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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Trip Is a Difficult One

I have WHEN YOU REACH ME and A SEASON OF GIFTS rated as the best fiction I’ve read so far, but I think it’s been a relatively weak year for fiction.  The nonfiction, on the other hand, has been stellar–and I like about a half dozen titles.  I’m also still thinking about some poetry, picture books, and graphic novels.  Although WHEN YOU REACH ME felt like an Honor book to me more than a Medal book, I’m not prepared just yet to argue for anything as most distinguished.  
  
While all of the characters and their various relationships are nicely done, I still see Marcus as little more than a thinly veiled plot device rather than a flesh-and-blood character.  He’s a physics genius rather than a mathematical one, and I never bought his second grade analysis of A WRINKLE IN TIME.  Second graders have a hard enough time reading a clock, and here’s one that could win the Nobel Prize and serve on the Newbery committee?  Please.  I don’t even think Albert Einstein could have done it at such a young age; the brain is not sufficiently developed to deal with such abstract concepts. 
 
We’ve spent lots of time talking about the science fiction aspect of the novel, but I’ve also argued that I didn’t find it satisfying as a mystery.  I guessed that Marcus was the Laughing Man before the big reveal.  I’m sure some people guessed it before I did and some guessed it afterward and some never guessed it at all.  Such is the nature of mysteries.
 
But even when you correctly foresee a plot twist coming, a gifted mystery writer will make you want to read anyway.  You know the outcome, but you need to see how it unfolds.  I’m a plot-driven reader so I wanted to know about the idea of time travel and the backstory of Marcus, and when I didn’t get it (or when I didn’t get as much of it as I wanted) I felt a little cheated.
 
Now Monica (she of the new book dealis a more character-driven reader and she was satisfied with what I found frustrating, while being completely enthralled with the relationships between all of the characters which I found pleasant, but hardly Medal worthy.   But what if the shoe was on the other foot?  What if, for example, the genuine source of estrangement between Sal and Miranda was neither revealed nor resolved.  What if the giver of the rose remained anonymous?  What if we never saw whether Mom won the game show, but instead had to make our best guess?  What if the contemporary fiction side of the story featured the sketchy parts?  Would Monica be similarly forgiving?  I’m not so sure. 
 
Admittedly, much of the stuff I’ve discussed in these posts falls somewhere between objective critical analysis and subjective personal reaction and might not be very convincing in this forum–or around the Newbery table, for that matter.  I do realize that and find my stance on these issues softening slightly, but ironically more because of a point that I made than anything somebody else has written.  To wit, it seems a little bit churlish of me to allow Elizabeth Knox to be ever so brilliant in DREAMHUNTER and DREAMQUAKE because of the demands she makes on the reader without making the same allowance for Stead.  Of course, I’m still annoyed that there seems to be either a double standard where fantasy is concerned–or just outright ignorance–but we cannot really take that frustration out on WHEN YOU REACH ME in the Newbery process.
   
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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Monica Edinger says:

    I always think it interesting that given our different reading stance, how we MOSTLY (hehe) agree about books. It has been months since I first read WYRM, but I don’t recall seeing the Marcus/Laughing Man coming and remember reading the book as straight realistic fiction. Afterward I still thought of it as that most of all. As for the mystery, I do have to say none of my kids in my class had a clue (although one figured out it was Marcus at that penultimate moment).

    In addition to being a character-driven reader I’m a totally sucker for atmosphere and well-done setting. In this case it happens to be a time and place I knew and know well — I was a young teacher in that neighborhood in that time. I believe it was Roger Sutton who noted that the neighborhood was almost a character itself.

    Unfortunately I haven’t managed to get my hands on most of the highly-touted nonfiction, but am sure to before long. But I agree with you that WYRM and A Season of Gifts are the strongest fiction Newbery contenders out there.

    (And, hey, thanks for the book deal mention!)

  2. Sonderbooks says:

    I know one thing I enjoyed about WYRM was remembering watching PYRAMID when I was a girl… I wonder how much that affects those of us adults discussing it?

    In the last week, I read Shannon Hale’s FOREST BORN and Suzanne Collins’ CATCHING FIRE. Both are truly wonderful. Will sequel prejudice or fantasy prejudice come into play? CATCHING FIRE feels like part of a story – needing the books before and after to really be complete. But it is a powerful and well-crafted book.

  3. CHRISTINE THOMKA says:

    I agree that “Catching Fire” is a truly amazing book and I hope that sequel prejudice is not held against it, especially when you consider that “Hunger Games” probably should have won last year.

    On the other hand, I think that Peck’s Grandma Dowdel is a most memorable character and am overjoyed to have her return in “A Season of Gifts”. I remember having tears in my eyes as I read the last page of “A Long Way from Chicago” when the troop train passed through town and Joe saw Grandma’s house all lit up, and Grandma herself standing in the door waving, though she could not have known which car Joe was in. I think it says a lot that Richard Peck is able to develop his characters and tell his story in so few pages.

  4. Genevieve says:

    Jonathan, I think you’re underestimating how a highly gifted second grader could think, and even most second graders think. Some second graders are still figuring out clocks, yes, but several in my son’s class that year were doing math that really surprised me at that age, essentially doing very basic algebra (solving for x, though it wasn’t phrased that way) – and those were gifted, but not highly gifted (top .05%?), students. I have definitely known kids that age who can think abstractly and about complex concepts, and again these were very smart but not highly gifted “genius” kids. So I imagine Marcus as several steps beyond them, and I can easily see him doing that kind of reasoning.

    My son is now a fourth grader (who listed “Wrinkle in Time” as his favorite book in second grade), and he loved this book and very much wants it to win the Newbery. He thought the Pyramid parts were very cool, even though he’d never heard of that show – I think kids who have watched any game show can relate to it almost as much as those of us who watched Pyramid.

  5. anonymous says:

    Marcus is not a second grader, he’s actually in sixth grade. Maybe that will affect your reading of this aspect of the book?

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, but Marcus was actually a second grader when he first read A WRINKLE IN TIME and mentioned the apparent discrepancy to his teacher. Maybe that will affect yours?

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