Review: Kelly Yang’s Front Desk Paints Dazzles With Depth and Nuance

Kelly Yang’s Front Desk illuminates issues of poverty and immigration with a heartwarming story and fiercely self-aware protagonist at its core. 

Hello, kid lit book hive! I’m back with a review of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk. Yang’s middle-grade novel is extremely my speed — that is, a slice-of-life story that so lovingly invests in its details and characters. 

The book follows Mia Tang, a 10-year-old Chinese immigrant girl who manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel, where her family lives and works. The motel, just miles away from Disneyland, is supposed to be the family’s big break as they scramble to make ends meet in America. While working themselves to the bone to keep the motel up and running, the Tangs struggle with satisfying Mr. Yao, the exploitative owner who takes a sizable cut of their earnings. As she juggles her family’s work, Mia also struggles with bullying and schoolwork. Still, her devotion to alleviating her family’s sacrifices is steadfast. Mia’s light bulb moment comes in the form of an essay contest in which the winner would gain ownership of a Vermont motel.

One of the things that I deeply appreciate about Front Desk is how Yang infuses heart and joy into the narrative without ignoring the realities of what it means to be part of a poor immigrant family. Yang imagines characters with depth and nuance, resisting a western or white gaze. Asian people aren’t singularly benevolent or malicious. For every good-hearted person like Aunt Ling or Uncle Zhang, there’s also a predator like the security guard at the Topaz Inn or Mr. Yao. 

The novel primarily follows one core conflict: how will Mia help her family escape this vicious cycle of poverty? Things don’t always go as planned, but all of the tangential scenarios ultimately help the family. Moreover, these situations reveal social realities about xenophobia, poverty, and race — without feeling like a sanitized offering of “isms.” The motel becomes an underground stopover for struggling immigrants. The family faces problems with stolen property, sketchy loiterers, angry guests, and unhelpful law enforcement. Mia also begins to understand how Hank, a long-term motel resident and her friend, faces discrimination as a Black man. In the end, Mia’s experiences help her form a network that collectively helps her family.

Front Desk also has a thoughtful message about the power of writing and language. Yes, in a way, Yang is inserting herself into the narrative through her book as someone, who, herself, ran a motel with her family. Still, I’m even more intrigued by how power operates through language in the book itself. English fluency is how customers put down Mia’s mother, and it’s what Mrs. Douglas uses as a criterion to ruthlessly mark up Mia’s classwork. But language, specifically letter writing, is also how Mia empowers her friends and family. She writes to help Mr. Zhang escape exploitative working conditions and to secure a job for Hank. It’s refreshing to see how Mia’s writing is grounded in communicating with everyday people. Mia writes to locals and people she knows, and this again emphasizes the story’s focus on community-building. Yang nixes a commonly romantic, individualized vision of writing and gives us a scenario where it’s quite a utilitarian act. How far Mia’s writing goes can sometimes feel precocious or unrealistic, but I personally didn’t mind that element of fantasy. 

Front Desk is a heartfelt, slice-of-life story about immigrant adaptation and survival that keys into both difficult social realities and fleeting moments of everyday joy. It’s a thoughtful novel for both adults and middle-grade youth alike. 

You can buy a copy of Front Desk from Bookshop.org through this affiliate link

Published: 2018

Grade: 5 -7

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