Front Desk by Kelly Yang (realistic fiction)
Yang, Kelly. Front Desk. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2018.
All of my students who have read this middle grade novel have loved it, so it was with good reason a RICBA nominee last year. Still, I’m ashamed to say I was not familiar with the premise and went in with no expectations or knowledge of the subject matter! I’m so happy I’ve read this sweet book about Mia, whose story is based on the author’s real life experiences with her parents running a motel after having recently immigrated to the States in the nineties from China.
Mia Tang is a fourth grader, a writer, nd a Chinese immigrant whose parents have just taken over managing a motel (where they also live) for a nasty man who barely pays them enough to survive. Mia encounters many a diverse guest and befriends many of the regular weeklies, establishing familial ties with their guests. While dealing with regular fourth grade woes, lying to friends to fit in, realizing you both lied for no reason, the teacher’s red ink shouting grammar corrections, stolen pencils, unwanted crushes from the mean boy, Mia also takes it upon her self to solve society’s woes, a microcosm of which are portrayed at the motel. Her parents secretly house immigrants escaping various situations where their labor was exploited and humanity demeaned, Mia reckons with the racial profiling of Hank, a Black man who helps her adjust to the motel, and helps him find a new job.
Although usually I steam through books written for kids, I had to keep putting it down because the content is so heavy. I needed time to process the sheer weight of every issue tackled and every stereotype dismantled by Yang. Anti-blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, and other sorts of xenophobia and racism are all addressed by Yang in a way that is engaging and accessible for kids. I found Mia’s voice perfect, at each new obstacle or humorous debacle understanding clearly how Mia was feeling and processing her own emotions. Although my experiences are none too similar, I could easily empathize with many of her struggles, some of them were much more than I’ve ever even imagined. I appreciated Mia’s love of writing, the way she worked through emotions by writing letters and how, like the protagonists of many children’s books, she took the problems of the world on her own shoulders to solve. Luckily for her and those around her, she was able to solve a great deal of them. I wonder how many of those letters, written by Mia and addressed to various powers that be in order to change unfair events, the author might actually have written to help her friends as a kid. Originally published in 2018, is timely and highly topical given the heightened discrimination and violence faced by the AAPI community in the age of Covid. At the heart of this novel is a sweet girl reckoning with the world around her and unafraid to fight for what is right, despite being a kid, with her voice and her pencil.
In the classroom this text could be used with middle grade or upper elementary to discuss the class inequities and racism that pervade society while also be used to discuss social emotional learning as Mia copes with each of the problems she faces with thought and grace. The author’s website features a corner for teachers, with guides and lesson plans. The paperback version from Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine features a discussion guide, along with an extensive note from the author on her real life inspiration, right in the back of the book.