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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

A Season of Gifts..Don’t Throw the Popcorn

I know how much Jonathan likes this book because he wrote the starred Horn Book review. Other reviews rave as well. Besides great characters, it boasts a deceptively strong voice that wants to be read aloud. The sort of voice you just disappear into so you forget it’s a voice, and not the events transpiring before you.

However…I wonder how much of the raving and starring has to do with adults’ own connections with Grandma Dowdel, and fond memories of her previous escapades.  The writing stands out; but how far does it stand out to a child reader with no previous experience of Grandma Dowdel, among this year’s other books?  (Jonathan’s article on sequel prejudice may have some bearing here, lack-of-fantasy notwithstanding.)

Now, Roger’s been hanging on to his popcorn for this criticism, which I’ve yet to see even alluded to in a printed review.  It has to do with the digging up of alleged-Kickapoo-Princess bones. Or, rather, the way it’s presented to readers.  There’s a running theme through this book about the ghost of a Kickapoo Princess haunting Grandma Dowdel’s melon patch.  This is a work of historical fiction, and I’m sure that the characters’ conversations about the Princess and her haunting and her headress are historically accurate to the sorts of conversations you’d have heard of such among White people in that place and time.  But this still makes it no less painful for a Native child to hear now.  Yes, there are works of historical fiction published now in which other ethnic minorities are spoken of disparigingly in an historical context…but generally the context is clear to an extent that I don’t think it is here. Still, this point is a "fine line" sort of debate.

It’s mostly the digging-up-and-reburying of the "bones" that really upsets me.  I put "bones" in quotes because Grandma Dowdel being shifty with the truth, it’s clear that she probably didn’t find any real bones. But the actuality of the bones doesn’t matter.  Grandma Dowdel uses the "bones" to launch Bob’s Dad’s church with a highly-publicized funeral.  And Peck’s intent as author is to make the reader feel like Bob’s Dad is doing something good and sympathetic with his funerially sermon…and that Grandma Dowdel was being both clever and kind in enginnering it.  However, what Grandma Dowdel is doing is capitilizing on the publicity that a "Kickapoo Princess Ghost" generates to insure the success of a Christian Church. Bob’s Dad goes along with it, and–even if only symbolically–consigns desecrated remains to a Christian burial.  

Please think about it for a minute. Picture a funny historical novel in which the bones of a Jewish ghost are dug up to create some advertising for the new local Methodist Ministry (but "all in good fun" of course)….and tell me there’s not something a little un-distinguished going on here. 

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Well stated, Nina. Your post calls for readers to pause, reflect, and consider.

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    I am one who was never head-over-heels in love with the earlier Grandma Dowdel books. They were fine, but I always felt I would stick with Mark Twain for my over-the-top regional humor. I liked this one better because Dowdell was more distant, a neighbor instead of a relative. I also think it worked better for me because the setting felt more real (most likely because it is based on Peck’s direct experiences rather than those of older relatives as is the case with the other books that are set in earlier periods).

    While I admire the book and do think it is one of the best written of the year, I too am troubled by this part of the book. As someone who grew up in that time it seems an all too probable scenerio — it was the time when I played “Cowboys and Indians” with my friends, westerns were big, and this sort of stereotypic stuff was rampant in the cartoons and comics I watched and read. So while I was able to bring my own familiarity with the time to my reading of this it still made me uncomfortable. And for those young readers who are not familiar with the way things were in that time I think it would be really disturbing and confusing. Perhaps this was the sort of thing that showed up on television, in a Hardy Boys mystery (I don’t know, just speculating), or in some other form of popular culture then — but it sure is not known now. I’d definitely want to know how kids were reacting to it. Do they get that Peck is probably making fun of this sort of thing? I doubt it, I’m afraid.

  3. Monica Edinger says:

    Reread the post and you’ve convinced me about the funeral (although I have to say the Jewish ghost analogy doesn’t work for me — too many reminders of historical situations in other parts of the world).

  4. This whole P.C. thing is beginning to grate on my nerves. But the question for me becomes where to draw the line? Do we ban the words dumb, stupid, lame, dim-witted…when they’re used in the context of describing…well…something dumb, stupid, lame, and dim-witted. Does the phrase “That’s a lame excuse,” have to be banned from our lexicon? Reminds me of trying to pull library books off the shelves…or at least sanitize them to today’s purported P.C. norms through re-edits.

    Peck has been compared to Twain, and Twain has repeatedly been accused of being racist. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck is torn between doing the good Christian thing by turning in the runaway slave named Jim, or letting him go free. In the end Huck chooses freedom—knowing full well that in the eyes of the church he’ll be damned to hell forever. I guess Twain was both a racist and an atheist all at once. Half the time he had his tougue in his cheek. But never mind that fact–let’s just go back, open up the pages, and fumigate Huckleberry Finn to line up with today’s P.C. norms.

    Although I have not yet read “A Season of Gifts” I would assume that like Peck’s previous books it takes place in rural downstate Illinois where at one point lived lots of Indians generating lots of legends passed up over the generations…which no doubt added to the local color of the area. So one could easily see the logical context of a local Indian legend being incorporated into a Grandma Dowdel story.

    Ms. Lindsay’s main point was that: “What Grandma Dowdel is doing is capitalizing on the publicity that a “Kickapoo Princess Ghost” generates to insure the success of a Christian Church. Bob’s Dad goes along with it, and–even if only symbolically–consigns desecrated remains to a Christian burial.

    Unfortunately, Ms. Lindsay does nothing to further delve into any of the details. For instance, I would have liked to have been told how she perceived that Peck had handled the situation. Was the emphasis of the bones mostly for striking up publicity for a new church? Or was Peck attempting to make an overt religious statement a la C.S. Lewis or Phillip Pullman? Was there a deliberate emphasis of trying to denigrate a race by taking “the bones of a heathen” and “converting them to Christianity”?

    But instead of engaging in further discussion, Ms. Lindsay makes the leap over to the favorite tool of the P.C. police…setting up the infamous straw man. And I quote…

    “Please think about it for a minute. Picture a funny historical novel in which the bones of a Jewish ghost are dug up to create some advertising for the new local Methodist Ministry (but “all in good fun” of course)…and tell me there’s not something a little un-distinguished going on here.”

    I assume she means “un-distinguished” in the “Newbery Rules Sense”…no?

    In setting up this straw man, her first line should have said: “Please take things completely out of context for a minute.”

    Of course in juxtaposing people who identify themselves as Christians and Jews she created the ultimate straw man in which the underlying premise of contention is based almost 100% on religion. And in this instance the dichotomy of these two particular religions (in the form of a man named Jesus) neatly provide the worst case comparative religion scenario (best case for her). Ms. Lindsay definitely gets and A+ for knowing how to pick a straw man winner.

    Then Ms. Edinger follows with a comment of her own by generally praising Peck’s new effort…but then adds:

    “While I was able to bring my own familiarity with the time to my reading of this it still made me uncomfortable. And for those young readers who are not familiar with the way things were in that time I think it would be really disturbing and confusing.”

    Uncomfortable? That’s one that’s hard to describe, but like pornography, I’ll know it when I read it. Some of Huckleberry Finn is uncomfortable and can rightly be attributed to the times in which Twain wrote. On the other hand…today is today…right? So I guess the rule should be that any historical fiction written today must likewise be shaded with the rose-colored P.C. glasses of today…thus thoroughly distorting the conditions that were prevalent in the time period you’re attempting to document and recreate.

    Peck—disturbing to young readers?… Really?… Seriously?…
    I must say…I’ve never considered Peck’s style as disturbing. Some of Twain’s was. I need to read this book to see if this comment was one simply given off the cuff, or is on the mark.

    Confusing? Maybe…since historical fiction(even the comedic variety) is usually “new” and thus by definition “confusing” to young readers. If non-confusion becomes a criterion for books we present to our young readers then I guess we can start by pulling Octavian Nothing from the shelves on the grounds of its use of the confusing dialect of the times(talk about confusing!).

    I myself enjoy the concept of a good crossover book…one where, “in the ensuing confusion”, readers of all ages can derive at least some modicum of enjoyment. But now I guess that’s an outmoded concept (time to turn out the lights on that new “Crossover Blog”).

    When I get around to reading this book(which I plan to do), I may be eating my words and actually find that Ms. Lindsay’s and Edinger’s concerns are valid. But so far I see a complete lack of solid evidence.

    Kudos goes out to Rodger for baiting up a few hooks with popcorn and getting some bites (me included!!!). Maybe he and Jonathan can pop up some more corn…and see who else might swim by…

    Or maybe it’s better to leave this one well enough alone……

    P.S. I note that Jonathan has a more recent post going on this. I’ll follow it with interest.

  5. Anon1, I think you’ll find my points make more sense if you’ve read the book. Once you have, I’d be happy to engage in a discussion with you.

  6. Debbie Reese says:

    I bought the book this morning.

    Started reading.

    Had to stop when I got to page 73.

    Disgusting lack of respect.

    Utter lack of shame.

    Our lives and our histories deserve more than “pass the popcorn” jokes.

    That line was not ok, Roger.

  7. I agree that Roger’s line was not okay, but why address him here when this is not his blog?

    Why not share your opinions on the “Grinch” blog above, which seems to be arguing that the book is not racially insensitive?

  8. See Anon1 eating crow. says:

    Dear Ms. Lindsay and Ms. Edinger

    This afternoon right after Ms. Lindsay’s response to my comment, and in my eagerness for vindication, I went out to purchase the book. I went to two Barnes and Nobles who hadn’t received any copies, and finally hit pay dirt at the second Border’s Store.

    So I’m reading it now and thoroughly enjoying the first six chapters… nothing offensive…vintage Peck.

    But I hit chapter seven…and oh crap!!!

    In chapters seven and eight the book goes completely off the tracks. These two chapters seem as if they were cut and pasted out of a totally different book. The story looses all its simple pacing and supplants it with this over the top sensational (i.e. unbelievable) story of the Indian Princess bones and the accompanying news frenzy their existence brings to the town. But more that, the depiction of the bones…it’s just creepy. That’s all I can describe it as…CREEPY! And the shame of it is, the bones are not a major pivotal plot thread in relation to the entire story. It’s rather a ham-fisted, two chapter, episodic ouch moment.

    And then for chapters nine through the end of the book we’re back to vintage Peck.

    This is very disappointing indeed as I really, really enjoyed the rest of the book. It’s some of Peck’s best stuff ever. The whole concept of the bones was used as a plot device whose sole purpose was primarily to fill a poorly attended church. You could come up with a half dozen other story lines that would have served the same function.

    I’d love to know the behind the scenes that went on between author and editor/s on these specific two chapters. No one could inadvertently miss this.

    Apologies to Ms. Lindsay and Ms. Edinger.

    Now I am thoroughly enjoying myself…choking down on my heaping serving of crow…

  9. Anon1…thanks for posting again. I think you and I are now on the same page. I can agree with most of the arguments of the strengths of the book, but the bones just undercut what he’s trying to do. I’ll post again soon on this, as it’s been a provacative discussion.

  10. The racial insensitivity in this book is part and parcel of Peck’s accurate picture of the time. Growing up in Wisconsin in the same era we relished talking and thinking about the Kickapoo who had lived there before us. Of all the tribes we might have admired, we chose that one because of the humor in the name. (In fact, we should have been talking about the Winnebago, now Hochunk, who had actually lived there.) Although I enjoyed meeting Grandma Dowdel again, I have to say that throughout the book, I was conscious of the heavy hand of the humorist. (Need a laugh? Take off someone’s clothes.) Oddly, I was not bothered by the “bones” which to me were no more real than Grandma Dowdel’s buried treasure, but by the laugh the tribal name gets.

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