Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Mia Tang is in the fifth grade and has to solve typical fifth grade problems. Her writing assignments come back covered in red pen. Her best friend, Lupe, isn’t talking to her. Jason Yao, the son of her parents’ boss, takes her prized possession. The guest in room nine left with his key. Okay, so maybe not all of her troubles are the usual fifth-grade problems.
Mia and her parents have immigrated to the United States from China five years before the story begins. Like the author’s family, the Tangs are living at a motel they manage. The owner of the Calivista expects the Tangs to be available to guests 24/7. While her parents clean rooms, 10-year old Mia manages the front desk, spends time getting the know the “weeklies” who stay at the motel for extended periods of time, and helps her parents hide immigrants from Mr. Yao.
Despite her mother’s insistence that as non-native speaker Mia is a “bicycle, and the other kids are cars,” Mia persists in her desire to be a writer. Throughout the story she crafts letters as an advocacy tool. She unfailingly uses her voice and her pencil to stand up for what she thinks is just.
In this her debut novel, Yang has introduced her readers to a range of social justice issues. The exploitation of workers both domestically and internationally are addressed. In addition to the challenges experienced by the Tangs and other Chinese immigrants in the story, readers learn about the low wages of workers in Mexican maquiladoras. Throughout the book Mia witnesses racial discrimination and speaks out for fair treatment of all people. She also pushes back against notions of single stories. When Lupe suggests that Mia and Jason have the same desires because they are both Chinese, Mia makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be “lumped together” with him.
In Mia, Yang has offered role model for youth activism. Her protagonist advocates for herself, her friends, and for what she believes is right. Mia interrogates beliefs, both her own and those of others. She has a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong and won’t be content to remain silent. Like Mia, Yang knows the value of the pen in seeking a more just world. A Harvard-trained lawyer, she founded the Kelly Yang Project to teach writing and debating to youth in the U.S. and Asia.
In her author notes at the end of Front Desk, Yang provides background information about Chinese immigration to the United States from 1965 through 1990, sharing statistics about the poverty in which they lived. She goes on to reassure immigrant children living in the United States “You are not alone. Somewhere out there, someone in the universe understands exactly what you’re going through, including all the fears swirling in your mind or your parents’ minds that you’re just a bike. You are NOT a bike.”