Tagged anxieties and worries, belonging, collaboration, community, courage, diversity, empathy, fairness, families, found families, friendship, growing-up, home, hope, identity, inclusivity, kindness, loyalty, making a difference, outsiders, overcoming adversity, resilience, self-belief, sport, tolerance
For most people, dreams die when they wake up and, for immigrants chasing the American Dream, arriving in the country can be the rudest of awakenings.
Across the Front Desk series, Kelly Yang has shown how every injustice, every double standard, every racist slight levelled against the Chinese-immigrant Tang family has tried to make them give up on the vision of a better life that urged them to leave their homeland. But, if there’s one thing readers know about heroine Mia Tang by now, it’s that even when she is shaken awake, even when the ‘real’ world comes back into sharp focus, she clings onto her dreams and their promises with everything she’s got.
Key Player is a book about keeping dreams alive, not just your own, but those of others around you. It’s a book about how doing so can inspire the world to be more than it currently is, can make it aspire to be what it can, what it should and what you dream it to be.
The fourth in the series (following Front Desk, Three Keys and Room to Dream), Key Player finds Mia dreaming of attending a journalism camp. This is all set against the background of a Los Angeles set alight with football fever, as the city prepares to host the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final between the USA and China. This very literal manifestation of Mia’s two sides coming face-to-face feeds into the deeper dream that is woven through the whole series: to really belong somewhere and for her two sides to be united, rather than juxtaposed.
To attend the prestigious camp, Mia must achieve straight As at school but is being held back by a pesky C in PE (even the reason for her reticence at taking part in sports – the years her family spent without medical insurance making her terrified of being injured – shows that Yang continues to unafraid of taking on difficult themes and circumstances). To rectify this one blot on her report card, Mia makes a deal with her coach: he will give her an A if she can track down and interview one of the two finalist teams, the USA or China. This is the premise that kickstarts the narrative and allows Mia’s story to unfold.
But, as with all of Yang’s books, Key Player is less about narrative and more about character and, by this fourth instalment, she has built up an incredible ensemble. Cracking the cover of a Front Desk book really does feel like walking through the door of the Calivista Motel and hanging out with old friends: the Tang family, (former) motel resident Hank, Mia’s friends Jason and Lupe, and even Jason’s father Mr Yao.
Key Player is as much about their dreams as it as about Mia’s and, at the start of the story, they all harbour wishes for things to be different: Mia’s father for a house that will give his family comfort, Mia’s mother to help her high-school students to the best of her ability, Hank for culinary success, Lupe to understand confusing new feelings and, perhaps most complexly, the Yao’s both dream of spending more time with each other. Beneath the football and the fanfare, this is what this book is actually about: which of these dreams will live, which ones will die, and which ones will change.
Key Player is not trite enough to simply let all these dreams come to pass. Yang is always too truthful and too interesting for that, but, in the end, she is too hopeful for it too. One of the most inspiring aspects of Key Player is how the characters hold onto each other’s dream, that when someone’s resolve to fight falters, someone else is always there to hold them up, to dream for them. When Hank is chewed up and spat out by big business, Mia helps him find his dream again. When Lupe’s dream scares her, Mia is there to urge her to follow it. When Mia’s mother feels cowed by the system, Mia stands firm beside her. When her father thinks of walking away from a dream house because of a racist neighbour, Mia won’t let the bigot win. As Jason and Mr Yao grow apart through the very act of trying to come together, it’s Mia who puts their dreams with her own and helps them heal. Mia is a character of pure, heart-bursting joy. She loves and inspires and cares and wins and carries on even when she doesn’t. She makes her world better by being in it but she makes ours better too because readers can take her pluck and guts and courage and fierce optimism into themselves and out into their lives. We could all do with being more like Mia.
Two other characters that become of particular note in Key Player are Mr Yao and Mrs Tang. No other characters have grown and changed as much as this pair. It is remarkable to compare the Mrs Tang of Front Desk (who told Mia to give up on her dreams of being a writer because English wasn’t her first language) to the force she has become in Key Player, where she takes on and blows past everything and everyone in her way in her advocacy of her maths students. The transformation is remarkable because it is so profound but it is also remarkable because it is so believable. It is abundantly clear that so many of the people and events in these books are drawn from Yang’s own life because they ring so effortlessly true.
Mr Yao has always been a bit of an exception to that accolade, being almost a caricature in his meanness. What Yang has done with him in this book makes me want to go back and reread the whole series with what I now know, seeing Yao not as angry, but as deeply and devastatingly hurt. I don’t want to give any spoilers to this touch of genius by Yang, but the way she reveals how Yao’s own dreams were fought for, won and then given up, makes readers see him in a whole new light. This message is really at the heart of the book: who we are, what we do, how we affect the world (good and bad), all come back to what we dream of and whether we can still believe in them (and ourselves) in the face of a world that doesn’t.
Yang’s writing is a joyous balance of being accessible without being flat, of being simple without being simplistic, of being beautiful without being pretentious. It’s writing that demands to be read, that urges you to carry on with just one more page, just one more chapter, until you have raced through from cover to cover. It would be interesting to unpick with a class what exactly makes it so compulsively readable.
Being the fourth in a series, you obviously will get the most out of the book if you have read the preceding three. However, the opening does a good job of recapping the main information and setting the scene. Therefore, Key Player could work as a standalone read.
The one issue that mars this otherwise brilliant book is a number of typographical errors. From incorrectly punctuated speech, to random line breaks, these errors can jar you out of the story and are in danger of modelling mistakes to young readers. The book is published in the UK by Knights Of, which is a brilliant company that brings into the world stories that are not only gripping but also important. However, I have read a number of their books now where similar problems have been apparent. These sections could be used as a teaching point in class, with the children correcting the mistakes.
We talk all the time about teaching character, building resilience and determination, about inspiring and supporting the dreams of our children. This is a book that will do that and that should be in every UKS2 classroom. With the promise of a sequel clearly set up at the end of Key Player, I will be waiting impatiently for the next instalment of what remains the best series currently unfolding in the world of children’s literature.
In the Reading Corner: Kelly Yang talks to Nikki Gamble about Key Player.
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