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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

. . . and Men

So we’ve already covered Team Mice, now we’re on to Team Men which includes the likes of Charles Dickens, Leonard Bernstein, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Max Schmeling, and Dinga the blacksmith

Charles Dickens makes a cameo appearance in THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT, but he gets his own excellent biography this year–CHARLES DICKENS AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF LONDON–courtesy of award-winning nonfiction author Andrea Warren.  This book has a special focus on how his own impoverished childhood shaped his adult concern for these street children, both in his writing and in his charity.  By doing so, it communicates to the reader not only how beloved Dickens was, but how influential, too.  “The Victorian Age was named for the Queen, but it was Dickens who captured it in print.”

I’m not a fan of  biographies which dwell on the childhood years of their subjects; I want to read about people because they are famous, not because they were children.  But Susan Goldman Rubin won me over with MUSIC WAS IT, a biography of the young Leonard Bernstein, who knew what he wanted from a young age, but had to pursue it despite the disapproval of his father.  He made his conducting debut at the age of twenty-five.  Kudos to Rubin for communicating Bernstein’s passion–and to her publisher, Charlesbridge, which has done some nice nonfiction books in recent years, namely EVERY BONE TELLS A STORY and THE MYSTERIES OF BEETHOVEN’S HAIR.

My students loved CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER by James Swanson, a book from a couple years back that detailed the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth.  This one, BLOODY TIMES, alternates between the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln and the search for Jefferson Davis.  Both are equally fascinating, but have one problem according to the Expanded Examples & Definitions: They’re not original work.

Children’s books derived from previously published adult books can’t be considered eligible. The intent of the award is not to see who can successfully adapt an adult book; the award is intended for the original creation of a distinguished book for children.

Since these were both adapted from adult nonfiction books, a fact boldly advertised on the covers, that puts the kibosh on any Newbery aspirations.  The curious thing, however, is that the manual cites Mark Kurlansky’s THE COD’S TALE as being ineligible by the same rule, but that picture book is so far removed from his 300 page adult nonfiction work as to be an entirely different book altogether.  Weird!

Like the all the books mentioned so far, THE MANY FACES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Carla Killough McClafferty has two starred reviews.  Unlike them, however, I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy and actually read it yet, but since Washington is my favorite president, I’m really looking forward to doing so.  In 2005, a group of historians, scientists, and artists set about to create three images of Washington as he looked as a nineteen-year-old surveyor, a forty-five-year-old general, and a fifty-seven-year-old president.  Apparently, these CSI-type chapters alternate with more standard biographical chapters to create an intriguing book.  

Max Schmeling, the German boxing champion who beat Joe Louis and then lost to him in the rematch, figures into a couple of books this year, first in A NATION’S HOPE by Matt de la Pena with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, and then in a young adult novel, THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB by Robert Sharenow.  This one hovers at the upper end of the age limit, but since it’s a Holocaust novel . . . well, no, not a Holocaust novel, although the setting is World War II Germany and protagonist is Jewish and his family is persecuted as such . . . it should have broad appeal with the junior high grades, that is 7th to 9th.  This one doesn’t have all the atrocities of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY or the vaginas of CHIME, but–oh, my!–a circumcised penis does make an appearance.  You open the door to scrotums and all kinds of unsavory body parts start showing up in children’s books.

JEFFERSON’S SONS by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a fictionalized look at the last twenty years in the life of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello as viewed by three of his slaves, including two children he fathered with Sally Hemings.  I’m eager to see how this one compares to THE FREEDOM MAZE by Delia Sherman, another historical fiction (albeit a historical fiction/fantasy hybrid) that also takes a hard, penetrating look at slavery.  My copy arrived last night, and I have started it.  Please feel free to start the conversation and I’ll join in later.

I’ve also spent the weekend savoring NEVER FORGOTTEN by Patricia McKissack.  Dinga, a blacksmith in West Africa, loses his son, Musafa, to slavers.  He enlists the help of the four Mother Elements–Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind–to bring him back, or at the very least to bring him word.  Beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, McKissack’s free verse poems capture the rhythms and cadence of a griot.  This is one that I would consider spending a nomination on, and I’m sure we will revisit it in more depth later on.

Any thoughts on these?  Which of them strike you as particularly Newbery worthy?  But enough with all this talk of mice and men!  Next time, we’ll discuss planes and women.  Yes, AMELIA LOST, it’s your turn for the spotlight.

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. And wheels and women too, please? Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change strikes me as worthy of consideration.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Thanks for the tip, Monica. I’ll check it out.

    Sometime in the month of November the Newbery committee will be trading an additional two nominations. Last month, it was hard to pin me down, but things are starting to gel for me now. If I had to do a top five now, then it would definitely include AMELIA LOST, I BROKE MY TRUNK!, SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE, and NEVER FORGOTTEN. I’d probably toss in the best available novel which would be, if not OKAY FOR NOW, then THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE or A MONSTER CALLS. But there are half a dozen novels that I might consider and I’d really need to do a second reading of them in order to see which ones rise to the top (and how those would compare to the other books in my top tier).

  3. “…toss in the best available novel…” Jonathan, you crack me up.

    Looking forward to the discussion of Jefferson’s Sons and Amelia Lost!

  4. I did not like Jefferson’s Sons or finish it. I couldn’t get past the first son 7yr old Beverly. Beverly’s character annoyed me because a child is only as young as their situation allows them to be. He never fully grasps that they are slaves and that Negroes and Whites do not mix. I simply couldn’t believe his ignorance while its a tough and unfair world, Beverly should understand it because its the only world he knows Though instead of dreaming about his freedom Beverly thoughts are on his mother marry Master Jefferson (who he of course only thinks the best of)

    Sally Hemings refers to herself and the children she had with Jefferson as Black which irked me for it inaccrateness. Every time this happened I kept wondering how the editor could let this slide. Historical Fiction should never be about being politically correct.

    The mother tells Beverly the truth about his father, but he must keep it a secret. What mother is going to tell their 7 yr old son such a big secret.

    I didn’t care for the fact that author gives the impression that the relationship was consensual and that the two loved each other.

  5. Doret, how much of the book did you read? Some of your issues may have been cleared up as the book went along. I did wonder about the portrayal of the Hemings/Jefferson relationship, but its description does grow more complex, and Baker’s view doesn’t seem to be unique.

    I’d be interested in knowing more about the author’s and editor’s editorial choice to use terms that weren’t the historically accurate ones, but this, too, is not a unique choice. I wonder if it may have been less about being politically correct and more about being terms they felt the readers would understand best.

  6. I did skim some of the book beyond Beverly, though not enough to clear up my issues. I wasn’t inclined to read that much more because (putting aside what I mentioned in the previous post) style wise the writing did not grab me.

    The usage of Black in that time period felt wrong, and threw me off. One thing middle grade fiction doesn’t lack for is stories set in and around slavery. Many young readers are exposed to books, where Blacks were refered to as Negros, slaves, Or the title of Dick Gregory’s autobiography which is excellent btw and co authored by Robert Lipsyte,

    But back to the point I really do not understand the decision to go with an inaccurate historical reference.

    Wendy, what did you think of Jefferson’s Sons?

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m only 60 pages in. I’m enjoying it, but I do have reservations. I agree with Doret that you do not share a secret of this magnitude with a seven-year-old and if you do then you do not share it with one this dumb (if Mama has to tell him one more time that he can’t call Master Jefferson “Papa” then I’m going to scream). So I almost get the feeling that this is being staged for modern readers, that Beverly is behaving not like a boy from that time and place, but like a boy from our time and place. As Doret said, he grew up in this world, and it shouldn’t strike him suddenly at age seven that the world is a strange and different place. Someone wrote to me privately and described these kinds of moments as lessons. Which is why I asked on the Thinking Back thread if there is didactic intent here–and if that is detrimental to the story. I’m also getting sort of a PC vibe, too.

    On the other hand, the characterization of the Jefferson/Hemings relationship doesn’t bother me because we simply do not know anything about it. I’m equally fine with a more loving relationship or brutal, forcible rape or somebody else fathering her children. These characters are not historical (as much as they appear to be so), but rather the product of Bradley’s imagination. Shouldn’t we evaluate them on their own merits rather than on how well they match up with the historical record and/or the very best educated guesses?

  8. Doret, there were things about the book that I thought were wonderful and things that I thought were lacking, but overall, I think it’s a contender. If it’s all right, I’d rather wait and go into it more (and also in Jonathan’s last paragraph) until he’s finished the book.

    (But as far as why she told him, I was satisfied with the points made: she told him because he asked who his father was and she just went ahead and told him the truth, but then regretted it. That seems reasonable to me.)

  9. Thanks Wendy, read faster Jonathan. For now I have one more point regrading the protrayal of Hemings and Jeffersons relationship.

    It wasn’t the author showing a loving relationship that got under my skin, it was more so the fact that the author seemed to go out of her way to make it so. In some ways it gave the impression that Jefferson courted Hemings and the two fell in love in France.

    I wouldn’t like or want va ery violent relationship to be shown either. Since we don’t know what happened and this is all speculation, an extreme protrayal in either directon doesn’t seem right.

    I wish at some point of the story Hemings would of said something on the lines of “I grew to care for Master Jefferson” there’s so much the reader can infer without having to go into more details of the start of Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship.

    I am going to recheck out Jefferson’s Sons from the library and read more to see if Bradley does address some of my issues.

  10. Elle Librarian says:

    I loved JEFFERSON’S SONS as a whole – I will not quote from it now since Jonathan hasn’t finished reading it yet. I do agree with Wendy’s assessment that the mother made a decision to be honest with her children about the reality of their lives – everything from who their father is, to telling them from a young age that they WILL grow up and leave her, to making sure they realize how other slaves are treated (she makes them watch whippings, etc.)

    As far as Hemings’ relationship with Jefferson, it is developed into a complex one: it’s not as simple as “love affair” versus “rape”. And Jefferson himself evolves into a very complex figure.

    But, with that said, I will wait to comment more until Jonathan has finished!

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