The new kid in my eighth-grade math class got it into his head that my name was Margaret. He called me that for weeks, which I found annoying because (a) I didn’t care for the name Margaret and (b) it wasn’t my name. But what if instead of a clueless classmate, it had been the principal of my middle school calling me the wrong name? Or worse — way, way, worse — what if he had convinced my mother my name was too “unusual” and it was “better for everyone” if the whole school called me a more “American” name? That’s what happens to the protagonist in The Many Meanings of Meilan (Kokila, 2021, $17.99), a middle-grade novel by Andrea Wang that explores racism, identity and reconciliation through the lens of names. It’s just the sort of book school boards in several states are trying to keep out of classrooms, and I want you to know why it belongs on classroom bookshelves.
Most middle-grade readers will enjoy The Many Meanings of Meilan because it includes playful elements that appeal to the 8-12 age group, such as rebellion, ghosts and mystery. At school, Meilan makes silence feel like bold defiance, even sneaking into an off-limits garden for lunch each day. She feels the presence of a wise Chinese tree-spirit in her backyard and the ghost of her home’s former owner inside. Her grandfather Gōnggong provides a mystery: what is the war experience that haunts him? Did he fight on the “wrong” side in Vietnam? The novel builds to a climax that includes searching a graveyard during a tornado: enough thrilling action to compel older readers without terrifying younger ones.
When the principal of her new school in Redbud, Ohio insists on calling her “Melanie,” Meilan resists. Her real name means “beautiful orchid,” but she looks to different possible meanings of her Mandarin name — ”mist,” “basket” and “blue” — to figure out who she is and how to behave. She becomes Mist at school, where, aware of being “one drop of paint on a white canvas,” she works to be invisible. At home, she is Basket, carrying the burden of her family’s hopes and dreams, aiming to make her parents and Gōnggong happy and proud. Whenever and wherever she is true to her own thoughts and feelings, she calls herself Blue.
Her mother, Māma, her father, Bàba, and Gōnggong all have strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish them. They have the courage to move into an unfamiliar area and the practicality to defer to local customs and expectations. Māma models patient forbearance in the face of setbacks and racism, while Meilan asks, “Why does Māma always have to suck up to white people?” Bàba has to start over as a baker in Redbud, but Meilan comes to realize he may be more happy than sad to be free of his bickering siblings and the old family bakery in Boston’s Chinatown. Gōnggong, mourning the recent loss of his wife, Meilan’s beloved grandmother Nǎinai, also suffers PTSD from military service as a Taiwanese youth. Meilan wants to help him find joy again — but worries that her class Veteran’s Day project will have the opposite effect.
If I were choosing a book to start a conversation with middle-graders about racism, The Many Meanings of Meilan would be at the top of my list. For white readers like me, the book is an opportunity to identify with Meilan and her frustration, anger and bewilderment at the ways she and her family are treated differently because they are Asian American. She feels defensive on behalf of her mother when a waitress serving her demands with a smirk, “Learn to speak English.” I am uncomfortable seeing myself in the white tourists Māma flatters, and I understand Meilan’s embarrassment when it happens. When the principal says it would be “inappropriate” for Gōnggong to be honored at the school Veteran’s Day ceremony, I feel Meilan’s pain and hear the subtext, as she does: “His words rise over me like shadows. Inappropriate, they whisper. Not white enough, not American enough.”
Even as she bears the brunt of racist attitudes, Meilan tries to understand how they are formed. Her friend Logan admits that his father, their school’s former principal, blames Chinese people for the loss of his job, because of the trade war with China. Sad and angry, Meilan wonders: “How can a grown-up who’s never even met me decide that he doesn’t like me?” The root of the principal’s racism is a secret I don’t want to spoil, but once Meilan discovers it, she offers him compassion even though she knows his behavior is wrong. She understands that he is “carrying around a lot of weight” from his past experiences. She is even able to see the similarity to her own situation: “He’s Basket in his own life, too. My Basket accepts, while his lashes out. … Is he capable of seeing what we have in common?”
Logan himself provides teachable moments for readers who might self-identify as “woke.” He calls Meilan “exotic,” meaning it as a compliment, but Meilan pushes back, explaining that the word actually implies foreignness. When Logan responds that he won’t call people that anymore, Meilan provides the lesson for potential white allies: “It’s not that simple. Not just a rule about not calling people a specific adjective. It’s about how you see and treat other people. And you have to constantly be aware of what you’re doing and how it affects others, so your adjustments don’t stop. Ever.” Now that’s a message I’d like middle schoolers to hear. Middle-aged people too, for that matter.
In The Many Meanings of Meilan, understanding, forgiveness and coming together are themes of the novel. Throughout the book, Meilan strives to mend the rift with her extended family. Facing several people in Redbud who judge her by her race rather than her actions, she looks to understand their perspectives. When a harasser promises to change his ways, Meilan is open to forgive, as long as the promise is backed up by action. Something I love about the novel is that no character is shown to be irredeemable. People behave badly for complex reasons, and given the opportunity, they may work through them. I also love that the characters who are the most unfair and cruel to Meilan, like the principal, lose their power over her day-to-day experience. This happens in part because of teachers and friends who behave as allies, but mostly because Meilan keeps moving forward with confidence and strength, finding answers along the way to her own questions about identity. Meilan offers understanding and forgiveness to those who are willing to change, including herself.