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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heart of a Shepherd

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.

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Jean Clarke says:

    I’ve come across a YA fiction title that is the first story of victimization where the main character triumphs over past trauma. You may discover you’ve finally found a fiction piece that excites you as much as some of the non-fiction candidates. The title is Secret Speakers with a website of the same name.

  2. Wow, I have never, ever heard of a YA book where a character is victimized but then triumphs over past trauma. What an original plot!

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Oh, stop it, Wendy! How can you belittle such a groundbreaking book? 😉

  4. I will check out Heart of the Shepard – will see how preachy it is.

    I still don’t get the buzz on When You Reach Me. I had my reading teacher and a couple of my well read 6th graders read it. No one was jumping up and down about it. Are the big fans of the book recapturing some of their youthful love of a Wrinkle In Time?

    I also don’t understand the buzz over Calpurnia Tate. The you go girl elements were great, but I think the mothers of my students would like this book more than my students would. I see very few boys picking up this book much less finishing it. I hate to say this but it lacked action. I also felt we were left hanging at the end.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    We recently rented and watched the new Star Trek movie and I was reminded again how the time travel concept in WHEN YOU REACH ME, despite the fact that it is well executed here, isn’t really that groundbreaking in terms of science fiction. My students are excited about the book, and I think most of them have read A WRINKLE IN TIME, but I think that’s merely frosting on the cake rather than being the main appeal.

    CALPURNIA hails from a long and storied tradition of spunky heroines in historical fiction (CADDIE WOODLAWN, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, etc) as well as folksy/southern/countrified narrative voices (BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, BELLE PRATER’S BOY, etc). It doesn’t bother me that the audience for this book is largely comprised of girls (indeed, I have a pair of girls that read and liked it very much), but I do think that the largest and most enthusiastic audience for the book is middle-aged female librarians.

  6. oh, boo, hiss jonathan. the largest and most enthusiastic audience for ALL of these books is middle-aged female librarians.

  7. Wait, did someone ever say the time travel element in When You Reach Me is “groundbreaking”?

    I continue to be sort of bewildered by suggestions that love for WYRM is related to childhood love for A Wrinkle in Time. To me AWIT was just such a small part of the book.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Boo! Hiss! I suck! But now that we’ve opened this can of worms: what role–if any–do you think gender plays in the Newbery selections?

    Nobody ever said WYRM was groundbreaking; they’ve just acted like it. You’d think they’d never come across that kind of story before. And, yes, I know that no story is really wholly original, but still . . .

  9. Jonathan, I do think that WYRM is unique, and very original, but that’s not because I think the time-travel element is groundbreaking; is that something you’re inferring rather than something people are actually “act[ing] like”?

    The question of how gender might affect Newbery selection fascinates me. People are almost always surprised (and sometimes disbelieving) when I point out that there are significantly more Newbery winners with boy protagonists than girl protagonists. I have lots of theories about why, some of which are not very nice and none of which are probably true.

  10. Interesting to me how many of these comments don’t relate to Heart of a Shepherd. I thought it was a great portrayal of a spiritual, sensitive child. Brother’s voice, for me, was very authentic. Plenty of details of ranch life to get the flavor. The fight scene the boys have over the hot chocolate made it seem that the author must have grown up with brothers, it seemed so vivid with emotion and just the right amount detail to be convincing.

    Speaking for this middle-aged, white, female librarian, I go for the characters I care about every time and if picking the Newbery were about picking my favorite, this one just might be it. Following the criteria and pondoring “most distinguished,” I still couldn’t pick one that filled the bill.

    I’m afraid I’d have to agree with Jonathan that the non-fiction I’ve read so far this year comes closer than most of the fiction. Claudette Colvin and Charles and Emma were extremely well-written.

  11. Jana Foster says:

    I agree completely with Jonathan’s assessment of WHEN YOU REACH ME – thought it was a great read, but not head and shoulders above many other books this year. This is what my sixth graders and I would like to know – why is not more attention being given to ALL THE BROKEN PIECES?

  12. Jana, what did your students love about All the Broken Pieces? I didn’t find it particularly distinguished and was sort of surprised any attention was being paid to it at all. I would love to hear more about the strengths of this book.

  13. Wendy,
    We loved a combination of things about this book – the deceptively simple language allowed even my reluctant readers to understand it at the surface, but my advanced readers quickly picked up on the many references to ‘broken pieces’ and were eager to reflect on these. I also thought there was some beautiful imagery and seamless writing throughout. I love books that interweave time and conflict (internal and external) without dropping anything along the way (by not staying true to the character or plot). this book did that for me.
    By the way, I read it twice, and as is often true, picked up much more on the second reading.

  14. Sara Paulson says:

    I am the person who reviewed Heart of a Shepherd for SLJ. Shoot me. No, don’t, but listen. It was the first book I reviewed for SLJ (or any publication). You, who are more versed in children’s literature, said I got it tragically wrong, and although I do not have the book in hand at the moment, I cannot resist responding immediately after reading your post.

    I am interested in your defense of Parry’s writing style. That is what tripped me up. I agree it was vivid, it was unique in its setting, and in its events, but I didn’t truly believe in Brother. I felt he was so tightly strung that I didn’t know who he was behind that tension of what he should live up to. That is what I meant about a heavy-handed message. I read the Christmas family fight scene a couple of times, and it didn’t flow. Then I felt like the pacing was punctuated and predictable, built as a kind of roller coaster, from one action-packed Gary Paulsen-type boy scene to the next. It was a lovely portrayal of rural life, but I felt the writing style was not ready to unite and compose the many, disparate aspects of that life which even bounded into Iraq and email and Mom in Italy? I would like to hear your comments on how you judge a writer’s style: the narrative flow, the structural unity, and voice. My background is in Comparative literature, but the book review is a taut little format, and if I missed the boat, tell me what you thought about Parry’s style. I found it choppy.

    On the other hand, WYRM has impeccable voicing, reminding me of the grounded but ephemeral Jacqueline Woodson. Like the way Miranda extends her mom’s ideas about people and their veils to try to make sense of the origin of her secret messages: “I’ve thought alot about those veils. I wonder if every once in a while, someone is born without one. Someone who sees the big stuff all the time. Like maybe you.” Miranda exudes all the gentleness and spirituality of a young kid thinks deeply about what her family thinks and says, but goes beyond what one should do and fathoms the unknowable.

    Or the sentence: “A whole angry conversation seemed to pass over her face.”

    That is distinguised writing.

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sara, first of all, let me admit that, in an effort to generate discussion about this quiet little title, my criticism was a bit over-the-top (e.g. tragically and horribly wrong).

    Your review is largely positive, aside from the line with your two caveats. I don’t know that I agree with you about the uneven tone of the voice, but that is really not what bothered me about the review. It’s the characterization of the book as “heavy-handed” or “preachy” and “didactic” (as Booklist described it).

    Let me share an anecdote first: A couple years ago when I went to South Carolina to present a seminar, I went out to lunch with a group of teachers and librarians. We went to a public restaurant, ordered our food, it was served, and as I was about to pick up my fork and eat my food, one member of our party announced that she was going to offer a blessing on the food. Right there! In a public place! And everybody bowed their heads and folded their arms. Whoa! We’re not related! We don’t go to the same church! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! It felt a little awkward to me, but it was completely natural to them–and their children.

    We talk a lot about allowing children to see themselves in fiction, and I think there are lots of kids like Brother that are unabashed about their religious faith, but as the Horn Book noted, we rarely see them in fiction.

    I’m quite happy for Miranda to exude spirituality, but why can’t Brother, whose spirituality is grounded in a particular religion, co-exist alongside her. When I said that the Booklist and SLJ reviews said more about the reviewers than they did about the book, I meant that, like me in the restaurant with the blessing on the food, you guys felt uncomfortable with the naked display of religious faith, hence the labels “heavy-handed” and “preachy” and “didactic.”

  16. Sara Lissa Paulson says:

    I would love to see more pious and devout characters. Do not get me wrong. I especially liked the depiction of the grandparents, expressing their devoutness in such different ways, but I couldn’t get beyond what I felt was Parry’s lack of polishing, crafting, her style. Is that too much a judgment call for a reviewer to get embroiled in? I am new in this game and that is my main question to you.

    And you are wrong about me as an individual, i am Eastern Orthodox, cross myself before I eat, at home and in restaurants (but would never ask anyone else to do that) and have been thinking the last few minutes what young person’s voice I could come up with that prays spontaneously many times a day, but that cannot put on God on his list of needs for his social studies teacher? Who says to his mom, “I don’t things she wants religious things on the list.”

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sara, of course I am wrong about you, because I don’t know you, but can you see why I leaped to that conclusion? How else am I supposed to take the phrase “heavy-handed message?”

    If you’re talking about style or craft there are many adjectives that you can use (awkward, clumsy, ineffective, etc.), but heavy-handed means that the author has a message and is trying to beat you over the head with it. Parry doesn’t havve a message; it’s part of Brother’s characterization. You may feel that the voice is not authentic (and I could allow for such an argument), but I think his religious faith is authentic.

    Covering an issue this big in such a small space is a tricky thing. I think maybe if you had said something like this: “Some readers may be put off by Brother’s excessive devotion” or “While the grandparents are devout, Brother seems less so.” I’m still not sure that I would have agreed with you, but I wouldn’t have felt like you had an unconscious bias against the book. Again, your comments about the voice do not bother me. I’d have to go back and look at the book myself.

  18. Sara Lissa Paulson says:

    Rereading my review, I think you are accurate in your unraveling of “heavy-handed.” It was too strong a phrase (and perhaps unconscious) for what I meant and I could have just scratched it out of that sentence about tone (and I guess it is more accurate to use the term “voice”).

    I meant that I didn’t feel the depth of his character, didn’t believe in his coming of age experience, he seemed too mad to know anything. It seemed sudden. He didn’t congeal…but now that this conversation has passed through your blog, I will reread it.

    Thanks very much for your thoughts and feedback. I just finished the Glass Cafe and it is very apropos to thinking about craft and characterization, and I will reread HOAS with an eye to Brother’s “character arc.”

  19. Hey Jonathan, I’m Carl andhelp run a blog caled Boys Rule! Boys Read! which focuses on books for 9-14 year-old boys. Your review has made me want to read HofaS and When the Whistle Blows and see if boys will like it. Thanks! (Sorry to join this discussion so late–just found it!)

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