Hair-Braiders and Motel-Runners

As a child, I spent many summer afternoons tagging along with my dad as he put the roofs on homes all over Los Angeles. We couldn't afford a babysitter, or much else. But to this day, my weird dreamlike memories are evoked whenever I catch a whiff of cement or tar at a construction site. When I was a kid, I was wielding a hammer on shingles and knew the inside of Home Depot better than a shopping mall.

So when I recently came across two new middle-grade novels about kids with unique jobs, I was highly interested.

I'm Ok by Patti Kim, follows the story of Ok, a Korean-American boy who's grieving the loss of his roofer father. His widowed mother is struggling to make money, so Ok gets the idea to help out by getting a job. He picks a unique profession: braiding hair. He goes to the library to check out books on hair braiding techniques. He then offers his services to the most popular girl in his class. Once he does her hair, he soon finds himself working on everyone's hair for 25 cents here, a dollar there. All is not good though. He's still picked on by a bully, and, as the only Asian in school, Ok constantly finds himself in awkward, racist situations with his classmates. It's fascinating to watch Ok's progress throughout the book: he's a kid who can be kinda moody (for good reason) but he proves to be self-sufficient and clever.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang is about the Tang family. Immigrants from China, the family takes on the demanding, low-paying task of running a motel near Disneyland. As the only child, young Mia helps out by running the motel's front desk while her parents clean the rooms. At school, Mia struggles to find acceptance as only one of two Asian students (the other Asian student being Jason, the son of her parents' evil employer, Mr. Yao). She covets the thought of owning a pair of jeans; if only because she is teased by classmates for wearing cotton flowered pants her mother found at a deep discount. She can't even play sports at recess for fear she may hurt herself and need medical attention: her family has no medical insurance or savings. It's all these small details about living in poverty that make this story so real and gut-wrenching. This isn't just a book, it's how some of us actually grow up.

In the book, Mia's friend Lupe describes the poverty cycle as:

“We’re on a different rollercoaster. On our rollercoaster, our parents don’t have any money. So, we can’t go to good schools and then we can’t get good jobs. So, then our kids can’t go to good schools, they can’t get good jobs, and so on and so forth.”

It's a remarkably grown-up observation and one that haunts Mia throughout the book. It haunts her enough to compel her to take action to change the direction of her family's life. It's empowering that this character doesn't let her age limit her ability to create reaction and change. And, when you read the book's afterword, you'll be astonished to learn just how much this fictional story was based on true events in the author's childhood.

I'm so grateful that diversity in children's literature is a solid movement that's producing stories that I never saw as a kid. In particular, I'm amazed to see the two novels depict Asian-American main characters who are living in poverty. It's a cultural and economic intersectionality that I've lived and that I'm glad is being realistically depicted so that young readers can (1) see themselves and (2) develop more understanding and empathy.

Who knows? Adults may learn a thing or two as well.

Do you have a similar story growing up? Share your story below!