Today we’re featuring FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang. This fabulous new middle grade novel is about a young immigrant girl and the community she builds around herself in America.

Thanks to the Kid Lit Exchange for the review copy of this book. As always, all opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links, which means that Lu and Bean Read may receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you) on products purchased through external vendors.

Front Desk Summary

Mia Tang and her family move from China to America for the chance at a better life. What they find is that in America, everyone must fend for themselves.

The Tangs move from one low-wage job to another, barely scraping by. When an opportunity arises to manage a motel and live rent-free, it seems like exactly what they’ve been waiting for. With her parents spend all their time maintaining the building and cleaning the rooms, Mia appoints herself as front desk manager.

But the family’s new boss, Mr. Yao, insists on making their lives difficult. He changes the terms of employment, charges them for anything that breaks, and asks them to enforce racist policies. Mia worries that her family will never break out of America’s cycle of poverty. 

“We’re on a different rollercoaster. On our rollercoaster, our parents don’t have any money. So, 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, and so on and so forth.” 

Mia wants off the rollercoaster. She invents a new path out of poverty that is beyond the imagination of the people who created the rollercoaster.

Front Desk Review

FRONT DESK is loosely based on author Kelly Yang’s life experience, as explained in an author’s note at the end of the book.

Her straightforward writing makes this book perfect for younger middle grade readers (Mia is 10). Yet Yang tackles difficult issues like interpersonal, systemic, and institutional racism. She writes so simply and honestly, it’s hard to imagine a young person walking away without understanding these powerful messages.

FRONT DESK is infused with dark truths about America and still manages to be light, heartwarming, and fast-paced. Lovable Mia solves problems by using her writing skills—not her math skills as her mother wishes she would. She beats the system by using her words, often disguised as the words of adults, to point out injustices and find pathways to a better life for her family and friends.

Mia’s and her parents’ find—actually, create—community at the Calavista Motel. They fight back when multiple systems conspire to make life impossible for Hank, an African American man who lives at the hotel. They devise a system to hide desperate Chinese immigrants in vacant rooms. This is deep social justice work, accompanied by anecdotes of Mia’s follies at the front desk and problems at school.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with the Tangs’ community surrounding them to help them take the first step off the poverty rollercoaster. The solution they come up with has a chance at helping others get off, too.

What if we didn’t need one rich relative? What if what we needed instead was a lot of poor people?

FRONT DESK shifts the narrative about the American experience, acknowledging that there are many American experiences. The pathway to the American Dream can take many forms, and Yang has described one that is heart wrenching, hopeful, and a lot of fun along the way.

One final note: I was disappointed to see some early reviews of FRONT DESK that criticized it for being too mature, age-inconsistent, or “political” for younger readers. I have no doubt that these criticisms were written by fellow white parents. If you have the choice whether to expose your child to racism and other social injustices, you’re showing your privilege. Kids of color don’t get to choose whether they want to be exposed to racism. It’s a part of their lives from birth. So why would we choose to withhold that information from our white children? When we withhold books on the experiences of other cultures because they make us uncomfortable, we’re a part of the problem. Exposing our children and ourselves to books that represent diverse perspectives can be a first step toward understanding our own roles in upholding the systems of injustice in our country.

I pre-ordered a copy so I can share this beautiful story with young readers in my life! It publishes on May 29, 2018 from Arthur A. Levine Books.

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Front Desk by Kelly Yang cover

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