Hardcover, 304 pages. Middle grade fiction. Ages 8-12
At 10 years old, Mia Tang manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel, attends the 5th grade, and is a budding letter-writing activist and community organizer.
In desperate straits, the opportunity for Mia and her parents to move into the Calivista Motel and take over its management seems like an ideal situation. Rent will be covered and they’ll both have work. Like many of the Chinese immigrants we meet in Front Desk, the Tangs are going to be taken advantage of, and that Mia won’t be allowed to swim in the Motel pool after all is the least of their worrisome work/living conditions.
Following its own writerly advice: Front Desk shows more than it tells. Mia is warned by one of the weeklies about Mr. Yao, the miserly owner of the Calivista Motel, and we will come to witness the extortion, exploitation, and racism. Yao isn’t the only outrage-inducing figure in this middle grade novel. There are several racist characters, in varying forms of expression and aggression. The indulgence and perpetuation of stereotypes at school are not kept to the bullies, but the teacher and best friend participate as well. In response, Mia doesn’t just contemplate what her appropriate response should be in the form of a lesson children, she acts. She uses her voice—and her most recently found language: writing.
When I was thinking about Mia, Dr. Brené Brown’s writing in I Thought it was just Me came to mind:
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as “ordinary courage.”
Mia isn’t fearless, she just exhibits “ordinary courage.” She writes letters that advocate, questioning the lines drawn. She contemplates which rule-bending risks are ethical let alone viable. She calls out her peers—and the adults in the room. It’s remarkable* how Mia disrupts, interrupts, and intervenes when the adults are speaking. Spared a bratty portrayal, Mia calls bullshit on unfair behavior. She takes a police officer to task and makes him accountable, walking him to a necessary apology. Because, as we’ll not only hear about, but see that exploitation and racism is not harmless. Many we come to care for lose their jobs, homes, and are physically threatened and acted upon with violence and hunger. The inclusion of loan sharks adds some realistic and heart-stopping moments.
I appreciate that Yang brings us more caretakers for Mia than just her parents, people like the weeklies who offer advice and can speak to things the parents, as parents, can’t.
Mia is what an empathetic character looks like when the wounds are fresh. She sees how her mother and father and friends are made to suffer. Mia is bullied for her poverty, and what little she has is threatened by callous indifference, and some unexplained need to punish her. I mean, we can kind of get why Jason (Mr. Yao’s awful son and her classmate) does what he does, but Yang is masterful in writing despicable actions without excusing them—because there is no excuse. Jason expresses a toxicity, like other children in the novel, a product of culture and parentage. The question with Jason is whether he can undergo change. Will he, like Mia, grow into a voice that not only rescues, but communicates boundaries. We can probably debate the exchange between Jason and Mia in the auditorium scene, but I would’ve loved to read a scene like that when I was young—a female in that situation speaking her mind, loudly and firmly and completely rationally.
It’s a pleasure reading a novel where the protagonist is growing into her voice and assertiveness, but is by no means muted or timid at the beginning. At this point, the art speaking up and out is a matter nurturing and refining—and the will to do so. Mia’s own mother is outspoken in her belief that Mia should abandon trying to compete with native English speakers and focus on math. A gut-wrenching sequence in the novel is when Mia’s mother breaks her heart and Mia’s father moves to mend it. Too, the perspective of the weekly. Fortunately, Mia persists.
Using the resources sought (e.g. the library) and offered (e.g. the thesaurus-dictionary), Mia writes. When Mia writes her letters, Yang includes the drafts. Mia writes stories as school assignments: noticeably, the ones based in truth are more successful. Mia also collects stories from those who come to her parents for help. People her parents feed from their meager pantry, and whom they (hide) allow to stay at the Motel for free—at great personal risk. She is drawn into a community that cares for and invests in one another. Indeed, those with the fewest resources in the novel are the most generous with them. Those with the most, demonstrate an insatiable greed and hostility; in short, they are merciless.
Front Desk shows how one roller coaster holds onto their humanity and finds their wealth in community. Any movement towards the better is made together. It isn’t a quaint message as a consolation prize, but a compelling and life-giving portraiture. I don’t know if the novel’s resolution is too optimistic, but it does not read false. People are looking to invest in good opportunities and opportunities for good.
If you are the kind of person who wants to invest in good opportunities and opportunities for good, add Kelly Yang’s Front Desk to someone’s library. In Front Desk, Yang has written for us the kind of content and character we need to read more often.
Recommended for all the libraries, and book clubs; for those looking who enjoy contemporary, realistic fiction; empowering characters; writer protagonists; immigrant stories; for the large portion of our population who will appreciate being seen.
*I’ve only read one other like her: Anastasia in Holly Grant’s The League of Beastly Dreadfuls.