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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Amelia Redux

We discussed AMELIA LOST a month ago, just before we announced our shortlist, but it does seem relevant to bring it up now as we’re also discussing HEART AND SOUL.  While these two bear easy comparison being the two nonfiction titles on our shortlist, for the purposes of our Mock discussion they really each have to be compared to all of the shortlist titles…and for the purposes of the real discussion, to the whole field of contenders.

Jonathan gave a compelling play by play demonstrating his pitch for AMELIA as the “most distinguished” this year in both plot and character: quite a claim for a nonfiction book!  It’s hard to add to his appeal, except to perhaps put a different spin on it.  What he shows as plot and character I’d use as demonstrations of  “Interpretation of the theme or concept” and “Presentation of information.” Fleming has taken a piece of history,  shown the reader clearly all of the records that surround it, and created a story and character out of this in the way that journalists and historians do, by triangulation and interpretation.  That she manages to do this with amazing transparency and engagement for her young audience is what makes this “distinguished” in my book. 

This book certainly comes on top in our “only as long as it needs to be” discussion.  For the amount of story and history, it’s a nice slim nonfiction book, with plenty of illustrations and side material to give space to the main narrative.  But here is actually my one main concern with the book.  I found the number of departures from the main narrative diluted the effectiveness of the tension that Fleming was trying to build.   Those full-spread breakaways especially…which were really interesting in their own right…started to feel like commercial breaks in a sitcom. Did anyone else feel this way? This is not enough to knock the book out of the running for me, but could be something that jostles it from one rank to another as I compare it across our shortlist.

And having written all this, I find myself thinking that AMELIA and HEART might be two of the most disimilar books on our list, despite their occupying the same genre.  Both of them are dealing with legend, but with different intentions. Fleming has gone into great detail to bring back actual voices from the past surrounding a particular event and person, to try to recreate what actually happened.  Nelson has taken a broad survey of history and tried to recreate a particular voice to tell it from…trying, perhaps, to recreate that voice.

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:

    I don’t have a problem with sidebars in general–and I don’t have a problem with them in AMELIA LOST, either the number or the length. Moreover, I think Fleming’s numerous chapter subdivisions provide a natural place for the reader to pause and scan the page to read the captions/sidebars and examine the illustrations/photographs. I don’t have a problem with Nelson breaking up a sentence over a double page spread either. Sure, these authors open themselves up for criticism by fragmenting the reader’s attention, but ultimately the reader controls the reading of the text, anyway.

    You might think that fiction is pretty straightforward, and since there’s nothing to fragment the reader’s attention the author can lead the reader through the story like a bull with a ring in its nose, right? Well, not if you’re Liz Burns, and you flip to the back and read the ending first!

    Now I don’t read the ending first in fiction books, but I’ve been known to commit a different crime–skimming–especially if I have to read long chapters with no line breaks. I’ve also been known to pause and reread a section from earlier in the book to clarify something. In all of these situations, the reader bucked the intention of the author and did whatever they darn well pleased.

    In nonfiction, we don’t pretend the reader has to read every single thing and read it in the “correct” order. They don’t have to read all the sidebars, peruse the captions and illustrations, read the sources notes, use the index, feign interest in the acknowledgements. You can, but you don’t have to.

  2. Okay, sure. Is AMELIA just as distinguished, however, taken in pieces and “out of order”?

    I love sidebars. I love these sidebars. I just think that in balance with the main text, these one overbalance, or diminish, the potnetial power of that main text.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, I understand what you are saying. I guess, I’m used to Fleming’s scrapbook biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abraham and Mary Lincoln–and I see these newer biographies–BARNUM and AMELIA–as sort of a hybrid between a conventional biography and her scrapbook approach. Thus, you have more frequent, more tangential, and lengthier sidebars than a standard biography, you have the chapter subdivisions, and you have a profusion of primary source illustrations (photographs and documents). When I look at it as a cross between a more conventional biography and her pioneering scrapbook form then it doesn’t strike me as out of balance, but if I measure it against a conventional biography only, then yes. And, of course, one can still argue that the book is intrinsically unbalanced, anyhow, that one need not compare it to anything other than itself.

  4. Sara Ralph says:

    The sidebars do make it more of a challenging read. My own strategy is to ignore the sidebars, read the entire text of the chapter first and then go back and read the sidebars. I think in one case the sidebar goes on to the next page, which is particularly jarring. I think the way Fleming’s presents Amelia as a character is superb; whether you know about her or never heard of her, she becomes alive in this book. Hoping this great book receives some recognition from the awards’ committee this year.

  5. I kind of liked the sidebars, actually thought it enhanced the story. She kept the thread running of the search for Amelia, bringing you back to that at the end of each chapter. But I really liked the sense of exploring many things around her history throughout the book.

    I did tend to read the book slowly, in pieces, rather than one long sitting. And the sidebars were perfect for reading that way, with the overarching story of the search for Amelia bringing you back.

  6. I thought I alone owned sidebar anxiety due to my lack of non-fiction experience. For me reading books with sidebars is like the last five minutes with a second grade class. I have one child in front of me explaining in vague detail the book she thought she might, maybe have seen in that one place, that one time, and did I know where it was. Meanwhile I have three other students on the periphery demanding attention. One wants to be released to pee, once wants to know how to spell wimpy, and one wants a band-aid. The reality is that I know I’m up to the challenge but I really wish they’d just line up and feed me their info in a linear fashion. It is almost painful to turn a page before I’ve read it all, even if logically I know I can come back to it.

    Back on task, AMELIA LOST really is a most remarkable book. My students are crazy about it in a way that I don’t often see happen with this type of non-fiction. Flemming does the job of introducing young readers to this interesting woman and her story in a clear, engaging, and breathless manner.

  7. The “scrapbooking” style of Fleming’s book was one of the stylistic elements that really interested me. I like how Fleming is changing with the times, and I think in addition to the scrapbook-ish feel, the little sidebars might pull in more of those readers who would prefer to pick up a magazine or a comic, if anything. I know, I know ; kid appeal doesn’t matter to the Newbery, but as a teacher I love seeing diversity in text presentation that might beckon to a hard to reach audience.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    If I’m not mistaken neither the Freedman nor Murphy books use sidebars–and neither does the Bartoletti. Hoose used them, but I think he’s the exception rather than the rule. Despite the common usage of the sidebar in modern children’s nonfiction, the committee simply hasn’t chosen many books that feature them.

    We’ve been watching The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs and a common problem these contestants are having is that they want to do duos and trios to impress the judges, but that can backfire quickly because you end up competing against yourself as much as against the other guy.

    You might argue the same thing can happen with sidebars. You’re already asking readers to look at the text and the pictures/captions, and now you want to add a third element to the page? On the other hand, I think young readers are used to having their attention divided in this way because of the digital age–continuous partial attention is what Aidan Chambers calls it. For me, it’s like looking at a website. Do I feel compelled to click on every hyperlink? No. Do I stress out about when to click the hyperlink if I do want to read it? No.

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