Values: Resilience, Hope, Community and Compassion.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang is one of the most powerful and gripping books I have ever read - not to be underestimated as a book for children, this is one for adults too. It has sky-rocketed straight into my top five books! I will definitely return to it too, as I feel it is a book you may read differently the second time.
The protagonist is a girl named Mia Tang who, as the back cover says, has lots of secrets: she lives in motel; her parents hide immigrants; and she wants to be a writer. The story follows Mia's life with her parents living and working in motel in California during the 1990s. They are Chinese immigrants and face many hardships in the US that they had not envisaged when they left China for a better life. Amongst these, are poverty, abuse, racism and language hurdles. Despite this, Mia remains an outstandingly resilient and courageous child who seeks to provide a better life for her parents and the community they have grown to love at the motel. What makes this book even more extraordinary is that this is an #OwnVoices novel - Kelly Yang experienced these issues upon moving to the US and has gone on to graduate from Harvard and write her (award-winning) story in this emotive book.
This is a book I would explore with Year 6 or KS3. I think younger children could read it, but there are themes of abuse, racism, drunken customers and discrimination that I'm not sure younger children would grasp and therefore may not fully appreciate the journey Mia is on. Even as an adult, this book was extremely eye-opening, realistic and complex in a way that only #OwnVoices authors can truly achieve. I believe reading it aloud to a class with meaningful discussions is an excellent option - but I still think an adult book group could read it and have equally rich conversations.
Some of the Values you could focus on when reading this book with children are resilience, hope, community and compassion. Of course, there are many more you could also choose: love, respect, kindness, equality, friendship, acceptance...
Firstly, this is a story undoubtedly of resilience. Mia herself faces many hardships including hiding from her school mates that she lives in a motel and doesn't have as much money as they do. She witnesses her mother being assaulted and a hospital visit for which they do not have insurance; police brutality towards someone living at the motel who is Black; poverty and hunger. She misses her cousin Shen back in China and Mia's family hide their secret that they are struggling with their new life in America. She attends school where she tries her best, but even her mother is doubtful of her ability to achieve in English calling her a "bicycle on a road of cars". She doesn't take part in PE for fear of an injury and hospital bills her parents can't afford. She works evenings and weekends with her parents manning the reception desk.
Mia's friend Lupe also uses the metaphor of two roller coasters to explain inequality in America:
"On the rich roller coaster, people have money, so their kids get to go to great schools. Then they grow up and make a lot of money, so their kids get to go to great schools. But on the poor roller coaster, our parents don’t have money, so we can’t go to good schools, and then we can’t get good jobs. So then our kids can’t go to good schools, they can’t get good jobs, and so on." And of course, comes with this the implication that changing between roller coasters is not only rare but extremely difficult and unlikely.
There are of course, similar issues for children living in the UK. However, it is a life that many of us will be lucky enough never to have to experience because we are afforded so many things we take for granted. That doesn't mean the children in our classes will have the same luck though and books like this, with a social justice core, remind us of the hardships others go through and helps develop our sense of empathy and understanding.
Unbelievably, throughout the whole book - Mia is resilient and determined to carve a better life for her family. She even uses the family's little supply of cash to enter a writing competition to win a motel of their own. She doesn't win the competition, but upon learning the motel is up for sale and that her family will lose both their home and work, she rallies round and gathers enough money from joint stakeholders (many of who are the 'weeklies' and live at the motel) to buy it for themselves.
You could also explore the Value of hope in conjunction with Mia's resilience. Mia's mother comments at one point that they are immigrants and will always be poor. She has accepted it as their 'fate', but Mia remains hopeful that they can change roller coasters with enough grit, hard work, courage and hope. There are lots of examples that children can spot as you read the story!
There is a really strong sense of community in the book. Mia is arguably the glue that holds the motel together. She has a strong sense of justice and unites the community of 'weeklies' to fight for a better life together. The fact that Mia and her parents have very little cash and are totally reliant on their jobs and home at the motel, it may appear an extraordinary risk when they agree to hide immigrants in the motel - in order to give them somewhere to live rent free. However, to me, this sums up the whole book. Many, many times Mia and her family (and the 'weeklies') put each other first and look out for each other in times of need. It is the best of the human spirit!
Lastly, compassion is a Value that shines through. Mia and Lupe build a strong bond when they realise they have much in common: both girls have initially hidden how their families are struggling and they have very little money. As their trust in each other develops, we see lots of little examples of compassion. Mia and Jason (her boss's son) have a fraught relationship: Mia cannot understand how Jason cannot see that his father is treating her family poorly and stand up to him. However, it is Jason at the end of the book who provides Mia with the information she needs to buy the motel. Their relationship evolves as the book progresses and would be fascinating to unpick with children. The compassion between the weeklies, Mia and her family is a key theme throughout the book and there are many times they club together to support each other. Too many times to list here!
At the end of the book, the reader explores more about some of the statistics of immigration and poverty in the US (currently, approximately 20 million children are immigrants there, and 30% of them live below the poverty line). It is really important to remember, for British readers, that these same issues are very close to home too and not something the US suffer from alone. We all teach children from a huge spectrum of backgrounds and may never know what happens at home or the hardships children face. We also know the OECD report that reading is the single most effective strategy for improving children's life chances: reading has a greater impact on alleviating the cycle of poverty than family socio-economic status or other factors. Kelly Yang talks about how reading and books were instrumental to her journey too, and I love this quote: "I am living, walking proof in the power of libraries and librarians to change lives."
I actually finished this book over a month ago, but found it so powerful I needed time to digest it before writing this blog. I'm also absolutely sure I haven't done this book enough justice at all - it is phenomenal! Overall, it is Kelly's honesty and realism based on her own lived experiences that shine through and will stick with you for a long time. Please go and read it. You can buy from Bookshop.org here.
Other books on this blog also explore similar Values: