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Book Review: Front Desk by Kelly Yang

One of the ways we hope Raising Real Readers can help busy parents and caregivers is by keeping an eye out for the latest books that will soon be on all the must-read lists. Very few people have time to keep up with books lists and release dates! Front Desk by Kelly Yang is a great example of a new book with lots of buzz, but even better, it provides an accessible starting point for conversations with your elementary school child about timely, difficult topics. You can see our other book recommendations here.

Intended Audience of Front Desk

Middle Grade (3rd-6th grade)

This is a great book to read WITH your child. For parents who are looking for stories that highlight some of the struggles in America today, especially the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots, Front Desk is a great choice. And for teachers, this is a powerful read aloud for grades 4 and up, especially once your class has established a sense of community that would allow for rich, true discussion.

Summary of Front Desk

Ten year-old Mia and her parents are learning to navigate life in California after arriving from China with only $200. When the family eagerly agrees to run a motel for Mr. Yao, a ruthless landlord, their lives take many unexpected turns. Mia’s life as a 5th grader who moonlights as a hotel front desk assistant manager might be vastly different than your child’s circumstances, but many of her struggles are just the same. Readers will fall in love with the “weeklies” at the hotel, cry at the hardships the family and other friends face, and cheer for their victories.

What To Know Before You Read Front Desk

  • Immigration, discrimination, poverty (including homelessness, lack of health care, danger, and hunger) are all topics addressed in detail in Front Desk.
  • There are a few choice words sprinkled in the story, but all used in an authentic way. At one point, Mia’s mom refers to the terrible motel owner as a “bastard.” And a drunk hotel customer says “goddamn.”

Why You Should Read Front Desk

  • Mia is the girl we should all aspire to be. She shows the reader that even when things seem hopeless, she finds ways to rise above and stays true to herself.
  • Mia longs to be a strong writer in English. Yang does an incredible job showing us how Mia’s writing improves throughout the book. What a powerful way to show children the challenge of English as a second language, something they may be encountering with peers at school (or experiencing themselves).
  • Mia is wildly courageous, inventive, thoughtful, hard-working, and loving, while still a very believable character, so while kids will smile at her sometimes naughty side, they’ll also meet a true role model.
  • Because this story is based on author Kelly Yang’s own life, there is real authenticity behind Mia’s feelings and the characters you meet, and the events that occur (both touching and disturbing). In our current climate, stories like this are incredibly important in building empathy.

After You Read Front Desk

  • Teachers, put down those red pens when responding to a student’s written work. To read Mia’s reaction to her teacher’s feedback made my heart hurt, especially when she compared it to looking like blood on the page.
  • Your child/student will see firsthand how the power of letter writing can be a vehicle for change. Consider choosing a follow-up activity such as writing to an elected official about topics your child is concerned about.
  • I loved how Yang incorporates bits of Chinese culture throughout the book. Another follow up activity could be eating a meal with chopsticks or cooking some of the Chinese cuisine mentioned in the book.
  • Read about the author’s life. Kelly Yang went on to college at age 13 and has degrees from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law. While this is extremely impressive, I’m personally more impressed that she can still find a way to write as if she is a very real 10 year old girl, a group I happen to spend a lot of time with.

If You Like Front Desk, Try These Books Next:


Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

Want to know what we’re reading, what we’ve loved, and what’s sitting in our Amazon cart? Check out our GoodReads bookshelves! Got a children’s book in mind that you’d like to see us review? Leave a comment or email us at 

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