Kelly Yang (Front Desk): Books Between, Episode 56

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for educators, librarians, parents, and everyone who loves middle grade books!  My goal is to help you connect kids between 8-12 with fantastic books and share inspiring conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two girls, a 5th grade teacher, and I just discovered the COOLEST thing last week and I have to share it with you!  There is this teacher named David Marsh and he makes stop motion LEGO Batman Book Talks. They are SO awesome! There’s one for Enginerds and one for Serafina and the Black Cloak – and, my favorite – the one for The Frame-up! I’ll drop a link to his YouTube Channel in the show notes. Do you yourself a favor and go watch them.

This is Episode #56 and today is all about Kelly Yang and her fabulous new novel, Front Desk.

Before we begin, I have two quick announcements! First is the Middle Grade at Heart Book Club update. This month’s pick is Where the Watermelons Grow, and I am so close to finishing that book – it’s so good and I can’t want to have Cindy Baldwin on the show to chat with me about it. In September we are reading The House That Lou Built and in October is Three Rules of Everyday Magic. So grab those books and let me know if you have questions you think I should ask the authors when they come on the show.

And second quick reminder that Monday nights are the #MGBookChat Twitter chats with some really juicy topics coming up like building book access in book deserts, creating a classroom community through books, and ending gendered labels of books. It can be very easy to get into the hustle and bustle of your day and forget – so set a reminder on your phone for Mondays at 9pm EST and check out #MGBookChat on Twitter.

Kelly Yang – Interview Outline

Our special guest today is Kelly Yang. And as you will hear – she is one incredible and humble person. And since she’s not going to talk herself up, I am. Kelly Yang is one of the youngest graduates of Harvard Law School – earning her degree at 17. She’s a columnist for the South China Morning Post and her features have been published in The New York Times and the Washington Post. She’s a commentator, a debater, and founder of The Kelly Yang Project – an award-winning writing and debate program for kids in Hong Kong. And that’s really just scratching the surface of this WOW Woman! I was really honored that Kelly took the time out her family vacation to sit down with me and chat about so many things – how to reach English-language learners, racial profiling, the Simpsons, her writing journey, and her childhood helping her parents run motels which was the inspiration behind her debut middle grade novel, Front Desk.

Take a listen…

Front Desk

Your debut middle grade novel, Front Desk, has been getting all kinds of love!!  For our listeners who have not yet read the novel, can you tell us a bit about it?

Would you mind reading a favorite passage?

Aside from running the front desk of the motel, Mia is often translating for her family. Was this something you also had to do? If so – how did that impact you?

I adored Mia, but I really really came to love her parents! But… her mother could be carelessly cruel. Her pressure to be good at Math. And then when she tell Mia that the other kids are cars but that Mia is a bicycle – oh my GOD!  I started to wonder if maybe Mrs. Tang was just really scared for her daughter?

One of the most powerful scenes is when a car was stolen from the motel and in the course of that investigation, Mr. Yao discovers that the Tangs have been renting to black people. And he says, “I thought I told you not to rent to bad people.” That thread of discrimination and racial profiling (even by other marginalized people) was woven throughout the story at various points.  Can you speak a little bit about your thought process behind those sections?

I love following you on Twitter and I loved your thread about the Simpsons and Apu controversy. Could you talk a little bit about your response to that and your relationship to that character?

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Kelly and I discuss the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the : mark.

Your Writing Life

What was your journey from Harvard Law graduate to author?

What are you working on now?

Your Reading Life

One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and librarians and parents inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books.  Did you have a special teacher or librarian who helped foster your reading life as a child?

What were some of your most influential reads as a child?

What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?


Kelly’s website –

Kelly on Twitter and Instagram

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

The Babysitters Club series (Ann M. Martin)

Matilda (Roald Dahl)

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

Unidentified Suburban Objects (Mike Jung)

Peasprout Chen (Henry Lien)

Magicians of Elephant County (Adam Perry)

Alan Gratz

Ban This Book (Alan Gratz)

The Wild Robot (Peter Brown)

The Wild Robot Escapes (Peter Brown)

Orphan Island (Laurel Snyder)

Ghost Series (Jason Ryenolds)


Alright, that wraps up our show this week!

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Books Between is a proud member of the Education Podcast Network. This network EPN_badgefeatures podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!


Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.



Taking Off the Coat of Shame

I was eight years old and the front desk clerk of a motel in California when I started watching The Simpsons. I won’t lie, the first time I saw Apu, an Asian American man and the proud owner of a small business, I felt seen. Finally! To be represented on a hit TV show! The feeling quickly turned sour, though, when it became apparent Apu was on the show solely to be mocked and laughed at. It wasn’t his accent that bothered me – my Kelly In Motel Floral Pantsparents also have an accent—it was the way he was characterized: having him work a 96 hour shift and then prance around happily as a hummingbird afterwards. Having him cross out the expiration date out on a package of expired meat and sell it to Homer, who then gets food poisoning. On and on it went. Apu wasn’t representative of me or my parents. He was put on the show at the expense of hardworking Asian Americans like us.

My parents came to America with $200 in their pocket. To get by, we took manual labor jobs in restaurants and motels. At the motels, my parents cleaned the rooms while I managed the front desk (which, when you’re only 8, is really hard. Adults don’t like handing over their ID and cash to an 8 year old for some reason. Go figure.) I threw myself into the job, getting to know all the guests and treating all my customers with kindness, care, and respect.

Kelly in motelSometimes, during my shift breaks, I’d watch the Simpsons, my eyes glued to Apu, unable to look away, because as much as it hurt to be stereotyped and ridiculed, it was that amazingly rare to see an Asian small business owner on TV. I’ll admit, I too laughed at Apu sometimes, only to then sit and writhe as the juices of self loathing twisted in my stomach afterwards. Sometimes, my customers would come in and cheerfully say “Thank you come again!” ala Apu and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh. At night, I’d lie awake and wonder is it better to be seen and mocked than to not be seen at all?

At school, all my friends were watching the Simpsons and making fun of Apu. They’d take turns speaking in accents, yelling at their “customers”. Terrified they’d make fun of me if they found out what I did, I kept my job a secret from them. It was in this kind of climate that I grew up, going to school by day and tending to my customers by night. I was a real life Apu but I dared not tell a single soul because of fake Apu.

FrontDesk_CoverFast forward 25 years, and I’m finally ready to take off the coat of shame that has covered me all these years. My debut middle grade novel FRONT DESK, about a 10 year old Chinese American immigrant girl who manages the front desk of a motel while her parents clean the rooms, comes out on May 29. It is an honest, funny and moving portrayal of the immigrant experience, managing a small business in America in the face of racism, police mistreatment, and poverty. It is the nuanced treatment that The Simpsons should have given Apu.

And while I’m disappointed that the creators of one of the most admired television shows of all time had neither the patience nor the will to create an Asian American character more sensitively or at least RESPOND more sensitively when called out, I’m encouraged by shows like Fresh Off The Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and books like Front Desk and Serpent’s Secret. Currently in the United States, there are nearly 2 million Asian owned businesses, many of which are in the service industry. They rent us rooms, cut our hair, paint our nails, serve us food, and much much more. They work hard and have hopes and dreams and kids like me who don’t deserve to live with a lifetime of shame just because some writer wants an easy joke. It’s about time we see them and see them right.

kelly yang headshot

Kelly Yang is the author of FRONT DESK, a middle grade debut novel about a 10 year old Chinese American girl who manages the front desk of a motel in Southern California while her parents clean (Out May 29, Arthur Levine/Scholastic).

You can find her on Twitter at @kellyyanghk