Judy Freeman

Judy Freeman

JUDY FREEMAN is a well-known speaker and writer on reading aloud, storytelling, booktalking, and all aspects of children’s literature. A national seminar presenter for BER (Bureau of Education and Research; www.ber.org), she also gives a variety of workshops and speeches at conferences, schools and libraries throughout the world for teachers, librarians, parents, and children. Judy served as a member of the Newbery Committee to select the Newbery Award book for the year 2000 (Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis) and the 2008 Sibert Committee, to select the most distinguished informational book for children published in 2007 (The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís). Judy proudly served as a member of the 2014 Caldecott Committee to select the Caldecott Award book for the year 2013 (Locomotive by Brian Floca).

Judy has written more than 400 book reviews and other content for best-selling author James Patterson’s spectacular website for parents, librarians, and teachers, and other children’s book-loving souls. Learn more about Judy Freeman and her work at her website,  www.judyreadsbooks.com.

Winners! Handbook

The Winners! Handbook is put out once a year by Judy Freeman and contains a closer look at some of her top-rated children’s books from the previous year. Each year, Freeman combs through the books named “best of the year” by various library organizations in order to highlight the best of the best, or bring attention to books that had been overlooked by awards committees. Freeman uses this handbook in her acclaimed Winners! Workshop, where she examines various books’ library and classroom applications as well as how the titles tie in to Common Core Standards.

Every spring, for the past 35 years, Judy Freeman has presented her wildly popular, idea-packed, full-day program, The Winners! Workshop, throughout New Jersey, a culmination of the scores of seminars she has given across the U.S. that past year. Her program is a field day for teachers, librarians, and other children’s literature-lovers looking for innovative and practical ways to use the best of the year’s children’s books for curricular connections, thematic tie-ins, resource-based learning, and just plain fun. If you can’t make it to New Jersey each year, this handbook, upon which Judy’s workshop is based, and that each participant receives as part of the day, is the next best thing to being there.


In The Winners! Handbook, you’ll discover a host of successful, kid-tested, motivating, literature-based techniques and strategies for reading and writing lessons across the curriculum, giving you a whole new repertoire of irresistible titles your kids will love as read-alones, read alouds, and for book discussion groups.

– From The 2019 Winners! Handbook

From The 2019 Winners! Handbook: A Closer Look at Judy Freeman’s Top-Rated Children’s Books of 2018 

✪ Front Desk.  Yang, Kelly. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2018. {ISBN-13: 978-1-338-15779-6; 286p.} FIC (Gr. 4-7) RL: 5.3

In this astute fiction book, loosely based on some of the author’s own experiences as a girl, meet gutsy ten-year-old Mia Tang who emigrated from China to America four years ago not knowing any English. She begins her first-person narrative, “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.” Unfortunately, the reality has been quite different, aside from the hamburgers, which Mia finds much to her liking. For one year, Mia and her parents lived in their car, but after her dad got a job as an assistant fryer at a Chinese restaurant and her mom a job as a waitress (even though she was an engineer back in China), they were able to move into a one-bedroom apartment in California. Now Mia’s mom reads an ad in the Chinese newspaper looking for an experienced manager for the thirty-room Calivista Motel in Anaheim. Her parents apply and are hired by the owner, Mr. Yao, who is only too pleased to be getting two workers for the price of one and offers them five dollars a day for each room they rent. It’s only five miles from Disneyland and there’s even a swimming pool out front. Mia is excited to move with her folks into the manager’s quarters—a small living room with a bed, right off the front desk (so if customers show up in the middle of the night, they can check them in), a tiny bedroom for Mia, and a kitchen. Mr. Yao points out the bulletproof glass enclosing the front office, warning them never to press the buzzer that unlocks the door to the office if a bad guy is trying to get in. On that first day, Mia meets Hank, one of the five “weeklies” who live there and pay by the week, who breaks it to her that everybody hates Mr. Yao. It doesn’t take long to see why. Mr. Yao’s rules: if something breaks, they will be expected to pay for it; they are never allowed to leave the motel unattended; and, much to Mia’s dismay, no one is ever allowed to use the pool. Mia takes over manning the front desk after school and on weekends, so her parents can finish cleaning all the sleeping rooms, putting out a sign that says, “Mia Tang, Manager.” When people checking in want her to fetch an adult, she stares them down, something she learned about in science class last year—“[I]f you want a mammal to do something, you should stare at it”—until they pay her the $20 for the room. (The story is set in the 1990s when motels were a whole lot cheaper than they are today.) On day two, Mr. Yao reneges on his agreement with the Yangs, telling them their pay will instead be five dollars a rented room, not including the first ten customers to check in each day or the five weeklies. “Take it or leave it,” he tells them, adding, “There are ten thousand other immigrants who would take your job in two seconds.” Now they will be working night and day for next to nothing. When her mother takes Mia to enroll in her new school, her fourth in five years, she learns that there is only one other Chinese kid in fifth grade. Unfortunately, that kid is Jason Yao, son of Mr. Yao, who tells Mia at recess, “Let’s make one thing clear. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Got it?” On the other hand, she makes a real friend in classmate Lupe Garcia. Back at the motel, she mistakenly buzzes in a man who is drunk, and though Hank comes to her rescue, she’s now aware that running a motel is “not just fun and games,” but could be dangerous. When she investigates how much money Mr. Yao is making a month from the motel ($12,000) versus what he is paying her parents ($750), she is indignant and determined to do something about it. The school librarian helps her look up how much it would cost to buy the motel, but there’s no way her parents could ever afford it. However, she finds an article about an old couple in Vermont who are looking to give away their motel by holding an essay contest to determine the winner. All she has to do is figure out how to raise the $300 entry fee and write the best essay. Along the way, there are many topical issues Mia wrestles with: the racism and intolerance of the motel’s owner, Mr. Yao, against African Americans; the complicated mystery of who stole motel customer Mr. Lorenz’s neon-green Ford Thunderbird; and the cruelty of classmates who mock her shabby clothes. She wants to be a writer and looks at her second language as a challenge she can master. With the help of a good dictionary, she undertakes composing a series of persuasive letters to help the people she loves out of a series of jams. Even so, her mother insists she should work instead on excelling in math, telling her, “You know what you are in English? You’re a bicycle and the other kids are cars.” Lucky for the reader, Mia’s upbeat, quick-witted, never-give-up attitude helps her fight back against racism, bullying, and unfair treatment of her fellow immigrants, and prove herself a real writer.

GERM: Kelly Yang’s author’s note at the back of the book reveals that many of the events in the book are based on her own experiences helping her parents manage several hotels in California for four years, starting when she was eight. Read this to your kids to see how she incorporated them into her fictional narrative. She says, “I hope in telling these stories, these immigrants’ struggles and sacrifices will not be forgotten . . . And to the nearly twenty million immigrant children currently living in the United States (30 percent of whom are living at or below poverty), I hope this book brings some comfort and hope. You are not alone . . . You are NOT a bike.” Don’t miss the “About the Author” page which states she went to college (UC Berkeley) at thirteen and is one of Harvard Law School’s youngest graduates. Visit her website at www.kellyyang.com. Read a print interview with Kelly Yang here: mrschureads.blogspot.com/2017/09/cover-reveal-front-desk-by-kelly-yang.html and listen to a WBUR radio interview on “Here and Now” about the book here: www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/06/19/kelly-yang-front-desk. Then read Yang’s blog post for Scholastic Book Fairs, “How My Librarians Saw Something in Me My Own Parents Didn’t,” about her love and appreciation for libraries and librarians and reproduced in this handbook, with her kind permission, on page 206.

Discussion Points/Research & Writing Prompts:

  1. Mia’s mother tells her they came to America from China because it’s freer here. Mia knows how expensive everything is here. What does her mother mean by “free”? Hank, one of the five “weeklies,” at the Calivista Motel, tells Mia that the motel owner, Mr. Yao, “has coal for a heart.” What does that mean? (Chapter 1-3)
  2. Though Mia has been in America for two years, her English is pretty good. She likes phrases like “a train of thought” and “a blanket of snow.” These are American expressions and colloquialisms. What are some of the things we say in English that would be tricky for a person just learning the language to master? Here’s one: It’s raining cats and dogs. Brainstorm a list of these and, next to each one, explain what it means. (Chapter 4)
  3. How does Mia get new customers to accept her as the front desk manager, based on what she once learned in her science class? Why did Mia have to refund the money of two customers after her first night there? How does Mr. Yao prove Hank is right? (Chapter 5-6)
  4. Mia says, when her mother warns her not to touch the key machine, “Any adult who says the words don’t touch to a kid should know it’s an open invitation to touch it.” Is this true for you? Want to talk about it? Mia thinks everything in America has a price, even kindness. Why does she think this? Do you think it is true? Why or why not? Give examples either way. Why does Jason Yao, son of Mr. Yao and the only other Chinese kid in her class, want nothing to do with Mia? (Chapter 7-8)
  5. What are loan sharks? Why did Uncle Ming go to them? Why does Mia lie about having a dog? How does Mia learn the hard way about the dangers of running a motel? What does she do about it? Mr. Yao’s definition of a “good employee” is “whether they know their place.” What does he mean? What problems does his son Jason have? (Chapter 9-14)
  6. Mia and her father recycle cans to make extra money and keep a lookout for a rare 1943 copper alloy penny that he says is worth $30,000. How much is it worth now? (Look it up online.) Why does Mia’s dad call her his “special penny?” What do Mia and Lupe learn about each other? What does Lupe mean when she says, “Being rich doesn’t mean you’re generous?” What do you think of her dad’s theory of there being two roller coasters, one rich and one poor? What does it mean to be successful? (Chapter 15-18)
  7. Why do the kids in Mia’s class make fun of her and Jason? Where is Japan? Where is China? Where is Taiwan? Why doesn’t Mia agree with her mother about math and the English language? Quick: What is 2 X $22.60? Why doesn’t Jason want Mia’s sympathy? (Chapter 19-20)
  8. When Mr. Yao learns that the Tangs have rented rooms to black people, be is furious, saying, “Any idiot knows—black people are dangerous . . . Clearly you have no idea how this country really works.” When motel customer Mr. Lorenz’s neon-green Ford Thunderbird is stolen from the motel parking lot, why do the police only interrogate Hank? Hank tells Mia, “Guess I’m just used to it. This kind of thing happens to me all the time. To all black people in this country. In some way or the other.” Stop here for a discussion of racism and how it affects us as a country. This book is set in the 1990s. Has the country changed since then? (Chapter 21)
  9. Why does Mia reject Jason? Why did Hank get fired from his job? Why does Mia kick out the security guard from the Topaz Inn? Her friend Lupe tells her, “The thing about prejudice is you can’t tell people not to be prejudiced. You’ve got to show them.” How do you do that in your life? Why won’t the police listen to Mia about following her leads on who stole that car? (Chapter 22-24)
  10. Why do Mia’s parents continue to let people stay at the motel for free? Why does Mr. Yao refuse to hire Hank as a handyman? When Mia is discouraged about the C-minus she gets on her story for English class, how does Lupe help her? (Chapter 25-27)
  11. With the help of a dictionary/thesaurus, Mia writes a thank-you letter to the customer who left her an eight-dollar tip and a kind note. Write a thank-you note to someone who has done something nice for you recently. (Teachers, clear out your desk of all that old stationary and thank-you cards you’ll never use and have your kids use them for their good copies.) Get that person’s address and send the card snail mail. Why does a woman customer correct Mia’s mother’s English? How do you think she feels about that and why? What does Mia do in response to both Jason and the mean-girl sixth-graders making fun of her clothes? What would you have done? (Chapter 28-31)
  12. Why does Mia get the answer wrong for her team in the class math challenge? Why does her mother tell her, “Math’s all you’ve got.”? And, “You know what you are in English? You’re a bicycle and the other kids are cars.” What does her father do in response and why? He tells her to write down everything that happens to her, saying, “Who knows, maybe someday it’ll all seem funny to you.” Have you ever had a bad experience that you were able to laugh about much later? What happened? (Chapter 32-34)
  13. Uncle Fung is having trouble with American expressions and actions, so Mia makes him a pamphlet she calls “Mia’s Book of American Phrases and Customs.” What others would you add to her list, and what do they mean? (Chapter 35-37)
  14. Why does Jason steal Mia’s new pencil? Why does their teacher decide it belongs to him? What do you think about what Mia does for revenge? (Chapter 38-40)
  15. Why does the doctor at the hospital arrange to waive Mia’s mother’s bill? Why did Hank get arrested? How does Mia help him? What is the difference between a letter asking for a job and a reference letter? What job would you like to have someday? Write a letter to your future employer about your qualifications. Then, exchange letters with a partner and write each other’s reference letters for that job. (Chapter 41-44)
  16. Why are the many Chinese friends that Mia’s parents help so afraid of Immigration officers? How does Mia try to help Uncle Zhang? Mia solves the mystery of Mr. Lorenz’s stolen car and finds herself in danger. What should or can she do? What’s a “thirty-day special”? What does it mean in America to be “innocent until proven guilty”? (Chapter 45-50)
  17. What does Mia do to counter the security guard at the nearby Topaz Inn? What kind of response does she get? At this point, Mia has tried with her letters to right wrongs as she sees them. What wrong could you try to right with a well-worded letter? Write that letter and send it. What does the Chinese saying, “Never forget how much rice you eat” mean? (Chapter 51-52)
  18. How does Mia get the $300 entry fee for the motel contest? What do you think of that? The essay that Mia writes for the motel giveaway contest on the topic “What would you do it you owned a motel?” is heartfelt. Will it win her the big prize? Why or why not? (As a lead-in to a persuasive writing lesson, print out Mia’s essay on page 224 and have your kids work in pairs to edit it or add to it.) (Chapter 53)
  19. Poor Ms. Morgan, Mia’s substitute teacher, can’t control the class, thanks to Jason’s bad behavior. Mia hears her crying on the phone and saying, “Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to be a real teacher.” What does it take? Make a list of what a new teacher needs to know. How does Mia help? How does Jason then help Mia and why? Why doesn’t she admit that she’s kept the jeans that don’t belong to her? Do people change? Give an example. (Chapter 54-55)
  20. Mia’s mother says, “Have you ever seen anybody in this country do something out of the goodness of their heart?” How about you? What have you or people you know done out of the goodness of your hearts? Even though Mia doesn’t win the motel, she wins something at school. Why is it so special for her? Why does her mother consider herself to be a bicycle? How is America different for Mia and Lupe compared to what their relatives in China and Mexico think it is like? How has life changed for Mia’s relatives back in China? What does it mean to be rich? (Chapter 55-61)
  21. What does Hank mean when he tells Mia’s parents, “. . . you can’t let a useless thing like pride get in the way of your dreams”? How does Mia help them get off the roller coaster and stop being followers? How does Mia make a difference in the lives of everyone around her? What difference have you made for the people you know and love? (Chapter 62-66)

RELATED TITLES:  Alvarez, Julia. How Tía Lola Learned to Teach. Knopf, 2010. / Applegate, Katherine. Home of the Brave. Feiwel and Friends, 2007. / Dumas, Firoozeh. It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel. Clarion, 2016. / Fleming, Candace. Lowji Discovers America. Atheneum, 2005. / Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. HarperCollins, 2011. / Lin, Grace. The Year of the Dog. Little, Brown, 2006. / Medina, Meg. Merci Suárez Changes Gears. Candlewick, 2018. / Namioka, Lensey. Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear. Little, Brown, 1992. / Sheth, Kashmira. Blue Jasmine. Hyperion, 2004. / Weeks, Sarah, and Gita Varadarajan. Save Me a Seat. Scholastic, 2016. / Woodson, Jacqueline. Harbor Me! Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2018. / Yee, Lisa. Millicent Min, Girl Genius. Scholastic, 2003. / Yee, Lisa. Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time. Scholastic, 2005. / Yep, Laurence. The Star Maker. Harper, 2011..


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Judy Freeman’s Top-Rated Children’s Books of 2018 in the BTSB Bookstore

Judy Freeman’s Top-Rated Children’s Books of 2017 in the BTSB Bookstore

Judy Freeman’s Top-Rated Children’s Books of 2016 in the BTSB Bookstore

Judy Freeman’s Top-Rated Children’s Books of 2015 in the BTSB Bookstore

Judy Freeman’s Top-Rated Children’s Books of 2014 in the BTSB Bookstore