Front Desk might just be in my top five middle-grade books ever. EVER. My review could have been three times as long as this piece, and I still wouldn’t have run out of good things to say about Kelly Yang’s control of her material–and her magnificent heroine.
(A slightly edited version of this piece appears in Asian Review of Books, Hong Kong.)
It’s 1993, and ten-year-old Mia Tang’s parents have just been employed by Mr Yao to manage Calivista Motel in Southern California. The Tangs are excited and optimistic despite all the hardships they’ve faced since immigrating to America not that long ago. In China, Mia’s parents were engineers; Mia took private piano lessons; an uncle was a doctor. In America, the Tangs are viewed primarily as poor non-white immigrants who don’t speak good English. Mia loves English, but her mother thinks she ought to focus on math, because Mia will never surpass a native English speaker; she’ll be a “bicycle among cars”.
The fictional exploration of the social demotion caused by immigration is hardly new, but rarely has it been portrayed with such warmth and urgency as in Front Desk (Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2018). Mia’s parents labor endlessly cleaning rooms and managing guests, but never satisfy the “coal-hearted” owner Mr. Yao, who daily discovers creative reasons to shrink the family’s paycheck. As newly-arrived immigrants with little English and no footholds in America, the Tangs are all too easily exploited. “We’re immigrants […] Our lives are never fair,” sighs Mia’s mother. Mia insists on helping her parents by taking over the motel’s front desk. After all, how hard can it be to buzz customers in, assign a room, collect their payment, and hand over a key?
Adventures and misadventures ensue. Mia botches a wake-up call, inadvertently admits a belligerent drunk, forgets to collect keys from departing guests, and more… errors all gleefully accounted for by Mr Yao. Mia’s father believes they must accept their fate. But Mia’s friend Lupe gives her the inside scoop about America: there are two roller coasters in the country, one for the rich and one for the poor. On the rich one, “people have money, so their kids get to go to great schools. Then they grow up and make a lot of money, so their kids get to go to great schools.” And round and round they go. But on the poor roller coaster, “our parents don’t have money, so we can’t go to good schools, and then we can’t get good jobs. So then our kids can’t go to good schools, they can’t get good jobs, and so on.” If Tangs are to jump off the bad roller coaster and onto the good, Mia must figure out America.
Mia takes charge. She placates an irate guest with a free soda, for “in America, everything had to do with money”, and cannily sets up a tip jar on the front desk. She makes customer service notes and feedback cards. When the washing machine and the cable both break down, she realizes, “[Americans] could live with dirty towels for a day or two, but they needed their TV.” She witnesses racism when the cops harass an African-American motel guest, but also glimpses the American ideal of freedom that tempted her parents to leave China—an ideal that might provide the springboard to jumping coasters.
Mia’s proudest achievement, however, is her new fluency in English (thanks to hard work and a thesaurus-dictionary). Mia writes thank you notes and an A+ school essay, and then moves on to bigger things—a reference letter for an employee, and even a convincing lawyer’s notice. She’s a Bugatti, not a bicycle; what will she achieve next with her power?
Front Desk provides (ultra-timely) social commentary on the immigrant life in America, but to me, it’s primarily a great story, with adventure, suspense, boatloads of humor, a suitably wicked villain, and an endearing heroine. And what a heroine Mia is—clever, resourceful, courageous, helpful, and, most importantly, able to view mistakes as learning opportunities. Mia is the poster child for Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory; given enough time, this ten-year-old could spin straw into gold. The writing itself is as strong as the characterization—there isn’t a whiff of cliché, and Yang never tells us the obvious; every event is mined deep for true emotion and insight. I wouldn’t delete a single line in the book.
Mia’s story is based on Kelly Yang’s own experiences running the front desk in her parents’ motel. Yang went on to Berkeley and Harvard Law, and now runs a writing program for children; color me unsurprised that her career focuses on spreading the power of the written word. Front Desk is testament to how a great story can grab you by the heart and never quite let go: a classic of the genre.