It’s Girls Like You, Mickey ~ By Patti Kim
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2020, ISBN #978-1-5344-4345-7)
Review by Joanne Rhim Lee (Winter 2021 issue)
Mickey MacDonald misses her best friend, Ok Lee, the subject of Patti Kim’s previous young adult (YA) book I’m Ok. Though they both started sixth grade lonely and miserable, they managed to salvage the year by becoming friends and winning over the bully who tormented them. However, Ok’s mom gets remarried over the summer, and they move to a new city. At the start of the the companion YA novel, It’s Girls Like You, Mickey, Mickey is alone again, and starting seventh grade.
Those readers/parents who are old enough to remember the ‘80s bubblegum hit Hey Mickey will recognize the line that Toni Basil sang about “guys like you, Mickey,” that made all the girls weak in the knees. Kim subverts this line in her new book, showing how girls like Mickey are equally spectacular.
However, at the beginning of the book, it isn’t quite clear what makes Mickey so special. She is lonely and grumpy, and her single mother is struggling to put food on the table for her and her younger brother. Mickey’s father left the family when she was little, but she still idolizes him. It’s easy to do, when compared to her mother, who chain-smokes cigarettes and snaps at her, saying maybe they would have more food if Mickey didn’t love to eat so much.
One of the things Mickey loved about her old friend Ok was learning about his Korean culture, especially his mom’s Korean food. So when her teacher introduces a new student from Korea as “Moon Sun Joo,” Mickey is immediately intrigued, and jumps in helpfully to explain to the class that Moon is her last name, not her first, hoping to pre-empt any teasing. Mickey also helps Sun Joo practice her English, and they become fast friends. Sun Joo invites her over to her house for the Chuseok celebration.
Food is definitely a favorite theme here, and Mickey marvels at the beautiful spread at Sun Joo’s house. “It ain’t set up like a church potluck with Crock-Pots and casseroles and bags of chips. This food don’t look like it’s meant for eating. It’s like the mannequin of food.” Mickey’s favorite is the colorful tteok cakes, which she initially thinks are too pretty to eat, but then discovers are amazingly delicious.
Mickey is overjoyed to finally have a new friend, and the fact that Sun Joo is Korean is a bonus. Still, making new friends always comes with a little awkwardness, especially in the middle school social pecking order scene. Even though Mickey is close to the bottom, she’s not immune to flexing her white privilege when the opportunity presents itself.
In an effort to make Sun Joo’s life easier, Mickey gives her the nickname of Sunny, thinking that it will be catchier and easier for other people to pronounce. And to make Sun Joo feel more at home, Mickey drops her supposedly sophisticated knowledge of Korean history: “I know you’re from Korea, from South Korea, not the North, which is run by a dictator who’s starving people to death. I know my Koreas.”
In another cringe-worthy scene, Mickey convinces Sun Joo to wear her Chuseok hanbok for Halloween, because it’s so pretty and unique. Sun Joo is hesitant, but since she doesn’t have a costume and doesn’t really understand what this strange American holiday is all about, she agrees to wear it to school on Halloween. Unlike Mickey’s shabby homemade costume, Sun Joo’s hanbok is a big hit, and the popular girls who have been tormenting Mickey for years immediately invite Sunny to be a part of their clique.
Patty Kim does an excellent job of capturing not only the voices of middle schoolers, but also the challenges that they face: How to fit in, how to stand out but also remain invisible, and how to navigate an unpredictable roller coaster of emotions, all within one day. As the story unfolds, Mickey faces a new challenge —- how to respond to Sunny’s newfound popularity. She’s happy for her, but also jealous; mad at herself for pushing Sunny to wear the hanbok, sad that Sunny felt she had to wear it, and lonely once again.
Thankfully, Sun Joo is not a silent, passive character in this story. She isn’t just a pawn in Mickey’s game. She has a mind and a life of her own. When Mickey lashes out at her for becoming friends with the other girls, Sun Joo points out Mickey’s hypocrisy. Just because Sun Joo doesn’t speak English well, it doesn’t mean she’s stupid, and can’t make her own decisions. Who’s the bully now?
Kim captures both the innocence of childhood, and also the heartbreak when this innocence ends. Mickey pretends not to care that she has no one to sit next to at lunch, or that she may not receive any votes for class president, but it’s clear, even to herself, that she does care. Mickey is definitely rough around the edges as she tries to learn how friendship works, but it’s endearing how she swings for the fences. During a class speech which involves old roller skates, an epic wipeout and a swallowed tooth, she experiences a simple act of kindness from someone whom she had written off a long time ago as a unredeemable bully.
It’s Girls Like You, Mickey could have been a typical, run-of-the-mill middle school story about resisting peer pressure and finding your true self, but Kim rises above these expectations by weaving in a lot of heart and a little bit of Korean history. Throughout the book, Mickey writes letters to her old friend Ok, telling him about life in seventh grade and her new friend Sunny. She asks him if he knows about this old gold glue in Korea that Sunny told her about. It was used to fix broken bowls, but since the glue was gold, the repaired cracks were not hidden, but instead became part of the bowls’ new beauty. Mickey, like all of us, is still a work in progress, but is getting stronger and more beautiful each year.