Why parents tried to ban this children's book about a Chinese immigrant family

Kelly Yang is the author of Front Desk. (Photo and book jacket images courtesy of Scholastic)
Kelly Yang is the author of Front Desk. (Photo and book jacket images courtesy of Scholastic)

Right in the midst of Banned Books Week, which concluded on Saturday, a children's novel about a Chinese-immigrant experience entered the center of controversy in a small New York school district.

Front Desk, the award-winning middle-grade debut novel of Kelly Yang, published by Scholastic, was reportedly being read aloud in a fifth-grade classroom of the Plainedge School District last week when an administrator came in to put a halt to it.

"Somebody tweeted and cc'd me about it," Yang, who has been vocal about the attempted ban on social media, tells Yahoo Life. "They think the book is 'antiracist,' and [that term has] been weaponized."

Neither the Plainedge superintendent's office nor the principal of Eastplain Elementary School β€” the school in the district where the halted read-aloud occurred, according to a parent tweet β€” has responded to requests for comment from Yahoo Life.

Previously, Front Desk β€” based on Yang's own experiences of emigrating to this country from China as a young girl and working the front desk of a motel to help her parents out at their job managing the property β€” had appeared on the lengthy and much-publicized banned books list in Central York High School in York, Pa. (which was recently reversed following student protests).

The Plainedge District has a K-12 enrollment of 2,823 that is 86 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian; according to one parent letter shared to social media, though, a chief complaint by those offended by the book is there is a chapter that has a white police officer falsely accusing a Black motel guest of theft.

"This author's books are extremely divisive and controversial, and we are shocked and disappointed that this 'CRT' book is part of Plainedge's teachings," wrote the parent behind the letter, referring to the controversial critical race theory β€” a teaching methodology that acknowledges the role of systemic racism in shaping American history, with tenets including "racism has always existed" β€” according to screenshots posted to Yang's Instagram.

The letter continued, "Our children … are not to be audiences to any books that portray cops as racist, foster the notion of white supremacy or white privilege, teach that America is a racist country where all people are not equal etc. … "

Many NYPD members appear to call Plainedge home, at least according to a 2016 interactive map that showed nearly 200 such officers living within the two Plainedge ZIP codes. In 2015, the community was rocked after NYPD officer Brian Moore, a Plainedge native, was shot and killed while out on patrol; residents raised $40,000 to erect a bronze statue of the slain officer, and a school athletic center was named in his honor.

Glowing reviews of Front Desk, meanwhile, have praised the "feisty and empowered heroine" and for being a "testament to how a great story can grab you by the heart and never quite let go." Last week, following the initial outcry, the book landed on the New York Times bestseller series list. (Just before that, frequently banned author Alex Gino told Yahoo Life, "It is not how I want things to go, but when a book gets banned or challenged, sales go up.")

According to Yang and reports on social media, her book was temporarily banned until the district came to the decision to reinstate it in classrooms while giving parents the choice to "opt-out" their children from reading it. Those who do opt out, according to the unidentified parent who had been tweeting out details of the unfolding situation, will instead read Home of the Brave, a middle-grade book about an African immigrant written by Katherine Applegate, who responded to the decision by tweeting about how she had "bought 20 copies" of Front Desk.

Pushback against books that aim to teach about antiracism has been on the rise around the country, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, which promotes the annual Banned Books Week to raise awareness and support the freedom to read.

That pushback, she previously told Yahoo Life, in a recent story about the Central York situation, "reflects what we observed last year when we reviewed data for the most-challenged books of 2020 list, which is a wealth of books dealing with antiracism, particularly of the experience of Black Americans, being suppressed, under this idea that it subtracts from the experience of the majority." In August, the ALA released an official statement denouncing the censorship trend.

Last Yang heard, close to 10 kids in the Plainedge district had opted out of reading Front Desk. "I think that the parents are uncomfortable with a book about a young Chinese immigrant, and they're using a lot of different words to try to ban it ... because it doesn't fit into their very specific view of what this country is like for everyone," Yang says. "This country is made of all sorts of different people, and you go to school to learn how to deal with the world and interact with people from all walks of life, different ethnicities … so I always think it’s great when kids can read a book about someone whose life is a little bit different and learn compassion and understanding."

Yang says that since she arrived in this country at the age of 6, her parents had "pretty hard jobs, often manual labor," and that she has felt "personally attacked" by some of the book-ban groups she has seen discussing her work β€” and her life β€” on Facebook. "They go and research my personal achievements … and say, 'If anyone should be grateful and say great things about this country, it should be her.' When in fact the father in the book says, despite all their suffering, that they're still really glad they came here."

In response to the controversy, Yang made a video about the freedom to read β€” "a freedom," she says, "my parents ironically came over for."