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Finally Seen

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About The Book

From the New York Times bestselling author of Front Desk comes a “involving, realistic” (Booklist, starred review) middle grade novel about a young girl who leaves China to live with her parents and sister, after five years apart, and learns about family, friendship, and the power of being finally seen.

My sister got to grow up with my parents. Me? I grew up with postcards from my parents.

When ten-year-old Lina Gao steps off the plane in Los Angeles, it’s her first time in America and the first time seeing her parents and her little sister in five years! She’s been waiting for this moment every day while she lived with her grandmother in Beijing, getting teased by kids at school who called her “left behind girl.” Finally, her parents are ready for her to join their fabulous life in America! Except, it’s not exactly like in the postcards:

1. School’s a lot harder than she thought. When she mispronounces some words in English on the first day, she decides she simply won’t talk. Ever again.
2. Her chatty little sister has no problem with English. And seems to do everything better than Lina, including knowing exactly the way to her parents’ hearts.
3. They live in an apartment, not a house like in Mom’s letters, and they owe a lot of back rent from the pandemic. And Mom’s plan to pay it back sounds more like a hobby than a moneymaker.

As she reckons with her hurt, Lina tries to keep a lid on her feelings, both at home and at school. When her teacher starts facing challenges for her latest book selection, a book that deeply resonates with Lina, it will take all of Lina’s courage and resilience to get over her fear and choose a future where she’s finally seen.

Excerpt

Chapter 1 Chapter 1
I listen to the quiet hum of the plane and the not-so-quiet flutter of my heart in my chest. This is it. Another six hours and I will finally see my parents and my sister again! I try to picture Mom’s and Dad’s faces when I land. Except I keep picturing Marge and Homer Simpson. Only Asian. With shorter hair. And a less smart Lisa. (Hopefully.)

I guess that’s what happens when you haven’t seen your family in five years (and you’ve watched a lot of subtitled Simpsons). I was starting to give up on the whole going-to-America thing, until my mom called six weeks ago.

“Lao Lao told me you’re doing your middle school applications,” Mom said. “And you’re writing an essay on your parents being in America?”

I nodded, coiling the phone cord around my fingers.

“Is that not a good topic?” I asked.

“No…,” she said, “it’s just… what are you going to say?”

I shrugged. I like writing, but not as much as I like drawing pictures. But art’s a sure way to get kicked out of any school in Beijing, let alone Beijing Normal Middle School #3, where I was applying. It was my aunt Jing’s middle school. She now has a fancy tech job in Shenzhen. She says there’s no future for artists in China. Beijing Normal would get the art out of me… and turn me into a steady workhorse. Just like her.

“Well?” Mom asked.

I felt a rush of heat spread across my forehead. Here was my chance to tell her how I really felt about being left behind all these years. I was only five years old when she left. I thought she was going on a work trip. I didn’t even understand. Most of all, how could she take Millie, my baby sister, and not me? My sister got to grow up with my parents. Me? I grew up with postcards from my parents.

But as usual, my voice was locked in the chamber of my throat.

There are things I don’t want to tell anyone, well, except Lao Lao.

My grandmother, Lao Lao, is my moon and my Wilson. Like the volleyball in Cast Away (another movie I binged), she is my companion in my waiting city. That’s what Beijing feels like, just me and Lao Lao waiting. It used to be me, Lao Lao, and Lao Ye. But last year, when Lao Ye passed away… our trio of tea leaves went down to two. Now I am Lao Lao’s human alarm clock (I wake her up every day at 6 a.m.), dumpling steamer, pu’er brewer, flower waterer, and medicine fetcher.

I know how much she needs me. I’m all she’s got left. Which is why some feelings are too hard to even tell her.

Instead, I catch them and tuck them behind my cheek.

Lao Lao says that’s the way to succeed in China.

Every morning, Lao Lao reminds me: go to school, make your parents proud, and watch your words, lest they label you a bad apple. She grew up in the era of the Cultural Revolution, and her father was thrown in jail for being a “bad apple.” Even though that was a long time ago, the memory of it never really left. She’s always telling me to sew up half my mouth. I imagine an invisible thread running along my mouth, my lips stitched like a sock.

But the thing about some feelings is… they just won’t go away. Instead, they form a tight ball at the base of my throat. Where they sit and they wait, planning their escape from the thread. And one day, just when you least expect it, they shoot out like a rocket.

That’s exactly what happened that rainy Beijing spring day when Mom called.

“Do you really want to go to Beijing Normal #3?” Mom asked.

I looked over at my lao lao, craning her head eagerly to catch snippets of our conversation. She put her knitting needles down, massaging her hand. Her arthritis had gotten so much worse since Lao Ye passed, she could hardly keep knitting. The doctors in China had warned her that this day would come. They told her to do more acupuncture, to get out and exercise. But Lao Lao was born in the Year of the Ox. She does not like anyone telling her what to do.

I turned away from Lao Lao, held the phone close to my face, and cupped a hand around my mouth.

“No,” I whispered. “I want to go to school in America. Please, Mama. I want to come.”

And with that, I chose my future over my past.

A hand on my arm pushes me awake.

“Lina Gao?” the flight attendant asks. I rub my eyes awake. She smiles and says to me in Chinese, “We’re moving you up to first class. So you can get out first when we land!”

I blink in confusion. I reach for my sketch pad. I was in the middle of working on a sketch of Lao Lao gardening, but as I look up, my eyes nearly pop when I see the flight tracker on the screen. We’re almost there!

“Your escort will be waiting as soon as we get to LAX to take you to your parents.”

I leap up from my seat. Let’s gooooo!!!

I follow the flight attendant up the long aisle to first class, staring at all the people stretched out in beds with their noise-canceling headphones and cotton candy slippers. These are airplane apartments.

I take a seat in one of the cabins and reach for the fancy first-class cotton slippers. I’m so saving these for Lao Lao. I wonder if she likes her new nursing home.

I feel a tug of guilt thinking about it, but Aunt Jing said it was necessary. She and Uncle Hu both live in Shenzhen, which is about twelve hundred miles away from Beijing, and they both have 9-9-6 tech jobs. A 9-9-6 job means you work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. They’re the envy of the country, because they make the most money. But it also means there’s no way my aunt can be a tea brewer for my lao lao.

So they took me and Lao Lao to visit the nursing home. I remember the floors were very shiny, almost like you could go Rollerblading on them. I pictured a bunch of elderly folks Rollerblading, and then had to bite on my cheeks to stop myself from giggling. Because it wasn’t funny.

The rooms were bright, with big windows that allowed the team of nurses to look in at all times. Aunt Jing said she got Lao Lao the biggest room of all—a private room. It was the nicest room in the entire nursing home. But to Lao Lao, it was like living inside a fishbowl. She didn’t like the idea at all.

“No way!” she said, stomping her walking cane down on the ground. “Not happening! I am a free spirit—I need to be able to roam around the park and go to see my friends!”

“They can come see you!” Aunt Jing insisted. “That’s why we’re putting you into a retirement home in Beijing—so your friends can come visit. Anytime!”

Lao Lao has two good park friends: Chen Nai Nai, a grandma who loves to dance, and Wang Nai Nai, whose daughter is also in America. I’ve never seen either of them come to our house, though.

“Why can’t I just stay by myself?” Lao Lao asked, peeking at my aunt.

“Because, Ma, your arthritis and osteoporosis, it’s all getting worse. And now that Dad’s gone… Frankly, you should have gone into a retirement community a long time ago,” Aunt Jing said. “But you had Lina—”

“And I loved every minute of it, sweet child,” Lao Lao said, patting my hand.

I felt a tear escape. This was all my fault.

“No, don’t you cry,” Lao Lao told me. She nodded to my aunt, and with a shaking hand, she signed the papers.

I put my hand to the airplane window and whisper with all my heart:

“I’m so sorry, Lao Lao. I promise I will find a way to bring you over. I will find a way to get you out of the waiting city, too.”

“Fifteen minutes to landing! the captain announces on the speaker.

I immediately grab the stash of free goodies next to the cotton candy slippers. I stuff as many as I can into my backpack. Socks, sleeping masks, you name it. I add the stash to my collection of Chinese snacks I’ve brought over for my (almost) new family. I’ve packed wheat flour cake, hawthorn flakes, pumpkin chips, and White Rabbit candies for them, hoping the candies will fill them with sweet guilt for leaving me behind.

I gaze out the window at the wispy clouds. The Los Angeles houses sprawl across the land, stretching all the way to the shimmering blue sea! I’ve never seen the ocean before. Before Lao Ye passed, we talked about going to Beidaihe, the closest beach to Beijing. But it was always too hard, with Lao Ye’s work and health. He was a magazine editor. Even after he “retired” he kept going into the office. He said working was the best way to stay young, but Lao Lao secretly suspected it was so he could keep eating lunch at his favorite fried dumpling place next to his office.

My lao ye had heart disease and diabetes. He used to joke that at his age, heart disease and diabetes were like stamps in a passport—signs of a life well lived.

I wish Lao Ye had had actual stamps in his passport, though, and more time to get them. But at seventy-two, he had a stroke in the taxi on his way home from work.

We didn’t believe it even when we were sitting in the hospital waiting area. Lao Lao and I were still talking about going to the beach and pushing Lao Ye to actually retire after this. When the doctor delivered the news, all I remember is my grandma falling to the ground, pounding the cold stone floor, crying, “You get back here, you old goat! Don’t you dare leave me!”

But her beloved goat was already gone.

Lao Lao’s voice comes burrowing into my head as the plane starts to descend.

This is different. Remember, we may be six thousand miles apart, but I’m right there in your heart. Anytime you want to talk to me, just put your hand over your chest and I’ll feel it, sweet child.

As the turbulence jiggles my butt, I open my mouth, like I’m about to eat a gigantic baozi, the tears running down my cheeks. This is it, Lao Lao! I made it!!!

We touch down at 9:58 a.m. As the plane taxis, a flight attendant comes up to me. “Are you ready?”

“I’m ready!” I announce.

About The Author

Photograph by Jessica Sample

Kelly Yang is the New York Times bestselling author of Front Desk (winner of the 2019 Asian Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature), ParachutesThree Keys, Room to DreamNew from HereFinally Seen, and Finally HeardFront Desk also won the Parents’ Choice Gold Medal, was the 2019 Global Read Aloud, and has earned numerous other honors including being named a best book of the year by Amazon, The Washington PostKirkus ReviewsSchool Library JournalPublishers Weekly, and NPR. Learn more at KellyYang.com. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (February 28, 2023)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534488335
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 650L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

"Yang’s latest depicts Lina’s courage, kindness, and hard work to navigate her first year in the U.S. while building relationships new and old...a great novel that depicts the challenges of being a Chinese immigrant in the U.S. while highlighting universally relatable themes of feeling like an outcast for middle schoolers."

School Library Journal, starred review

* In this involving, realistic chapter book, a likable character overcomes a series of obstacles while forging strong connections with her parents, her sister, and two friends. Yang...writes with a beguiling combination of clarity, simplicity, and immediacy in a new story exploring the practical and emotional challenges of immigration as experienced by children.

Booklist, starred review 

"Yang covers a lot of ground, from immigrant experiences and socio-economic inequities to climate change and middle school angst. The plotline that really stands out, however, is when Lina discovers that books can comfort the struggling, link people together, and create changes both internal and external. This theme propels the action through the book’s satisfying climax when she must decide whether to use her voice to stop a book that she loves from being banned in her classroom.

Timely and pointed."

– Kirkus Reviews

"As Lina attempts to adapt, facing bullying at school, she finds solace in the form of an encouraging teacher, new friends, and the school library. And gradually, when a class book selection that resonates deeply with Lina is challenged, her growing confidence develops into a tool she can use to speak out. In a thematically wide-ranging, character-driven novel, Yang (Front Desk) highlights the importance of representation alongside one child’s experience of navigating a complex reality."

– Publishers Weekly

"Yang does a skillful job in portraying Lina’s multitude of emotions. There’s the sadness of leaving her grandmother behind in a Chinese nursing home and the isolation and loneliness stemming from her imperfect English. Issues of racism and class come up when Lina is teased at school, an Asian American graphic novel is targeted for censorship, and her parents struggle to be paid fairly and to get updates on their green card applications."

– Horn Book Magazine

"Yang's earnest, heartfelt novel approaches immigration and family from a contemporary point of view, including the pains and injustices felt by many during the pandemic. Her characters are a strong point of the book and, as Lina gets to know each multifaceted individual, she becomes a part of the community. Finally Seen is, as Lina would say, "a sliding door" into a world many have never experienced and "a mirror" for those who have."

– Shelf Awareness

Awards and Honors

  • SLJ Best Book of the Year

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More books from this author: Kelly Yang