I have been following with interest and fury the efforts of parents and school boards to remove every book written by any author of color from school libraries, and sometimes even public libraries. Here are two award-winning children’s books that— I was flabbergasted to find out— were removed from school libraries in Texas. Both of these beautiful books tell the tale of the authors’ childhoods in which they were oppressed by white people and others. Keeping our children ignorant does not make the world a better place, even for them. Please read them yourself, and if they make you uncomfortable, read them twice.
Front Desk, by Kelly Yang
Mia and her family have just moved to the United States from China, and they are disappointed at how much more difficult it is to survive than they had been told. They think they’ve found their lucky break when Mr. Yao offers them the management of one of his motels, but their fellow countryman turns out to be a cheat and a bully. Mia and Jason Yao are the only two Asian kids in their class, but they are not the only ones hiding secrets about their families.
Mia is a spunky girl with a precocious understanding of business and finance, and her optimism often keeps her parents’ spirits up when their mounting debt threatens to force them to despair. On the other hand, she is a child, so sometimes her I Love Lucy schemes fall to pieces and put them in danger. She makes friends easily with adults and children alike, leading to a hilariously varied cast of characters.
This semi-autobiographical novel details Kelly Yang’s early years in California, the bigotry she encountered, and the poverty and hard work her parents endured to secure a better life for their daughter. She has written a sequel called Three Keys. Although it is highly readable and enjoyable, the story of Mia’s journey was more heartbreaking than I had expected. It all works out, though, as Ms. Yang went to college at age 13 and later became the youngest woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Front Desk won the Asian / Pacific American Award for Literature in 2019 and the Parents Choice Award in 2018, as well as appearing on many “Best Book of the Year” lists. Illuminating.
New Kid, by Jerry Craft
Jordan wants to go to art school, but his mom wants him to go to the very best prep school she can find, even though that means extra work for his parents. When Liam— the student assigned to show him around— and his dad pick him up in their limo the first day, Jordan is sure that he will not fit in to this new school: he is not white, he is not rich, and he really doesn’t like school. He just wants to draw.
As it turns out, there are several other black students at Riverdale Academy Day School, and white Liam is a really great kid. The racism that Jordan encounters is mostly the liberal elite, microaggression type. One of the coaches is so afraid of making a racist remark that he can barely get out a sentence without apologizing for it. Many characters hurt the minority students unintentionally out of ignorance, since they rarely interact with anyone outside of their rich, white bubble.
On the other hand, one of the white teachers calls all of the black kids by the same stereotypical names because she can’t be bothered to learn their real names, and while this is annoying and insulting, Jordan and a friend make a game of it and start calling each other by a different name every time they talk. Eventually, they confront her, and she is surprised to come face to face with her own racism. The students have frank and productive discussions of bigotry, and Jordan has friends of every ethnicity.
Jordan’s parents are joyfully loving and supportive, especially his delightfully gushy mom. After his initial disdain, Jordan discovers that the art teacher at Riverdale really does have things to teach him, and the book has occasional breaks to show young Jordan’s sketchbook pages, drawn in a different style from the rest of this appealing graphic novel.
Another autobiographical work by a person of color, New Kid was the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Award in 2020 and is followed by the sequel, Class Act. It also won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Kirkus Prize. Jerry Craft combined his own and his two sons’ experiences in this work, which shows that even in our day and even among very “nice” people, the playing field is not even and there is still work to be done. You’ll want to read the sequel.
Disclaimer: I read library copies of these two books. Opinions expressed are solely my own, I swear, and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.