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Front Desk

Kelly Yang

Knights Of – published January 7th 2021

A truly remarkable and uplifting story of an exceptional little girl who never gives up, despite the harsh realities of immigration and poverty.

Ten year old Mia Tang and her parents arrive in America with only $200 in their pocket. They immigrated from China in search of a slice of the American Dream – big houses, Cadillacs and all the burgers you can eat. But most of all, Mia’s parents want her to live a life free of restrictions.

Sadly, the dream quickly turns into a nightmare and Mia’s parents end up in a vicious cycle of dead end jobs and sink desperately below the poverty line. The family wind up running the Calivista Motel for the despicable Mr Yao, a greedy and heartless individual who will stop at nothing to maximise his profits. He ensures that the family work crippling hours for the lowest possible wage and in the most shameless living conditions. If an appliance breaks down or a room needs fixing up, he deducts the money from the already tiny income the family make. Mr Yao is also a racist. He doesn’t even try to hide the fact, brazenly telling the family not to rent to black people and when a white customer’s car is stolen from the parking lot, he makes sure the police pursue the black residents.

To make matters worse, Mr Yao’s son, Jason is in the same class as Mia. Although of Chinese descent, he’s ‘native’ to America and sees himself as way above her in the social hierarchy. Like father like son, he treats Mia like dirt and makes her life as unpleasant as possible – ridiculing her dollar store clothes and taking her prized possession; a pencil her father scraped together the $5 dollars to buy after seeing Mia’s talent for writing.

Writing becomes Mia’s release – an outlet for processing each setback she, her family and friends experience. Unfortunately, writing English as a non-native speaker to the level required in school proves tricky. Mia’s mother drills it into her that writing is a waste of time and that ‘you can’t beat the white kids in their own language’. But when her new-found friend Lupe’ a Mexican immigrant tells her ‘you can’t win if you don’t play’ she becomes even more determined and achieves great things with her writing. Lupe’ uses a metaphor of two separate rollercoasters to describe America’s rich and poor and the two girls make a pact; they’re going to get off the rollercoaster and they’re going to do it together.

Mia also forms unlikely friendships with the ‘weeklies’ an eclectic mix of characters that are more permanent residents of the Calivista and pay by the week. Hank, in particular – a forty-something African American guy takes Mia under his wing and becomes very protective over her after she experiences first-hand the dangerous and unsavoury side of working the motel’s front desk. In turn, Mia learns of the lifetime of racism and discrimination Hank continues to suffer and harnesses her writing ability to help him and some of the Chinese immigrants her parents hide in the motel better their situations.

My heart broke for Mia on so many occasions throughout the book and I was moved to tears several times between the pages. The way she and her parents are marginalised as Chinese immigrants and not just by white people, but ‘native’ Asian-Americans also was so upsetting. Older children will surely be aware of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 but may not have personally experienced racism or have an understanding of what it means to suffer it. The examples of the racism that the black and minority ethnic characters experience in the plot make it so tangible for young people to empathise with, they will literally be shouting at the at the book in outrage at the disgraceful treatment the characters suffer. Hank’s remark ‘don’t be sorry, be better’ to the police officer who wrongfully arrested him, reminds us all that we need to be the change to end racism and Mia’s resolve proves that you’re never too young to effect change.

This book was unputdownable! I was absolutely gripped by Mia’s story and the plight of her fellow characters. Mia’s resolve is utterly incredible and at the tender age of 10, she is not afraid to fight for fairness and equality. She never gives up hope and uses her creativity, optimism and bravery to turn mistakes and problems into opportunities. Although the challenging themes of racism, poverty and exploitation are explored in this book, it’s a truly uplifting story. And when you read the author notes and discover how much of the book is based on Kelly Yang’s personal experiences growing up, it brings a whole new level of meaning and truth to the story.

With thanks to Knights of and EdPr for providing me with a copy of this wonderful book to review.

The sequel to Front Desk, Three Keys was published simultaneously by Knights Of on the 7th January 2021.

Kelly Yang can be found online at:

Twitter: @kellyyanghk

Instagram: kellyyanghk

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