Front Desk by Kelly Yang, 304pp, RL 4
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Cover art by Maike Plentz
Purchased from Barnes & Noble
Winner of the 2019 Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association Award for Literature
SUMMARY: It's 1993 and Mia Tang is in fifth grade. When she immigrated from China with her parents two years earlier, they had only $200.00 in their pockets and often slept in their car. Despite the fact that her mother was an engineer in China, Mia's parents worked long, hard hours in restaurants as cooks until they saw the ad for the Calivista Motel in Anaheim, CA. Amazed by the prospect of free rent, they agree to the unfair working conditions the owner, Mr. Yao, locks them into. But Mia jumps in to help, working the front desk when she is not at school and saving up the $300 (and working on her writing skills) to enter an essay writing contest that could win her family a hotel in Vermont. When she is at school, Mia struggles with writing, which she loves but hasn't mastered in English, being bullied because of her second-hand, thrift store clothes, and insensitive and sometimes racists comments from her classmates and teacher.
At the motel, Mia is always looking for ways to improve things, whether it's customer service at the front desk or the lives of her family and friends. Fueled by her love of writing an strong sense of justice, Mia sparks change in her life, her parents life and the lives of the "weeklies," the guests who live at the hotel. Sometimes the sparks are good, sometimes they are for the worse. Either way, Mia is a force for positive change in an America that is often unfair, racist and cruel. Mia and her parents face hardships and challenges over the course of the novel, but Mia's positive spirit and creativity (and Yang's superb writing) make Front Desk a highly readable, accessible and profoundly enjoyable and uplifting experience.
WHY READ? WHY BUY?: Yang's book, which is largely autobiographical (I wonder, if like Yang, Mia will head off to college at U.C. Berkeley when she is thirteen and Harvard Law School when she is seventeen?), is a MUST read, MUST buy - for kids and adults, educators and librarians especially. Like Varian Johnson's The Parker Inheritance Yang makes issues of civil rights and social justice central to her novel, while also having Mia and her friend Lupe speak frankly about growing up in poverty, especially in an America that has an ever-increasing unequal distribution of wealth. And, she has written a highly readable book with a winning narrator and main character in Mia. I especially love that Yang connects Mia's love of writing with her realization that she has a voice - that she can speak out and maybe even make a difference. Over the course of the novel she encounters powerful racism against African Americans, a tenant of the hotel named Hank, specifically. When a car is stolen from the parking lot of the hotel, he becomes a suspect, despite lack of evidence. He ultimately loses his job and then his home when the police go to the gas station where he works to question his boss. Mia speaks out when and where she can about the unfairness of the treatment of Hank and, with a letter writing campaign, manages to get nearby businesses to stop using a secret list of names of (black) customers not to serve created by the Asian security guard at the neighboring motel. When the Calivista also becomes a secret safe haven for Chinese immigrants who need a place to stay, Mia learns about bosses who take the passports of immigrants, basically turning them into enslaved people, and loan sharks who beat those who can't pay.
In Mia's friend Lupe, Yang further illustrates the impacts of racism and poverty in America. The analogy of the two rollercoasters the Lupe shares with Mia is especially powerful. Lupe tells Mia that, according to her dad, there is a roller coaster for rich people that they go around and around on. Because they have money, their kids go to great schools, so these kids "grow up and make a lot of money, so their kids go to great schools." On the other roller coaster, the roller coaster of poverty, Lupe tells Mia that, because their parents don't have money, "we can't go to good schools, and then we can't get good jobs. So then our kids can't go to good schools, they can't get good jobs." Kelly Yang was able to get off the roller coaster of poverty, but the reality is that we have created a caste school system in America where non-white schools receive $23 billion LESS than white districts, despite serving the same number of students.
I am deeply in awe of authors like Kelly Yang and Varian Johnson for taking these hard truths about life in America and weaving them into novels for middle grade readers that are incredibly entertaining.