I may be just warming up my MG game, but I know that this book is special. Don’t let the cover fool you–Front Desk is sweet, but it’s also razor-sharp and unflinchingly raw.
“Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.
Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.
Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.
Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?
It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?”
(publisher synopsis via Goodreads)
For the first few chapters, I was pretty sure I knew what this book was going to give me. It felt like a book I might have read in junior high… which is a very limited compliment. I liked Mia and I loved the voice, but I didn’t feel like I needed a chronicle of every misadventure she has at a motel that year.
There’s nothing wrong with a light-hearted tale of a girl, a motel, and the hard work of immigrant parents. According to this article in Post Magazine, that was essentially what the novel was in the first draft. In the final version, however,Front Desk brings a lot more to the table. Even as the book drew me to care about Mia’s friendships and middle-school insecurities, it told a much deeper story.
This is actually an exploration of solidarity and the intersections of race and class.
In completely age-appropriate ways, Yang lets Mia (and the reader) understand that poverty and financial insecurity are more than just temporary states of running low on class. They’re what Mia’s friend calls a “roller-coaster” that’s hard to get off of, a metaphor that very subtly introduces the idea that poverty is a cycle, class is inheritable, and wealth isn’t just money, it’s power and freedom.
The story illustrates the discrimination that Mia’s family of Chinese immigrants faces in 1990s California in a pretty traditional way. Again, I read a lot of books in junior high meant to “open my eyes” to “how hard people had/have it,” creating this false binary between the miserable oppressed and carefree privildged. Front Desk doesn’t let it stay that simple. Mia witnesses interlocking systems of oppression. Some Chinese immigrants show bigotry towards Black people. Some poor people take advantage of others with even less.
This sounds like a pretty bleak perspective on life in America, and it sometimes is, but Front Desk never strays too far from hope. At the end of the day, it does champion a version of the American Dream–one in which disadvantaged people can work together to get off the roller coaster.
I was completely delighted by the author’s note, which gives a glimpse into the true story of Kelly Yang’s life behind the motel desk that she “both loved and feared.” It couldn’t be plainer that this is a book straight from Yang’s heart, and she has the storytelling skill to back up her desire to share a life she never saw reflected in fiction at the time. Yang is also interviewed about her childhood and the book’s influences here and here.
This is a quick read, even for Middle Grade, and seems very accessible to younger readers. The ideas are complex enough for readers of all ages to really dig into. On top of all of that, it’s sweet and funny and loveable. What a treat.