Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Alchemy on Fox Street

Here are two books that I’m quite fond of, that are strong, and well liked.  Are they the strongest this year? I’m not sure. If I were on the committee right now, putting forward nominations, these might be the ones that I hold back on in this first round, to see if someone else nominates.  Once nominated by one person, it’ll be on the table for discussion, and I think these should be.

Karen Cushman sure is good at getting her heroines into terrible predicaments. In ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN, Meggy’s way out of her predicament is by way of state of mind as anything else, as her sudden abandonment in 1573 London provokes her to fend for herself, despite her disability.  The story is short, but every word used to its best effect.  Suspense and humor keep the readers attention, and playfully (for instance, the narrative duping regarding the goose and the butcher on p.45).   Cushman works plenty of period vocabulary into her dialogue, which may take some readers by surprise, but will ultimately arm them will a slew of wonderful new curses.  And Cushman’s way with words is simply artful. Regarding riling Roger: “Twas like poking a porridge, she thought . It did no harm to the porridge but only made her feel sticky.” p.57. 

WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET stood out to me for it’s fresh voice and unique perspective on character…and by a new author, and for a younger age than the “usual” Newbery fare. So it’s stayed on my radar. There’s a energy and a freshness in the style of the writing, taking a very ordinary situation and imbuing it with a new perspective for readers.  I believe in Mo Wren as a “real” character more than any other in my fiction favorites so far this year. In this way, it’s my CALPURNIA TATE.

What do you all think? There are plenty of others that may be in the “middle” on your shelf. Two others in my “middle” are COUNTDOWN and THE DREAMER…both of which I can recognize as very good, but neither of which I can get myself that excited about. Still, they should be discussed by the committee, and I expect they will be.  With 7 nominations, broken out into 3 rounds, the process more than ever ensures that a variety of contenders will make it to the table.  ALCHEMY and FOX STREET would probably be in my second round of nominations if they didn’t show up in anyone’s firsts.   And minds can be swayed in those final discussions at Midwinter!  Someone might be able to write a justification statement accompanying their nomination of COUNTDOWN that so convinces me, that I could give a whole new reading.  Try it.

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’ve tried MEGGY AND ALCHEMY SWANN several times, and I’ve never made it past chapter three. I find the mix of modern and archaic language to be so distracting. It just pulls me out of the story constantly.

    I liked WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET, but it is sort of a middle-of-the-pack book for me, and sort of lower middle of the pack at that. It reminds me too much of BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE with a Midwest setting, from the missing mother/single father angle to the climax of the dog/little sister being lost in the storm.

  2. I’ve had MEGGY sitting on my shelf since before summer break but it never seemed alluring enough, and I really haven’t heard much chatter about it. So I took it back to school.

    I just began FOX STREET. Dang I wish I didn’t know the cute litter sister was going to go missing.

    Here’s my justification for COUNTDOWN. In the beginning I felt like it was a solid middle-grade girl-story, even outside of its historical setting. Then Bam! With a few words from the President on prime time TV, the rug Franny’s world has solidly been resting on is yanked away. The disconnect Franny shows the day after she realizes her world could end at any moment was palpable and genuine. It was so reminiscent of childhood fears I was ready to duck under a table with Franny and cover my ears hoping the scary would just go away. (Although my mother chose to terrify me with tales of marauding serial killers rather than nuclear holocaust) I’m not sure where, or if, emotional impact fits into the criteria, but that is why COUNTDOWN is neck and neck with ONE CRAZY SUMMER on my list.

  3. Elizabeth Bird says:

    I read “Fox Street” not long after reading “Tortilla Summer” and that affected my reading since both books have a LOT of similar elements. In end, however, I’m Team Tortilla.

  4. You mentioned that Tricia Springstubb is a new author. Actually, she published several well-received middle-grade and YA novels back in the 1980s, but has been pretty quiet in recent years. In a way, FOX STREET is a “comeback” for her.

    Not that this has any affect on her book’s chances for the Newbery, but just wanted to keep things factual.

  5. Nina Lindsay says:

    Thanks Peter…that sounds right re Springstubb. Somewhere it lodged in my mind that she’s “new.”

    DaNae….you’re almost there with COUNTDOWN, but you need to answer your own question: Where does emotional impact fit into the criteria? In your justification, you want to look closely at the Newbery crtieria and address Wiles’ technique. What is it in the writing that *creates* your emotional impact? If you can show me that, then I have a basis for a good re-read. I didn’t get the same emotional impact…so for now I’m going to assume that yours has something to do with what you bring to the reading. If someone can point me to the technical (and I don’t mean dry, I really just mean IN the writing) aspects of this book that make it distinguished, then I can try to approach it again without my own baggage, imagining the perfect reader for it, and see if I can see how it works.

  6. Nina, DaNae,

    Re: COUNTDOWN and what makes it distinguished…….

    DaNae rightly pointed out Wiles’ ability to imbue Franny’s voice and her environment with a sense of immediacy. For middle-schoolers, every event is a disaster and “the end of the world.” For Franny, this is the case on multiple levels. Wiles successfully creates a character who is believable (one readers come to care for/root for) as well as skillfully placing Franny in a world that mirrors and tests her own personal growth. And, to Wiles’ credit, she is able to do all this without either the character development or the plot progression feeling contrived or manipulated.

    See also, Wiles’ attention to detail- from Franny’s annoyance with a headband that continually fails to constrain her errant strands and her continuing frustration with being skipped over by Mrs. Rodriguez during read-aloud.

    Perhaps more than anything else to convince you to re-read COUNTDOWN would be Wiles’ ability to create and sustain throughout the entire work a convincing and pervasive sense of anxiety. And the miraculous thing about it- she does this without alienating the reader and making the reading experience uncomfortable. Rather, Wiles’ style, the effect of Franny’s first person, pull-you-in voice, her humor, her curiosities, her embarrassment, they envelop the reader, drawing them into Franny’s world. The tension builds and crests appropriately. Wiles’ constraint and sense of timing for her character and the revelation of various plot points is masterful.

    Please! Re-read!

    P.S.- I’m a child of the 80’s, so I brought no historical/personal experiences of the time period to my reading.

  7. I’m just starting Countdown and it is obviously a big splashy attention grabbing book. It’s hard to believe that the Springstubb will stand up to it, but I will root for Fox Street to the bitter end. It is note perfect in a quiet and unassuming way. I love the setting which is unusual for being contemporary instead of the nostalgic near past — and for being in an urban setting without being all about the gritty. Mo’s world is beautiful without being artificially prettied up. Mo sees the trash in her local park and the park is still a magic place for her. As to the recurring dead mother trope– yes, Mo’s mother is dead, and that is a painful absence throughout the book, but the book, thank God, is not about “coming to terms with the death of a parent.” It is not a re-hash of anything. It is it’s own original story.

    Whether or not anyone could appreciate its quiet music next to the big brass marching band of Countdown, I don’t know. I kind of love marching bands, myself.

    Jonathan, I don’t care if it does remind you of Winn-Dixie. We aren’t discussing books not published this year. So there. : )

  8. I thought the “attention to detail” in Countdown was one of its major problems. The detail mired the book down for me–it never felt organic. And speaking of Mrs. Rodriguez, I was sorely disappointed in the way that minor plot point was introduced, built up, and then resolved (sort of). All that buildup for… what?

    I don’t know how one judges these things (or how the committee agrees on them). Kiera felt neither the characters nor the plot felt “contrived or manipulated”. I felt exactly the opposite: that the writing wasn’t strong enough to atone for the fact that this book is not character- or plot-driven, but message/lesson-driven.

    “Delineation of setting” is the only criterion on which I would give Countdown marks for being distinguished. (The presentation of information is certainly accurate, but loses points for me on “clarity” and “organization”. I’d say the characters are good but not great.)

  9. I haven’t read ALCHEMY, but I did rather adore FOX STREET. As a generally well-read adult I found it a bit predictable, but mostly in a good way—it was fun to watch the pieces fall out to confirm what I’d already guessed. Voice and setting both really worked for me. Mo is fantastic—I love that she’s believable observant but also totally capable of pulling a bag over her own head and ignoring something she doesn’t want to see. And the setting was brilliantly created—it came from the minor characters as much as anything physical or temporal, and I thought it really worked.

  10. WriterX, I found it funny that you described COUNTDOWN as the “big brass marching band” b/c I was starting to feel like the last lonely piper playing it’s song! :–)

    Wendy, you’ve given me a lot to ponder and forced me to go back and re-read. I will admit that the clarity may have suffered. Because the plot winds and twists until finally erupting in a (melo?)dramatic climax at the quarry, perhaps Wiles does not achieve a sense of clear, forward motion to the story. It meanders. Some readers may find fault in this and deduct points accordingly for clarity and organization. I get the sense that you found this sloppy*.

    But when considering the interpretation of theme/concept, I’d say it makes up some serious points. What you characterize as “message/lesson-driven,” I see as a unique, original, and effective interpretation of theme.

    *Despite the prohibition against discussing books from other years, I am tempted to compare the details/meandering nature of the plot of COUNTDOWN to WYRM. Don’t throw tomatoes at me! Stead’s attention to detail was near-perfect and meticulous. There was no waste. Miranda’s growth and realizations beautifully complimented the larger themes of cause and effect. Perhaps outside the strict confines of a Mock-Newbery discussion, I’d love to use WYRM as a yardstick. What is wasted, if anything, in COUNTDOWN? How (do) all the pieces come together? I’d argue- very many. But not all. Perhaps that b/c Wiles is creating a trilogy. It may well be that we have to consider the trilogy as a whole body- eventually. Too bad such a body of work will not fit into the criteria for Newbery consideration.

    On ALCHEMY, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t make it past the fifth chapter. The repetition of “Ye toads and vipers” quickly progressed from slightly amusing to a growing feeling that I wanted to stab myself in the eye.

    I liked FOX STREET a lot. But, I thought there were some inconsistencies with the narrative voice. The tone is usually that of Mo- smart, slightly smart-alecky, funny, and observant. There are a few instances of the tone/voice changing in a way inconsistent with what we know about Mo and her way of speaking/thinking.

    There are also some elements, details, that are not resolved. The flashback during her haircut- the stones. Why are these included?

    I was not convinced by Mercedes. While certainly mature for her age, she is given inconsistent vocabulary and a maturity beyond her years without being backed by evidence to the contrary. She will use phrases like “that’s ghetto” and “We’ve been friends for all our formative years.” For a character that seems to (most of the time) be incredibly mature, self-possessed, and intelligent, how did she not (or Mo, for that matter) guess about the identity of her father?

Speak Your Mind