Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Front Desk is an accessible and political book. It’s the story of a 10 year old girl, Mia, newly arrived to the USA from China, who works with her parents at the Calavista Motel in California. Mia is determined to help out her parents when they find themselves stuck in a cycle of poverty. We also get to meet “the weeklies”, long-term residents of the motel. There’s Lupe, a Mexican immigrant who becomes Mia’s best friend and Jason, the son of Mr Yao, the mean owner of the motel, who employs Mia and her parents.
There are so many strands to this book. It examines the systemic racism of the police in the US, the false promise of wealth and happiness given out to immigrants, prejudices within the education system and how parents can sometimes project their own fears on to their children. That’s a lot, but it’s dealt with carefully and sensitively. It’s the narrative though, that drives the book. Despite her Mother’s belief that maths will be the subject that will bring her success, Mia is determined that writing is the thing that will save them all. Her parents begin to harbour Chinese immigrants at the motel and she write letters and a guidebook to help those around her. Though writing doesn’t come easily to her, she persists and the rewards eventually come.
The motel is 5 miles from Disneyland, tantalisingly close but not quite there. You could say the same thing about Mia’s new life. The family are desperate for a better life but are unable to scrape together any money to live the so-called American dream. It’s tragic that when Mia and Lupe meet, they both make up stories about the homes they live in and when Mia’s parents need financial help, her Mother reveals she has been lying to the family in China about how successful they are. This is made worse when Mia learns that her Chinese cousins have benefited from the rapid accumulation of wealth in China. She questions whether the move to America has been worth it.
Mia’s empathy and resilience make her a character to fall in love with. In fact all of the characters are well-written and this may be because the book is semi-autobiographical. Many of the episodes in the book are drawn from Kelly Yang’s own life experiences. If you like a book that makes you feel differently after you’ve finished it, this could be the book for you.
Perfect for Years 7 and 8.