Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Published by Knights Of, 2021.

10-year-old Mia Tang and her parents have moved to the US from China hoping for a better life. However, the reality is not what they were expecting. Front Desk is a powerful book which tackles racism head on and exposes the ruthless exploitation of immigrant workers.

The Tangs settle in California and get jobs managing the Calivista Motel. It’s extremely hard work and Mia’s parents get very little time off. They sacrifice sleep and family life. The pay is awful too. What’s worse, any time anything breaks at the motel – such as the washing machine in the laundry – the cost of repairs or a replacement comes out of their wages. I was quite shocked by their working and living conditions and the extent of their exploitation at the hands of Mr Yao, the motel’s owner. Mr Yao is a cruel and heartless man. The sad reality is that Mia and her family are expendable to Mr Yao; there are countless other immigrant families who would be only too happy to take their place.

This desperation among the Chinese immigrant community really struck me. We hear eye-opening stories of other Chinese immigrants who’ve handed over their passports to unscrupulous employers and are now trapped in back-breaking menial jobs, and others who have resorted to loan sharks and are in very grave danger as a result.

Mia’s life is difficult too. At school she’s the target of the mean girls’ taunts. In class she is bullied on account of her second-hand clothes, and children make slanted eyes at her. She daren’t join in with PE lessons because her family cannot afford health insurance and she can’t risk an injury.

Yet, despite its depiction of extreme poverty and hardship, Front Desk is a hopeful and uplifting book that’s full of warmth and heart. Mia and her parents develop a wonderful relationship with the weeklies – the long-term residents who have come to regard the Calivista as home. They rally round and support each other and become like family. There’s also a real sense of community among the Chinese immigrant population – Mia’s parents literally giving the food off their plates to others in even worse circumstances than their own. Mia also strikes up a brilliant friendship with Lupe – a Mexican girl from her school. Together they make plans to get off the “poor rollercoaster” and on to the rich one.

Front Desk is primarily about Mia and her parents but Hank’s storyline is also well-developed and hard-hitting. Hank is a forty-something African-American and one of the weeklies. Throughout his life he has faced prejudice and racism. Mia witnesses this in action when a police officer makes Hank the chief suspect for a theft despite there being no evidence to support this. Racism comes not just from the establishment; Mr Yao is openly anti-Black, and the security guard in a neighbouring motel draws up – and shares – a list of Black customers who he deems untrustworthy purely because of their skin colour. Hank is probably one of my favourite characters: hard-working, honest and kind. He acts like an uncle to Mia, offering solace and advice. Oh, and he cooks her the best hamburgers!

Mia is an incredible protagonist. I loved her determination and enterprising nature. She is brave and resilient and proof that we should never give up on our dreams. She has a passion for writing. Her mother doesn’t encourage her in this pursuit, fearful that Mia will never be able to compete with native speakers. Mia perseveres regardless. She hones her writing and uses it for good, sending letters to fight injustice and right wrongs.

There’s a real authenticity to the book as much of it is drawn from author Kelly Yang’s own experiences growing up in the US in the late 80s/early 90s.

Front Desk shows what a community can achieve when it pulls together. It’s also now more important than ever to tell immigrants’ stories, to see the people behind the headlines and give faces and voices to people who are often demonised or mis-represented.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 8+

Thank you to ed public relations for sending me this book to review.

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