Front Desk by Kelly Yang – Review by Jenny deGroot
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Age Range: 8-12
Grade Level: 3-7
Mia’s parents told her that America would be an amazing place. They would have a big house with a dog, hamburgers every day and doing whatever you want. And life will be free. But so far, the hamburgers are okay, there is no big house and no dog and everything is so expensive.
Mia is thirteen years old. She and her parents are immigrants to California from China. And that is just one of the secrets she keeps to herself as she starts a new school. The other secrets are that she lives in a motel, that she may not swim in the motel pool and that her parents hide immigrants.
Mia’s parents are the caretakers of the Calivista Motel. The owner, Mr. Yao is a hard task master threatening to throw them out on the street should they not obey his rules because “there are ten thousands of immigrants who can do the job.” The rules include not swimming in the pool.
But the Tangs do not speak English so Mia takes over the front desk while her parents clean the rooms. Mia makes a sign. Mia Tang- Manager, and props it on the desk. She welcomes overnight as well as long term guests. It is the long-term guests that Mia loves most and before long they all begin to feel like family. When relatives and friends of relatives show up from other parts of California and need a few nights of lodging and food Mia’s parents welcome them warmly. But they all know that if Mr. Yao found out it would all be over for them.
The secrets and the realities of her life start to collide when her best new friend runs into her at the motel. As she confesses the reality of her life to Lupe, she discovers that Lupe has her own secrets and doesn’t live quite the life that she has been talking about in school either. And then there is Jason, Mr. Yao’s son who maybe isn’t quite like his father after all.
Front Desk is a different kind of immigration story, dealing with the realities of subtle racism in a very contemporary setting. This first novel is closely based on the author Kelly Yang’s own childhood. Yang is an Asian Pacific American having come to California with her parents in the late 1980’s joining a wave of Chinese immigrants who would struggle to settle only to find their families back home were moving into a new era of prosperity. Yang and her parents were motel managers and at age 13 Yang herself went on to college.
Readers will love Mia, her mom and dad and their motley crew of motel dwellers. The chapters are short, the text uncomplicated and the plot well-paced. As a read-aloud it offers many points for discussion about racism, friendship, perseverance and justice, language, desperation and loss but ultimately hope. Give it a try with your class!
As an assistant principal and teacher-librarian at Langley Christian Elementary school in Langley B.C. Canada, Jenny deGroot knows the importance of the person at the ‘front desk’. She loves finding new novels to pass on to the children and teachers and Front Desk will be one of her top recommends for this fall.