Review by Avery Lau
Penguin Random House, February 2022
Ebook, 288 Pages, $9.99, 9781984830289
Grades 4-7, ages 8-12
In the middle of the chaos, a customer walks in.
Oma hurries over and hands the man a red menu. Some of the letters have worn off, so the front reads: olden Pal ce.
“Is this authentic Chinese?” The big man loosens his tie and deflates.
My grandmother nods. “Absolutely! All our dishes are from ancient Chinese recipes.”
“Good!” He shuts the menu. “Bring me chop suey and those cream cheese wontons. Chinese food has to be the real deal, or why even bother, right?”
When I was looking for a book to read, the title Maizy Chen’s Last Chance immediately drew me in. When I saw the red paper lanterns, the dark-haired girl holding a fortune cookie, and the Chinese restaurant decorations on the cover, I knew for certain that this would be the book I wanted to read. When I was growing up, I didn’t have any books that centred around young Chinese-American girls, so I was very excited to finally see the representation that I was missing when I was young.
Lisa Yee’s book follows Maizy Chen, a pre-teen Chinese-American girl who is taken on a trip to visit her elderly grandparents in a small town called Last Chance, Minnesota. Maizy has not seen her grandparents much prior to this visit, as her mom had moved to the city to pursue her career. Maizy and her mother visit Last Chance because Maizy’s grandfather is sick. When she arrives in Last Chance, Maizy learns that the peaceful surface of the town hides many things.
Though the main conflict of the book centres around issues with racism and hate crimes, specifically against Asian people, Yee also includes discussions of single motherhood, LGBTQ issues, dealing with the death of a loved one, discrimination, and overcoming prejudice, putting trust in young readers to understand these problems without making them the centre of the story or requiring an explanation. We are reminded that these complex issues don’t happen one at a time; in our world, they happen all at once, threatening to overwhelm us if we don’t overcome them. In this book, we are reminded that family and friends are here to help us through times that can be too much to hold onto alone.
This story also introduces historical knowledge about the Chinese Exclusion Act, Paper Sons, the Gold Rush, railroad building, and more in an appealing way for middle-grade readers, while also showcasing how some problems that started back in the 1850s persist until the modern day.
Maizy is a relatable young girl, and would resonate with many young and middle-grade readers. She has a headstrong personality, and a strong sense of justice, but also has moments where she makes mistakes, and makes sure to apologize. Written from the first-person point of view, Yee’s use of both long and short chapters effectively conveys Maizy’s emotions. The short chapters almost read like small diary entries. When the chapters are longer, Maizy had a day filled with emotion, both good and bad. A few specific chapters are very short, showing the reader how Maizy is feeling without having to use many words at all. In this case, Yee’s stylistic choice to write just a few lines in these chapters is extremely powerful.
Tackling so many issues all at the same time is a difficult task, but Yee manages to do so in such a way that it’s not overwhelming for readers. A charming book about a summer filled with joy, exploration, grief, and learning, Maizy Chen’s Last Chance is a delight to read.
Avery Lau is a 2nd year university student in the Faculty of Arts at the University of British Columbia. She hopes to become a teacher after graduation.