Book Review: Finally Seen by Kelly Yang
From the New York Times bestselling author of Front Desk comes a gripping middle grade novel about a young girl who leaves China to live with her parents and sister, after five years apart, and learns about family, friendship, and the power of being finally seen.
My sister got to grow up with my parents. Me? I grew up with postcards from my parents.
When ten-year-old Lina Gao steps off the plane in Los Angeles, it’s her first time in America and the first time seeing her parents and her little sister in five years! She’s been waiting for this moment every day while she lived with her grandmother in Beijing, getting teased by kids at school who called her “left behind girl.” Finally, her parents are ready for her to join their fabulous life in America! Except, it’s not exactly like in the postcards:
1. School’s a lot harder than she thought. When she mispronounces some words in English on the first day, she decides she simply won’t talk. Ever again.
2. Her chatty little sister has no problem with English. And seems to do everything better than Lina, including knowing exactly the way to her parents’ hearts.
3. They live in an apartment, not a house like in Mom’s letters, and they owe a lot of back rent from the pandemic. And Mom’s plan to pay it back sounds more like a hobby than a moneymaker.
As she reckons with her hurt, Lina tries to keep a lid on her feelings, both at home and at school. When her teacher starts facing challenges for her latest book selection, a book that deeply resonates with Lina, it will take all of Lina’s courage and resilience to get over her fear in order to choose a future where she’s finally seen.
This might be my favorite Kelly Yang book yet. I bumped it up on my TBR list because a student at school wanted to do a little mini book club with me on it, and how could I say no to that? Don’t tell her, but I couldn’t stick to her slower pace (like 35 pages a day, which is still impressively fast for a kid who has other things going on in life AND is in my actual real book club with another book) and had to read it in two days. I needed to know what happened for Lina and her family. Because I loved them.
Lina comes to America to live with parents and little sister after having been in China, after they left, for five years with her grandmother. She’s so excited to be reunited, but it quickly becomes clear that it is pretty challenging to drop back into a family that’s been living in a different country for a significant period of time. Lina doesn’t know much English. She doesn’t understand the cultural references her little sister makes. And her family’s life in America doesn’t actually look anything like how their letters to Lina portrayed life. My little friend who was reading with me said, “I think her parents lied to protect her.” They made their life seem better than it was so no one would worry about them. But the reality is that they are behind in rent, that Lina’s dad is overworked and (really unfairly) undercompensated, and things are HARD. This is not the American Dream that Lina had pictured. She’s lost at school, kids are cruel, and now she’s worried about them losing their apartment. BUT. Like so much of so many lives, things are also constantly getting better. The librarian and an ELL teacher really help Lina feel included and valued. She makes a friend at school and a friend at her dad’s work. She grows closer to her family. She still desperately misses her grandma and feels guilty for leaving her, but things in her new life are slowly looking up.
What I liked best was how very NOW this book feels, even though the things that are happening that make it feel so very NOW—talks about book challenges and bans, nasty attitudes about immigrants, corrupt employers, families struggling—are things that have been happening for years and years. I also love how, and forgive me for using the title in this review, SEEN Lina eventually is. She’s finally seen! She’s included, embraced, nurtured, encouraged, and able to finally come into her own. She finds her voice, speaks up, finds friends, and gets to be her entire, complex self. Yang does a fabulous job of walking us through the many things that happen in Lina’s life. Her life is complicated, but that’s real life–that’s real kids’ lives. A great read that will speak to so many.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 02/28/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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