Front Desk Book Review

“Front Desk” by Kelly Yang is a riveting middle-grade novel that offers readers an intimate glimpse into the life of a young Chinese immigrant in America.

Published in 2018, this book stands out as a testament to the struggles and triumphs of immigrant families seeking better opportunities in a foreign land.

It is particularly significant that this story draws heavily from Yang’s own childhood experiences, making it not just a work of fiction but also a reflection of real-life challenges faced by many.

Kelly Yang, an acclaimed writer, weaves a tale that is both heartwarming and gut-wrenching.

By blending elements from her own immigrant journey with a fictional narrative, she offers a fresh perspective on the American Dream; a dream often punctuated with hurdles, but also filled with hope and perseverance.

Summary of the Plot

At the heart of “Front Desk” is Mia Tang, a ten-year-old with more responsibilities than most kids her age.

She and her parents have recently immigrated to the U.S. in pursuit of the elusive American Dream.

However, their dreams are quickly met with the harsh reality of their circumstances.

The story primarily unfolds in the Calivista Motel, where Mia’s parents have taken jobs managing the establishment. But it’s not the promise-filled opportunity they expected.

They’re overworked, underpaid, and constantly under the thumb of the motel’s strict owner, Mr. Yao.

While Mia’s parents grapple with the challenges of managing the motel, Mia finds herself at the front desk, serving as the face of the Calivista to its guests.

Mia’s life isn’t just about motel keys and customer service, though. She juggles school, where she grapples with her limited English proficiency, and she acts as a translator for her parents in a myriad of situations, from mundane tasks to critical moments.

Moreover, the motel guests, many of whom are immigrants themselves, share with Mia their stories, dreams, and the challenges they face in America.

These interactions open Mia’s eyes to the broader immigrant experience, the complexities of her new home, and her place within it.

The plot beautifully captures the spirit of resilience.

Whether it’s Mia using her wit and resourcefulness to problem-solve at the motel or her growing realization of the societal challenges around her, the story paints a vivid picture of a young girl’s journey of self-discovery and determination in the face of adversity.

Themes and Messages

One of the strengths of “Front Desk” lies in its layered and poignant exploration of multiple themes, each tied intricately to the experiences of its characters, particularly Mia.

Immigrant Experience: Through Mia and her family’s journey, the book casts a spotlight on the multifaceted challenges faced by immigrants.

This isn’t just a tale of moving to a new country; it’s about the myriad struggles from securing stable jobs to navigating a new culture, from facing discrimination to bridging language barriers.

Yang doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities many immigrants confront, making this theme resonate profoundly with readers, regardless of their personal background.

Resilience and Hope: Mia’s journey is as much about falling as it is about getting back up.

Despite the adversities she and her family face, the narrative is tinged with hope.

Whether it’s Mia’s relentless spirit or her parents’ unwavering determination to provide a better future for their daughter, the story is a testament to human resilience.

Social Justice: As Mia becomes more acquainted with the guests of Calivista Motel and their individual stories, she grows increasingly aware of the injustices many face.

This theme isn’t just a backdrop; it drives the plot forward as Mia, with her budding sense of justice, attempts to challenge and change the status quo.

Family and Friendship: Amidst the motel’s daily hustle and bustle, heartwarming moments of kinship and friendship shine through.

The bond Mia shares with her parents, her evolving friendship with Lupe, and the makeshift family they create with the motel’s long-term residents paint a picture of love, support, and community.

Character Analysis

Kelly Yang’s characters are the lifeblood of “Front Desk.”

They’re multifaceted, relatable, and they drive home the book’s themes in deeply personal ways.

Mia Tang: A beacon of youthful optimism, Mia embodies courage and determination.

As readers, we watch her evolve from a girl grappling with her new life to a young advocate championing justice.

Her intelligence, empathy, and relentless spirit make her an unforgettable protagonist.

Parents: Mia’s parents are emblematic of the sacrifices many immigrants make for the promise of a better life.

They grapple with a myriad of challenges; work exploitation, the weight of debts, and cultural adjustment; all while trying to shield Mia from life’s harsher realities.

Their aspirations for Mia and their indomitable spirit underpin much of the story’s emotional weight.

Mr. Yao: As the antagonist, Mr. Yao stands as a stark contrast to Mia and her family.

He is a symbol of the power dynamics at play, both in the small world of Calivista Motel and in the broader landscape of the immigrant experience in America.

Through him, the story touches on issues of exploitation and the challenges of standing up to authority.

Motel Guests: More than just secondary characters, the motel’s guests play a pivotal role in expanding the narrative’s scope.

Each has a story to tell, each faces its own set of challenges, and through their interactions with Mia, readers gain a richer understanding of the myriad facets of the immigrant experience.

Writing Style and Structure

Kelly Yang’s “Front Desk” shines not just for its compelling narrative and characters, but also due to its distinct writing style and structure that captivate readers of all ages.

Approachable and Engaging Writing: Yang’s prose is clear and inviting, ensuring that younger readers can easily understand and relate to Mia’s world.

The language is accessible but not simplistic, allowing the narrative to capture the genuine voices of its characters.

This approachability ensures that the weighty themes of the book don’t feel overwhelming or overly complex.

Pacing: The novel masterfully balances moments of tension with lightheartedness.

This ebb and flow keep readers engaged and invested in Mia’s journey.

While there are scenes that tug at the heartstrings or incite anger at the injustices portrayed, there are just as many moments of levity, often showcasing Mia’s spirited nature and her youthful lens on life.

Authentic Dialogue: The interactions between characters feel real, unforced, and are brimming with emotion.

This authenticity is especially evident in the dialogue between Mia and her parents, which often reflects their cultural background and their struggles with the English language.

It’s a subtle but impactful way to immerse readers into the characters’ lives and their immigrant experiences.

Structural Choices: Yang skillfully intertwines multiple storylines.

While the primary narrative follows Mia’s experiences, subplots involving the motel guests and Mia’s school life are woven in seamlessly.

These subplots not only enrich the story but also provide multiple perspectives on the book’s central themes.

Personal Reflection

Reading “Front Desk” is more than just an experience; it’s an emotional journey.

Kelly Yang’s portrayal of Mia and her surroundings strikes a chord in a deeply personal way.

Emotional Connection: Mia’s resilience, her innocent observations, and her undying spirit to fight against the odds make it impossible not to root for her.

There’s an innate desire, as a reader, to see her succeed, to witness her family’s dreams come true, and to hope for justice in the face of adversity.

Moving Moments: There are numerous instances in the book that evoke strong emotions.

Whether it’s Mia’s determination to help a motel guest, her interactions with Mr. Yao, or her innocent misunderstandings at school, each scene leaves a lasting impression.

These moments, both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, are a testament to Yang’s storytelling prowess.

Relatability: While not every reader may share Mia’s exact experiences, the themes of perseverance, family bonds, and the desire to fit in and find one’s place in the world are universal.

Many may find parallels in their own lives or the lives of those they know, making the narrative all the more impactful.

Comparison to Other Works

Kelly Yang’s “Front Desk” stands out in contemporary literature, especially when juxtaposed against other middle-grade novels focusing on immigration or coming-of-age experiences.

Unique Perspective on Immigration: While several books delve into the narrative of immigrants searching for a better life in America, “Front Desk” offers a fresh lens by setting much of the action in a motel; an everyday yet unconventional setting.

This contrast helps highlight the hidden struggles and stories that often go unnoticed in more traditional tales of immigration.

Similar Reads: Books like “Inside Out & Back Again” by Thanhha Lai or “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan come to mind when thinking of comparable narratives.

While all these stories focus on young protagonists navigating a new world, “Front Desk” strikes a balance between the raw challenges faced by immigrants and the innocence of a young girl observing this new environment.

This duality sets it apart, offering both a heartwarming and thought-provoking read.

  • Kelly Yang’s Voice: Yang’s personal experiences, reflected in the narrative, lend an authenticity that’s palpable. Compared to other fictional works on similar themes, there’s a sense of genuineness in “Front Desk” that’s both touching and enlightening.


“Front Desk” is one of those novels that, while aimed at middle-grade readers, transcends age barriers.

Its messages are universal, making it a must-read for various audiences.

Young Readers: Mia’s age and experiences make her an immediately relatable character for younger readers.

They’ll be drawn to her adventures, her spirit, and her perspective, finding both a role model and a friend in her.

Educators: Teachers can use “Front Desk” as a powerful tool in the classroom.

It’s an opportunity to discuss themes of immigration, resilience, and social justice, fostering empathy and understanding in students.

Parents: For parents, reading “Front Desk” can provide insight into the complex world their children might be navigating, especially if they’re from immigrant families.

The book can serve as a conversation starter, helping bridge generational and cultural gaps.

General Adult Audience: Even adult readers will find themselves moved by Mia’s journey.

The narrative taps into universal feelings of hope, ambition, and the pursuit of a better life themes that resonate regardless of one’s age or background.

Closing Thoughts

“Front Desk” by Kelly Yang isn’t just a book; it’s an experience, a journey that takes readers into the very heart of the immigrant dream.

Through the eyes of Mia, a spirited, tenacious, and big-hearted protagonist, readers are allowed a glimpse into the realities that countless immigrant families face daily.

What makes this book truly remarkable, however, isn’t just its portrayal of challenges, but its emphasis on hope, resilience, and the indomitable human spirit.

Yang’s narrative speaks volumes about the significance of understanding, empathy, and acceptance in today’s world.

It’s a testament to the fact that while we may come from different backgrounds, cultures, or walks of life, our dreams, aspirations, and struggles often echo the same sentiments.

“Front Desk” is an invitation to listen, to reflect, and to change. Whether you pick up this book as a young reader or an adult, its messages will linger, prompting introspection and a renewed understanding of the world around us.

Our Rating for “Front Desk”

Rating a book isn’t merely about assigning a numerical value; it’s about encapsulating the entirety of the experience it offers.

With that in mind:

4.8 out of 5 stars

“Front Desk” is an exemplary work of literature that offers readers a poignant, heartwarming, and often eye-opening journey into the world of Mia and her family.

It masterfully melds narrative appeal with profound themes, making it a read that both entertains and educates.


-The compelling protagonist in Mia

-Authentic portrayal of the immigrant experience

-The seamless blend of heartwarming and heart-wrenching moments

-Themes of resilience, hope, and community shine through


-Some secondary characters could benefit from the further depth

-Certain plot points may feel predictable for older readers

However, the slight cons don’t detract from the overall impact and essence of the book.

Instead, they offer avenues for discussion and interpretation.

“Front Desk” is, without a doubt, a must-read and comes highly recommended for readers of all ages.


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