I was a big reader in middle grade but shamefully admit that most of my favorites (series like Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High and anything by the still amazing Judy Blume) featured privileged, white characters. I realize only now what a narrow view of the world I had as a result.
Diversity in children’s literature isn’t just important for minority groups, and the ability to see themselves in stories (although this is VERY important), but also for the majority who need to see and understand what it’s like to live without privilege and constant fear of discrimination.
Front desk is a courageous book based on the true life of author Kelly Yang. Like Yang, the main character in Front Desk immigrates from China to California at a young age and ends up working at the front desk of a motel. In the book, the Calivista Motel is managed by 9-year-old Mia’s parents and owned by the greedy, racist, and abusive Mr. Yao who takes advantage of the family’s immigrant status.
Mia is one of the most precocious, brave and honorable fifth graders I’ve ever met or read about. At times, I found her completely unbelievable. But knowing that the author experienced a lot of the same things as her character and went to university at 13 (yes, 13!), I came to understand how and why Mia grew up so fast.
Although English is not her first language, Mia writes letters in an attempt to change many of the injustices she experiences in the US. She creates a community within the motel, particularly with the “weeklies” and never stops trying to please her customers. Mia deals with a lot of heavy stuff throughout the story (no spoilers here) but her huge heart and determination prevent Front Desk from becoming too overwhelming.
Yang’s depiction of racism (including anti-black racism) is particularly powerful and presented in a way that is entirely accessible to the middle grade target audience. The reality of life in the US (where everything is supposed to be “free” but for Mia and her family nothing actually is) brought me to tears many times. It also made me understand how hard it was for Chinese immigrants in the 80s and early 90s to end up living in poverty and racism in the United States while many of the friends and family they left behind flourished as China modernized.
We still have a long way to go in achieving true equity and diversity. But books like Front Desk are paving the way. I have already ordered Three Keys (the advantage of waiting so long to read Front Desk–there’s already a book 2!), and can’t wait for Mia’s adventures to continue in Room to Dream, coming out in September!