2018 was a banner year for fiction with Asian and Asian-American representation. From To All the Boys I've Loved Before becoming a crossover best-seller and streaming hit to Crazy Rich Asians breaking box office records worldwide, there is no shortage of great contributions to this emerging genre of fiction. One contribution that may have fallen under the radar is Front Desk by Kelly Yang, but it is a stellar example of the emergence of Asian representational fiction and I could not be happier that I gave it a shot.
They say don't judge a book by its cover, and I would implore you to take that advice here. The cover is beautiful and illustrates the central setting of the story, but depicts a much lighter and somewhat optimistic point of view than the actual story itself. This story has very real things to say about the modern immigration experience, and its message feels not only extremely important, but unbelievably timely.
Our protagonist, Mia Tang, helps her family run a small hotel in New York City. While her family cleans the rooms, Mia mans the front desk, interacting with a number of clients, tourists, and guests who make up her family's business. The family has a secret, however. Her parents diligently hide illegal Chinese immigrants in the empty rooms to allow their fellow immigrants to have enough time to find work, lodging, and to get on their feet in America. Enter Mr. Yao, the hotel owner, who has an eye on exposing the Tang family's plans and turning them and the immigrants over to the police. In addition, Mia grapples with an greater understanding of American culture and language than her parents, quickly becoming a fantastic writer while her mother insists she concentrate on more practical skills, like math.
What unfolds is an incredibly heartfelt account of bravery and compassion in a uniquely modern American setting. We are treated to an age-appropriate, but poignant, account of the modern immigration experience in a major city that leans heavily on the author's real life experiences growing up as a Chinese immigrant in a country that was not thrilled or bending over backward to make her feel welcome. This book is a suitable lesson in "otherness" for all ages, and is an important lesson in tolerance and acceptance in a time when those attributes are constantly under attack. This incredible, emotional, and ultimately heartwarming story is absolutely worth your time.
Reviewed by : Lawrence N. Caldwell
Themes : Family, racism, classism, immigration
CRITICS HAVE SAID
- “Debut author Yang weaves in autobiographical content while creating a feisty and empowered heroine. The supporting characters are rich in voice and context, with multiple villains and friends that achingly reveal life in America in the 1990s for persons of color and those living in poverty. Heavy themes, including extortion, fraud, and racism, are balanced with the naive dreams and determination of a 10-year-old… Many readers will recognize themselves or their neighbors in these pages.” -Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- “It’s the details that sing in this novel, particularly the small moments that feel like everything when you’re a kid… This book will help foster empathy for the immigrant experience for young readers, while for immigrant children, it is a much-needed and validating mirror… Deserving of shelf space in every classroom and library.” – Booklist, starred review
IF YOU LOVE THIS BOOK, THEN TRY:
How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed