About a Book Ban
On the news a little while ago, a middle grade book called Front Desk by Kelly Yang was temporarily banned at a New York school due to a complaint from a parent. Well, those of us curious beings IMMEDIATELY went looking to get a copy of our own to see what all the fuss was about. (Actually, the ban put the book on the New York Times Best sellers series list). The story is about a Chinese immigrant family who works at a motel. It is told from the perspective of their ten-year-old daughter, Mia, who takes over the job at the front desk. The story line is about her interactions with her classmates, her parents, and the many diverse people who come through the motel. It is an immigrant story of struggle and racism.
Well, I read it, and from my perspective, this is why it ruffled some feathers.
1. Black Racial Profiling
One of the “weeklies” (weekly motel clients) is a black man named Hank. He is targeted to be the main suspect of a crime committed at the motel simply because he’s black. The way the book reads, the white police officer’s are looking for reasons to accuse him without looking at all the facts or other suspects subjectively. They go as far as to interview Hank’s boss, who gets spooked and fires Hank. Hank shares that he is used to this type of treatment. Mia is outraged and involves herself to prove Hank is innocent, and that just because someone is black, it doesn't make them a criminal. This last theme is directly explored when a security guard at a nearby motel makes a list of dangerous people and literally asks for the names of the black people staying at the motel.
2. Bleak Perspective of the Immigrant Experience in America
Mia’s family is very, very poor. Taking place in the 90’s, they came to America with high expectations but found a tough environment when they landed. They were skilled in China but forced to take low paying jobs in America and treated as expendable. They lived in their car for a long time. They are taken advantage of by a wealthy boss and are forced to take a job despite the lack of respect from their employer because of their limited choices.
With no health insurance, Mia is made to promise to not participate in gym class at school. However, when her mom is attacked, they have no choice but to take her in, bringing in their savings, hoping it would be enough. With their hospital bill coming to thousands of dollars, they are chastised by management that they should not have sought medical attention without insurance. A white doctor shows compassion (most white characters in this book do not) and forces the administration to waive the fees.
3. Harsh Critique of American Society
Mia (and her parents) are met by a lot of racism. Even though the story directly speaks to black racism, the Chinese racism is more implicit. Mia’s classmates make fun of her eyes and her clothing. She is disregarded completely by a peer. Mia’s mom is harshly criticized by a client for mispronouncing a word. Mia and her parents work their hands to the bone and still cannot financially get ahead. To me, this brought to light the stark reality that America is not the land of equal opportunity as it is often proclaimed. The American dream is not attainable for Mia’s family, and all the other immigrant families stuck on the “poor rollercoaster”.
Not every part of this book is filled with politics. The “weeklies” are a lovely and diverse group of people who become Mia’s family. Mia meets a friend who acts as a mentor archetype (even though she’s her same age) who is also an immigrant. One of the protagonist’s changes for the better in the end. The police officer who profiled Hank ends up apologizing (begrudgingly). Mia’s family finds a safe place of friendship and love, being supported by their community in a business venture made to set them up for success in the future. When Mia asks her parents if they ever regretted emigrating to America, her parents tell her no, that there is still a level of freedom and privilege in the States that they did not posses in China.
My verdict is that this book is nothing from which to run. It should be embraced and talked about, instead of banned and forgotten. It’s not a surprise that the themes that run throughout this book would not be welcome by certain groups, but likely, these groups are blind to the reality of marginalized peoples. What really solidified my opinion to support this book was the author’s note. Front Desk draws from the author’s REAL LIFE EXPERIENCES. Any action to censor this story is a flagrant effort to silence marginalized voices. We can’t erase the facts just because they make us uncomfortable, or heaven forbid, guilty.