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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Checking my list twice, or three times

I’m trying to clean up on my re-reading in time for our Mock Newbery and the actual announcements…. 

Having now read Years of Dust thoroughly, I’m not sure I have much to add to the debate, except to respond to Jonathan when he says:

"I think the incorporation of Florence Owens Means (aka Migrant Mother) shows how Marrin has attempted, at least, to acknowledge American Indians.   He could have told the story of the Dust Bowl without any mention of American Indians–indeed, many have probably already done so–but he did not, and whether or not you think he successfully depicted their place in history and ecology, I think you have to acknowledge the effort."

I agree that Marrin’s attempted top acknowledge American Indians. I’m not sure I need to acknowledge his effort because it seems like a shoddy effort. The inclusion of the images of the Hopi Snake Dance seem odd to me. Except for the mention of Florence Owens Thompson (where stating her ethnicity sticks out–why does it matter there?), and a sidebar on p.110 about current times, no where else do we hear about how the Native Americans were affected by or responded to the Dust Bowl.  The Hopi Snake Dance pictures are provocatively "exotic," and it just makes me feel like Marrin needed some more exciting pictures that all those piles of dust. If he really wanted to tell about the Native Americans during the dust bowl (I’m not saying I find it necessary at all), he could have done better homework, and maybe wouldn’t have flubbed that final quote.

The debate on Almost Astronauts seems to have circled round to where it started from, and I’m going to let it lie for a while. I’m looking forward to debating this one at our live Mock Newbery on January 10th. Whether it rises to the top of my list or not, I think the issues this book raises in its tone and presentation are important to discuss, and I thank Tanya Stone at least for the courage to write a risky book. 

I just quickly re-read The Great and Only Barnum to remind myself why it didn’t make my final discussion list, especially as it’s made YALSA’s nonfiction finalists list.  I do think this is a fabulous book, and know it will do well this year.  Fleming’s style is almost in direct opposite to Stone’s: you forget the author exists, and just feel that you are there experiencing the story.  This is often admirable; but here I actually wished for just a little more authorial voice. Barnum is such a controversial character, certainly some things warrant just a little comment, like the fact that Tom Thumb recalls he never had a childhood, or that Barnum’s statements for the African-American right to vote later in life reveal a possible change in character from his earliest days when he exhibited Joice Heth’s autopsy, or that the SPCA today has different views of the Barnum and Bailey show than it did in his time.   It’s the controversial nature of the subject that makes this story attractive. And Fleming’s text makes it accessible and engaging…but also leaves the narrative feeling not quite drawn out as much as it could be at moments. Still: this on my list of top picks for the year, and if I had a longer discussion list it would probably be there too. 

Taking home another four to re-read over our holiday furlough, and saving When You Reach Me for last. It’ll make my third go-round, but has had several months to settle…several months for the criticism to sink in and several months for me to have read some really strong contenders. 

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. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m going to retire from the YEARS OF DUST and ALMOST ASTRONAUT discussions, but even as I do so, my mind likewise turns to THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM and it seems to be growing in stature the more I glance back through it. I sort of disagree with Nina’s quibbles. I like the understated authorial voice here and I think Fleming navigates controversial territory better than Marrin or Stone–and navigates it for a younger audience than those authors, too.

    My mind is also drawn to the other YALSA Nonfiction finalist that has only been mentioned in passing here: WRITTEN IN BONE by Sally Walker. I’d also like to note that this book snagged a Newbery Honor in the recent Austin Public Library mock Newbery (WHEN YOU REACH ME won with ALL THE BROKEN PIECES and CALPURNIA TATE as the other honor books). I think the opening note to the reader strikes the right balance that some feel has eluded Peck and Marrin: Walker will not include photographs nor discussions of Indian remains in this archaelogical book, and yet the decision hardly means she would promote an empty land myth. But I’ll leave that for Nina and Debbie to judge.

  2. Make no mistake: I like Fleming’s voice here too, and think she does a remarkable job. My quibbles are slight. If it had happened once, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it, but there were just a small handful of places where I felt like she glanced over what could have been a very interesting examination of Barnum’s character.

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