Book Club Review: “Front Desk”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

Publishing Info: Arthur A Levine Books, May 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature

Book Description: Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Kate’s Thoughts

I don’t usually seek out Middle Grade fiction unless it’s in graphic novel form. There are always exceptions to this, but Young Adult is about as young as I go these days. So when our book club picked “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang, I was interested to see what the Middle Grade landscape was looking like, and it also just so happened that this book was being targeted by angry white adults completely scandalized that a children’s book would dare talk about racism. Talk about timely!

I enjoyed “Front Desk” as a children’s book to be sure! I think that Yang did a really good job of making our protagonist Mia super relatable to her target audience, as Mia has some pretty familiar hang ups and anxieties, all while having to work the front desk at the motel her parents have found themselves working at. It’s definitely true that this book follows a lot of Middle Grade patterns in terms of how certain scenarios set up and play out, and that isn’t a bad thing for the target audience, it still made my reading of this an exercise in suspending my disbelief here and there. But all that said, I thought that Yang also does a great job of tackling the relevant social issues of the difficulties immigrants face, to racism, to exploitative labor practices, to how life in America has a lot of problems for a lot of people. And she does this in a way that makes it very easy to understand for the age group that is going to be reading this book.

“Front Desk” is a good book to give to kids who are starting to learn about certain injustices of the world, as while it doesn’t sugar coat them, it has a hopeful story through Mia, and one that will probably be enjoyable for lots of the kids that do pick it up.

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate, Middle Grade isn’t an age-range of books that I read very often. Even in the last few years I’ve noticed my inner curmudgeon coming out more and more with Young Adult, so the prospect of reading even younger was a bit daunting. That said, objectively, I think “Front Desk” succeeds at all it sets out to do and will appeal perfectly to its target audience (as demonstrated by the many very worn-down copies our bookclub members have checked out from the library).

I knew going in that “Front Desk” set out to tackle a lot of important, touch topics. That said, I was surprised by the level of emotion and depth it went into. The work “dark” is too strong for a Middle Grade book like this, but if you tone that word down some, you get to what I’m talking about. The author is definitely setting out to challenge her readers while still creating a safe environment in which to engage with these topics. Mia’s good-hearted, self-starting persistence is just the sort of character strengths that are sure to appeal to middle graders and allow the story to not let any of these bigger topics weight down to the story too much.

As an adult reading this, like Kate mentioned, there was a decent amount of suspension of disbelief needed. Some of the problems seemed to be tidied up much too easily and the solution to many of these situations was often the same. After the first couple of rounds, it began to feel fairly repetitive and predictable. The ending was also a bit too fairytale-like for my taste, especially given the very real challenges the rest of the book tackled. But, again, I think these are the kinds of flaws that stand out to me as an adult reader but will not read as flaws at all to the target audience.

Kate’s Rating 7: A well done children’s book that has enjoyable characters and tackles a lot of good and important issues in a way that kids can understand.

Serena’s Rating 7: The perfect combination of fun characters and important issues, a very good book for middle grade readers. Perhaps less so for an adult.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you have expectations going into “Front Desk”? If so, were they met as you read the book?
  2. Did you think that Mia was a realistic ten year old?
  3. What did you think about Mia’s parents? Was there anything about their portrayals that stuck out to you?
  4. What were your thoughts on the portrayals of Mr. Yao and Jason?
  5. How did you think Yang did when it came to talking about some themes that are sometimes hard to talk about?
  6. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Front Desk” is included on the Goodreads lists “Middle Grade Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion”, and “Middle Grade Books Featuring Characters of Color”.

Find “Front Desk” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

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