Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.
My Summary: Apple Yengko was born in the Philippines but moved to the U.S. a few years ago. As she starts sixth grade, all she wants to do is fit in, even if it means setting aside her heritage. When she ends up being named the #3 ugliest girl in her school, she turns to music for solace. Unfortunately, her mother won’t let her get a guitar to become the next George Harrison, like she wants. However, through the help of friends and her favorite teacher, she starts to see that her differences are something to be proud of.
This book was an emotional experience for me because it brought back memories of my own elementary and middle school days. I have knowledge and wisdom I didn’t have back then, and I wish I could tell some of it to my younger self. As I was reading Blackbird Fly, I kept yelling warnings and advice at Apple knowing that she had a journey to go through before she could gain the perspective she needed.
The beginning was especially frustrating to me, not because the book was poorly written but because it was so painfully real about the racist harassment [East/Southeast] Asian kids have to deal with. It hits full force in Chapter 2:
“Chinese people eat dogs for dinner, said Jake. He glanced around. “You guys didn’t know that? It doesn’t even matter what breed. It’s illegal to even keep them as pets in China.”
Alyssa’s eyes turned wide and round. She looked at me. “Is that true?”
“Apple isn’t even Chinese,” said Gretchen.
“It doesn’t matter.” Jake crossed his arms. “It’s all Asian people, not just Chinese. They all eat dogs.”
[some paragraphs omitted]
Alyssa raised her eyebrows at me. “Apple, is this true? Do Chinese people eat dogs for dinner?”
“I’m not Chinese,” I said.
Alyssa rolled her eyes as if to say, We know, we know, but close enough.
“She may not be Chinese, but I guarantee you don’t wanna go to her house and ask her mom for hot dogs,” Jake said. He put his fingers on the corners of his eyes and pulled them to make slits. “Would you-ah like-ah Chinese-tea with-ah you-ah hot-dahg?”
First of all, f**k Jake for being a racist garbage fire. Secondly, Alyssa’s behavior is awful considering she’s supposed to be Apple’s friend. Gretchen is the only semi-decent one out of all of them.
As an East Asian person, I’ve basically gotten all of these comments at some point, minus the dog-eating one, if my memory serves me well. Being assumed to be Chinese? Check. Being told that all Asians are the same? Check. The eye-pulling thing? Check. Mocking pseudo “Asian” accent? Check.
As if the racism isn’t bad enough, these kids are also extremely misogynistic, fatphobic, homophobic, and ableist. One insults the swing choir by calling it the “gayest club in the school.” Another casually drops the r-word. Multiple boys come up with a list called the “Dog Log” where they rank the girls in the school and fill in the spots for top 10 ugliest girls. At the top of the list is Heleena Moffett, who is fat and gets the cruel nickname “Big-leena.” The boys also come up with a list of the hottest girls in the school, which is just as objectifying.
The worst thing about all of this is that Apple internalizes a lot of the toxic values being spouted by the people around her. She devalues her Asianness, her Filipinx culture, etc. and strives to assimilate into whiteness and into the It group at her school. She blames her Filipina mother instead of her peers’ racism for her social isolation. It was very disheartening to watch her self-hating thoughts and actions.
Her so-called friend Alyssa isn’t much of a help. Her idea of helping is trying to find ways for Apple to be “redeemed” and taken off the list, which is just classic victim-blaming. Instead of holding the boys accountable for their misogyny and cruelty, she’s putting the responsibility on Apple to stop being a certain way to become more acceptable to people who don’t care to see her as human in the first place. And Alyssa’s motives for “helping” Apple are extremely self-serving: she doesn’t want her reputation to be tarnished by association with Apple.
Thankfully, Apple eventually gains true allies and friends, people who don’t see her difference as a mark of inferiority and won’t use her for social gain or be a silent bystander to bigotry and bullying. Slowly, she begins to detox herself of those oppressive ideas. She stops seeing people through the lens of dehumanizing values and labels and starts seeing them as individuals with their own strengths.
Recommendation: This is a great book for those who have dealt with bullying, social isolation, or the experience of being an outsider. I highly recommend it.