By Shana H. Fung
This post is part three of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for the annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we interview the authors to learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite! Our online polls open in early April, and the winning author will receive a $10,000 prize.
This week, we’re chatting with author Kelly Yang about Front Desk, a book inspired by her own family’s story of immigrating to the US and running a motel in California during the 1990s.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Front Desk is a serious story about the difficulties experienced by a Chinese immigrant family trying to make a new life in America, but there are also many laugh-out-loud moments. Why do you think humor was an important element to include?
Kelly Yang: Humor was hugely important for me to include in the book because growing up as a poor, first-generation Chinese immigrant, having parents who came from communist China with only $200 in their pocket, and who toiled in menial labor jobs when they got here—humor was what got us through it. My dad had a wonderful sense of humor. I remember he would always tell jokes, even when life was very, very hard, and we didn’t always have enough to eat. I’m sure he was weighed down by the harsh realities of immigrant life, which were a far cry from what he had envisioned in his head before he came, but he somehow always managed to make me and my mother smile. I think humor can be so empowering in difficult circumstances, which was why I wanted to include it in my book.
DCHM: In your author’s note, you mention that many of the events in Front Desk are based on real events and that your parents managed motels in California much like Mia’s family. Would it be wrong to call your book “semi-autobiographical”? What are some major similarities and differences between Mia’s personality and yours?
KY: Front Desk is inspired by my childhood. Growing up, I helped manage the front desks of three motels in Southern California, while my parents cleaned the rooms. The experiences of being surrounded by the weeklies [people who stayed in weekly hotels], by my parents’ immigrant friends and their stories, definitely helped me when I was writing Mia’s experiences. The semi-autobiographical part of Front Desk, I think, is in me trying to capture all those emotions authentically. When I close my eyes, I can still feel every joy and frustration, of trying to find my voice, worrying if my English was good enough, not fitting in at school, having parents who were constantly struggling to make ends meet, witnessing and experiencing racism and discrimination, which sadly is still happening today. I worked hard to layer these experiences, giving the novel that wonderful texture of real life. In terms of my own personality, I wish I was as brave as Mia! I wasn’t always so brave as a kid, especially when we first came over to the US. I think it took me a long time to grow into that bravery.
DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Were there primary sources that inspired you?
KY: In researching Front Desk, I drew from my own experience growing up and interviewed my parents and their friends who were part of the “sandwich generation” of Chinese American immigrants who came over to the US in the 1980s and early 1990s. These are people who came over after China became communist, but before China became the modern economic tiger it is today. They were highly educated, but arrived with very little money, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation once they got here. Their stories are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, and I wanted to make sure I captured their experience honestly, as not a lot has been written—fiction or nonfiction—about this generation. While there are many books focusing on the Chinese gold miners and railroad workers who came before them or the wealthy Asian families that came after, the Chinese immigrants of the late 1980s and early 1990s have not been prominently featured in literature. In telling their stories, I hope my parents’ generation of brave Chinese immigrants and their many contributions to America will not be forgotten.
In addition to primary sources, I also consulted census reports and research from the Migration Policy Institute, as well as research on immigrant earnings of that time from the Social Security Administration. I also did research on the Los Angeles riots that erupted after the LAPD officers who’d been on trial for beating Rodney King were acquitted in 1992. Front Desk takes place right after the riots. In the weeks and months afterwards, many small business owners quietly discriminated against African Americans, while the LAPD racially profiled many African Americans. Front Desk captures this unfairness from the point of view of a young Chinese immigrant girl, who never experienced racism before in China, trying to understand it for the first time and figuring out what it means to be an ally.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical fiction?
KY: Young people should read historical fiction because only through learning about the past can we truly understand the present and change the future. Historical fiction allows us to not only know the facts of what happened, but be moved by what happened. It builds empathy in young people in the most natural, beautiful way—by allowing them to care about the characters and their hopes and dreams and struggles.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Front Desk?
KY: Moving. Funny. Hopeful.