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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal


I’m sure this doesn’t surprise you, but I was only lukewarm on the previous books of Deborah Wiles, namely LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER and EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS.  Those books just weren’t my cup of tea (too character-driven, too leisurely paced, and too cute for their own good; in short, too girly).  So I didn’t expect to be won over by her new book, COUNTDOWN.  But I enjoyed it in spite of myself, especially the second half.  I’m not sure that it’s ready to leap onto my own personal Newbery ballot, but I certainly think it deserves a place in the conversation.

This book is billed as a documentary novel and includes many features we’re more accustomed to seeing in nonfiction books–photographs, captions, sidebars.  Many people have speculated that these will hurt its chances, but I don’t see it that way.  The ancillary material supports the novel, but is not the star of the book (in the way that the illustrations of THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET clearly were).  The committee ought to be able to separate the textual contribution of Wiles from the graphic elements of the book design.

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. Although I enjoyed this one, I felt the documentary material was intrusive and disruptive to my reading. I ended up skipping them and then going back later. I read an ARC so I’m looking forward to seeing the actual book and seeing if the reading experience will be different. It’s on my list so far…

  2. Though I agree with Jonathan that the pictures aren’t the star of “Countdown,” I think Brain Lair’s comment about “intrusive and disruptive” hits the mark. In some ways the illustrations filled in the setting, giving us a feel for time and place in a different way than words. But at times I felt like I had to leave the story for too long and kind of lost interest. Franny ended up being a fairly interesting character, but one I think I’ve met before in other books. And I’ve definitely met the older-sister-who’s-becoming-socially-conscious-in-the-sixties elsewhere. They might have stood out more as characters through more writing and fewer visual interruptions…

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Has a nonfiction book with sidebars ever been recognized by the Newbery committee? I can’t think of one. Perhaps that does not bode well for COUNTDOWN’s chances . . .

  4. Angela Krause says:

    Yes, there has been a nonfiction book recognized by the Newbery committee – but only one. Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman.

  5. Jonathan says (in the other thread): “That is always a problem with nonfiction, that is, that no matter how you design the layout, if you have two things vying for attention, *somebody* will always find it problematic.”

    Yes, agree. If you would rather read the fictional story in COUNTDOWN without looking at the pictures and nonfictional material, you can do that, and then come back to the documentary material and examine it at your leisure. (I always do this with nonfiction books that contain sections of photographs, too.) Or you can choose to read the documentary stuff in place. The book format itself gives you a choice that you are free to exercise, the same way you would with any nonfictional supporting material. The lengthy footnotes in the Bartimaeus books are an interesting example of how this works elsewhere in fiction. Again, I waited for a convenient spot, one that worked for me, before reading those footnoes, because I didn’t choose to interrupt the narrative.

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    Well, GOOD MASTERS SWEET LADIES has not sidebars, but “interrupting” panels as asides. Even so, I can’t think of why the lack of a precedent would hurt the chances of something new winning the Newbery.

    COUNTDOWN is totally different than anything else in this regard. I also found the visual material to be “disruptive” and think it will be even more so for younger readers. I found that it only added to the reading if the reader knew the context of all these headlines, phrases, images. I have a pretty good sense of context for them, though I’m a 70s kid. But I think today’s readers will have even less.

    The Newbery criteria state that:

    “Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.”

    Note new language 2008 “less effective.” I myself am guilty of leaning on the crutch of the previous language: “when it distracts from the text.” The new wording is much better. Do the visual images in COUNTDOWN distract from the text? To me they do. But do they make the text less effective? I say no, because I think that readers with no “hook” for these images will simply gloss over them and move on. The Newbery committee could, therefore, deliberate on this title solely in regard to the main text, ignoring this material. At least, that’s how I see it. :)

  7. I found the whole package of Countdown very organic and assessable. I enjoyed the bio-insertions and the period propaganda. I didn’t feel as interrupted as I do sometimes with sidebars and picture-spreads in non-fiction. I admit to not being as objective as I should. I think I was very much predisposed to love this book, as I have loved all of Deborah Wiles’ “girly” books in the past.

    Where I felt Countdown moved from great historical fiction to brilliant writing was the moment Franny sat down to watch Pres. Kennedy’s address about the crises. That sense of having the security of your world shattered was completely genuine. The following chapter that interspersed the text of the Duck and Cover filmstrip was so transfixing I could hear the beeps.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nina, I don’t think lack of a precedent hurts any books Newbery chances. I’m speculating that with nonfiction books (or COUNTDOWN, in this case), the more opportunities you make for readers to decide how to read the book, the more doors you open for readers to feel distracted. I don’t think Freedman, Murphy, or Bartoletti used sidebars in their Newbery recognized texts (I could be wrong, but I don’t think they did). Although now that I think about it there *are* sidebars in CLAUDETTE COLVIN. GOOD MASTERS, SWEET LADIES has sidebars too, but they hardly interrupt the flow of the brief monologues. Thus, I speculate that by only “distracting” readers with pictures and captions, a nonfiction author may improve their chances. If you add sidebars into the mix, then aren’t you giving readers more chances to be “distracted” and “confused?”

    Nancy, yes to everything you said, and I hasten to add that THE CARDTURNER by Louis Sachar also gives readers a choice about reading the rules of bridge–or not. I cannot see these choices, whether they are in fiction or nonfiction, as inherent faults of the book.

  9. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan: “more chances to be ‘distracted’ and ‘confused'” is one possibility… more chances to be engaged and informed is another.

  10. I feel the documentary stuff makes the book hard to judge Newbery-wise also, but for the opposite reasons than other people said. It didn’t seem to me to be DETRACTING as much as MAKING the story distinguished– that it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting a story without it. I thought the juxtaposition of all these crazy world events against what seems like a fairly ordinary sort of school story made it all feel eerie and deep, but that it WOULDN’T feel that way otherwise. I don’t think, if I read the book without the extras, I would have found it all that remarkable.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But the extras can be sorted into three categories: (a) primary source illustrations, (b) primary source quotations, and (c) nonfiction vignettes written by Wiles. The committee can evaluate (b) and (c), but not (a).

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