Front Desk was originally released in 2018 and was most recently republished in January 2021. I first read it a while back but following its latest publication I have read it again and felt compelled to heavily praise Kelly Yang’s superb book that I am sure will resonate with many readers.
In search of the American dream, ten year old Mia Tang and her parents have left their home in China and have moved to Anaheim, California. They have grand dreams of how their American life will be, but running a motel for a vile man who is draining every ounce of energy from them and rewarding them with a salary that sees them living off a diet of rice and cabbage leaves was not one of them. Mia has her own dreams. She wants to be a writer, but with a mother who thinks her daughter should stick to math and having to manage the front desk of the hotel it appears that her dreams will remain just that, dreams. The year ahead is going to be incredibly difficult but if anyone can rise to the challenges of it then Mia Tang can…
Front Desk is a superb and necessary book that is inspired by author Kelly Yang’s personal experience of immigrating to America from China with her parents when she was a child. As she includes in her author’s note, much of what she has written in the book actually happened to her. The book is written in a way that only comes from living the experience for yourself and throughout the entire read the author feels one hundred percent genuine. I felt so much affection and empathy for the Tang family and was living the many lows and few highs with them. Despite barely knowing them, I was rooting for them every step of the way.
Yang highlights so many important issues around the unfair treatment of immigrants. She deals with the exploitation of immigrant workers who in tough situations find themselves working for unscrupulous employers. Hard-working and honest people are forced to work long hours in terrible working conditions for minimal pay. These immigrants are giving everything for a country that just wants to take, take, take, and they are constantly being told that they should appreciate the opportunities that they have been given. Yang also addresses the issue of racism, both in the wider society and the bullying and inappropriate comments that Mia faces at her new school. Being an immigrant is not easy.
What shines throughout is how wonderful Mia and her family are. They are people that we should all aspire to be like. Despite the situation that Mia and her family are in they remain true to themselves. Their natural instinct is to help others and there are so many instances where their kindness and goodwill oozes from the pages. They harbour Chinese immigrants in need of a bed for the night despite the threatening warnings from Mr. Yao. They share their food. They refuse to follow Mr. Yao’s rules of not letting black people stay at the motel. And then there’s Mia - despite being on the ‘poor’ rollercoaster she is determined to make it onto the ‘rich’ rollercoaster and take everyone she knows with her. Whether it is campaigning for change in the local community, doing everything she can to help people (which often comes in the form of letter writing where she poses in different guises), running the front desk of the motel or dealing with the challenges of life at a new school, her shining light can never be extinguished. She is a brilliant heroine.
There are are so many wonderful messages in this book. Messages of love, kindness and looking out for each other and messages of not judging others based on appearance, being tolerant and accepting of others. After Hank, one of the weeklies at the hotel, gets wrongly arrested and accused of a crime he did not commit purely because he is black and the arresting officer apologises, Hank replies with, “Don’t be sorry. Be better.” Let us all do what Hank asks, let us all be better.
Kelly Yang’s debut read is wonderful. Hard-hitting issues, plenty of drama and lighter moments of humour all make for a thought-provoking, moving and emotional read that will leave a lasting impression on many. The world is not always going to be kind to you but as long as you don’t let it kick you for too long whilst you’re down then there is always a chance for better things.
Recommended for 9+.