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Sunday, November 3, 2019

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang. Scholastic, 2018. $22.99 ages 10 and up

"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 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."

Lupe's response is telling:

"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, 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 so forth," Lupe

This story set in 1993 shows that things haven't changed much, have they? Mia Tang and her parents are Chinese immigrants who are courageous, hopeful and hard-working when they arrive in the United States, wanting a better life than they had in China. It doesn't take long for their hopes to be dashed.

Looking for a job that will support their family, the parents are hired by a rich and indifferent motel owner who takes advantage of their situation. Given a small room behind the office in which to live, and enduring overburdened days of cleaning, laundry, making needed repairs and looking after the front desk, the three are soon worn out.  Their hard work is neither appreciated or given any worth.

Mia's voice is always hopeful, even in the worst of times. There are many days when a less resilient and strong fifth grader would just give in to despair. Mia is not that person. Rather, she works as hard as her parents do, trying to make their world a better place. Despite her mother's disdain for the writing she loves to do, Mia remains positive and moves forward in learning English and using her skills to write pertinent and heartfelt letters to people who need to hear what she has to say. Life at school is not easier than it is with her parents. She is bullied and lies are told about her. She holds her ground and stands for what she believes.

In this autobiographical debut novel, Ms.Yang creates characters worthy of our admiration and, at times, contempt. There are friends and supporters, and those who are championed by Mia for their worthiness in spite of what others think. There are many cringe-worthy moments, but there are also wonderful times of support and love. Mia has dreams to fulfill and the determination to make them come true, no matter the odds. There is injustice, but there is always hope. She thinks quickly, writes awesome letters, and faces challenges that seem insurmountable. She does it fiercely, all the while becoming a part of a very unique and supportive community.

And the ending! What a coup ...

A powerful and timely read, despite its early 1990s setting, for any middle years classroom.

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