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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Thinking Back

I’d like to revisit some books that we’ve already featured, books that, because we initially introduced them just before or just after their publication date, probably didn’t have as many readers as they do now, and thus did not generate the kind of discussion they are capable of.

Selznick Thinking BackSomething hit Ben Wilson and he opened his eyes.  The wolves had been chasing him again and his heart was pounding.  He sat up in the dark room and rubbed his arm.  He picked up the shoe his cousin had thrown at him and dropped it on the floor.

“That hurt, Robby!”

Robby muttered a few words.

“What?” Ben asked.

“What?  What? Can’t you hear me?  Are you deaf?”

Robby, along with practically everyone else on Gunflint Lake knew that Ben had been born deaf in one ear, but he still thought it was funny to ask Ben this all the time, even in the middle of the night.  He repeated himself for Ben.  “I said, stop yelling in your sleep!”

I liked this book.  The text didn’t necessarily stand out to me as most distinguished in any of the named elements, but I did think it was distinguished in all of them.  Now that we’ve had this recent conversation about I BROKE MY TRUNK!, I’m curious to see how prominently the interdependence of the text and pictures will figure into our discussion of the distinguished qualities of this book. I’m also looking forward to a closer examination of its depiction of deafness, the deaf community, and American Sign Language.

gantos Thinking BackSchool was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in my backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it.  I was holding a pair of camouflage Japanese WWII binoculars and focusing across her newly planted vegetable garden, and her cornfield, and ancient Miss Volker’s roof, and then up the Norvelt road, and past the brick bell tower on my school, and beyond the Community Center, and the tall silver whistle on top of the volunteer fire department to the most distant dark blue hill, which is where the screen for the Viking drive-in movie theater had been erected.

We cannot consider an author’s previous body of work, but this one has echoes of nearly all of Gantos’s previous books, namely Jack Henry, Joey Pigza, HOLE IN MY LIFE, and THE LOVE CURSE OF THE RUMBAUGHS–and that gives this book something of the feeling of a magnum opus.  I think that Gantos, like Horvath, has a very particular sense of humor, and when it works for the reader, it really, really works, but when it doesn’t then the story doesn’t seem nearly as wonderful.  I’m not the biggest fan of his humor–it always strikes me as amusing more than hilarious.  But I did find this one hilarious!  My quibble was with the plot.  Didn’t it get lost in the middle of the book?  Still, I’m mystified as to why this one doesn’t have more buzz.

Ness Thinking BackThe monster showed up just after midnight.   As they do.

Conor was awake when it came.

He’d had a nightmare.  Well, not a nightmare.  The nightmare.  The one he’d been having a lot lately.  The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming.  The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on.  The one that always ended with–

“Go away,” Conor whispered into the darkness of his bedroom, trying to push the nightmare back, not let it follow him into the world of waking.  “Go away now.”

The last time we discussed this book, it was overshadowed by our discussion of eligibility issues.  We’re going to presume it is eligible, and now that we’ve done so, I definitely think it’s one of the stronger novels in the field with style and theme being particularly impressive.  We’ve had some complaints here and there in the comments about whether it’s pitched to a genuine child audience or an adult audience.  Maybe Monica’s post will help you make up your mind.

ursu Thinking BackIt snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems.  It was the kind of snow that transforms the world around it into a different kind of place.  You know what it’s like–when you wake up to find everything white and soft and quiet, when you run outside and your breath suddenly appears before you in a smoky poof, when you wonder for a moment if the world you woke up in is not the world you went to bed in the night before.  Things like that happen, at least in the stories you read.  It was the sort of snowfall that, if there were any magic to be had in the world, would make it come out.

This one has three starred reviews, is rated fairly high on the goodreads mock Newbery poll, and has some lovely writing in its opening paragraph, but it failed to sufficiently impress either of us.  So, for this book I’d read reviews and discuss its merits with colleagues and children before returning for a second reading in an attempt to try to figure out what people see in this book that I am missing.  So here’s your chance: Enlighten me.

Each one of these books piqued my interest in some way, and would need a second reading to determine whether it would be worthy of a nomination.  Needless to say, we are also looking at all of these as shortlist possibilities so we’d love to hear more solid arguments for or against them, arguments that are grounded in the Newbery criteria, of course.  Hopefully, this second chance will breathe new life into these respective discussions.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. A MONSTER CALLS is hands-down my favorite book of the year. There are certainly works with standout language, or character development, or setting, or plot. A MONSTER CALLS delivers something I think is much rarer: a clear concept simply and seamlessly executed. The last book I read with this quality was Gaiman’s CORALINE.

  2. Eric Carpenter says:

    Yeah but is A MONSTER CALLS for children? or even young adults? I would love to hear how middle grade or even jr high students are responding to this book now that it’s been out long enough to make it onto library shelves.

    Is this a title that can be recommended to students for anything other than bibliotherapy? I’m not one who believe that newbery books need to have child appeal but I do think that they should be books for children and I still haven’t been convince that this one is.

  3. Mark Flowers says:

    @Eric – I’m somewhat stunned by your comment. Why would it not be for children/YA? Because **spoiler** the mother dies at the end? Seems like plenty of children’s books deal with death and dying. The reading level is clearly upper elementary/middle school. The story elements with monsters, interspersed fairy tales, school bullies, etc. are all staples of children’s literature. Can you be more specific as to why it isn’t a children’s book?

  4. Eric Carpenter says:

    Mark-
    I am not saying that the content is inapporpriate for students or too old for them. The language is also fine. I just don’t think the narrative is a children’s or young adult narrative.

    I am saying that the story seems to be written for mothers/fathers not their children.
    On a superficial level I totally understand why adults are loving this book. It’s like total wish fullfilment. If i was dying i’d want my child to come to the same conclusions Conor makes at the end of the book. [note i have no children but if needing to have a child or at the very least a real sense of ones mortality is neccessary for the full enjoyment of this book than not many kids are going to relate. yes there are lots and lots of middle grade and jr high students with children but being a teenager means not having any sense of one's mortality, right?]
    I want to argue that A MONSTER CALLS is not a kid’s book in the same way that I LOVE YOU FOREVER isn’t a kids book either. I think the latter belongs in the parenting section of a library and the former, well i have no idea where i’d put it, which is why i’d love to hear some student reactions to the book.

    Aren’t there adult books published every year with children featured as main characters? I remember hearing some good things about Emma Donoghue’s ROOM last year but i don’t think anyone would call it a children’s book because of the character’s age.

    I thought the sentence level writing was quite good but didn’t find anything interesting about the characters (except for the bully who was awesome). My main problem with this book is I can’t think of a single kid of any age who i would recommend this to, but I have recommended it to a large number of adults, adults not interested in children’s lit that is.

    So I’d love to hear some successful hardsell/book talk examples. Have you’re students checked this out? Did they enjoy it? Who would you hand it to knowing they’d love it?

  5. Wendy says:

    You can’t make me happy either way here–when these books were originally mentioned I didn’t like it because only people with ARCs had really read them; now I’m happy to see them back, but when I saw this post I was also dismayed thinking of a few great books that we haven’t gotten to talk about at all yet (naturally, these are all front-runners of mine, or books that aren’t Newbery front-runners for me but books I’d like to see get more exposure).

    Anyway, everything but Monster Calls was on my to-read shelf from the library, as it happened, and I finished Dead End in Norvelt last night. I thought there was a great sense of setting–I was interested enough to read the Wikipedia article on the town, and as I read I could picture the town I’d imagined from the book very clearly. But I agree on the plot getting lost, and I’m also iffy about most of the characters. I’m not sure whether this is intentional or not, though. Jack is a fully-realized character; Miss Volker comes close; but everyone else felt pretty muddled to me. Mrs. Gantos, in particular, I couldn’t get a handle on. I didn’t understand her or her relationship with Jack, and certainly not her relationship with her husband. But since so much of the book takes place in Jack’s head, maybe we’re seeing all the characters through his eyes without nuance. I could sort of support that.

    It irritated me that there are a couple of references to Girl Scouts selling cookies to make money for themselves/their families. That’s one of those small things that shouldn’t matter and probably only matters to people with specialized Girl Scout knowledge, right? It’s a much smaller point than the Eagle Scout inaccuracies that actually affected the plot of Mockingbird last year.

    Miss Volker felt like the secondary character equivalent of a Mary Sue. She always seemed to have the precise 21st-century liberal view of every issue. The teasing Harold-and-Maudey jokes about Jack being her boyfriend that people kept making did not ring true to me as being things people would really say, especially not the boy himself.

    I did think there were moments of comedic brilliance. My favorite scene was the initial one with Miss Volker cooking her hands. I’m unfamiliar with Gantos’s work, so I can’t compare this to my reaction to his humor in general.

  6. Mark Flowers says:

    Eric – thanks so much for the extended response. I’m totally with you in concept–there are plenty of “children’s” books out there that are really aimed at adults. I haven’t read LOVE YOU FOREVER, but I’m thinking of SOMEDAY by Alison McGhee (which sounds similar from the description I read of Love You Forever).

    So, I agree that the category exists, I’m just not sure that A MONSTER CALLS falls into that category. I’m willing to be convinced, and I (like you) don’t have any direct reader response from kids or teens yet and would love to hear from anyone who does.

    My theoretical argument would be that death (and especially death of parents) is a subject that kids definitely deal with and think about and so this book could speak to those kids–and not just as “bibliotherapy.” Just curious – how do you feel about BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA, for example? I’m sure there are other examples, but none are coming to me right now.

  7. Nina Lindsay says:

    I struggle with A MONSTER CALLS at this level too. BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA is not allegorical, and so it seems less bibliotherapeutic somehow.

    But at a base level there’s nothing barring Bibliotherapy and Distinguished Literature from overlapping. It’s just that they rarely do. Here’s one of those rare cases. When bibliotherapy works, doesn’t it work because it attends to its audience? And don’t the Newbery criteria seem to encompass this?

    Has anyone out there shared this with kids?

  8. Brandy says:

    I’m also interested to see further discussion on the depiction of deafness in Wonderstruck. I am fairly ignorant of deaf culture and would love to hear from those who have more experience. I did think the text had moments of brilliance, but I no I wouldn’t consider it most distinguished in any of the elements.

    I still haven’t read Dead End in Norvelt. My library system doesn’t have any copies and being one of those who appreciates that Gantos can write, but not really enjoying his humor, I don’t want to buy it. Yet. Someone want to convince me otherwise?

    I am also on the fence about the audience for A Monster Calls. I can see it being read and enjoyed by some children though and is certainly distinguished in terms of “interpretation of theme or concept”. I agree with Pamela, it is rare to find that particular element done this well.

    Breadcrumbs is next on the pile. Will read it this week.

  9. Mr. H says:

    I’m with Eric (and Nina in a way) . . . in that with A MONSTER CALLS being so heavy on the “metaphor”, it really makes me wonder how many kids this book will actually speak to. I know kids deal with death, I’m just not sure if Ness’s novel speaks to them.

    I’m not sure this is a book that I would actually recommend to every kid. I don’t know if it’s a book they have to read. Is that what we’re looking for in a Newbery? Isn’t there actual Newbery criteria that speak to that, or did I make that up?

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    BREADCRUMBS just picked up its fourth starred review. HOUND DOG TRUE also secured its fourth starred review. LIESL AND PO picked up a third starred review. Thoughts on any of these?

  11. Genevieve says:

    I was a big fan of A Crooked Kind of Perfect, but not as much of Hound Dog True – I liked the characters but found the plot a little lacking.

  12. Jen B. says:

    I posted about Breadcrumbs last week all the way back on the “Get Your Tomatoes Ready” post so I’m going to copy that here with some small additions.

    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’m not even sure what an emotionally unstable bear would be like and, as far as I know, nobody drives bears whether they’re emotionally stable or not. This was one that popped me right out of the story. To balance that, I did like Ursu’s description of the smaller cars as creeping along like timid animals when compared to the SUVs whooshing by. I loved the allusions throughout the book (at least those that I caught) and thought they would be fun for the strong, wide-read 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.

  13. Keary says:

    I am a big fan of BREADCRUMBS. I thought the story was well done and had trouble putting it down. Being from Minnesota myself, I enjoyed the descriptions of the weather/snow especially. I also thought that the main character was very well written and she really came to life for me.

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:
  15. Brandy says:

    I have now finished Breadcrumbs and really enjoyed it, but I felt the second half was not as strong as the first. Hazel’s character was developed well and her journey an interesting one, but the themes seemed to become muddled in the second half. I wasn’t real sure what the main point of it was. Not that I think it has to have a point or “moral” to work, but to me there were a lot of seemingly deep thoughts being tossed around with beautiful language that didn’t really mean anything, or fit in with the thoughts and themes being expressed in the first half. The two were never reconciled. The descriptions of the settings were excellent though.

  16. Sarah Couri says:

    Mark pointed me over to this thread (I caught the earlier one, but missed this one). Having just wrestled my Monster Calls review into submission, I’d say that I think there is teen appeal (not gonna talk about appeal to kids because, well, I don’t want to step on any children’s librarian’s toes, and I don’t feel quite as confident about making that call). I can think of a handful of specific teens I’d share this book with — probably by focusing on the fairy tale elements of the story. However, since I’m on leave, I have no idea what those teens would actually say about it, and this is all, sadly, theoretical. But the teens I’m thinking of at this moment are all fans of fairy tales or retellings/reworkings of fairy tales. In some cases, I can also say that, well, they love a sad read, so…A Monster Calls qualifies again. The particular teens I have in mind, interestingly, all consider themselves budding writers and would, I think appreciate a story that is about storytelling and the power of stories to grow, change, and heal.

    I also wonder if this is because we’re all adults reading this book? I know I read it and it broke my heart specifically as a parent. I wonder if that adult perspective gets in our way a bit?

    Just thinking out loud here…I, too, would love to hear from someone who’s handed it off to a teen (or kid!).

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The second half of BREADCRUMBS just felt like an obstacle course to me: simply a list of things that the Hazel had to experience before she could rescue Jack. I didn’t find it suspenseful and it didn’t really reveal that much about character. Did anybody like the second half of BREADCRUMBS?

    I’m not sure how I would have responded to A MONSTER CALLS as a child. I think I would have liked it, especially in junior high. Although I like it now, I wouldn’t have touched BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA with a ten-foot pole. It would have smacked of bibliotherapy to me even at such a young age whereas the fantasy elements of A MONSTER CALLS would have kept me intrigued.

  18. Eric Carpenter says:

    Jonathan, I am curious that you think a young you would have seen BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA as smaking of bibliotherapy and therefore not gone anywhere near it. Yes, BRIDGE deals with death but it doesn’t do so until the end of the book. No where in the first 3/4 of the story do we have anything other than a very well written story of friendship.
    How would you as a child have known to stay away from BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA?
    MONSTER CALLS on the other hand, announces its intentions from the very beginning and I think those intentions might put off some readers early on in the story. (whereas with BRIDGE, if you make it all the way to Leslie’s death you’re not likely to stop reading with so few pages remaining.

  19. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I agree that BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is well written, but I would have found it boring as a child, and would have put it down long before the end. If I *had* finished it, then I would have sensed it as bibliotherapy, even if I didn’t know what the word for it was. As a fifth grade teacher, I taught the novel for six years, and while I was always lukewarm on it, I had a colleague who loved it, and loved to point out that it covered the seven stages of grief. Now it’s been months since I’ve read A MONSTER CALLS and I’d probably need another read to discuss it intelligently, but I didn’t feel like it veered to bibliography (or at least recognizably so) until the end–just like BRIDGE. Can you remind me again of how Ness announces his intentions from the very beginning? While I do like the book, I never had an emotional response to it the way some people have, and thus it probably doesn’t rise as high in my estimation.

  20. Mr. H says:

    — Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read A MONSTER CALLS —

    I think in A MONSTER CALLS, it’s fairly obvious that the monster is there to help Conor with his grief, primarily, his guilty feelings from the very beginning. We don’t exactly know how it’s going to all play out (what the stories teach him, etc), but we definitely know his mother is not going to make it. Lots of subtle hints are given along the way, things the grandmother says, the dad coming to visit, reading between the lines of Conor’s recurring nightmare, etc. Conor picks up on these hints but is in denial.

    I like that Jonathan brings up the seven stages of grief, which I kept thinking of while reading the book, but wasn’t able to see completely until it was finished. It’s interesting to see Conor work through the seven stages throughout the book, but not necessarily in a step by step process. They are all at work at the same time.

    Denial – thinking the treatment is going to work, despite believing “the truth” from his nightmare

    Guilt – over the outcome of his nightmare, wanting it to all be over, for his mother’s sake, to just move on

    Anger/Bargaining – anger with his best friend, anger with his grandmother, unleashing his anger in school, bargaining with the monster

    Depression – loneliness and the way he wants to be punished

    Reconstruction – beginning to make sense of the monster’s intentions, coming to terms with his grandmother for the moment

    Acceptance – going and seeing his mother in the end, holding her hand, telling her he doesn’t want her to go

    I do think A MONSTER CALLS is brilliantly constructed and written, I just can’t get over the fact that I don’t feel like it’s a book for kids. I can’t imagine recommending this book to a lot of kids. I would not expect most kids to gravitate toward A MONSTER CALLS over BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA if we were comparing the two.

    It’s been a long time, but I don’t remember BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA being this way at all. I remember the ending coming as a bit of a surprise. I wouldn’t call the ending of A MONSTER CALLS a surprise at all. Did anyone read it and actually think the mother was going to come out okay?

  21. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Never at any time while reading A MONSTER CALLS did I ever think that it wasn’t a book written for children and/or young adults, and I certainly didn’t think of it as bibliotherapy, but then maybe you have to actually believe in bibliotherapy before you start seeing books that way.

    No, I never thought the mother was going to make it, and I don’t think most young readers will think that either. But I’m not sure they will all make the connection that the monster’s presence is connected to the death of the mother, at least not from the very beginning.

    This particular argument is a difficult one to bring to the table because, on the one hand, it’s not a popularity contest and we are intently focused on the literary elements, but on the other hand, there is wiggle room to talk about whether a book reflects a child’s understandings, abilitities, and appreciations. It’s a fine line.

  22. Eric Carpenter says:

    Since you mention popularity since it’s mentioned in the same section in the manual as didactic content.
    “Note: The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and
    quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity.”

    I wondering were we place “bibliotherapy” on the didactic-ism scale. If A MONSTER CALLS isn’t didactic what about SIR GAWAIN? I remember being hit over the head with the message/moral in the latter book, but that might be a function of its genre. Don’t know where i stand on this but am curious what others think.

  23. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, I don’t think authors have any control over how their books are used. If somebody wants to use A MONSTER CALLS for bibliotherapy–great!–but I’m not sure that was Patrick Ness’s intent. I don’t think any author purposefully sits down to write a bibliotherapy book, do they?

    I don’t think the sentence you quote says that a book can’t be popular or didactic–but it just can’t be the reason for the award. Now popularity is generally considered a positive quality, but didactic intent is not. However, I’m thinking of an interview Roger Sutton did with Virginia Euwer Wolf in which they were discussing TRUE BELIEVER, the didactic nature of the book, and how the author can do that if they prepare the reader for it.

    So, for me, either I never felt like SIR GAWAIN was didactic or it didn’t bother me. When you refer to didactic intent being a function of genre, are talking chapter book or something else (e.g. fairy tale, folk tale)?

    Anybody think JEFFERSON’S SONS is didactic?

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