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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Get your tomatoes ready

In Is this Absolutely Necessary Jonathan points out a symptom in many of this year’s book, which I then blame on Harry Potter. Since Harry can handle it, I’m going to point to another post-HP trend that I’m growing exceedingly weary of, and that’s Books That Equate Magic With Capiltalization. Ok, I’m being harsher there than any of these three books below deserve.  They’ve all been mentioned repeatedly by you all. They’ve got starred reviews. They’re all good. But starred? Distinguished?  Really?  In each of these, the tension in the narratvie depends on magic.  Magic in a story has to be so well developed that we as readers believe it is as real–MORE real–than the “real” world the writer has created in words.  Each of these fail in that task.

THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK  is a first children’s novel from a writer accomplished in other fields. And it shows, both positively and negatively.  Kelly Barnhill’s scene setting and narrative pace and structure is accomplished and effective…but the magic is ultimately shallow.  It has to do with nature. It sucks up kids, which is pretty cool I admit. Beyond that, we get, on p.129 of the ARC: “And in that horrible moment when She realized what She had done, Her heart split in two, and She split in two–Her Wickedness and Her Goodness divided into two separate beings.” There’s some odd flatnesses or departures in character development as well.   Barnhill shows talent with this book, but a lot of room to grow.

LIESL & PO. Lauren Oliver is another accomplished writer directing herself to a younger audience for the same time. And: similar problems. Wonderful, evocative sentences. Nicely flowing narrative. Way Too Many Capital Letters and far too much surface treatment of plot.  (Why is Po a character, really? And does Liesl really never look inside her box?)  This might have made a fine novella.

BREADCRUMBS. Anne Ursu’s is probably the most whole and discussable of these three novels.  Yet I really have to ask what the hoopla’s about.  I get it: a modern day fairytale with hidden and not hidden references to many others.  Nicely developed. Nice to read. What makes it distinguished?  Where Adam Gidwitz did something remarkable with this idea last year, I find Breadcrumbs a really solid, undistinguished read.   Hazel’s trip through a frozen wonderland seemed cursory and theme-parkish.  A great theme-park, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s kind of like the haunted house ride.  She had to pass certain veiled references along a predetermined path, rather than be engaged in her own story.

So: rather than the tomatoes, convince me that I’m wrong.

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. I read The Mostly True Story of Jack and thought it was good, but not astonishingly good. Then I saw all the starred reviews and wondered if I’d missed something…

    Liesl and Po is captivating, well written, and funny; its characters feel a bit like something out of an Eva Ibbotson fantasy or even (here and there) one of Roald Dahl’s books. I’m not sure it’s truly a Newbery candidate, but then, maybe I’m just picturing another historical fiction about a young girl sent to a small town to live with her relatives. :)

  2. I couldn’t get through The Mostly True Story of Jack. I thought it was laughably bad.

  3. Eric Carpenter says:

    I really like The Mostly True Story of Jack. I thought its supernatural mythos was more interesting than that of Chime but I would agree that at the sentence level MTSoJ is not as strong as Chime or many of the other titles up for discussion.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    Eric: I’m about two thirds the way through with Chime and have been thinking: here’s a so-far much more compelling mythos than Jack. The voices in the swamp are original, and feel completely alive and believable to me, where I never got that sense with Jack. Can you tell me more about why you feel the opposite? Don’t worry about spoilers: I’ll finish it tonight and won’t read your response until I do.

    I should also clarify that I intended your tomatoes to be directed at ME and not these titles. While I realized I’ve invited a dump-fest, I’m actually really interested in getting some more fodder for how to appreciate these titles. In the Newbery committee, the process and the chair create an environment for everyone to put forward thoughtful and cultivated jusitfications FOR the contenders to be discussed…with plenty of time to prepare for discussion…before committee members start bringing in concerns. The intent is to let a book with appreciators get full consideration for its strengths before being dumped on. So don’t let my concerns silence you: you’re supposed to take me to task.

  5. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making has The Capitalization Problem, but in this book it seems more Pooh Corner than Harry Potter. A character says, “I may be a good deal of help in the arena of Locating Suppers” and “The Marquess decreed that flight was an Unfair Advantage in matters of Love and Cross-Country Racing.” For me it teeters at the edge of the “Tonstant Weader fwowed up” abyss.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The reviews for THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK are very intriguing, and my hold is now finally in transit. While I enjoyed LIESL AND PO very much and found that it had many good qualities, it’s not very memorable. I tried the first chapter of BREADCRUMBS because of all the love in the blogosphere plus the starred reviews, but I put it down for lack of interest. I’ll come back to it if further discussion warrants it.

  7. I’m on a second read of BREADCRUMBS, reading it aloud to a class now and really noticing the beauty of the writing at the sentence level this time around. I’m loving this conversation and will be thinking about the idea of “distinguished” in terms of the bigger picture as we read.

  8. I just got THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK over the weekend and only had time to read through about 1/8 of it. I have to say, I’m very intrigued. Definitely my kind of book. I have no idea what’s going on . . . I’ve shied away from a few comments on this post, fearing for spoilers! Have no idea if it’s “distinguished” but really really enjoying it’s opening pages.

  9. I wish the editors and publishers would get your message about excess capitalization. It seems like they go in cycles of respecting & understanding it more & then less.

    It’s not just aesthetically displeasing; In my opinion, children read aloud silently (maybe more often than adults?) and the capitalization indicates that the word should be more pronounced. In other words, even reading silently, in our minds we hear “when SHE realized what SHE had done, HER heart split in two”, and we waste forward motion of comprehension with side reflection about why SHE is so important, what special powers SHE has, who the narrator is in relation to HER, etc. It drives a wedge between reader and character, and really does affect the story.

    I’m not sure how much it may or may not affect the book’s Newbery-worthiness, but it affects me as a reader.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

  10. I agree with Kate that the sentence level writing of Breadcrumbs was especially distinguished. I found Ursu’s description of the setting really pulled me in, especially in the first half of the novel. She also was able to flesh out Hazel’s interior monologue or her talking to herself in a way that made me connect with her as a character. The themes in Breadcrumbs were also very interesting, but I’m not sure how well they were developed in the 2nd half of the story.

    I had more difficulty connecting to the 2nd half of Breadcrumbs, and I’m not quite sure why. I was brought into the fantasy of the forest quite easily, but I didn’t find Hazel’s encounters with different enchanted people as satisfying as her difficult school relationships. I’d love more thoughts on why the shift to the 2nd half wasn’t as compelling.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    BREADCRUMBS . . . I liked the idea of the book, the literary allusions and everything, but I think the execution was just not good. I slogged through the first half of the book, waiting patiently to get into the woods for the fantasy land, for the good stuff, and then when it happened . . . ZZZzzz.

    THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK . . . I liked this one the best of the three, but I agree with Nina here: the magical element was just so flimsy and insubstantial that it couldn’t support the weight of the story.

    All of these books were written by good writers, but I think each of them needed to (a) be trimmed by about 20% and (b) work out a more substantial reason for the magic in their stories.

  12. Finished THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK last night. Not really sure what to make of it . . . ultimately left me with an incredibly sad feeling for all involved. Especially Jack and Wendy. Not really sure what Barnhill was trying to get across.

    Moreover, what bothers me about stories of magic like this, (and maybe this is getting to what Nina’s problem was) is inconsistency. I feel like there were so many inconsistencies here within the realm of magic that Barnhill created. It seemed a little too improbable to me that the main characters could sneak round, right under the “sleeping” Ladies’ noses. If the Lady was as powerful as legend made her out to be, how would she not just “know” what everyone was up to. It just didn’t add up to me.

    Plus, the idea of bulldozing a house (a physical structure) as a means of riding the story of the magical Lady, seemed a little skeptical to me. As I understood it, the Lady (both halves of her) was part of nature. How could physically destroying a house get rid of her “being” permanently?

    All in all, the book was VERY intriguing and kept me glued to its pages. Plus, it got an emotional reaction (sadness) out of me in the end. I would definitely recommend it, but not sure if I’d rank it in my top three (or five).

  13. Finished Breadcrumbs this week and I liked it, but I found the language to be uneven – lovely and fun in some places, but overworked in others. I particularly did not appreciate the simile comparing driving the old car to “driving an emotionally unstable bear.” Is this a literary allusion I’m missing? Otherwise it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I did love the allusions throughout the book (at least those that I caught) and thought they would be fun for the strong readers who are the most likely audience to stick with this given the slower pace. The overall feel was very dreamy and vague which is not my preference, so if I were actually reading for a committee, I think this is one where I would definitely benefit from re-reading.

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Just came across a largely positive review of THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK on Orson Scott Card’s website. He has one caveat, however, very nicely worded (i.e. constructive criticism) . . .

    If the book has any flaw, it’s that Barnhill tries to keep us from finding out anything, even though all the answers are in the book that Jack is given right at the beginning.

    Like many first-time novelists, Barnhill makes the mistake of thinking that suspense comes from not knowing anything; the opposite is true. Suspense comes from knowing almost everything, and caring very much about the few things that one doesn’t yet know.

    Imagine Lord of the Rings if Frodo had never been told anything about the ring. Imagine Moby-Dick if nobody knew that there was a great white whale out there with Ahab’s name on it.

    Why would you even read such a story? Worse, how would anybody write it, when you have to keep concealing the very information that makes everything make sense?

    So it’s a testament of just what a good writer Kelly Barnhill is that despite this common yet usually-fatal mistake, The Mostly True Story of Jack is still compulsively readable.

  15. I finally read Liesl and Po (I wish I had read it much, much sooner) and Nina, I’m puzzled by your criticism. Why is Po a character? You might as well as why Lil is a character in Okay For Now, or Skye in Point Mouette. And would you look inside a box that contains your dead father’s ashes? Well, maybe you would, but can you see why a lot of people wouldn’t? (Actually, that’s a plot-point I’ve met in fiction before, the box or urn that’s supposed to contain ashes but is found not to, years later.) I also didn’t think this book had a particular “capital letters problem”; I noticed one or two incidents, but on flipping back through the book, have trouble finding any. Except for when the Other Side and Living Side are mentioned; they have to be capitalized for specificity. They’re like proper nouns in that world.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think all three of these books are very well written, but for some reason I couldn’t connect with any of them. LIESL & PO was a good book, but what keeps it out of that top tier of contenders, for me, is that I think it is weak thematically, especially when iI put it up next to something like OKAY FOR NOW and A MONSTER CALLS. I can see it as a sleeper, but not as a frontrunner.


  1. […] it Newbery worthy? Not according to Nina Lindsay. While it is a book I could easily booktalk and recommend, I’d also say it falls short of […]

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