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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heart and Soul

I’d like to look at Kadir Nelson’s HEART AND SOUL for a moment, because though it’s gotten tossed about, unless I’ve missed it no one’s tried to champion it in a big way since Jonthan’s lukewarmness at the Fall Nonfiction Newbery Contenders post.  At the end he says: Perhaps I just know too much about these periods of history to be quite as impressed.  And perhaps Nelson has bit off more than he can chew.  I think he is prone to oversimplification and overgeneralization, at times, but I’d have to comb back through the book to find those instances.  I also have a slight concern about the book design which highlights the illustrations, but leaves huge, impenetrable blocks of text for child readers.

I’d like to argue that rather than “oversimplication and overgeneralization,” Nelson has succeeded in writing a highly engaging narrative survey of an historical arc from Colonialism to the Civil Rights Movement.  That is, this book is intended to be an overview, and there are deliberate generalizations toward that end.  For me, they work.  Nelson’s done a remarkable job of selecting choice elements, and using a voice and specific family memories to enliven the telling of the history from a distinct point of view.

The design issues should be discussed, but to me they are insignificant enough.  I don’t find the blocks of text a problem in this book.  I did have a problem with them in WE ARE THE SHIP; but there, though the trim size is the same, the text size is significantly smaller.  I think the size of text here, the leading, the margins, all support each other in a readable way.  I’m more irked by the interruptions in text for double-page spreads. This happens a couple of times.  Breaking text over a single page illustration is ok, because the reader has lived with that illustration on the spread for the length of a page.  But when you leave the middle of a sentence for a page turn that drops you into a double-page civil war battle scene… you have to stop.  The illustration makes you stop. And lose the thread. Still….though this might be a significant consideration for the Sibert Comittee, it is less so for the Newbery.

I think this title would stand up in discussion to most of the other titles we’ve been talking about. It’s one that benefits from re-reading, and reading aloud. It also reads episodically in a wonderful way–the chapters are exactly the right length for a single sitting, and each has a theatrically crafted beginning and close.  I think any in-depth discussion will hinge around what Nelson has chosen to leave out.  My quibble is that he relegated the Black Power movement to an allusion in the Epilogue.  That seems to me a necessary part of the survey he is giving, yet between these pages, but readers may easily miss it, instead following straight from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Obama’s election.  That was not a direct arrow in history, and I wish the late 60s/early 70s  had gotten a chapter.  In the chronology at the end, it is a 40 year gaping hole…the only spread of time that significant in his chronology for two hundred years.

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:

    Well, here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. In the first chapter, Nelson writes: “To show the king what they thought of his taxes, they snuck out to his boats and dumped all of his tea into the harbor.” The boats and the tea did not belong to the king, but rather to the East India company which the king had allowed to have a monopoly on the tea trade. So it’s an oversimplification, and you might even argue that it’s one that would tend to happen in an oral history, and you would probably be right. But, then, earlier in the chapter the narrator drops quite a few precise details: the U.S. Capitol is made of sandstone, its dome is made of iron, it was constructed by slaves and freedmen, and it houses scenes from American history which depict nary a black face. I’m having a hard time reconciling the virtual omniscience of the scholarly tone with the personal intimacy of the oral history narrative. It’s a delicate balance, and it worked well in WE ARE THE SHIP, but I think it is less successful here.

  2. KT Horning says:

    Jonathan, I think the answer to the question you raised is right in the example you cited: the narrative gives the feeling of an oral history, so there will be some oversimplification or even misrepresentation (as you quoted in the bit about the Boston Tea Party). But, like oral histories, there will also be minute details. This reminds me of hearing an elder give far many more details on some things than young listeners ever want to hear. That unevenness is what makes it sound more like a true oral history.

    And in the case you cited, as an example, the precise details about the U.S. Capitol Building are not necessarily scholarly, but rather could be details passed down from the “slaves and freedmen” who worked on it. If not Pap himself, folks he encountered who gave him a first-hand account.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Whereas I always felt like the narrator of WE ARE THE SHIP spoke from personal experience and thus carried a kind of authority about the subject matter that did not cause me to question him, I cannot say the same for HEART AND SOUL. There is nothing in the narrative to suggest that Pap worked on the Capitol. If he did then surely the narrator would have mentioned that fact, no? Nor did I feel those details were passed on through first-hand accounts. I’m not saying that it’s impossible or even implausible, simply that there is nothing in the text to suggest that.

    But here’s some more from the first chapter–

    By the early 1600s, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French settlers had made their way to America and established colonies all along the East Coast. The colonies were a means for European countries to expand their empires and were also a new source of wealth. Each colony produced crops and mined for riches that were sent back to Europe. Africans had come to America as laborers with the Spanish in Florida in 1565, and about sixty years later with the English in Virginia, to do the work of building the colonies and producing what was sent back to Europe. The labor of these Africans helped to create the foundation of American in its early days.

    To me, this seems to come straight out of a textbook rather than a first-hand account. Of course, you can argue–you *have* to argue–that our narrator has some book learning that liberally supplements the oral history (although does this book learning represent his own time–or ours?). But, again, I find nothing in the narrative to suggest this educated worldview. It’s not impossible, not implausible, but it does make me feel like there is more of a gap between the stylistic voice of the narrative and the information being conveyed therein–at least more than there was in WE ARE THE SHIP.

    KT, I was somewhat surprised that your Horn Book review talked of a female narrator. I couldn’t remember an indication either way. Did I miss something? Maybe the cover suggested it?

  4. I’m with KT in assuming the narrator is female. Nelson has stated that his inspiration for the narrative voice came from his grandmother (adding a dash of his friend Debbie Allen’s Texas drawl and her use of the word ‘honey’). This of course is authorial intent, which I don’t think should be brought into newbery discussion, but since I heard Nelson speak just before reading the book his words influenced my reading.
    Even treating the text as a found object, the use frequent use of the word ‘honey’ in reference to the reader seems to point towards a female narrator.

    *speaking of authorial intent and the idea of a text as a ‘found object’, do we (or the committee) have to ignore the ‘production history’ for A MONSTER CALLS? Is it possible to ignore the circumstances by which Ness came to write the story instead of Dowd?

  5. Nelson may have simplified the events Boston Tea Party but then so have many American text books. Though its been a looong time since I’ve been in grade school, maybe the updated ones tell more of the whole story.

    While I do not think Heart and Soul is a strong contender for the Newbery, Nelson not mentioning the East India companies should be held aganist him.

    The narrator is a women. From chapter eight – We were expected to marry have children, keep house and obey our husbands. In fact, at the time women really weren’t much more than property.

    The part that sounds like it comes out a textbook at first I assumed it was knowledge that the narrator learned from her children or grandchildren who went to college. Though as far as I recall there is no reference to any of the narrator’s kin going to college, and that’s simply wouldn’t happen. Even if it was only a distance cousin who went, it would be mentioned.

    Even with this theory out the window the narrator’s intellect felt believable. Libraries cards are free and there was a time when Black newspapers were essential reading. Those who couldn’t read listened. Though I believe the narrator could read.

    From chapter 8 – We read Black writers from Harlem, like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson, who told our stories with beauty and style. For the first time ever black folks were in the limelight, and the whole world was watching, The New Negroes, as author Alain Locke called us, had arrived and we were beautiful

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    The narrator of Heart & Soul is the person in the photo facing the very beginning. Took me a while to see that reference. But the voice seemed pretty female…and at some point (I’m without my copy at the moment) there’s a section in which the first person plural specifically refers to “us” as women.

    I have to admit that part of the power of the narrative, for me, is hearing American history told in the voice of a black woman. It stands out in the literature, and that’s not necessarily a criterium of the award. It *does* speak to presentation, and a child’s appreciation, in a way that is “distinct” and ” distinguished.”

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, I just caught the photo in the beginning myself. And I do recall now those passages that Doret mentioned. I wasn’t necessarily arguing that she wasn’t female. I just couldn’t recall these specific indications that she was. I also seem to remember that Nelson used kind of a first person plural (we) or rotating first person narrator with WE ARE THE SHIP, and couldn’t remember if he was doing likewise here.

  8. KT Horning says:

    I thought the narrator was a single person, Jonathan, due to the fact that the original pov characters is called Pap. He wouldn’t have called himself Pap, and it is a term that would have been used by a descendant.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, you are right, KT. I should probably reread it get a better handle on the narrative voice, both what I like about it and what bothers me. I don’t mean to sound more negative about this book than I really am. I would welcome a shiny silver Newbery sticker on the cover, but I do think there are several nonfiction books that are better this year. Of course, there’s no reason that AMELIA LOST can’t win the Medal with BOOTLEG, BLIZZARD OF GLASS, and HEART AND SOUL as the Honor books!

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Calling Caldecott is now discussing HEART AND SOUL, too.

    Now we just need Someday My Printz Will Come to join in the fun . . .

  11. A wonderful USA Today article

  12. I’m reposting most of a comment I just made on Calling Caldecott, because it’s mostly about text.

    What I find surprising is this: Mr. Nelson perpetuates what I call the myth of Rosa Parks in the text. Rosa Parks was not just “sick and tired.” She was trained, prepared, and part of an important movement of community organizing. She had lots of people behind her, both white and black. It drives me slightly crazy (I don’t have far to go) that books like this one, which will have a huge readership, continue to repeat misinformation for young people. It’s damaging. For more on Rosa Parks, I urge you to read my blog (I don’t want to paste in the whole rant) from some time ago, which you can find here:

    It seems to me that there are other noticeable aspects of more recent African American history that are missing as well. Gaps. The entire Black Power movement; the Panthers, Malcolm X, Birmingham Sunday. I find the text a bit over-simplified, I guess, in that it purports to be a more complete story than it is. I hope the Sibert committee pays attention, because I guess I don’t think it qualifies as nonfiction.

    The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. Newbury? Not so sure.

  13. Sam Bloom says:

    Oh yeah, the Rosa Parks bit bothered me, too. I have a hard time believing the narrator would have been unaware of Claudette Colvin and all the issues leading up to the Rosa Parks incident. I also thought it was a bit jarring, as Jonathan alluded to earlier, that at times you would get the storyteller style of the narrative leading right into some pretty textbooky sections. My argument isn’t that the narrator wouldn’t be educated, but wouldn’t a gifted storyteller have the ability to make these sections more engaging?

    Nina, your post has inspired me to reread this one to see if I like it better. I certainly don’t need an excuse to look more at a Kadir Nelson book – the man is a national treasure.

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This is not a criticism of the book, but rather an Aw-shucks-that-was-a-missed-opportunity moment. A bibliography is a list of books the author consulted. It’s not always a suggested reading list, especially for young readers, but it’s nice when that is the case. Wouldn’t it have been nice if Nelson had included all of his own books (MOSES, HENRY, SHIP) along with noteworthy children’s nonfiction works by Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Hamilton, Tonya Bolden, Bryan Collier, and others?

  15. Eric Carpenter says:

    Rereading the bus boycott/Rosa Parks section of Nelson’s text it seems very clear to me that he is choosing his words very carefully. He even states that she was “not the first black person in Montgomery to be arrested for refusing to give up a seat on a bus to a white person”. I don’t think the “sick and tired” line is perpetuating the old Rosa Parks myth. It doesn’t read that she was physically too tired that day and made a decision not to give up her seat. Instead it reads that like many others she was ‘sick and tired’ of Jim Crow and did something about it. We all now know about Cauldette Colvin but that doesn’t change the fact that Parks’ action help fuel the boycott. Nelson even states that “she was very well-known and respected in her community” unlike the pregnant out of wedlock Colvin.

  16. Eric beat me to the punch in pointing out that Nelson doesn’t claim that Parks was the first to give up her seat and get arrested. But it is what it is though Parks wasn’t first she was catalyst for the boycott. So kids will probably always learn about Parks first and I don’t have a problem with that personally I more bothered by the fact that we still celebrate Christopher Columbus day. Nelson does leave it open so an adult can introduce Cauldette Colvin I thought the sick and tired line was a shout out to Fannie Lou Hamer.

    I do agree there is a lot that was left out. Since only so much information could fit more back matter inculding bibligraphy was very much needed. I would have loved to seen the back pages have more on of the chapters that it’s difficult to find a lot of information on like Black inventors, the Harlem Renassiance, and the great migration.

    I have to give Nelson a lot of credit for the first paragraph of chapter three

    ” Every though it didn’t specifically say so, slavery was written into the new Consitiution right along with We the People. The framers, who wrote the Constitution could have ended slavery right then and there if they wanted to and they even thought about it but instead they chose to keep ot. They thought they needed it. You see America grew up on slavery. It was like mother’s milk to the new country, and it made her grow big and strong. ”

    I have never seen an author talk about slavery so point blank for such a young age group

  17. Just finished this and was surprised to find (because I remembered it being mentioned here) that it in no one perpetuated the “her feet were tired” version of Rosa Parks.

    I didn’t think the book felt incomplete, although I was sorry when it ended, and didn’t find textbookesque paragraphs that interrupted the flow; I see them quoted above, and they sound dry there, but it didn’t interrupt my reading. I liked that this book included lengthy sections on the contributions of African Americans during the two world wars, the Great Migration, the women’s suffrage movement–all things that are often glossed over lightly during the mad rush from Reconstruction to the civil rights movement, with a stopover at the Harlem Renaissance if we’re lucky. Clearly something had to give here, I don’t mind much that it was the later era.

    Nina points out that the book design is better than in We Are the Ship (which I don’t have in front of me), but the large blocks of text still bothered me–until I got swept in by the narrative, anyway.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ve been revisiting this one over the past week or so . . .

    I think the problem with Rosa Parks isn’t so much what Nelson includes; it’s what he omits–that it wasn’t a spontaneous incident and protest. I’m not sure if I would describe Nelson’s treatment as perpetuating a myth, but I wouldn’t describe it as dispelling one either. The biggest culprit is probably the cursory survey treatment that elevates the roles of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King over other players in the drama.

    In the author’s note, Nelson writes: I knew I could not convey the *whole* story in a hundred pages. To which I answer: Why do you have to contain the story in a hundred pages? The great Kadir Nelson can’t get more than a hundred pages in his book? No, I don’t believe it! And haven’t we been whining about all the fiction writers this year who ought to show a modicum of this restraint?

    The note further describes how he started with oral history in his own family, and I wish that this book had been a personal memoir of his own family rather than a fictional one with an unwieldy scope. Jacqueline Woodson had great success with that approach in SHOW WAY as did Mildred Taylor in ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY. Not that this is relevant in any way to its Newbery consideration.


  1. […] and African Americans October 19, 2011 By Robin Smith 13 Comments So, our loquacious friends at Heavy Medal are burning up the internet talking about a picture book, Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul. Do read […]

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