Since the Newbery Medal is most closely associated with middle grade novels, I imagine this blog has been frustrating for those who would like to see us discuss one middle grade novel after another. To be sure, we’ve spent lots of time on WHEN YOU REACH ME, A SEASON OF GIFTS, and THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE, much less on books like WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT, and WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS, but we’ve balanced our discussion of middle grade novels with nonfiction, poetry, picture books, and young adult novels. Personally, I don’t see anything in the middle grade fiction that excites me nearly as much as several strong nonfiction candidates and, indeed, there is enough depth and quality in the nonfiction that, potentially damning controversies surrounding ALMOST ASTRONAUTS and YEARS OF DUST notwithstanding, I expect the genre to recognized by virtually every major award committee.
Having said that, I’d like to turn our attention to a worthy middle grade novel that seems to have slipped through the cracks: HEART OF A SHEPHERD by Rosanne Parry. If you’re looking for a darkhorse candidate among the middle grade fiction, you cannot do any better than this little gem.
I spent yesterday making the long drive from Modesto, CA to Boise, ID to visit family and friends for the holidays. Part of that drive takes me through southeastern Oregon (where HEART OF A SHEPHERD is set) and I was reminded again of this vivid and powerful novel. If you liked WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS then you should definitely give this one a try as the books share many strengths and similarities.
Both Horn Book and Kirkus starred and bested HEART OF THE SHEPHERD, heaping on abundant praise: "Brother’s honest voice conveys an emotional terrain as thoughtfully developed as Parry’s evocation of the Western landscape" (Horn Book) and "At once a gripping coming-of-age novel and a celebration of rural life, quiet heroism and the strength that comes from spirituality, this first novel is an unassuming, transcendent joy" (Kirkus).
On the other hand, Booklist said that the "occasionally preachy tone strays into the didactic more than it should" while School Library Journal found that it had a "heavy-handed message." The main character is very spiritual, and he does wear his spirituality on his sleeve, but Booklist and School Library Journal have both gotten it tragically and horribly wrong, and their reviews of this book actually say more about the reviewer than they say about the book.