“I used to think being successful meant having enough to eat, but now that I was getting free lunch at school, I wondered if I should set my standards higher.”
It’s 1993 and ten-year-old Mia Tang has migrated from China to America with her parents. They’d hoped for a better life in the Land of the Free, but they’re reduced to living out of their car and taking whatever badly-paid casual jobs they can find. It seems like a miracle when Mr Yao, the owner of a motel near Disneyland, offers them accommodation plus wages if they’ll manage his motel. There’s even a swimming pool! But ‘coal-hearted’ Mr Yao exploits them mercilessly, penalising them for infractions of his ever-changing rules (and he definitely doesn’t want Mia or anyone else actually swimming in the pool). Mia’s parents exhaust themselves with the constant cleaning, laundry and repairs, while Mia appoints herself front desk manager, dealing with missing keys, stolen cars and belligerent drunks. Things are even worse for her at school, where her teacher criticises her English and Mr Yao’s nasty son encourages the class to laugh at Mia’s cheap clothes. Mia’s only schoolfriend Lupe, a Mexican immigrant, is convinced the two of them are stuck on a “rollercoaster” of poverty that they can never get off, but Mia, with the help of the motel’s permanent residents, finds a way to improve the lives of her family and friends.
The author does an admirable job of addressing some heavy topics – including racism, immigration and poverty – in an accessible way for middle-grade readers, but Front Desk is also an engrossing and entertaining story featuring a smart, creative heroine. Mia is far from perfect, but she has a good heart and she learns from her many mistakes. The other characters are similarly nuanced. Mia’s mother loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but her ambition combined with their desperate circumstances can make her ruthless. Mia’s father is more sympathetic, but he’s fairly inept. Mia’s teacher, though well-meaning, is clueless about Mia’s struggles. Both Mr Yao and a Chinese-American security guard hold appallingly racist views about African-Americans. And even Mr Yao’s horrible son, bullied by his own father, finds the courage to be compassionate when Mia needs his help.
It’s especially nice that books and writing (and an enormous thesaurus) are the key to most of Mia’s eventual successes, whether she’s penning a threatening letter to the exploitative boss of an illegal immigrant friend or she’s writing down her family’s story to win a class competition. I must admit that the novel’s conclusion seemed implausibly optimistic and saccharine to me, but by that stage, I was so happy to see good triumph over evil that I didn’t mind too much. The author, Kelly Yang, provides useful notes at the end of the book, explaining that Mia’s story is based on her own experiences helping her migrant parents run motels in California in the 1980s and 1990s. She notes that these immigrants were “particularly vulnerable to exploitation and hardship. No group of Chinese immigrants before or since came with quite so little and gave up quite so much.” Front Desk offers a strong argument in favour of #OwnVoices, because it rings with authenticity. Its messages about immigration and racism are sadly relevant today, but don’t be put off, thinking this is all Serious Discussion of Worthy Issues – it’s simply a good, fun, heartwarming story.