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, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?
A few pages into Front Desk by Kelly Yang, I thought to myself, I’m falling in love with this book. Unsurprisingly, Front Desk became not only one of my effortless favourites back in 2018, but it became one of my favourite books ever – more than deserving, I felt, to be in my ‘forever in my heart’ shelf in Goodreads. Front Desk may be a middle-grade novel, but don’t be fooled – it has a light and compassionate narrative but also delves into tough topics that children and adults alike can learn from.
EXPLORES CHALLENGING TOPICS WITH INTEGRITY
Set in the 1990’s and based on the author’s own childhood, Front Desk follows 10-year old Mia and her parents who are recent immigrants at America from China. Although she was excited about moving to a new country that seemed to have promise her family so much, the truth is that her family are struggling to make it in between the underpaid work and systemic challenges. When an amazing opportunity presents itself in the form of managing a motel, Mia’s eventually takes on the role of managing the front desk of the Calivista Motel.
Front Desk is a story that is perfect for children. It explores challenging topics in a way that children, who may not understand the societal and institutional implications, will be able to perceive and understand. Children, in their young age, understand that people are different, but Front Desk highlights the consequences of being treated and seen differently. Indeed, the story offers tough lessons, specifically on poverty, racism and how people of colour are treated differently, and how immigrants are exploited. Importantly, Yang explores these topics without sugarcoating them or hiding them for what they are, but instead brilliantly examines them with sensitivity, honesty and integrity.
A STORY FULL OF HEART AND COMPASSION
Balanced with its challenging topics, the narrative is empathetic and full of heart. Building upon the explorations of difficult topics, Front Desk also emphasises the power of compassion and helping others. A distinct message of Front Desk – one that warmed my heart and soul – was that in times of difficulty and struggle, communities who support and look after each other are strong and can get through tough times together. I imagine this to be a wonderful message to teach children, one that adults should be reminded of as well.
Front Desk isn’t all about the ‘bigger’ topics, however. Front Desk also offers a vulnerable but tender narrative on family. From believing in each other to making sacrifices for each other, the Tang family felt fully realised, and many will relate with the relationship Mia has with her mother. Additionally, there are some truly heartwarming friendships – from Lupe, Mia’s classmate and an immigrant from Mexico, to the regulars of the Calivista Motel. Lastly, Mia was a shining star in this book – I adored her, adored her optimism, admired her bravery, empathised with her doubts and struggles, and the little subplot about improving her writing melted and touched my heart.
WILL CERTAINLY INSPIRE AND EMPOWER KIDS
Perhaps the most magical thing about Front Desk is that it is just so… incredibly empowering. As aforementioned, Front Desk is all about helping others and being compassionate. The best thing about that though: 10-year old Mia is the one who is actively compassionate, helps other in creative ways to the best of her ability and means, and stands up for those without a voice. What I took away from this is that, indeed, sometimes situations are complex and difficult and certainly not easy, but kindness can be easy, if only we opened our hearts to the possibility of it.
The second best thing? Mia has her own doubts and insecurities – her power and her ability to write – but despite this, she endeavours to improve her writing skills so she can do the best she can to help others. Additionally, Mia doesn’t do it alone – she has help from her parents, from individuals in her community, and from her friends – and because of that support, she was able to succeed. I loved this message immensely. In that sense, Mia Tang is a brilliant role model for children – and even adults! – as she shows that anyone, even little people, have the power to change situations and people’s lives for the better.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
I really, really hope that this book is one that adults can read and discuss with their children – heck, if I have children, I am certainly reading Front Desk with them and guiding them through the difficult topics explored in this story. All in all, Front Desk is a brilliant book, one that I will treasure for the years to come, and is, I believe, one of the most important middle grade novels that I have had the pleasure of reading. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t a reader of middle grade novels – add this to your shelf. Front Desk is a book that you absolutely need to read.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Ten year old Chinese immigrant Mia Tang manages the front desk of a motel that her parents work at, and encounters the highs and lows of motel business and being an immigrant and being a ten year old kid.
Perfect for: Readers who love middle grade novels; those who want to read an own voices immigrant story; and those who want an intelligent but empathetic narrative that navigates tough subjects.
Think twice if: If you are not a fan of middle grade and reading from a child’s perspective; want something wholly light and fluffy – this book is at times difficult to read because of its portrayal of oppression and at times I felt stressed reading it.
Genre: middle grade historical realistic fiction
Trigger/content warnings: poverty, racism towards black people (challenged), exploitation of immigrant workers, physical assault, assault inflicted on parent, police prejudice (challenge)
Front Desk is yet another incredible diverse middle grade novel and one that will inevitably inspire goodness and kindness in so many young minds – and adult ones as well. Also, Kelly Yang recently announced that she was writing a sequel to Front Desk! I trust Yang’s writing and storytelling wholeheartedly, so I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us and Mia. 💛
- Have you read Front Desk? What did you think?
- Do you have any diverse middle grade book recommendations?
- What is a book that means a lot to you because it reminds you of your childhood?