Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Front Desk by Kelly Yang


For 10-year-old Mia Tang, migrating to the United States from China with her parents hasn't turned out exactly the way they had hoped it would. Living in their car and always being hungry wasn't what they had expected. And, even though her mother has a degree in engineering, in the U.S. she could only get a job as a waitress in a restaurant that hired her father as a fryer - until they were fired for Mia.

Now, they've landed a job as managers of the Calivista Motel, not far from Disneyland, and which also includes a small room they can live in. Maybe things were finally going to pick up for the Tang family, even if the owner, rich tightwad Mr. Yao, is as cold-hearted as he was calculating. However, it doesn't take long to discover that the handsome salary the Tangs are expecting is constantly shrinking with each mistake and accident, as Mr. Tao deducts costs for repairs and replacements. To make matter worse, Mia discovers that Mr. Tao's son Jason is in her class at school and isn't considered a very nice person there by the other kids.

Pretty soon, Mia starts helping her overworked and overwhelmed parents by running the front desk whenever she isn't in school. She becomes friendly with the five "weeklies" - guests who basically live at the motel, and begins making some changes to make the Calivista a friendlier motel, like collecting brochures and menus for the convenience of the guests. In school, Mia really struggles with improving her English, but makes a friend, Lupe, who helps her. And it doesn't take long for Mia to decide that she like English more than math, much to her mother chagrin, who'd rather she liked math.

After helping a fellow Chinese immigrant on the run from loan sharks, word gets out that Chinese immigrants on the run from their own terrible circumstances and who need a free place to stay for a night, will find a welcome at the Calivista. Mia's parents share their meager food rations and put them up in empty rooms, and in return, they learn about other immigrant experiences.

But, when Hank, an African American weekly, is mistakenly arrested for stealing a car and loses his job, Mia really discovers the power and satisfaction of knowing English when she volunteers to help him out. After using her writing skills to help out a few more people, including some of the Chinese immigrants, Mia is pretty certain that she can win an essay writing contest being held by a couple in Vermont who want to give their motel away to the writer of the best essay. But, first, she needs to raise the $300.00 entry fee. As strapped for money as her family is, can she ever get that much money together?

Set in the 1990s, and calling on her own experiences as a young immigrant from China, who also helped her parents manage a motel, including working at the front desk, Kelly Yang has written a debut middle grade novel that really rings true. And although she uses humor throughout, Mia's story, and that of her parents, is a serious look at the the difficulties faced by those who migrate to this country. Despite having a degree in engineering, Mia's mother is forced to take low level jobs; Mia's affordable clothes are made fun of in school, and the one pair of nice jeans she acquires causes her the worst humiliation. In school, Mia and her friend Lupe, an immigrant from Mexico, are forced to sit on the sidelines in gym because their families can't afford health insurance should they get hurt. These are serious issues and Yang has presented them in such a way that readers can't help but feel empathy toward them and all the struggling characters in this very insightful novel.

Mia is a spunky, determined protagonist, even if she is a little impulsive at time, and at times, gets mad at her circumstance (and who can blame her) but she exudes hope for the future throughout. Which isn't easy when you have to deal with bullying, poverty, and racism on a daily basis. But Mia is also smart, clever, and innovative.

One of the things I did find interesting is that Yang makes a Chinese American the "bad guy." Mr. Yao is definitely out for himself, consumed with not so much making money but acquiring it through other people's hard work. And he has a real nasty, mean streak. It is sadly not uncommon for this kind of thing to happen.

But my favorite thing is how Mia learned about the power (and sometimes superpower) of words and language and used it as a means out of her situation, and to help others out of theirs.

I can't recommend this book highly enough and I know that readers will definitely be cheering for this delightful young protagonist.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher.

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