Tag Archives: Chinese culture

Front Desk

Written by: Kelly Yang

Cover Art by: Maike Plenzke

For ages: Middle Grades YA Book

Language: English, slight Mandarin.

Topics Covered: Immigration, Racism, Friendship, Family, Growing Up.

Summary: Mia Tang and her parents emigrated from China two years before the book begins.  When the book begins, it is summertime in California and the family is living in their car.  Soon, a job opportunity to manage a hotel pops up and the family jumps at the chance.  The owner of the hotel is named Mr. Yao and he is not kind.  He finds every opportunity to withhold paychecks from the family.  He is racist, rude, and Mia does not like him one bit, especially because he won’t let her go swimming in the pool.  The hotel is in a new school district, and when Mia starts the 5th grade she is only 1 of 2 Asian students in the whole grade.  The other is Jason, Mr. Yao’s son.  The pair do not get along.  Mia takes on front desk responsibilities with gusto, and befriends the “weeklies” quickly.  These longtime guests live at the hotel, and together they form a ragtag family.

Mia makes a single friend at school, Lupe.  Lupe and her family are also immigrants, and very poor like Mia’s family.  Other than Lupe, Mia is teased mercilessly.  Mia is hurt, but has other more important things to spend her time doing.  She desperately wants to be a writer, despite her mother telling her to focus on math instead.  Mia begins writing letters to get practice, and comes across an essay contest where the winner receives a small motel in Vermont!  Earning the money for the entry fee, working the front desk, and dealing with Mr. Yao is more than enough for a young girl to handle.  Then her parents begin receiving visitors.  Other immigrants from China that are in much worse states than the Tangs.  Mia’s parents let them stay the night for free at the hotel without Mr. Yao’s knowledge, and feed them.  Soon a system is developed where Mia wears a hat when Mr. Yao is around so people know not to show up.

This book is fascinating, and comes with an extensive Author’s Note detailing many of the events in the book and how they happened to the author herself, in real life!  There are many parallels between Mia and Kelly’s life, as Kelly Yang’s family also managed hotels in California when Kelly was young.  This is an awesome book.  It’s funny, heartfelt, and talks about the strength and resilience found in the immigrant youth experience.

About the Author & the Cover Artist:

Kelly-Yang-300x300-circleKelly Yang is the author of FRONT DESK (Scholastic) and the winner of the 2018 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. FRONT DESK is an award-winning debut middle grade novel about a 10 year old Chinese American immigrant girl who manages the front desk of a motel while her parents clean the rooms. FRONT DESK was awarded the 2018 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, the Parents’ Choice Gold Medal, is the 2019 Global Read Aloud, and has earned numerous other honors including being named an Amazon Best Book of the Year, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, a NPR Best Book of the Year, and a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year.


Kelly immigrated to America when she was 6 years old and grew up in Southern California, where she and her parents worked in three different motels. She eventually left the motels and went to college at the age of 13 and law school at the age of 17. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where she majored in Political Science, and Harvard Law School. After law school, she gave up law to pursue her passion of writing and teaching children writing. She is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project (kellyyang.edu.hk), a leading writing and debating program for kids in Asia.


As a teacher, Kelly helped thousands of children find their voice and become better writers and more powerful speakers. Before turning to fiction, she was also a columnist for the South China Morning Post for many years. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She has three children and splits her time between Hong Kong and San Francisco, California. 


Maike Plenzke and is a freelance illustrator and comic book artist from Berlin.
She loves drawing diverse women and to explore nature in her work.

My Chinatown: One Year in Poems

Written & Illustrated by: Kam Mak

For ages: 4 years & up

Language: English

Topics Covered: Poetry, Immigration, Asian-American Experience, Chinese Culture, Family. 

Summary: This book chronicles the first year that the narrator, a young boy, spends away from his old home in Hong Kong and instead in an American Chinatown.  Reflecting on memories of Hong Kong, the narrator comes to term with the move and different aspects of his culture such as picking out live fish at the market for dinner.  Poem topics include holidays like New Year and the Moon festival as well as listening to his mother’s sewing machine and playing with his sister.

The poems denote both acute observation and at times a sense of melancholy, a boy reckoning with growing older and learning a new culture.  The accompanying illustrations are beautiful and photo-realistic.  A valuable addition to any bookshelf for an introduction to poetry, Chinese culture, and immigration.

Reflection Questions:

  • Have you ever made a big move like the narrator?
  • What do you think would be difficult to get used to in a new country?
  • How do you think poetry helped the narrator adjust to a new life outside of Hong Kong?

Continuing the Conversation:

  • Find out why groups of immigrants create neighborhoods like Chinatown or Little Italy.  What are the benefits to being from the same cultural group and living in the same place?
  • The narrator mentions an animal chess game.  Do you know how to play chess?  What might be different about games from different countries?  See if you can find the game in the book, and learn to play!
  • Try writing your own poem.  Choose a topic that is important to you, like the author did, and write about your experiences.

About the Author & the Illustrator:

kam-makKam Mak was born in Hong Kong. His family moved to the United States in 1971 and settled in New York City. His interest in painting was awakened through involvement with City Art Workshop, an organization that enables inner-city youths to explore the arts. Kam continued to pursue his interest in painting while attending the School of Visual Arts on a full scholarship, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1984. Mr. Mak’s works has been exhibited at the Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition, The Original Art show (dedicated to the best of children’s picture books) and in a one-person show at the Brooklyn Public Library. He has illustrated over 200 paintings for book covers, magazine and editorial pieces for such client as, HarperCollins, St. Martins Press, Random House, National Geographic, Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times.

Kam’s most recent art has graced the second series of the USPS lunar New Year stamps and also a new postcard stamp for the USPS adored with the fish Koi was released in spring 2009. His most recent book My Chinatown: One Year In Poems received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and is about a little boy growing up in Chinatown. My Chinatown was the Parent’s Choice 2002 Recommended Award Winner by the Parents’ Choice Foundation. The Dragon Prince, published by HarperCollins won him the Oppenheim Platinum Medal for the best children’s picture book of 1997, and the National Parenting Publication Gold Medal for the best children’s picture book of 1997. Mr. Mak was awarded a gold medal for the cover art for The Kite Rider and silver medals for the cover art for My Chinatown from the Society of Illustrators 45th Annual Exhibition in 2003. He also won the Stevan Dohanos Award from the Society of Illustrators (awarded to an artist in recognition of his or her artistic excellence). In November 2008 Mr. Mak was awarded The Asian American Dynamic Achiever Awards of OCA-Westchester & Hudson Valley Chapter, for his outstanding accomplishment in the arts and In 2009, The past awardees include Elaine Chao, The previous Secretary of the US Department of Labor under the Bush’s administration, and Mr. Ang Lee, an acclaimed film director & producer. In 2009 he was the recipient of the Inspiration Award from APEX.

Kam is a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology as well as guest lectures at many of the public schools and institutions. He is currently working on a series of portrait and still life paintings incorporating the use of egg tempera; it is a painting process that uses egg yolk to bind pigments. Egg tempera was a medium of choice for many renaissance artists in the 14 and 15 centuries. Kam currently lives with his wife Mari and children Luca and Dylan in Carroll Garden, Brooklyn.

El Chino

Written & Illustrated by: Allen Say

For ages: 4-9 years

Language: English, minor Spanish. 

Topics Covered: Chinese Culture, Spanish Culture, Self-Acceptance, Family, Trailblazer, Historical Figure, Bullfighting.  

Summary: This book is written in first person, and begins by describing a boy named Billy’s family.  His parents came from China to Arizona, and had six children.  Billy’s father always told his children they could be whatever they wanted in America, so Billy and his siblings all studied something different.  Billy really wanted to be a professional basketball player, but he was too short.  His siblings teased him for being so small, so he studied engineering in college.  Billy got a job as a highway engineer, but still dreamed of his days playing basketball.  For his first vacation, Billy took a trip to Europe.  In Spain, Billy saw his first bullfight (death of bull mentioned here).  He becomes enamored with the sport, especially the fact that the bullfighter was even shorter than him!  The next day, he got a room in a boarding house and asked the landlady where the nearest bullfighting school was.  Billy’s new landlady tells him only true Spaniards can be matadors, but he is not deterred.  Billy sends a telegram to his mother, saying he’s not coming home.  He joins a matador school, and is a good athlete but judged for not being Spanish.  Billy and his classmates try to get hired by bull ranchers in the spring, but he has no luck.  No one will hire him because he is Chinese, and Billy feels hopeless.  Billy has an epiphany that of course he’s not Spanish, he’s Chinese.  Billy realizes that in order to truly embrace this new lifestyle, he must embrace his heritage. He buys some traditional Chinese clothing, and feeling strong, goes to look for matador work again.  Suddenly, Billy is getting attention everywhere!  People start calling him El Chino, and he finally gets a chance to face a live bull.  Scared, Billy begins to fight the bull.  He makes the bull charge three times, and then walks away with his back to the bull like he had seen real matadors do.  Billy passed the test, and the next morning gets hired as a matador!  El Chino becomes the first Chinese matador ever, and is finally glad that he wasn’t born any taller.

This book is a fairly quick read, although on one page it does mention that the bull dies during the first bullfight that Billy sees.  Overall, it goes through the process of becoming a matador and the appreciation of Chinese heritage that Billy goes through in order to realize his true role within the matador community.  A short and easy to read biography about relatively unknown figure in both Chinese and Spanish history!

Reflection Questions:

  • How do you think Billy feels when he isn’t able to achieve his dream of playing basketball in college?
  • What is something you have really wanted to do that turned out to be disappointing when it didn’t happen the way you anticipated?
  • How do you think Billy felt when he finally embraced his Chinese heritage in conjunction with his dreams to become a matador?
  • What is a dream that you have?

Continuing the Conversation:

  • Bullfighting has changed a lot over the years.  Learn about different practices, and what is different between older and modern bullfighting.
  • El Chino was the first Chinese bullfighter, but who were some other famous non-Spanish matadors?  Is bullfighting more diverse now than it was years ago?
  • Matadors are known for their fancy outfits.  Design your own matador outfit!

About the Author & Illustrator:

Allen_Say_at_16th_international_literature_festival_berlin_on_September_12,_2016Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1937. His father, a Korean orphan raised by a British family in Shanghai, and his mother, a Japanese American born in Oakland, California, divorced when Say was eight. The family separated, Say living unhappily with his father and his sister living with their mother. When Allen was twelve, he was enrolled in Aoyama Gakuin in Tokyo and sent to live with his maternal grandmother. Since his relationship with his grandmother was no better than that with his father, the two negotiated an agreement that Say would live by himself in an apartment closer to the school. During this time, Say apprenticed himself to Noro Shinpei, a cartoonist whom he greatly admired. This period marked the beginning of his serious training in the arts and was to prove pivotal in Say’s life, as documented in his words in The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice.