The Many Meanings of Meilan

Penguin/Kokila. Aug. 2021. 368p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780593111284.
Gr 4-7–Wang’s middle grade debut is a vibrant exploration of family and identity. Meilan Hua’s family runs a bakery in Boston’s Chinatown, but when the family fractures, Meilan, her parents, and her grandfather move to small-town Ohio in search of a fresh start. At her new school, the principal decides it’s best for Meilan to go by a different name which he choses—Melanie—as to better accommodate the other (white) students. As Meilan navigates tenuous relationships, she explores many facets of her identity, each modeled on a Chinese character with the same pronunciation as her own name. Meilan is a deftly crafted, dynamic character; readers will empathize with, love, and root for her the whole way through. Meilan’s named classmates are fully realized, though in comparison Meilan’s teachers are starkly two-dimensional, with the principal reaching almost comic-book villain status. The nearly all-white town of Redbud provides myriad opportunities for readers to witness explicit and implicit bias and racism, and Wang demonstrates multiple ways to navigate similar situations. Additionally, Meilan learns about the Vietnam War through talking with her grandfather, who lives with PSTD. Wang balances a heavy load, but does it exceptionally well. Not every thread is neatly tied in the end, ultimately adding to the story’s realism.
VERDICT Meilan’s story should be on library shelves everywhere. Recommended as a general purchase.

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