If you have seen the movie “Elf,” you are familiar with the scene where Will Ferrell’s character bursts into his father’s work meeting yelling, “I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!” That’s how I feel about KELLY YANG‘s award-winning 2018 novel, “FRONT DESK.”
This middle grade chapter book tells the story of 10-year-old Mia Tang and her parents as they take on the biggest endeavor of their nascent life in America: managing and living at the Calavista Motel in Anaheim, California.
The novel begins in the early 1990s, a few years after the Tang family emigrated from China. Mia’s parents, who had established careers in China, have worked labor-intensive jobs since coming to the United States, and Mia has never stayed at one school long enough to make a best friend. When her parents are hired as the live-in managers at the motel and Mia meets Lupe at school, things seem to be turning around. But Mia soon learns that nothing is what it seems.
Yang deftly introduces classism, racism, the struggles of new immigrants and the dangers of making assumptions through realistic characters and authentic relationships. When Mia first meets Lupe, she thinks Lupe’s life is perfect and much different than hers, but it turns out that the two girls have plenty in common.
The Tangs’ situation at the Calavista seems financially promising, but hotel owner Mr. Yao proves ruthless with his money. He is more concerned with its accumulation than fair treatment of his employees. The motel’s permanent residents (also known as the “weeklies”) include Hank, a kind, hard-working African American man who can’t seem to catch a break. Through her friendship with him and the others, Mia learns that, as with Lupe, she is not alone in her struggles. She also learns that everyone has a story to tell and that those stories are worth listening to.
One thing I loved about “Front Desk” and Yang’s writing more broadly is that every character does have a story to tell. The immigrants who are welcomed by the Tangs at the motel are not nameless, faceless visitors. They are husbands, wives, daughters, fathers and hard workers, all struggling to survive in a new country where they aren’t always welcomed. The weeklies aren’t just caricatures — they are individuals with talents to share and love to give, as well as friends turned family. Jason, Mr. Yao’s spoiled and sometimes mean son, isn’t just a stuck-up rich kid. He, too, has problems of his own, stories and struggles that give some insight into who he is.
I also love the development of Mia’s character. When the story begins, she is a bit unsure of her place in the world, especially as she endeavors to make new friends and help her parents at the motel. She also has dreams of becoming a writer, though her well-meaning mother encourages her to pursue math instead. As the story progresses, Mia becomes more confident in her talents. She also is encouraged to speak out, be bold, and pursue her passions after witnessing the injustices that her friends, neighbors and family experience.
Though the subject matter can be heavy, “Front Desk,” which is loosely based on Yang’s childhood, is also funny. By the end of the novel, I felt like I knew — and really liked — Mia Tang, and I couldn’t wait to dive into the 2020 sequel, “Three Keys.”