Front Desk is the story of Mia Tang. Mia and her parents are immigrants from China in the late 20th century in California. When we meet Mia she is going into 5th Grade and her family has been in the United States for a few years.
My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face. So far, the only part of that we’ve achieved is the hamburger part, but I was still holding out hope. And the hamburgers here are pretty good.
Mia’s parents have been trying to scrape by with labor-intensive jobs in a Chinese restaurant as a fry cook and a waitress. At the beginning of Front Desk Mia’s family answers an ad looking for a caretaker/manager for a motel. They are thrilled when they find out the job includes a place to stay in addition to salary. They soon discover that Mr. Yao, the motel owner, is not ethical in his business arrangement with them when he changes the terms of their contract. As immigrants with no money and a need to support their family, Mia’s parents have no choice but to abide by Mr. Yao’s new terms.
Mia learns to help her parents with the exhausting chores of managing the motel by running the Front Desk. She learns–often through trial and error–how to check guests in and out, accept payment for rooms and provide customer service to keep guests happy. The front desk alternately fills Mia with excitement and pride as well as fear and humiliation over her ‘errors.’ She gets to know the “weeklies”–the 5 guests that live at the motel and pay weekly and comes to think of them as a new kind of family.
At school Mia meets Lupe, who is to become a good friend. She must also deal with an often unpleasant Jason Yao, son of the man who owns the motel. Mia loves English and dreams of becoming a writer. Her mother warns her that is an unrealistic goal, as English is not her native language and she will never be as good at it as those who were born in the US. Mia continues to hope.
Hope is really the crux of Front Desk. Mia has hope for her own future as well as that of her family. She finds a new family in a new place, made up of people whose relationship is defined by that belief in hope. Mia has hope that the things that are wrong in our society can be addressed and changed–things like racial discrimination and economic oppression of those who live closer to poverty level.
In her Author’s Note, Kelly Yang reveals that Mia is based on her life and some of the things that happen in the book did actually happen to them. She talks about being grateful to the many different people who helped her family on their journey. She says
Often during tough times, the first instinct is to exclude. But this book is about what happens when you include, when, despite all your suffering and your heartache, you still wake up every morning and look out at the world with fresh, curious eyes.
Front Desk is a great independent or read-aloud choice for upper elementary and middle school readers. It would be a perfect addition to a classroom unit on immigration, opening up all kinds of opportunities for discussion of values, discrimination and economic structure. In Mia–her incredibly genuine voice and beautiful heart–Kelly Yang has created the perfect character to epitomize hope, inclusiveness and the power of kindness and community.