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10 March 2021 FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang, Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, May 2018, 304p., ISBN: 978-1-338-157796


“Sing a song of America

Once she was a young girl with her heart on fire

Born in the dust of the magic of history

It all goes on, yeah the dream goes on”

-- Paul Kantner, “America” (1985)


“While Lupe’s dad fixed the cable, I filled Lupe in on all the things that had happened, including Mr. Yao changing the deal on us, the drunk man attacking me, and Mr. Yao refusing to buy us a security camera.

‘Oh, you’ll never get Mr. Yao to buy that,’ Lupe said. ‘You’re lucky if he pays the electricity.’

‘But he has so much money! Have you seen his house? It’s enormous!’ I said.

‘Being rich doesn’t mean you’re generous. I’ve gone with my dad to some of the nicest homes in L.A. You should see some of these rich people! They have so much money, but they’re so mean to us--’

‘Just because we’re poorer than them,’ I finished the sentence.

Lupe looked at the floor.

‘And because we’re brown,’ she said quietly.

I looked down at our two arms, mine golden like the desert sand, and hers warm like cinnamon.

‘Well, when we’re rich, we’re not going to be that way,’ I said.

‘We’re going to have to get off the roller coaster first,’ Lupe said. I furrowed my eyebrows.

‘What roller coaster?’ I asked.

Lupe explained. According to her dad, there were two roller coasters in America--one for rich people and one for poor people. 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.

‘And ‘round and ‘round they go,’ Lupe said.

‘And poor people?’ I asked.

‘We’re on a different roller coaster. On our roller coaster, our parents don’t have money, so we can’t go to good schools, they can’t get good jobs. and so on and so forth,’ Lupe said.

It was an incredibly depressing thought. The only nice thing about it was that Lupe used the word we.

‘Sucks,’ she said.

It did suck. And she was right too. My parents bobbed along from one bad job to another. Sometimes, I even felt like I was on a roller coaster--I had the same queasy feeling in my tummy.”


Through a year of pandemic, I’ve been reading great books over the phone to my almost-eight-year-old grandson. Some have been old favorites while others, like this one, are award-winners I never got a chance to read. Through tears of joy, I just finished the wonderful conclusion to FRONT DESK, a tale about the American Dream, spun by an immigrant author whose own childhood experiences inspired this heartwarming yarn. It’s the story of a ten-year-old girl who turns out to be the key to her parents’ making great strides toward achieving that dream.


Mia Tang and her parents are Chinese immigrants. Her classmate and new best friend Lupe Garcia immigrated from Mexico with her parents. 


The deal sounds too good to be true. Live at the motel, and rake in the bucks, in exchange for running the place. Unfortunately, Mia’s parents are repeatedly taken advantage of by the motel’s owner, a Taiwanese immigrant and lowlife businessman. Once her parents assume management and cleaning duties at the southern California Calivista Motel, Mr. Yao radically alters the terms of their verbal employment agreement, making it nearly impossible for Mia’s parents to keep their heads above water, despite spending all their waking hours toiling away. 


Mia spends much of her time outside of school working the front desk, checking customers in and out of the motel. She has a stellar attitude about treating the customers well. Fortunately, in the long run, she will be paid back for her kindness, particularly by Hank. He’s one of an interesting group of five customers--the weeklys--who actually live fulltime at the motel. 


School is a challenge for Mia. Think about it: Here in San Francisco, the Chinese restaurants typically have menus written both in English and Chinese. Take a look at Chinese writing sometime, and imagine learning to hear, write, and speak Chinese as a second language. This is what Mia’s had to do, in reverse, with English. It’s particularly tough because she’s a kid who enjoys expressing herself, and it’s hard on her to get back assignments covered with red-highlighter corrections and comments. 


Then there is Jason Yao, the son of the man who is treating her parents so badly. Jason sits next to her at school. I found him to be the most intriguing character in the story. I’m still trying to figure him out as I write this.


My grandson is not getting to grow up around immigrant relatives, as I did, with my Sicilian grandmother. I want him to know how, despite the flaws, the dream goes on. Someday, I hope to share grownup American Dream classics with him--books like GRAPES OF WRATH and GATSBY. For now, FRONT DESK is a rich introduction to the national ethos, a powerful and satisfying tale for young people that moved both him and me.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com






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