Novels in verse are powerful. Jane Kuo’s debut middle grade,In the Beautiful Country, is a novel in verse set in 1980 about ten-year-old Ai Shi, an American immigrant from Taiwan. What a good format choice for a novel reflecting the experience of children new to the U.S.! Especially accessible for English language learners and for reluctant or struggling readers, the short, straightforward poems are no less engaging for those who read with ease.
I love how a poem gives me broad strokes of what is happening, takes me to the correct emotional address, and then I get to fill in the details. Wait, that sounds wrong. Kuo’s book, for example, gives me many details, things I wouldn’t know to imagine myself, that help me understand Ai Shi’s experience. It’s more like a connect-the-dots puzzle. Rather than broad strokes, the poems set down carefully-placed images and details, the dots. Then readers use their imagination to get from one dot to the next and draw a complete understanding of who Ai Shi is, what she values the most, and what she goes through as she and her parents face the disappointing reality of their new life.
The story begins when Ai Shi is anticipating moving to “the beautiful country” (the Chinese name for America) and follows her through a year of adjusting to life as Anna, American fifth-grader. Before moving, Ai Shi says America is her “happily ever after place,” but once she’s here, reality hits hard. She dreads going to school with her limited English:
I used to love school,
the place where I was the loudest girl in class.
Now I’m robbed of words.
Suddenly, I have nothing to say.
Her family struggles to keep their heads above water financially. They sold everything to buy an American fast food restaurant, depending on a fraudulent profit record the seller provided. Ai Shi thinks the items she left in Taiwan will be replaced with better California models, but that’s not how it goes.
I was particularly touched by a poem about the family’s new apartment. Ai Shi sleeps in the lone bedroom; her parents sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. The only entertainment is watching television, and Ai Shi thinks their new set is broken. Really, it’s just black-and-white. The poem ends:
I sit facing the flickering television.
This TV is twice as small as our old one.
in the land of more,
our world is so small.
Racism adds isolation and a sense of injustice to Ai Shi’s disappointment. She is teased at school: “It’s as if making fun of my food / has become a group lunchtime activity.” When the class is learning about alliteration, a bully waits until they are on the playground to share his example: “Ching Chong Chinaman.” At the store, her parents face customers who have no patience for their problems with English.
Last week, a man became very huffy and puffy,
as if not understanding English
was some kind of insult.
It gets worse when someone throws a brick through the store’s large front window in the middle of the night. The poem “Nothing is Missing” describes the violation, ending, “They didn’t take anything. / They took so much.”
It is painful seeing through Ai Shi’s eyes when her family is struggling. I always say that if a book makes me cry, it had better be for a good purpose. Being sad with Ai Shi is worth it, helping me develop more understanding of and empathy for immigrants, children and adults alike. But I am especially enthusiastic about recommending this book because Kuo doesn’t leave Ai Shi or the reader in insurmountable pain. When the family considers giving up and going back to Taiwan, their dynamics change. It is a pleasure to keep reading and see how their shared values put them on a path to an authentically hopeful future.
Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
★ Starred reviews – Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal
A re-imagined Paul Bunyan legend gives one Chinese American girl
the courage to face adversity.
Thirteen-year-old Mei lives and works in an 1885 Sierra Nevada lumber logging camp in the graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Poby Shing Yin Khor. Her father, Hao, cooks for the workers, and Mei is famed for her pies. Mei, unlike the other women in the camp, does not wear a dress and is conflicted about her budding sexuality and her feelings towards Bee Anderson, the camp foreman’s daughter.
Within the camp, racial tensions simmer and the Chinese workers face discrimination and violence. Abusive behavior towards women in the camp also adds to an increasingly hostile environment. Camp foreman Hel Anderson, Bee’s father, turns a blind eye to all that is happening.
To help her and the other women and children cope with these injustices, Mei invents a Bunyanesque character, Auntie Po, only she can see. The stories she spins about Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, give courage and hope to the others.
Following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese workers are forced to leave the mill. Mei stays with Bee’s family, but Hao and the other Chinese workers leave to find work in San Francisco. When camp conditions severely deteriorate, Anderson travels to Chinatown to persuade his former workers to return. Hao, mindful of Anderson’s acceptance of the discriminatory conditions, negotiates a better deal for the Chinese workers. Anderson agrees and Hao and the others return to the camp. Father and daughter are reunited.
Author/illustrator Khor’s colorful illustrations authentically capture 19th lumberjacking life, demonstrating the amount of research she did to convey the details of daily life and conditions experienced by the workers and their families. In addition, this graphic novel highlights the art of storytelling and how each story can be shaped or reimagined by the experiences of the teller and the listener.
As the story concludes, Mei and her father decide it’s time for her to go away to school. Mei has also resolved some of her identity issues:
“I know who I am. I am a good cook. I have good friends, I have the best pa in the world” (p. 272).
The author’s endnote and her bibliography contain valuable information, as does her video on how this book came about for anyone who wants to learn more about the legends and history behind this engaging graphic novel. This is truly the middle-grade at its finest.
(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)
The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disastersoffers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.
Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?
SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.
GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?
SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.
GRWR:Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?
SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.
GRWR:The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?
SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.
As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.
Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.
While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.
GRWR:A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?
SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.
GRWR:There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.
SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.
GRWR:Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?
SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! — and I wanted to put it into a story.
GRWR:I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?
SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.
GRWR:What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?
SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.
I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!
Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.
Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.
As much as I love fables, prior to reading Mulan: Before the Sword, my knowledge of Hua Mulan’s story came mainly from movie trailers. Grace Lin’smiddle-grade prequel blew me away. I’m a fan of Lin’s prior best-selling middle-grade trilogy and her picture books, so I was expecting to really like this book; instead, I loved it. The fast-paced story is balanced by gorgeous prose, bringing legendary Asian history to life. Lin’s writing beautifully blends myth, action, and suspense. The opening line, “She disliked it when they transformed into spiders” had me hooked. The story’s viewpoints shift between the plotting, treacherous villains and Mulan’s adventure to save her sister Xiu’s life (she’s succumbing to a poisonous bite from the evil nine-legged spider).
Mulan tries to suppress her adventurous nature and struggles to be a more restrained daughter. Contrarily, Xiu exemplifies all the “right” female traits. Yet, Mulan’s abilities allow her to set off on a quest with the legendary Jade Rabbit where she begins to realize that, just maybe, she’s exactly who she needs to be.
It’s easy to care about Mulan and root for her to save the day. The characters and scenery come alive and tension builds as setbacks delay their progress. En route, Mulan learns of the prophecy that a member of her family is destined to, one day, save the Emperor. Figuring that person must be Xiu, Mulan risks her life, sacrificing for the greater good. Yet, all is not as it seems and this tale wends its way to an amazing conclusion. Mulan, a powerful warrior, also finds compassion for her adversaries.
Lin’s Author Note provides interesting historical detail; Mulan may have been a real person, the first know mention of her was in a fourth-century folk song, “The Ballad of Mulan.” Today, Mulan continues to be a cherished character as Lin skillfully adds another layer to the saga.
Click here to read a terrific interview by Christine with Grace Lin at SCBWI’s Kite Tales of Southern California’s Tri-Regions.
Written by Patti Kim
(Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
In the middle grade novel I’m OK by Patti Kim, twelve-year-old Ok Lee’s world begins to fall apart when his father dies suddenly. Even though his mother works three jobs, they barely get by. To help out financially, Ok starts braiding girls’ hair at school and resolves to win the talent show’s $100 prize—though he doesn’t have a talent in mind.
The flawed characters in I’m Ok weave together realistically in a story about the imperfect lives of recent immigrants and middle schoolers. Ok’s unwitting sidekick is Mickey McDonald, a girl with the biggest hair and a personality to match. Her family’s also poor but she doesn’t care what other people think. Mickey adds a lively, funny element to a story that also depicts race and social class discrimination. Set at an indeterminate time, Americana details such as Enjoli perfume or the TV shows “Charlie’s Angels” and “MacGyver” will resonate with older readers.
The ending feels genuine and opens the door to talking about why life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or want. Ok is bound to his mother, and her decisions direct their future.
This was June’s book-of-the-month at Chevalier’s Books’ middle-grade book club in Los Angeles. I’m Ok was well liked by all. The animated discussion considered many interesting elements of this novel including nice story-writing details such as how the story is bookended by two similar yet quite different scenes.
Written by Kelly Yang
(Arthur A. Levine Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
★Starred reviews – Booklist, Kirkus and School Library Journal
Where do I possibly begin with Kelly Yang’s FRONT DESK?
FRONT DESK is a timely and needed narrative for so many reasons. And Yang, as demonstrated in her debut novel, is one heck of a storyteller. She’s destined to be anauthor that kids and adults clamor to meet so they can soak up her pearls of wisdom. Drawing from firsthand experiences and keen insights from when she arrived in America as a Chinese child immigrant along with her parents, Yang’s tale provides many kids a chance to find themselves and find hope inside the pages of this moving middle grade historical novel.
It’s 1993 when we meet our heroine Mia Tang. At 10-years-old, Mia is one of the most empathetic, intelligent, persevering characters of this age I have seen in a long time. The truth is there are so many like her whose voices deserve to be heard. I am grateful to Yang that tweens now have a chance to get to know this plucky protagonist and her struggles. Mia’s family are employed at a hotel with unpleasant owners after working for a short time at a restaurant where they were taken advantage of, then fired shortly after. While the hotel seems like a dream come true at first with free rent, the negatives and danger of managing the hotel take their toll on the family.
One of the moments that broke my heart is when Mia is sitting with one of the “weeklies” at the motel she helps run with her parents. The “weeklies” stay at the hotel for a week at a time, paying a lump sum. An older Black gentleman, Hank, is sitting slumped over, defeated by yet another instance in his life where he is targeted for a crime he did not commit simply because he isn’t White. He’s been labeled for so long that at this point he has no more will to fight. He exposes this vulnerability to Mia, and it is a powerful and haunting exchange. Hank isn’t feeling sorry for himself, nor is he bitter or angry when he has every right to be. He’s just tired, the kind of tired you cannot possibly understand unless you’ve been judged by the color of your skin your whole life. Mia later advocates for him and shows us how you are never too young or too old to stand on the side of justice and equality for all.
Resiliency. Mia and her family, along with the “weeklies” and some other friends, have this in abundance. Even when their own families decline to help them in their hour of need, their community rallies around them so they can take control of their destinies.
I dog-eared many pages to go back and look over for this review, and I’m still at a loss as how best to describe my favorite parts because there are so many. I’ve also purchased more than one copy of this book to give to others. It is one of those stories that will creep into your heart and linger there for quite a while.
FRONT DESK needs to be in every school library and as many homes as possible.