book review: Front Desk

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 1.44.33 PMtitle: Front Desk
author: Kelly Yang
date: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic); 2018
main character: Mia Tang
middle grade realistic fiction

Front Desk is based in Kelly Yang’s real life experiences, making it an #ownvoices novel. In the Author’s Notes, she explains how situations in the story evolved from her growing up and helping her parents manage three hotels in California. She also provides background information on Chinese immigrants, describing both the push and pull factors that bring them to the United States. This awareness was sharpened through her training as an attorney and as a journalist.

Mia Tang, the story’s protagonist, is a 5th grader when she begins working with her parents at the Calivista Motel just five miles from Disneyland. Front Desk details the family’s first year managing the hotel including little daily occurrences, diversity issues and the building of community at the motel. Resilience is an underlying current in the book as Mia always seems to make a way when there is none and, resilience is also there in the positive attitude that consistently moves her forward. We should feel sorry for this young eight year-old working girl, shouldn’t we? I think Mr. Lewis, a guest at the hotel wanted to. After demanding a larger hotel room from Mia, he catches himself and asks her, “Why are you doing this? Shouldn’t you be out playing?”

I looked away from him. Why were Americans always asking kids to go out and play? In China, kids almost never played. They had to sit for exams starting at an early age. Except for family get-togethers, every minute after school was packed with homework, drilling, revision, and dictation. When I went to first grade in China, I got two minutes a day to play. That’s literally what it said on a schedule I made for myself: 5:00-5:02: Play.

I wanted to say to Mr. Lewis that I’d never really played and I didn’t intend to start now. The other part of me wanted to say, This is playing. I got to run a motel-was there any better way to play?

In the end, I simply said, “I like my job very much.” (p. 35-36)

Mia has fun with the guests, particularly the Weeklies who lived at the motel and all the aunts and uncles, other Chinese immigrants, who frequently pass through. Her parents maintain a much more open and accepting view of other people than the owner of the motel, Mr. Yao. Yao leaves instructions that no “bad guys” be allowed to stay at the hotel, using the term as his euphemism for Blacks. His prejudice is particularly noticeable when a car is stolen from the motel’s premises and Hank, an African American who is a Weekly, is blamed for the theft. Yang’s writing allows Mia to reveal and react to the racism, but Hank provides the pushback and his own agency.

After Mia solves the case of the missing car, the police officer in charge of the case, Officer Phillips, returns to thank Mia for her work. Mia suggested he apologize to Hank because after being falsely accused of stealing the car, Hank lost his job. The officer grudgingly made the apology.

“You know what that cost me? It cost me my job!” Hank said.
“Again, I’m sorry,” Officer Phillips said flatly.
Hank looked him straight in the eye.
“Don’t be sorry. Be better,” Hank said. “Next time you accuse a black man, stop and think.” (p. 201)

More often than not, Yang provides racial or ethnic identification of her characters. She seems quite comfortable in a diverse environment, so much so that she incorporates economic and social diversity as well. Through the situations she develops, Yang forces young readers to consider the lack of opportunities that many immigrants to the U.S. face, not because of educational or language barriers, but because of the color of their skin. She presents issues of racism, crime, poverty and exploitation but that sense of resilience is always there. On page 211 of the book, she describes through the character of Mia what and when the Cultural Revolution was in China and how it impacted her grandparents. And, then she continues.

“That’s why we left, so that something like that wouldn’t happen to you,” my dad said. “Tonight, seeing that police officer arrest Mr. Lorenz and actually come back here and apologize to Hank – okay, he didn’t really want to apologize, but still, he did – I know I made the right decision. America may not be perfect, but she’s free. And that makes all the difference.”

I finally understood what my parents meant by “free”. (p.211)

There is so much more to this book! There’s Lupe, her Latinx bestie; Jason, the owner’s son who is also her class mate and there’s another motel for sale in Vermont! There is a setting that amplifies the story even more than the cover of the book. And, through it all, this young Chinese American girl is empowered in this first person narrative as she learns and grows from her surroundings in this tumultuous year.

But, for whom did Yang write this book? It’s easy to say she wrote it as a love offering to her younger self, but I get the feeling that this author is a bigger person than that. I think she wrote it for all young immigrant children, or aspiring immigrant children to tell them that these United States are a pretty good place to live. Look at Mia: she landed just 5 miles from Disneyland.

Winner of the 2019 Asian / Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature.

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