Front Desk (#1)

by Kelly Yang

Conditional Recommendation: Chinese immigrants Mia Tang and her family work hard to run a motel and achieve the American Dream while confronting obstacles like prejudice with determination, hope, and kindness.

Age: Middle Grade
Series: Front Desk, Book One
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (May 29, 2018)
Genre: Contemporary

Awards: 2019 Asian Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature

I love accidentally finding a gem. Don’t let the playful cover fool you—this book is filled with colorful characters who face complex situations like racism, prejudice, hard labor, poor treatment, and little pay. I never knew the unique plight experienced by Chinese immigrants in the 1990’s. As I read, I teared up at their hardships, was outraged at all the injustices, and felt hope witnessing the perseverance of the characters who face their problems and fight for what is right with heart, courage, creativity, and strength. It’s also amazing that the story is based on the real-life experiences of the author. Please read this eye-opening gem!

Summary from the Publisher

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, escape Mr. Yao, help the immigrants and guests, and go for her dreams?

Enduring Themes

Family is a dominant theme of this book with the Tang family struggling, despairing, and celebrating all the ups and downs of the American immigrant life together. Survival is also a key theme that appears not only in the Tang family but also the other immigrants they meet and help, the Weeklies who live long-term at the motel, and even Mia in school as she strives to become competent at writing in English. I would also say that money is a theme, or more specifically the disparity between the poor and the wealthy. Money is a recurring topic throughout the book in terms of the cost of living, living conditions, how much it costs to improve, the Tang’s daily expenses and how it factors into their lifestyle, food, and clothing, etc.

Goodness and Truth

There is so much goodness in this book! Mia seeks out justice when confronted with blatant racism and discrimination. She is willing to sacrifice her hopes for a friendship, sacrifices her precious tip money to help her parents because they are more valuable to her than her dream, and she works hard to write letters to help the immigrants and Weeklies with their various problems. The more I think through the story, the more goodness I find.

Memorable Characters

Mia Tang – I absolutely love Mia’s unquenchable hope and determination even as she confronts the hard realities of being a Chinese immigrant. She is creative and curious—constantly asking questions and thinking through the answers especially if she doesn’t like them. She questions the actions and words of those around her and judges right and wrong with an amazingly sound moral compass. She takes pride in working the front desk and handles most situations with the maturity more fitting a well-adjusted adult than a child. Mia is a good person—she cares about the well-being of others and goes out of her way to help them, she writes thank you notes to anyone who shows her kindness, and she’s a loyal friend who seeks to understand and apologizes as needed. I know I’m making her sound like a golden child but don’t worry, she’s a well-made realistic character with faults like lying, butting in where she’s not necessarily wanted or going against her parents’ wishes.

Tang Family – I love that they are a team. They work together at the motel, sacrifice for one another, work through issues together, and support one another. They don’t do any of these things perfectly, but they do it consistently and with love. I especially appreciated the loving relationship between Mia’s parents. The family unit is really enjoyable even when mother and daughter don’t always see eye to eye.

Well-Conceived Plot

I was really surprised as the plot developed because new dynamics and threads kept getting added in! I was on the edge of my seat because the twists and turns were so unexpected. One minute you’re going along, just an average day at school and then—BAM! Something would happen and you’re rushing to discover how it turns out. I found the story to be incredibly well-written as the various threads, large to small, were expertly interwoven throughout Mia’s narrative. You were never bogged down, never bored, and nothing felt out of sync in the pacing or delivery.

A Lasting Experience

Besides the delightful experience of Mia’s point of view, the plight of this unique group of people in not-to-distant American history completely captured me and blew me away. I am amazed at how difficult life was for immigrants in this country and it was only made doubly hard because they also had combat the disappointed hopes of achieving the American dream for themselves. The book makes you appreciate what America has to offer but at the same time never masks or sugar coats its imperfections.

A Satisfying Ending

Remember all those threads I mentioned? By the end they are all wonderfully, satisfyingly tied up and the book ends with my favorite sensations: victory, joy, and hope.

Recommendation Note

In brief, Mia’s mom gets beaten up by some people who try to rob the motel’s cash register and Mia finds her on the ground, in pain and bleeding and they have to go to the hospital. Other than that, the book discusses complex issues which I mentioned throughout this review: immigration, poverty, survival, racism, discrimination, prejudice, injustice, people who have wealth and power preying on the vulnerable, safety, and more.

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Where to Find this Book: Amazon* or your local library!

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