Three Keys by Kelly Yang, 288 pp, RL 4
Three Keys: A Front Desk Novel
by Kelly Yang
Cover art by Maike Plenzke
Review Copy from Scholastic
Once again, Yang layers important, timely issues and events into Three Keys, the superb sequel to award winning Front Desk, narrated by the brave, determined Mia Tang. As with Front Desk, Yang continues to focus on issues of racism, segregation and the challenges faced by immigrants in America, with and without documentation, setting this sequel in California in 1994 as the state prepares to vote on Proposition 187.
Now in sixth grade, Mia is looking forward to continuing to grow her writing skills and spending time with her best friend, Lupe. Her parents have made improvements to the Calivista Motel that have brought in more business and more support for immigrants, specifically in the form of "How to Navigate America" newcomer classes held every Wednesday night. As the November election approaches, it is impossible for Mia to ignore the ominous television advertisements and growing xenophobia stirred up by the prospect of banning undocumented immigrants from access to health care and public education. Yang's masterful storytelling makes clear for readers how Prop 187 put all people of color, regardless of citizenship, under scrutiny and in danger. At the same time, she once again shows readers, through the hard work of Mia's parents and other adults in the novel, how immigrants often live in or at the edge of poverty, despite working more than 40 hours a week, with institutionalized racism keeping them off the "main road," as Uncle Zhang refers to a "job that pays proper." When Mia's parents hire their sixth employee at Calivista and are excited by the prospect of becoming eligible for medical insurance, a chain of events is set in motion as Lupe is forced to reveal that her family is undocumented. Lupe's father is arrested in San Diego, trying to pick up Lupe's mother after traveling to Mexico for a funeral and returning with the help of coyotes, and the fight to free him and keep him from being deported become one of the many plot threads in this book.
The attitudes of Mia's white classmates and her teacher show readers the micro-aggressions and entrenched racist attitudes, especially toward immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, in California. Mia, Lupe and Hank, who is Black, also encounter harassment and rights abuses in their community with Yang's author's note revealing that "every single one of the hate crimes depicted in this novel actually happened during this period in California history." While Three Keys has a happy ending for Lupe's family, the passing of Prop 187 and the aftereffects that are with us today are anything but.
As a native Californian, I vividly remember the shock of Prop 187 passing and felt sickened reading Yang's account of living through it as a child and remembering the fear and real danger that so many families lived in before, during and after the passing of the proposition, also known as "Save Our State," and the chilling, echoing messages of the Make America Great Again movement. I am grateful to Yang for the stories she is writing, her author's notes that amplify her stories and the research, especially in the field, visiting and interviewing workers in the Central Valley and picking fruit with them in the "blistering heat," as well as meeting with policy experts and immigration lawyers. I hope that getting her books into the hands of children will educate them and begin the long, hard process bringing racial justice to all Americans.