Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang

frontdeskMia is a wonderful mix of maturity – she’s responsible and confident in running the front desk – and immaturity – she makes rash choices and is often naive – just the way real children have the ability to astound us one moment with their insight and frustrate us the next with their, well, childishness.

Mia’s mother comments that Mia is a bicycle when all of the other children are cars. Mia’s friend Lupe talks about being on a roller coaster: one for rich people, one for poor people, a continuous loop that, from generation to generation, makes it hard to get on to a new path. Both of these images persist throughout the book, resonating with Mia in different ways at different points in time. It seems no coincidence that all of these images are vehicles, things we associate with movement and energy. As Mia points out on p. 192: “The point was sometimes, you have to take matters into your own hands. And you have to be creative to get what you want.” Mia’s focus is on constantly moving forward, learning from the past but focused on what’s coming next. She is action-oriented, and that’s reflected in everything from the recurring imagery to the book’s pacing to the event-focused plot lines.

FRONT DESK gifts us with a narrator who remains consistently optimistic through hard times. This determination to look on the bright side informs not only Mia’s character but also the tone of the book. Mia’s determination that everything will work out allows readers – especially the younger readers who are the target audience – more leeway to support an ending that, in a different book, could have felt over-the-top.

Introduction by Alys

Beginning with positive comments, readers and Heavy Medal Committee members are now invited to discuss this book further. Later today we will open up discussion to include any concerns with the book, along with praise.


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


  1. Amanda Snow says:

    I read this book way back in January of last year and I still think about it regularly. The setting and characters are both so strong, I still feel emotionally attached. Living in a hotel is not what anyone would deem “typical,” yet Mia and her family make their home feel like a destination. I’m drawn to the boldness in Mia and her ability to not only be liked, but also determined to make her small world a better place.

  2. Mia’s confidence in her own abilities is awe-inspiring, even when you are cringing at some of her choices. I adored her as a character, right up there with Louisiana’s audaciousness and Nan’s cautious, fierce compassion. These three could rock a superhero triad.

    I like how the setting of the 1990s was depicted by what girl Mia’s age would notice. The sparkly pencil, the mall, the clothing worn by her peers.

    • Did I miss where the book identified its setting as 1990’s? I was feeling this as I read it, but got to the end and didn’t really know…

      • I don’t have a copy at hand, but I feel like it must have been shown fairly early on. I always knew it was set in the 1990s.

      • I don’t have a copy here either, but there were clues – I think the clothing was the strongest clue I remember. And then the author’s note at the end also discussed it.

      • On page 5, it’s mentioned that the year is 1993. To my knowledge, that’s the only explicit mentioning of the year in the book. It’s kind of a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment.

      • Ha! And I must have blinked!

      • I enjoyed the 90s setting too, since it’s from my own childhood–and set near me too! Although she did have one slip up, with the whole thing with the fancy jeans being “skinny jeans,” which are a much more recent invention! 🙂

  3. This book blipped off the radar for me, but after being refreshed by Alys’ qualifying essay, I’m remembering all the things I loved about this book.

    Mia’s voice is sweet and distinctive, and as others have pointed out, her actions are believably childlike and provide eye-opening insight into the immigrant experience. Her pluck and tenacity propel much of the book’s narrative, and her letter writing campaigns were an effective and amusing method to mobilize the actions of those around her. I especially liked the tension Yang created between Jason and Mia. It felt authentic and pure.

    Thanks, too, Alys, for pointing out the “transportation” motif that is sprinkled throughout the book. I didn’t pick up on that at all, and it makes me admire this book just a smidge more!

  4. Jessica Lee says:

    The students I work with consistently LOVE this book. If the Newbery were a student-voted award, I would expect FRONT DESK to be a strong contender. The reason is entirely Mia; they want to be her friend. Kelly Yang has created a realistic, likable character in Mia, one with flaws as well as virtues. I appreciated how much she gave us to cheer for as well as to wince at. Alys captured that well in describing Mia’s combination of maturity and immaturity.

    • Jenn Hartley says:

      Same here. I work in a largely immigrant community and the kids really responded well to this book.

    • I met with my Newbery Club students on Friday and they were over the moon about this book. One girl especially love the gym scene between Mia and Jason.

  5. I loved about 3/4 of this book, primarily because of Mia and primarily because of the hotel setting. Mia is one of many great girl voices this year (Robinson, Nan, Louisiana) that depict a smart and confident girl who takes control of her own situation and makes her own way. These aren’t your typical female characters and I enjoyed that. Robinson is into cars, Nan sweeps chimneys, and Louisiana, well, Louisiana is Louisiana.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the different ways she problem-solved for her family and their friends. Some of the smaller plot lines, like Mia “stealing” the jeans, were depicted in such a real, honest way that really stood out to me. I think this was highly suitable for a child audience and have wide appeal, which speaks to this text’s appropriateness of style.

    As for the hotel setting, I felt I was there. The descriptions of the rooms, Mia’s interactions with visitors, the rules Mr. Yao imposes, the details about the neighborhood and the cast of characters throughout, all created a realistic, yet unique setting for a MG novel.

  6. I liked how the visiting Chinese immigrants to the hotel brought us many stories of their tough lives and difficult/impossible employment. Mia’s family was so generous and hosted their friends and extended community of friends at great risk to themselves. This was an elegant way to get more information/stories about the hardships immigrants face AND to show how caring Mia’s family was and how tight-knit the Chinese immigrant community could be.

    • I agree with this. I felt the depiction of their stories was a good way to relay that information without taking away from the overall story or making it feel too in your face. It’s a lovely way to introduce this idea to young readers who may have no concept of the hardships faced by immigrants and also a way for those readers who do have a concept of these hardships to relate to the story even more.

      • Courtney Hague says:

        I agree with both Maura and Susan here. I loved the way the stories from the visiting Chinese immigrants conveyed the hardships they endured without feeling overly didactic. It was such an organic way to convey both how difficult their lives were and the kindness of her family.

      • sarahbtlibrarian says:

        Agreed! Having the hotel guests share stories is a great way to share with readers what the experience was like for many people without bogging the overall story down or feeling didactic. A great choice.

      • I also agree with Maura and Susan. I think the stories from the immigrants indeed keeps the didacticism at bay. But it also serves to weave together a chorus of voices that all feel compelling and real.

  7. I thought there was some good humor, particularly in some of the mom’s dialogue I think. I liked how much agency Mia had–I enjoyed the various letter writing schemes along the way and that she was able to accomplish things. I liked the second half the best and found it particularly engaging once she had the goal of the writing contest to work towards. I know other people are going to bring this up as a negative later, but I really liked the ending. There are some obvious logistically problems, but it was satisfying and just made me happy. And I felt like the book needed that element of hope since it had gotten so heavy. Although it was also interesting to learn more about this particular immigrant experience. (But they really need to redo the cover so that’s what you’re expecting, rather than a light, comic story about a kid running a motel!)

    • To me, the ending felt like the dance scene at the end of SLUM DOG MILLIONAIRE. A chance for celebration after some fairly grim moments. Mostly, I liked it, but as far as feeling distinguished it tended to lessen the impact. Mainly because I found the ending of a few other books more organic and satisfying.

      • sarahbtlibrarian says:

        I think this was my problem with the ending too. I liked it, but it was almost too simple and I agree other endings we’ve read are more organic.

      • I like that comparison! I would argue it actually is organic to the story because it’s an outgrowth of her other letter writing schemes. But I understand what you mean. The part of the ending that kept annoying me was the loan sharks and that no one even mentioned the idea of a mortgage. And it could have been put more into the realm of reality by having them all be investors, not co-owners, because I did definitely get distracted by how on earth the accounting would work! I don’t think most kids are going to care about though.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    I mentioned this in an earlier discussion, but I would be curious if our committee evaluated FRONT DESK any differently with the knowledge that, according to the author’s note, “many of the events are based on reality.” For most of its audience, I don’t think it does or should matter. But the Newbery Terms do define “distinguished” as “noted for significant achievement.” I think it may be possible for someone to draw a distinction in “significant achievement” in a true piece of fiction vs. something that looks like a novel but draws from the author’s own experience. (One could ask the same question of HEY KIDDO, which is coming up Wednesday.) I wonder whether the occasional jolt I felt transitioning between parts of FRONT DESK could be attributed to what was being drawn from the author’s memory vs. fancy. I am definitely not saying this is grounds to penalize FRONT DESK–maybe someone could even argue it’s the opposite. I am just unsure how to judge “significant achievement” in a fictionalized memoir.

    • Leonard, I was allowing time for members to continue talking about strengths of the book but being that its mid to late-afternoon, I think it should be fair game to discuss whatever now…

      Reading after the story that most of this was inspired by real events got me confused. It made me wonder what exactly had been fabricated and why? I agree with Leonard, there were parts of the plot that required some suspension of disbelief and they pulled me out of what was a rather compelling story in its own right. The way two tourists treat Mia’s mother as she’s taking a picture of them felt unrealistically embellished to highlight her discomfort in a new country. The letters Mia wrote on behalf of Hank and Uncle Zhang (hopefully I’m remembering their names correctly) fit nicely with the theme of writing, but also felt unrealistic. And the ending… oh the ending. There are so many logistical problems with so many people owning a building like a hotel that weren’t even remotely hinted at or addressed or thought out.

      • Could this be chalked up the idea of an unreliable (simply due to age and memory) narrator? Although I’m not sure how far that goes when discussing a book as being distinguished…does it make it more confusing that parts are embellished or does it just add to the way memories work in our brains? I also found that it took me out of it at times to imagine if I was reading a “true in the world” account or if parts were being intensified to get a point across.

      • sarahbtlibrarian says:

        I had those same thoughts about the ending-how would each person own the hotel, what share would they have, how would they all be tracked, etc. Maybe it’s just my adult mind trying to be logical, but it did throw me out of the story at the end.

      • The ending was wish fulfillment, but some of the other parts you’d thing were made up (like writing the letter to get the passport back) are actually true!

  9. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    We’ve moved into some concerns about FRONT DESK, and that’s fine. From this point, readers are invited to comment on the book’s possible flaws, as well as its strengths…

  10. Before I had read Front Desk, I had only glanced at the cover and I had assumed it was about a library! Mia’s voice and the setting of the hotel are the two distinguishing factors of this book for me. The setting made me think of how I have always thought that a sitcom in a library would be a winner because you’ve got your regulars and your new faces, and that played out in this story, too.

    I also liked how it showed kids in a very real way that not everyone is treated fairly at work and that there might not necessarily be anything they can do about it. I felt that theme was handled so well, and that might be why I was less positive about the ending, which was almost a fantasy compared to the rest of the book. I wanted a happy ending but I didn’t see the joint ownership being practical or plausible.

    I have students who have enjoyed this book, but I haven’t asked them how they felt about the ending – I didn’t want to color their opinion. I know that adults have responded in both positive and negative ways to the ending and I am curious how students feel.

    • I’m also very curious. Sure, it’s a convenient ending of sorts, but maybe the message of everyone coming together is more important to kids than the idea of how actual property ownership works.

      • sarahbtlibrarian says:

        Great point Maura! I think kids might be okay with the fairy-tale feeling ending especially after a book that shows many difficulties. It’s nice to have an ending that is happy and shows everything has worked out for kids and I think sometimes we adults can forget that and try to look too much on the adult side of it. I’d be curious to know what kids think of it.

  11. Courtney Hague says:

    I agree with what everyone else has already said about Mia’s character and the setting both really shining in this novel. Mia felt like a real kid to me especially with her relationship with her parents, the hair-brained schemes that she came up with, and even what she is especially concerned about (the sparkly pencil, the jeans, etc.)

    But I’m also in agreement with everyone who has already expressed some disappointment in the ending. While I found it quite heartwarming and satisfying for Mia and her family to purchase their hotel with the help of a whole community of people, I’m not sure it’s very realistic for all the reasons that have already been expressed above.

  12. Jessica Lee says:

    I agree with the many other comments that criticized the ending. Additionally, I felt like this was a “message” book, one written to teach people about a certain theme rather than simply telling a rattling good yarn. In that way, it felt old-fashioned and didactic to me. While likable and positive, I don’t think there is anything about this book that raises it above the others on this list.

    • Agree! At times I felt the author was perhaps shoe-horning in as many stories of racial/immigrant oppression as possible– And I like stories that tell of injustice–but various of the stories didn’t ring true to me.
      I found all the “Weeklies” characters to be pretty flat and inauthentic. When Hank is accused of stealing a car it felt like a plot contrivance– What police department follows up a stolen vehicle to that extent? Mia’s teacher felt like a cipher (of a bad teacher) to me. The Maquilladora experience was a compelling example of oppression to include, but that classroom scene rang false to me. (p 160) As did the scene with the doctor (p. 176)– Emergency room doctors do not hand you the bill themselves.
      Showing not telling in writing is mentioned more than once in the book, and I found myself wishing the author had been more effective in taking her own advice. At times she used a clever turn of phrase– Mia hungry on page 70 says “My stomach nodded” yet on page 68 “We’re immigrants, our lives are never fair” and on page 84 “Lupe and I became inseparable”– I felt both these quotes (and many more) could have done the story more justice if they had been shown instead of told.
      As mentioned before, I found the ending very problematic and pat– the impossibility of it kicking me out of the story yet again.
      And of course I was pretty angry at that crappy librarian who didn’t see through the Free Motel Contest scam.

  13. Cherylynn5691 says:

    This book stood above several other immigrant stories for me because of two things. It told the story with a positive spin. Mia consistently has a positive attitude and tries different things to better her situation. She asks for a security camera and doesn’t get defeated when she is told no. She writes to try to win a contest. The book also tells more than one immigration tale. More than just the story of one family is told through the visitors. I was impressed with the author not making Mia win the contest. The wish fulfillment ending was a disappointment.

  14. samuel leopold says:

    I have gone back and forth on this title all year. All of my colleagues have done an exemplary job of explaining the positive aspects and I totally agree with what has been said here. But….when I start comparing this to the other contenders, the nicely wrapped ending prevents me from giving it a top five placement.

Speak Your Mind