Author: Kelly Yang
Publication: Scholastic, hardcover, 2018
Genre: Children’s Book
Plot: Mia Tang has a secret. She does not live in a house or an apartment like her fifth grade classmates. She lives at the rundown Calivista Motel where she staffs the front desk while her parents endlessly clean the rooms and tend to the guests. They are underpaid and abused by the owner, Mr. Yao, who knows they are immigrants with limited English skills and afraid to stand up for themselves. Even Mr. Yao’s privileged son Jason torments Mia at Dale Elementary. But as Mia becomes acclimated to the United States, makes friends at school and with the permanent residents of the motel, she figures out how to use fairness, determination, and the writing skills she has fought hard to acquire to achieve her goals – and maybe Jason isn’t all bad, after all.
Audience: This book is aimed at middle schoolers but will delight readers of all ages
As I walked, I gave the butterflies in my stomach their usual pep talk – It’s going to be okay. I’ll make friends, and if I don’t, I’ll borrow books from the library.
There’s a saying in Chinese that goes “Never forget how much rice you eat.” It’s a reminder to stay humble, to stay real. Just because you have an important job doesn’t mean you’re better than everybody else. You still eat rice, like the rest of us.
It was the most incredible feeling ever, knowing that something I wrote actually changed someone's life. As my mom and dad and I cheered and congratulated Uncle Zhang, my eyes slid to the closet, where the printout of the essay contest lay. Maybe, just maybe, I could change our lives too.
My Impressions: Mia is a memorable and inspiring heroine. She is not perfect: she rages against what she perceives as her mother’s criticism and she is humiliated by the cheap clothes from Goodwill she has to wear, but she is endlessly resourceful. When her teacher gives her a bad grade in English, she doesn’t give up but borrows a “nifty dictionary-thesaurus” and uses it to fine tune the letters that become a special skill.
The painful, endless work of Mia’s parents and the way they are exploited is based on the real life circumstances of author Kelly Yang and her parents, but Yang is able to offset these heartbreaking experience with incredible humor. Some of this comes from Mia’s irrepressible take on life in American and some comes from hotel guests and the Tangs’ illicit visitors, Chinese immigrants whose stories are occasionally comical although often disturbing. One of the best moments of the book is when Mia uses her burgeoning writing skill to help one of the immigrants retrieve his passport from a manipulative employer.
The way the Tangs interact with their motel “weeklies” and how they become a family that can celebrate or commiserate together reminded me of Carol Ryrie Brink’s The Pink Motel. That is a much more lighthearted story in which the Mellen family inherits a motel from an uncle and go to Florida to put it in running order:
“ . . . And, whether because of the color or because Uncle Hiram was a rather unusual person, it attracted the most unusual guests."
“What do you mean unusual?” asked Mr. Mellen, also rather nervously, for he was always suspicious of anything unusual. . .
But Kirby was pleased. For some reason he had always liked peculiar and unusual things. A pink motel and most unusual guests! He thought it might be fun.
And it is fun, just as Mia’s story is, although more children will see themselves in Mia’s experience and, I hope, others will develop empathy for immigrants.
Awards: I am disappointed that Front Desk did not win a Newbery Award, which were announced today. However, I am pleased it was awarded the Children‘s Literature Winner for the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award for Literature, which is based on literary and artistic merit.
Source: This book came from the Chelsea Public Library.
Off the Blog: I read this after the Patriots’ exciting overtime win over Kansas City when I was still too excited to sleep.