THE MANY MEANINGS OF MEILAN
By Andrea Wang

As a child, I read every book I could get my hands on from the children’s section of the Brooklyn Public Library, starting with A and working my way through to Z. But much as I loved Anne Shirley of Green Gables, Jo March, Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew, a part of me was searching for another Chinese American girl like myself. I didn’t find her. So it was with pleasure that I read Andrea Wang’s debut middle grade novel, “The Many Meanings of Meilan.”

After seventh grader Meilan Hua’s beloved grandmother dies, a family fight erupts that results in Meilan, her parents and her grandfather moving from Boston’s Chinatown to rural Ohio. They are “like the water in the Niagara River — rushing away from the source of our strength and dropping over the edge only to splash down in some strange place.” The only Asian American in her new school, Meilan never imagined there could still be places like this, where she is “one drop of paint on a white canvas.” She is promptly renamed Melanie without her consent by the principal, whom she sees as a fox demon, and becomes a “new-made creature, this Melanie, half this and half that, half here and half nowhere at all.”

Wang (whose picture book “Watercress” taps similar themes) creates a rich imaginary world for her heroine. Even as Meilan navigates microaggressions and racism in addition to the usual trials facing a new student entering an insular community, her inner landscape is populated by a Chinese phoenix, a tree spirit, a snake sprite. When she realizes there are several homophones of her Mandarin name, she adopts them, fracturing her identity into Mist, who knows how to be invisible; Basket, the carrier of her parents’ dreams; and Blue, who acknowledges her true thoughts and emotions. It is only at the end of the book that these variations “spin and weave together, coalescing into a shimmery human-shaped form. A me-shaped form.”

Throughout, I delighted in the ways Meilan is both Chinese and American. A typical packed school lunch consists of “thick slices of pork belly cooked in soy sauce on a bed of white rice.” Her mother spouts wise aphorisms such as “Trees desire peace, but wind never stop.” On the first anniversary of Meilan’s grandmother’s death, the family cooks a ritual feast to honor her spirit. And yet the book that means the most to Meilan is one she’s assigned in English class: Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea,” in which Ged (the wizard) makes himself whole by naming his shadow and knowing his true self.

While it tackles issues such as racism, Wang’s novel is about finding common ground. Meilan and her white friend Logan compare things their mothers have said to them and realize “moms have the same language even if they don’t speak the same language.” Small references to items like a teacher’s great-grandmother’s Tausenblättertorte, a German thousand-leaves cake, remind the reader that most Americans possess an immigrant past. When Meilan contemplates her chief antagonist, the principal, she thinks: “I see that he’s carrying around a lot of weight, including the pain of what happened to his uncle. He’s Basket in his own life.”

The little girl I was would have been thrilled to encounter Meilan and her many names in a book. Perhaps I, too, would have felt “visible and vulnerable but also proud.” And having found a character who embraces the complexity of being both Chinese and American, I would have been able to echo her words: “I am not alone.”

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