She’s a Car, Not a Bicycle
Up to this point, FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang is getting great support among Heavy Medal participants. During the March – August period when we solicited monthly “suggestions,” it was tied for first with eight. After our first round of “nominations” earlier this month, it’s the leader with ten. I really appreciate the way it deals with some serious, complicated themes in a presentation that seems just right for a child audience. Ten-year-old Mia tells us about her family’s struggles a few years after arriving in the US from China. Their struggles are serious, but she has an optimistic, energetic voice that often (but not always) keeps her feeling positive. The opening paragraph is a good example:
My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face. So far, the only part of that we’ve achieved is the hamburger part, but I was still holding out hope. And the hamburgers here are pretty good.
Then we learn that her mother had to rummage through her purse to find enough coins buy a single hamburger, which they then had to split three ways. And that they were living in their car at the time. We learn about Mia right away: she’ll focus on the good as much as she can, even when we can see things are pretty bad.
The plot isn’t wholly about what it’s like to be an immigrant or poor, but those play a factor in most of Mia’s experiences, and not only in the most obvious ways. For example, she makes friends with Lupe when they find out that both of their families are on the “bad roller coaster,” where being successful means “having a living room without a bed in it.” But what could seem like a contrived friendship turns out to be more complex as we also learn how their specific experiences and challenges aren’t the same just because they’re both poor.
Mia’s a very appealing character and her narration carries the story well. Her friendships with the “weeklies” in the hotel, her complex relationship with her mother, and her struggles to feel confidence, especially as a writer, are engaging and believable. Her writing makes a real difference in the lives of people she knows, and in the end it makes the motel purchase possible. Mia’s sense of herself develops convincingly through her experiences and her growing awareness of the world around her. When she realizes that she’s successfully refuted her mother’s assertion that she’s a bicycle, not a car, it’s a triumph that will really resonate with kids.
As a reader, I might normally be put off by a ten-year-old character who helps so many adults, uncovers an insurance scam, and engineers the motel purchase…but somehow this worked for me. There’s also a light touch to the writing that makes plot details feel mostly appropriate, supported by strong development of character and themes. I think it’s also the powerful way Mia’s enthusiasm and hope went hand in hand with repeated setbacks and struggles…it made me really wish for good things to happen for her and her family. I had some similar reactions to Kate DiCamillo’s LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME. I’m curious to learn what else might have pushed FRONT DESK into nomination-worthy status for so many others….
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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