Dragonwings” has been challenged to be removed from schools. But when you read about how the Chinese are mistreated and the constant danger they feel, it’s understandable. This country was built on oppression and violence. But the story has predominantly been told through the lens of the oppressor, so when it’s told from the perspective of the oppressed, of course it’s not going to be pretty—and that’s all the more reason these stories need to be told. Moon Shadow reminds readers of all ages that there are multiple sides to history and shows us the importance to learn about all of them.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club
By Malinda Lo
Dutton Books, 2021
Since she was young, Lily Hu had felt there was something different about her. When she discovers a book about two women falling in love, that “something” just falls into place. Thus begins the 17-year-old’s journey to figuring herself out.
Joining her on the journey is Kathleen Miller, the girl who, up until then, has just been the other girl in math class. But once the two girls visit a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club, Kath slowly becomes something more to Lily.
“Telegraph Club” takes place in 1954 San Francisco—not a safe time for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. On top of that, Red Scare paranoia has many in the local Chinese American community on edge, including Lily’s family as deportation looms over them and her father’s citizenship is threatened.
Lily is a strong young woman with unwavering integrity. When faced with difficult situations, she chooses the path that’s right for herself, rather than the path that would be easier—for herself and others—even when the results are heartbreaking (as they often are). The things she sacrifices to be her authentic self will have readers questioning what they would do if they were put in the same situation.
Because “Telegraph Club” features a romance between two young women, it’s been challenged to be removed from schools. The prejudice Lily faces in the story for being who she is and for loving who she loves is not surprising, given her story takes place in the 1950s—still horrible, but expected. But to see her and Kath’s story facing similar attempts of erasure in the present day is a reminder of how far society has to go in accepting those who are seen as “different.” And this is all the more reason why this story and others like it need to exist.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.