Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Maizy Chen's Last Chance and Omar Rising

Yee, Lisa. Maizy Chen's Last Chance 
February 1st 2022 by Random House
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Maizy and her mother live in California, where her never-married mother works as a well-known food stylist. Maizy has only met her Oma and Opa once, when her mother's parents came to visit, but immediately left. When Opa becomes ill, Maizy and her mother decide to spend the summer in Last Chance, Minnesota, where her grandparents run a Chinese restaurant. It's certainly a different sort of life, and while she misses her best friend, Maizy settles in to small town life. She meets Logan, who is nice, and some mean girls, who seem to be making fun of her. She spends a lot of time in the restaurant, where she gets to know Daisy, the only staff member, and some of the regulars. She is also tasked with keeping Opa company, and the two spend a lot of time watching a food television show. When she learns that Werner, who runs a bratwurst stand, used to be her grandfather's best friend, but they had a falling out, she trades food from the Golden Palace for sausage sandwiches, hoping to get Opa to eat more. Eventually, Werner comes to spend time with his old friend, although they watch television rather than talk. Her mother seems to be reconnecting with a high school flame, who is now the school principal. When Maizy experiences some racial tension, since her family is the only Asian-American one in town, her grandfather starts to tell her about some family history. Going back into the mid 1800s, we find out about Lucky Chen, who left China to come work in California and fled when he was wrongly accused of stealing from his employers. He got a ticket as far as Minnesota, and got a job as a cook at the Golden Grille. Throughout the book, we see Lucky and his descendants' stories of discrimination contrasted with what is going on in Last Chance now, which includes racial slurs painted on the restaurant and the stealing of a stuffed bear mascot. Maizy learns a lot about the history of her family, her grandparents, and how the struggles that Chinese-Americans have experienced through history are still continuing today. 
Strengths: Maizy was a great character who wasn't too thrilled to be away from home for the summer but who made the best of her experiences. She was glad to get to know her grandparents, to hang out in a different place, and to learn about her family history. So many middle grade characters approach new experiences with negativity, so this was great to see. I'm usually not a fan of the story-within-a-story, but Opa's tale about Lucky and the Golden Palace worked extremely well, and I was looking forward to the next installment as much as Maizy was. The secondary characters, like Principal Holmes, Daisy, and Werner help to give a good feel for the dynamics of the town; Principal Holmes is married to a man, and lives in a nearby city because he's not sure how this will go over with residents, Daisy has some learning challenges but thrives when given a chance by Oma to work, and Werner's family highlights the German residents who first came to Last Chance. I have relatives in a much smaller Iowa community, and the details about a small town Midwest community are spot on. Now, we just need some newer historical novels about Paper Sons and Chinese workers in the 1800s, and if they are written in such an engaging style, they'd see a lot of circulation. 
Weaknesses: The subplot with the mayor felt a bit forced, and Maizy's interplay with the local mean girls didn't quite gel as much as it could have. 
What I really think: This was a perfect balance between a fun setting and characters, and more serious issues and history. It had a lot of similarities to Johnson's The Parker Inheritance, with the blend of modern and historical problems, or Luz Alegre's Dream Weavers, with the family business. I'm always a fan of characters who get to know their grandparents and who get to experience other places in the world, and Maizy makes the most of her opportunities. Definitely glad to add this to my selection of summer adventures for my readers. 

Saeed, Aisha. Omar Rising (sequel to Amal Unbound)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus
1 February 2022, Nancy Paulsen Books

Omar is very pleased that he managed to get into the prestigious Ghalib Academy for Boys, but he is also nervous about it. It means leaving his mother and boarding at the school, and not coming home again until December. He's excited about learning about the planets, and looking forward to reacquainting himself with boys he met at the summer program at the school. He's sad about leaving his friends, especially Amal, who is back home after her horrible year in Amal Unbound. Ghalib is a great school, with a terrific library, new science labs, and a kind and supportive art teacher. Omar has good friends in Kareem, whose father works at the school, Naveed, and even older Faisal. Aiden, however, is cold and rude, and thinks the school is not very nice, since his father is very wealthy. Headmaster Moiz has put all of the Scholarship Boys into an English language class that he teachers, and Omar feels that he doesn't like him very much. The Scholarship boys also have to do five hours of service at the school, from folding laundry to cleaning to helping out in the kitchen, and are not allowed to be in any clubs. Most of the other students don't seem to look down at them for this, but the requirements of the scholarship don't allow much time for anything but studying. Omar does take a few breaks, and talks to his mother on the phone, but he is very concerned about his grades, especially since they aren't good in Moiz's class. He starts an interesting art project, and when he returns home in December, Amal tells him that he doesn't have to suffer through everything alone. He asks Moiz for help with English and starts to do better in class. His art project goes well, and he even starts to understand and befriend Aiden. When the end of the year rolls around, Omar and Naveed's grades aren't good for them to receive a scholarship the next year. They feel that the requirements are unfair, and rally the other students around this injustice. Will it be enough for them to be able to return? 
Strengths: Amal Unbound has been a very popular book; it's being used by a seventh grade teacher for a class unit, and I'm sure that my readers will be very happy to see more about life in Pakistan. Any story that shows my students how lucky they are to be able to come to school every day is one that I enjoy, and Omar's struggles to do well in class are quite admirable. My students are interested in boarding school stories, so movie nights, sneaking into the kitchen, and playing sports with friends will appeal to them. Omar's family situation is very interesting, and it was good to see Amal's family again. 
Weaknesses: This did not have as many details about daily life as Amal's story did, and I would have liked to see more descriptions of the classrooms and activities, and also more adventures outside the school, but it's hard to fit everything into the book. There was a decided paucity of descriptions of food, although there are a few. 
What I really think: I'm definitely purchasing this one, but it did have me scratching my head a bit. Omar's scholarship comes with very specific criteria, but then, I think most scholarships do. My own college scholarship required me to maintain an A average, major in a particular field, and only work certain university jobs. My graduate scholarship wasn't renewed even though I had the grades; the committee just didn't renew it. I wasn't even given any reasons. Is this a broken system, or just a system that didn't work to my advantage? I don't know what the finances of Ghalib Academy were, and how many scholarship students they could afford. Is this injustice? I just never thought of it that way. 

Ms. Yingling

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