Review: ‘Three Keys’ by Kelly Yang


When Kelly Yang’s semi-autobiographical Front Desk came out, it was rightfully lauded in many circles. It told the story of Mia Tang, a girl who immigrated from China with her parents who had given up respected jobs at home to find a better life for her. By the time the book starts, her family has done some sleeping in cars and worked whatever job would bring in a pittance. The motel where they’re working now provides the backdrop for Mia’s personal experiences with racism and exploitation. Rather than focus on the abstract policies and statistics most immigration debates fall into, this book provides a window into a lived life of striving to make good while constantly being kicked aside. It was one of the suggested texts for an anti-racism camp we sent my daughter to over the summer.

Three Keys, the next book in the series, picks up a few months after Front Desk‘s end. Mia’s family now owns the motel along with pages of investors she and the community found to help back the purchase. Three Keys keeps Mia front and center, but the topic of immigration expands as her new home of California considers a bill that would severely limit it.

Racism and bigotry quickly surface. Angry “Immigrants Go Home” signs show up at the motel. Similar messages appear in the bathrooms at school. A new teacher favors the bill and gives the kids assignments to defend it.

But the full ramifications hit home when her friend Lupe confesses that she’s “an illegal” (“actions are illegal; people aren’t”, responds an immigration lawyer later in the book). And then Lupe’s mom can’t get back from Mexico after visiting her dying mother. And her dad gets picked up by immigration.

If you read Front Desk, you can guess what happens next: Mia sets out to right these wrongs. She’s an admirable girl character — my daughter loves these books — strong and passionate with a powerful moral compass. She pushes back against the new teacher’s views, and even shows her the error of her thinking. She ends up creating a community of kids at the school who each face their own forms of racism, poverty, and general unhappiness.

Even more than the immigrant’s-eye-view of the U.S., the power of community in these books resonates with me. Mia doesn’t effect change on her own. She finds a network of people who simply need her inspiration to band together. Whether it’s the kids at school who feel like outsiders or the 800+ people who sign a petition to free Lupe’s dad, the books show over and over again how strong many people can be against the few, even when those few seem to hold the power. Many voices speaking as one can be heard.

While Front Desk ends on a happy note, Three Keys ends more somberly, though Mia and her close friends have a bit of a breather at least. In the end, they’re more caring, more courageous, and more conscious of the world around them.

Read Three Keys and you’ll probably feel like a real-world member of Mia’s sprawling, supportive network, cheering on her successes and ready to take a stand for what’s right.

This book was sent to me by the publisher for review.

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