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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

She’s a Car, Not a Bicycle

Up to this frontdeskpoint, 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….

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. 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 sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Kate Todd says:

    I compared FRONT DESK with 2 other books that have take-charge heroines: AMAL UNBOUND by Aisha Saeed and MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER by Diane Magras. Although all three face different problems, in each case the main character overcomes adversity with minimal adult assistance. All three books have vividly described settings and excellent supporting characters. Yet I was surprised that FRONT DESK received 10 Heavy Medal nominations while AMAL UNBOUND had none and MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER had one (mine). What is it about FRONT DESK that causes it to rise above these similar contenders?

    • I think there’s a few factors going into why Front Desk is getting more attention than Mad Wolf’s Daughter (I haven’t read Amal Unbound yet, so I can’t comment on that.) It’s my (possibly incorrect) impression that not as many people have read MWD – perhaps because historical fiction is a harder sell, maybe initial buzz wasn’t as strong so it’s not on as many people’s radars. Versus all of the kidlit people I know in real life have read Front Desk. (And yes, I know that technically Front Desk is also historical fiction but it feels modern in a way that medieval Scotland does not.)

      I think MWD is also very much the first book in a series, and that’s always a difficult point for people. (Unfairly, I think, because it takes skill to set up a series, and “create a compelling world in which not all the threads are tied up” is definitely one answer to “does this book do what it set out to do?”)

  2. Jenna Friebel says:

    I loved Amal Unbound, too, but I voted for Front Desk and not Amal because I found Front Desk had stronger writing overall. Agree both had vivid settings and wonderful characters. I felt Front Desk had more depth to it though.

  3. This is a delightful “workplace” book. I felt that it was so strong and realistic the whole way through but I did not care for the ending. So much of the story was about the realities of the troubles that her family faced so I couldn’t help but wish for an ending that was more realistic. I still have lots more to read so I don’t know if it will rise to the top despite my misgivings about the ending. The characters and setting and other details make it a strong and very likable book.

  4. Jenn Hartley says:

    Just discussed this one with my Mock Newbery teens yesterday and they loved it! Out of 8 teens, 4 read it and all agreed that they would nominate this one. They also liked Amal Unbound but were overwhelmingly positive about Front Desk. This means I need to move it to the top of my TBR pile, I guess.

  5. I liked FRONT DESK tremendously and am adding it to literature circles unit on immigrant historical fiction (which this is, believe it or not:). As for Newbery, I’d love to hear from more folks in detail as to what makes it worthy.

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    I don’t know if this is fair, but my feelings about this book changed when I read the author’s note, which reveals this book draws on the author’s own life and could be seen as a sort of fictionalized memoir: “Many of the events in FRONT DESK are based on reality. Growing up, I helped my parents manage several motels. . . . The part about Mia’s mom getting beaten up really happened to my own mother.” The reason I am not sure whether this is fair is that the text obviously doesn’t change with this knowledge. What changed for me is the imagined “authorial work” involved in creating this book, and I don’t know if and how that fits with the Newbery Criteria. One could argue that it is fair to judge “magnitude of accomplishment” in a criterion – say, if development of a particular plot was clearly challenging (because of timing, twists, balancing and juggling elements, whatever) and the author pulls it off, that should deserve Newbery credit. But what if it’s revealed the author was drawing on something previously established? (The first example that pops to my mind is 2017’s Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, a complex thriller that is heavily indebted to The Talented Mr. Ripley). But then I can easily imagine the counter-argument that it shouldn’t matter whether something was easier or harder to write, just look at the text in front of you.

    Anyway, I was more impressed in some respects by FRONT DESK after learning its backstory — I think it’s not easy to compress several years of experience into a credible, fictional story, and I think Yang did a good job making it not seem like “too much happens” to the characters (yes, I know the too much happens “flaw” can be attributed to reader unfamiliarity as well). And I was less impressed in others (the feel-good, wish fulfillment ending seemed even more incongruous to me.) I know we can’t evaluate against non-2018 books, but in these respects, FRONT DESK sort of reminded me of Federle’s Nate books. (There actually is a new Nate book out this fall, but I haven’t read it.)

    I had some issues with Mia’s writing and corrections. Both my parents are Asian immigrants. After ~45 years in the country, their English writing is now unproblematic but still imperfect (pesky articles). I remember my mother laboriously writing out dictionary entries for words she didn’t know. The process by which Mia writes and re-writes and ends up a “good” writer didn’t resonate with anything in my experience. Maybe it’s different with someone Mia’s age, but I think there’s more to becoming a good writer than diligent proofreading, but that’s sort of what I felt FRONT DESK was selling.

    • I totally agree with this! I actually wished the author’s note was at the beginning to put it in some context. And it made me like the ending a little bit less to hear that so much of the rest of the story had been rooted in reality.

  7. One aspect that I did appreciate in Front Desk is how the author does not flinch away from some really tough background information about the reasons why people left China and about the conditions new immigrants face. I do want to always remind readers that this is “historical fiction” and be aware that some of the conditions in China as experienced by Mia’s parents are not necessarily today’s social conditions in China. The story seems so immediate and so contemporarily relevant, young readers could easily envision this to be completely current — which it isn’t.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      I wonder if we could consider it a fall in the development of the setting that readers are not correctly placing the story in the 1990s. REBOUND feels late 1980s, BOOK OF BOY feels middle ages, TWO ROADS feels like the great depression, if FRONT DESK doesn’t feel like the early/mid 1990s, then that’s a problem when holding it up against other strong historical fiction titles.
      I often wonder if writers choose to set things vaguely in the pre-internet/pre-smartphone world out of story convenience. I understand that Ms. Yang lived some of these experiences in the time in which the story is set but I wish this aspect of the setting had been more flesh out, especially in a year with such strong historical fiction to hold up against it.

      • Eric, I want to clarify my own comment by saying that the story does not read 2010s to me and I think the author did not fail to set the story in the 1990s. However, since it is recent history, I’m just wondering if readers young and old realize that some of the fictional parents’ descriptions of China might not apply to current state.

      • I agree with Roxane on both counts: I think it will be easy for kids to not notice the time period is not modern, and that it’s not anything the author did or didn’t do. As someone who grew up in the 90’s, there were several little things that made me smile because they reminded me of being a kid (though I don’t have a copy, so, no, I can’t quote them.) I don’t necessarily think it’s a flaw that these moments tended towards subtle, I think it would have been distracting to have Obvious References thrown in just to make it really clear we were in the 90’s. I’ve read books like that, and it’s annoying.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        This is going a little off-topic, but the this article about coming-of-age movies made me think about the 1990’s setting of FRONT DESK. The filmmakers talk about capturing the era, and in some cases it matters more than in others. George Lucas (“American Graffiti”) felt that 1962 was a crucial time period: “I saw the beginning of the ’60s as a real transition in the culture because of the Vietnam War and all the things we were going through.” I think it’s fair to say that the “we” in this case means middle-class white Americans. Michael Schultz (“Cooley High”) sees his setting (1975 Chicago) and characters differently: “The fact is, in the ghettos of America, at that point in time, there was not that much difference between the ’60s and the ’70s or the ’80s.”

        So if Mia’s experience seems not so specifically rooted in the early ’90s, maybe it’s because for recent immigrant families like hers, major parts of their experiences are essentially unchanged. Maybe that’s a stretch, it’s just that I read that article right after reading posts about that here…

  8. Cherylynn says:

    I have read Mad Wolf’s Daughter, Amal Unboound and Front Desk. For me there were problems with all three books. Mad Wolf’s Daughter is comparable to Brotherband Chronicles (by an Australian author so not eligible) and obviously a book that did not have to have a completed ending so the strings that the author left did not have to be tied up. I did not find it remarkable. Amal Unbound had a defiant girl sold into slavery. My issue is with what happened. If a rich man that owes money to her father, forces her into slavery because she would not give him pomegranates, why would he let her use his books without more punishment? I felt like at times Amal Unbound became a message book about the horrors of living in a society where slavery like that could happen and the importance of education in these countries. Front Desk seemed to me to have a child narrator who very consistently thought like a child. I have met little girls like this so eager to help their parents. I found it to be an unrealistic ending, but as an immigrant book I found it to be less about the message and more about sharing the experience of being newer to the country and trying to find your way.

  9. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I keep going back and forth about this book, and I think that’s rooted in the themes of poverty and racism are so real, and effectively explored. But the wish-fulfillment of buying the motel almost belies the harshness of their life. I think about THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS and SNOW LANE, where poverty plays a big part, and the conclusions in those books, while hopeful, are more grounded in reality…the families lots are improved, but you know it’s still going to be very hard.

    But on the other hand, the crises in those books are more dire than what Mia faces in FRONT DESK; she has a strong family and doesn’t face the abuse that the characters in the other two books do. And then there’s tone. Mia’s voice and personality kind of set us up to expect a pretty happy ending. Yes, her life is hard and her pain is real, but we just feel optimistic throughout, because that’s what she conveys. And although one reader might enjoy all three books, FRONT DESK is specifically aimed at slightly younger readers.

    Maybe the author’s accomplishment is that she explores some harsh realities, ones that some of her readers might not have read about before, and does it through a character and plot that are peppered with hope and optimism. If you think of OCTOPUS, SNOW LANE, and also THE NIGHT DIARY, AMAL UNBOUND, and GHOST BOYS, all of them take a very serious approach to very serious themes and issues. And they’re all pretty successful at it. What FRONT DESK does with serious themes and issues is different…and successful in different ways.

    • I agree with you, Steven. This book is pitched younger and therefore the happy ending is appropriate. For me, it’s not that the ending was wish-fulfillment, but that it felt a bit cliche to me. It strongly reminded me of the end of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE where all the townspeople give small amounts of money to save the business (can we call this a crowdfunding trope?). I also didn’t like the venture capitalist character who swoops in and handles the purchase and brings in a lawyer to write the contract that allows all of those investors to co-own the motel. He’s a minor character but had a whiff of white saviorism for me because without him this ending isn’t possible. I thought it would’ve been a strong ending if Mia’s family had taken out a mortgage.

  10. I absolutely loved this book, and I wanted to raise just a tiny point, which is that I think there’s an error in the Monopoly game at the end of chapter 10. Hank says, “I now own Pennsylvania Avenue and Park Place! Pay up, Mia, that’ll be fifty dollars a night.” Pennsylvania Avenue is green; Park Place is blue. Owning both of them shouldn’t make a difference, and Mia can only land on one at a time. Park Place’s rent is only $35/night — I can’t think of a reason that she would owe $50. It’s a tiny, tiny thing, of course, and I don’t think it should affect Newbery contention at all — but it bothered me!

    • steven engelfried says:

      Good catch, Andrea. I agree that you don’t rule out Newberys for this sort of thing, but it bothers me too….and so easy to check!

    • I noticed this too! I was confused. This was like my frustration with the formatting of the text messages in Hello Universe – it wasn’t a huge deal but it bugged me.

  11. I’m later than most in getting to this. I waited for the audio, which I recommend highly. Engaging is the adjective for this book. It should bring young readers in and allow them a glimpse at both the immigrant and poverty world, but without feeling overly grim. Mia is vibrant, impulsive and hopeful.

    My issues with it are that Mia’s inner voice was all to wise, and world-weary at times. I wondered if we were suppose to understand the narrator was looking back. She acted like a ten-year-old, but she sounded like Auntie Delores who has seen too much in her life and would like to explain it all to you.

    My other issue is with the portrayal of the police and their unchallenged, gross-misconduct in only pursuing Hank as a suspect. As an educator I’m sensitive to blanket portrayals of the educational system failing children. I know, and have witnessed, isolated instances of malpractice. And I know in children’s fiction finding a heavy to thwart will often turn to the bad teacher, principal, librarian, etc . . . This is to be expected, but I chafe when there in no nuance, or contradiction that the whole ‘system’ is not at fault. I can’t help but feel that the portrayal of the policemen in this book was so one-note as to indict the whole institution. I worry that young readers will walk away with nothing but disdain for all law enforcement. Yes, institutional racism is a major issue in our country, but couldn’t it be more subtle or balanced? Just like countless educators I know, my belief is that those who choose law enforcement as a profession do it to make a difference for good, not pure evil.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      DaNae i’m curious where in the criteria you believe that your second issue can be addressed. My reading of the criteria is that we evaluate books based on how the author writes and not what the author writes about.
      Look closely at the criteria:
      – Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization. – Development of a plot. -Delineation of characters. -Delineation of setting. -Appropriateness of style.

      I’m not sure where in those criteria you could bring up the portrayal of the police. Disagreeing with an author’s depiction of a class, group, or profession doesn’t seem like an issue with delineation of characters as much as a personal problem with what the book is saying.
      I’m of the thinking that committee members must put aside personal opinions on the subject, topic or themes of a book and instead evaluate how the author delineates, develops and presents.
      It’s the classic form vs content argument but here, at least, the criteria clearly asks us to ignore content and focus elusively on form.

      • I think an argument could be made for “presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” in that one might believe the way law enforcement is treated in the book is “inaccurate.”

        I also think an argument could be made for “development of a plot” if one believes the law enforcement’s pursuit of one particular character wasn’t handled appropriately and this was significant to the plot.

        I haven’t quite yet read FRONT DESK, so I’m not one to make those arguments, just throwing out there that I think it sounds like it could be done.

      • The police officers in FRONT DESK are characters. If they are portrayed as one-dimensional bad guys and not fully human that is a weakness in delineation of character. Even minor characters should not play into harmful stereotypes.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        Calling the stereotypes “harmful”. Is exactly what I’m getting at. That statement is an opinion about the books content and not about its form or craft. Minor characters in all novels are usually just briefly sketched and not rounded. Secondary characters like the weekly are well drawn and unique. The cops who appear far less often being shown to be bigoted is a choice by the author to so that their actions after their introduction in the novel make sense to the reader. I don’t see how this is a problem.
        You may not like the use of this specific sterotype but that isn’t relevant to the criteria. It’s only if it is effective or not in definitely allowing the readers to make sense of them that is relevant.
        We can’t ding a work because we don’t like the message, just as we can award a book because we like it’s message.

  12. Eric Carpenter says:

    One’s thoughts about how law enforcement is treated in a book can’t be an inaccuracy since it is a opinion.
    As to development of plot, I think it’s important to notice that the crafters of the criteria use the term plot and not story. The plot is how the story is organized and not the content of the story being told. Danae’s problem seems to be with the story and the story is not part of the criteria.

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