Compelling Reads on the Immigrant Experience
with Universal Lessons on Life, Love, and the Joys of Sharing a Meal
by Pam Martin, book expert at Grandrabbits Toy Shoppe
Not long ago, I finished the heartwarming graphic novel, Measuring Up, by Lily LaMotte, with illustrations by Ann Xu. The main character is 12 y/o, Cici, who’s just moved to Seattle from Taiwan. Like a lot of the best middle-grade graphic novels, this one’s filled with great values. Cici misses Taiwan, her friends, her old school, but mostly her grandmother. She wants to bring her to the US for a visit, and in order to raise money for the plane ticket, she enters a local cooking contest. Here, she meets other young talented chefs, and as she passes from one round to the next, she makes new friends and learns to trust her own palate, while also gleaning rules of the trade from America’s original French-cuisine ambassador, Julia Child. I found it a delicious read on a lot of different levels.
I turned from Cici to 10-year-old Mia, whose family has just taken a job managing the Calivista Motel in Kelly Yang’s remarkable middle-grade debut, Front Desk. It’s been two years since her family’s arrival in California from China, and things aren’t easy. But soon Mia’s taken over the front desk duties and become friends with the community of “weeklies” who rent rooms at the motel long-term. While Yang tackles themes of racism and exploitation, particularly of newly arrived immigrants at the hands of unscrupulous employers, none of it feels too heavy or frightening because of the pluckiness of the novel’s heroine.
Based largely on Yang’s real-life experiences, Mia also writes letters, and her powerful words ultimately change lives. For starters, she’s able to give a sterling reference for one of the weeklies, Hank, who lost a job because of racial profiling. In another strongly worded letter, she gets the i.d. and passport returned to a friend of her mother’s, threatening “dire consequences” if the abusive employer fails to comply with the request. And though Mia doesn’t write the winning essay for the “Win a Motel in Vermont” contest, she ultimately wins the friendship of enough people to have the experience of a loving and supportive chosen family—one that’s happy to share plenty of her mother’s delicious Chinese cooking.
Lily and Salma star in the picture book, The Sandwich Swap, by her majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah. Both girls love drawing and skipping rope, but their similarities seem to come to an end at the lunch table. “Your sandwich looks kind of yucky,” Lily blurts out one day, regarding Salma’s hummus on pita. “Yeah, well your sandwich looks gross,” Salma responds, staring at Lily’s peanut butter, adding, “and it smells bad too!” The insults escalate to: “You’re weird! You’re stupid! You look funny! You dress dumb!”
A food fight breaks out, and after the girls clean up the mess, they’re called into the principal’s office. They both feel ashamed of their behavior, and later, at lunchtime, they each try the other’s sandwich. Well, guess what? They find both sandwiches are yummy. Different, yes, but tasty all the same.
In yet another immigrant story starring food, Thank You, Omu! is about a delicious stew and the unexpected rewards of sharing by Caldecott Honor winner, Oge Mora. It all starts with a little boy who lives down the hall from Omu. As he’s playing with his race car, he smells “the most delicious smell” and knocks on his neighbor’s door. Omu is happy to share, there’s plenty in the pot, after all. But, then, thanks to the power of the scrumptious scent that “wafted out the door, down the hall, toward the street, and around the block,” several more follow. Next is a police officer, then a hot dog vendor. But the hungry nose-followers don’t stop there. There’s a dancer, a baker, and even the mayor, and pretty soon, Omu’s pot is empty. She won’t have anything to eat for her own dinner that evening, she sniffs. That’s when she hears yet another knock on her door. But this time, everyone she’s fed that day has come to share with her. “That dinner,” she claims, with all her new friends surrounding her, “was the best she had ever had.”
Pam Martin is one of the book specialists at Grandrabbit’s Toy Shoppe in Boulder. For a curated selection of toys, books, and games, please visit www.grtoys.com, or stop by and see us at one of our three locations.