by Patti Kim
Atheneum Books/ Simon & Schuster
Middle Grade Contemporary
ages 10 and up
Ok Lee knows it’s his responsibility to help pay the bills. With his father gone and his mother working three jobs and still barely making ends meet, there’s really no other choice. If only he could win the cash prize at the school talent contest! But he can’t sing or dance, and has no magic up his sleeves, so he tries the next best thing: a hair braiding business.
It’s too bad the girls at school can’t pay him much, and he’s being befriended against his will by Mickey McDonald, the unusual girl with a larger-than-life personality. Who needs friends? They’d only distract from his mission, and Ok believes life is better on his own. Then there’s Asa Banks, the most popular boy in their grade, who’s got it out for Ok.
But when the pushy deacon at their Korean church starts wooing Ok’s mom, it’s the last straw. Ok has to come up with an exit strategy—fast.
Ok is in middle school. His parents moved to the US from Korea, and his name is pronounced like 'pork' but without the 'p' and 'r'. All is fine, until his father falls from a roof and dies, leaving Ok's mother struggling terribly to make ends and meet. Ok decides to help out by braiding hair for pay at school, but it this doesn't bring the riches he'd hoped. When the deacon at church starts to move in on his mother's life—a man Ok doesn't like—he realizes he might be getting in the way of things.
While there are humorous moments, this is a read with heavy undercurrents. Racism plays a big role as the kids at school single out Ok, keeping him on the outskirts of the class. One boy in particular is harsh in the bullying. Not all of the bullying is racism, however. Ok's developing friend also suffers verbal turmoil for completely other reasons, making it clear that the school has a pretty difficult atmosphere. While the racism aspect is well done, it wasn't a topic Ok (or his mother) hits head-on. He doesn't like the treatment and lashes back in a natural but not kind way. The whole topic of racism ends up sliding in as a more rounded bullying issue than settling into a topic in and of itself...which is probably a more realistic and natural response in most school yards.
The Korean church and women in it was a funny, nice touch. Especially the Deacon is well done as it's not clear whether it's Ok or his mother who are seeing the man for who he really is. Ok's mother dates the man extremely quickly after the father's death (within a couple of months), and when compared with the job end of things, all of it was squished pretty quickly into the time frame. One of the Deacon's biggest secrets, insurance sales, is never explained and hangs as a loose end.
Ok as well as the two main sub characters are harsh in their interactions, which came across pretty mean at times. Still, the building friendships happen smoothly, believable and is are an inspiration. But this harsh side strings through the entire book, especially when Ok takes a pretty nasty personality turn for a while. While it was nice to see him forgiven for his mean actions later, the lack of true consequences didn't necessarily leave the best message to readers of that age group.
All in all, this was an engaging read with lots of food for thought . The themes are realistic and hit a nerve for not only middle graders. While not everyone in the intended age group will feel at home in this story, when placed in the right hands, it's a book which holds until the last page and leaves the reader thinking.
And here she is...
Born in Busan, Korea, Patti Kim immigrated to the United States on Christmas, 1974. Convinced at the age of five that she was a writer, she scribbled gibberish all over the pages of her mother's Korean-English dictionary and got in big trouble for it. But that didn't stop her from writing. The author of A Cab Called Reliable, Here I Am, and I'm Ok, Patti lives in University Park, Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and a ferocious terrier.