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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heart Redux

nelson2 Heart ReduxIn WE ARE THE SHIP, the focus of the book was much narrower and thus when the voice shifted registers from authoritative and scholarly to personal and intimate it did so much more seamlessly than it does here.  In WE ARE THE SHIP, the narrator spoke from personal experience.  In HEART AND SOUL, she typically relates secondhand family information and general knowledge of American history.  In both books, I find that I must willingly suspend disbelief in order for the narrative device to fully work, but once I do, the effect is wonderful.  History, as they say, is written by the winners, and these stories would have been passed by word of mouth long before they were written down.  I really appreciate that this form is simultaneously oral and written, and that it acknowledges how this history would have been kept alive by a marginalized people.

My difficulty with HEART AND SOUL doesn’t come from this hybrid form, however, but rather from the ambitious scope.  Nelson describes how it works in the author’s note.

So when the narrator describes her family’s journey from Virginia to Chicago and their celebration when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, we understand the importance of this moment as a personal achievement for her family, but at the same time we also learn about the Great Migration and how it literally changed the face of America.

The idea is great, but the execution doesn’t rise to the same level.  Here’s the actual passage from the book.

My family went by train like most black folks, but some drove, rode on horseback or on a mule, or even walked.  It took almost a full day to ride by train from Virginia to Chicago.  We celebrated when we made it across the Mason-Dixon Line and moved from the Jim Crow car to cars where white folks sat.  Some people even started praying and singing.  The train was full of black folks on their way to Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, or New York City.

See, I don’t think this paragraph actually does help us understand how important this moment is for the narrator’s family.  We’re told that it is, but I don’t feel it. There’s nothing in the text that’s going to give the reader that impression, much less help it stick with them.  Similarly, we’re given a brief description of the Great Migration (which is actually developed in several more paragraphs beyond what I have quoted), but is the reader left with the impression that it literally changed the face of America?  I don’t think so.  Everything is so thinly developed–everything gets so little time in the spotlight before it’s on to the next topic–that it’s hard to retain the information (unless you already know the information).  Can you imagine taking an AR quiz on this book?  Yikes!

So the text often reads to me like a catalogue of important events and historical figures rather than an oral family history or a general survey of political history, and it’s a credit to Nelson that it reads so well considering this dizzying pace.  What I feel is lacking are stories.  When most tank battalions lasted only seventeen days on the battlefield of World War II, the narrator’s brothers served in an all-black unit that fought for one hundred eighty-three days straight!  Why?  There’s a story there, but we’re not privy to it.  The narrator herself was a Freedom Rider!  That had to be a harrowing experience, but again no personal story, and nothing beyond a sentence about riding buses and breaking segregation laws.  Something needed to give: either the page count needed to increase or the scope needed to decrease–but we need to spend more time with each of these events.

The ambitious scope of the book also means that an extraordinary amount of information had to be synthesized and compressed into a finite number of pages.  The danger in this, of course, is unintentionally distorting history with oversimplification, generalization, and questionable omissions.  We’ve discussed some instances of this in our previous discussion, and there are more, but I’ll only cite a couple.

First, Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King were the leading spokesmen of their times so it’s not surprising that they earned space in this text, but W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X were also important spokesmen from those respective eras, and because they held contrasting viewpoints, their inclusion would have, not only highlighted the rich diversity of thought among black Americans, but avoided stereotyping the community as a monolithic entity that thinks and acts as one.  King’s nonviolence was wonderful, but so, too, was the militant stance of Malcolm X, and our understanding of each is enhanced by the contrast.

Second, Nelson highlights the second Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fight to dispute Hitler’s notion of the racial superiority of whites, but why not point out that just two months after the first fight Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals in Berlin?  That struck a blow to Aryan supremacy just as surely as Louis’s belated victory did.  But, curiously, there’s no mention of Jesse Owens.

To me, this book is flawed on a conceptual level (i.e. covering such a large period of history in such a short number of pages creates all kinds of problems in the text) and it would be virtually impossible for anyone to pull it off.  That said, I think Nelson has done it as well as anyone could, and I still find many distinguished features here.  I still believe HEART AND SOUL belongs on our shortlist, but I don’t know if it can move into the top five with these flaws.  But, as we have said before, “flawed” doesn’t necessarily mean “unworthy of Newbery recognition,” and I think OKAY FOR NOW is an example of a book that is “flawed” but which may yet win the Medal anyway.  So maybe there’s hope for HEART AND SOUL.


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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. DaNae says:

    I find this to be an important addition to the Children’s literature canon. But, like Johnathan I didn’t find the text particularly distinguished.

    On a side note, it is defiantly an illustrated book not a picture book, which should exclude it from Caldecott. Although there is no dispute that the illustrations are breathtaking. I’m sure it will justly receive many recognitions.

    What I really want is for Nelson, or someone, to make a picture book about the tank battalion briefly mentioned under the WWII entry.

  2. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, while I don’t disagree with you on the flaws, I do think you’re missing something crucial, which changes the balance of the book for me.

    You say that “The ambitious scope of the book also means that an extraordinary amount of information had to be synthesized and compressed into a finite number of pages. The danger in this, of course, is unintentionally distorting history with oversimplification, generalization, and questionable omissions.” You’re right, of course, but where you go on to cite places that lack a sense of story or feeling, you fail to point out all the places that DO. And there I find something very deliberate in Nelson’s storytelling: the decision to personalize the story where the canon, and our history, doesn’t already fill it in. He’s personalizing with the stories of “unknown,” “regular” people. He describes his process in the author’s note, and I feel like his text is true to this: he calls it an “intimate introduction.” He’s not attempting to tell a whole history. Because of this, I find it more forgivable when he succumbs to generalizing summaries or even legend (though, perhaps, not completely forgivable in every instance. The Rosa Parks sentence could have been written better. But in the scheme of things?)

    I still need to give this another re-read to pull out all the passages that both move and trouble me. But my overwhelming feeling from reading this is that the first-person voice, and the deliberateness of not trying to tell the whole story—keeping it true to what a grandparent might tell a child—does make this story distinguished.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I love the illustrations and other committees will be able to take them into account. I did have a minor problem with two of them, however. Although one is more of a missed opportunity complaint than an actual criticism.

    I’d love to be quoted sections of the book that worked. I couldn’t find any oral history sections that I wouldn’t describe as commentary rather than anecdote or vignette–certainly, there is no story arc that has a beginning, middle, and end, no matter how brief.

    You may remember that some people complained that SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD also had a breathlessly rushed pace–and I loved that one. I guess, for me, the difference is that this one is even less developed–and lacks the intellectual component of the Aronson/Budhos.

    I hope I don’t sound too critical of the book because I, too, am a fan. I don’t begrudge it starred reviews, best of the year lists, and numerous awards. I’m just not sure that the Newbery is one of them.

  4. Mr. H says:

    A few years ago, I tried reading every single Newbery Medal winner, from the beginning. My quest didn’t last long, as I got bored after winner number 3, THE DARK FRIGATE. I do want to continue sometime though! Having read THE STORY OF MANKIND however, the first winner of the Newbery, I see some similarities here in scope. So this is a cool idea.

    Personally, it’s just not my cup of tea so I’m having a hard time putting together any substantial thought about it. I’m afraid at the end of the day when I rank this near the lower end of the shortlisted books on here, it’s going to be more because I just personally, wasn’t incredibly invested in it, and not necessarily because of its writing.

    And Nina, you say that Nelson isn’t trying to retell an entire history here, and I kind of wonder if that’s not where I fell away from this book. I feel like he set out to tell a whole history (maybe a different side at least), but then somewhere along the line, realized that was too broad and changed that focus.

    I don’t know, I have nothing substantial to add other than the book was not what I typically pick up to read. So I enjoyed broadening reading, but didn’t enjoy this near as much as AMELIA LOST.

  5. I would encourage you to listen to Debbie Allen’s audio narration of Heart and Soul. It truly changed my experience of this book. What stands out for me is the voice that Nelson has created in his narrator. As Nina says, it’s exactly Nelson’s decision to personalize these stories that makes this book stand out. When I read the big blocks of text in this large format, I have trouble bringing the voice of the narrator alive in my mind. But when I listen to Allen’s narration, it is perfect. She captures the tone, the feeling, the soul within this book and brings it alive.

    You can preview the audio on the publisher’s website here (look for the “preview audio link under the cover image): http://harpercollins.com/books/Heart-Soul/?isbn=9780062125255

    The audiobook is only available as a download at this time (through sites such as Audible). I find it interesting that Harper Collins decided not to make this available on CD, especially as this will have widespread appeal to teachers and librarians. Nonetheless, it is definitely worth seeking out.

    I have not specifically looked at the criteria for the Odyssey Award, but I do hope the committee considers this excellent audiobook.

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