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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Trouble with May Amelia

What is the trouble? Holm’s latest has gotten some play here in various posts already…early in the year, and at Girl’s Club, and I alluded to it at Setting the Table, as indicative of one of The Proclamations advertised in the Horn Book: “It is right that anything a child sees, feels, or thinks be our grist.”

When I re-read this recently, I was struck by how well Holm’s develops May Amelia’s character, her feelings, while rarely telling the reader how she feels. Most of the character development is achieved through conversation, gesture, and action, paced in such a way that the feeling just blooms from it. Here’s an example in which May Amelia’s jealously of Helmi reaches a clear intensity (p.84-5 in the ARC):

“Did you bring us something, Pappa? I ask.
He stares down at me but before he can answer little Helmi runs up to him shouting, Faari! Faari!
He kneels down in front of her and she tugs on his beard and squeals with laughter.
Gotcha something, Kukka, he says and opens the package and holds out the prettiest little straw hat I ever did see. It is trimmed with a black velvet ribbon.”

We almost don’t even need the next few lines, in which Pappa produces lemon drops for May (“You like these ones, right?”) and they “taste sour”… we already know that Pappa has never displayed such affection for May, and that she craves it. How is it that when Holm’s writes something like “It is trimmed with a black velvet ribbon” the reader’s heart clenches? When she does explicitly express May’s feelings, she does so with metaphor or simile based in images that May and the reader will surely recongnize: p.184-5 “Anger races through me quicker than fire in a barn.” p.194 “He looks so old to me, like a shoe that’s been worn out and has a falling-off sole.”

May Amelia’s voice is so strong in this work, that the whole read tastes of her…as if all we were doing in the story was listening to her, playing with her, being with her as a friend. But it’s her voice that makes the setting and storylines so effective: here is episode after episode of just what a historical-fiction-fan craves, from the cougar to the logging camps, the the schoolhouse antics to Amelia’s ill-fitting but firmly held place in her family and community as a tomboy only girl. The undercurrent of her relationship with her father is staggering and gripping, especially for pre-adolescent readers, who may be finding their parents loving them…differently.

Holm’s prose feels utterly genuine to me, and I believe in the character and setting here more than in THE PENDERWICKS. The emotional arc is comparable to that in WONDERSTRUCK or I BROKE MY TRUNK. The voice, in delivering everything else, to that in OKAY FOR NOW.

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. I admit I am not a big fan of this one and many of the things that bothered me about it were also things that bothered me about Turtle in Paradise so it may be that Holm’s style just doesn’t work for me as a reader. I can agree though that it is distinctive in terms of setting. I really felt immersed in time and place. Although I was confused as to how she managed to befriend a Chinese boy and a lady who runs a semi-disreputable tavern. I haven’t read the first book. Was that explained there?

    I didn’t find May Amelia’s character arch to be at all distinctive. I found her to be bewildered and tossed about by circumstances in the beginning, the middle and the end. I believe were the story to continue she would eventually be bewildered by circumstances and the adults in her life some more. I also felt that for a first person narrative we were never given an indication of who May Amelia really was, only what other people thought about her.

    I admit though that I had a bias against this before I even read it. I did try to approach it with as open a mind as possible and enjoyed far more than I thought would given how much I absolutely did not enjoy Turtle in Paradise.

  2. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Brandy – I haven’t read any other Holm and have heard only good things about her, so I was looking forward to trying this one – but I had the same experience as you. “I found her to be bewildered and tossed about by circumstances in the beginning, the middle and the end” – that’s a great description. I said something similar about a month ago – there was just *so* much *stuff* happening in this book, and it all just kind of whacks the reader and May Amelia in the face. There is certainly a lot to admire here, but for me it doesn’t rise anywhere near the top of the heap.

  3. Tom Angleberger says:

    I think these first two commenters may be suffering from not already loving May Amelia from the first book. (and yes the odd friendships are clearly explained there.)

    Perhaps, this book doesn’t stand completely on it’s own, I can’t say. But I can say that I think it is an amazing book and I will be very disappointed if it is not on the Newbery list.

    I will also be very disappointed if May Amelia doesn’t return for a third book….

  4. I loved both the May Amelia books and Turtle in Paradise too!! These books have had the same hold on my students. They have laughed through Turtle and have had many discussions about May and her father along with living in the wilderness. I agree that there is a lot of “stuff” going on in this novel, but I enjoyed it. I like the movement from one story to another story of life at that time period.

  5. I haven’t read Our Only May Amelia but don’t think it’s necessary to read this book. I left the book feeling like I wanted to take May Amelia home. And I don’t like kids. jk. It felt contrived though, so much bad stuff!

    Not on the table, but I loved Turtle in Paradise!

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    Interesting to see a couple comments here on the “contrivance” of too much bad “stuff” just happening to May Amelia. While plot is not the standout element of this book, does it need to be? “Contrivance of stuff happening” (which none of you said directly I realize) is actually a pretty good description of “plot”, and we’ve also argued, or may do so soon, on how it’s handled in OKAY, PENDERWICKS, SIR GAWAIN and WONDERSTRUCK. How it’s handled is going to be different for each book depending on what it is the author intends to DO with their plot…. MAY AMELIA is historical fiction, and my sense is that in historical fiction that’s intended to convey a sense of time, place, and people (as opposed to events), plot is the least important. Or, rather, can take a light role, a back seat. In fact, I found the amount of “bad” stuff to be part of the genuine feeling of this story. I feel like so many historical fictions for this age are sugar-coated.

  7. Oh, I thought there was WAY too much bad stuff, and I probably pointed this out before, but even the people whose histories Holm was inspired by didn’t have ALL that stuff happen to them in ONE year. Do families occasionally have horrible years? Yes. But there was so much bad stuff, one thing after the other, that it interfered with the sense of realism for me (and for many other readers, it sounds like). In my Goodreads review I compared the feeling I got while reading it to the Oregon Trail computer game. You cross the river, and the wagon tips. A bandit steals all your bullets but there’s no game anyway. You have to stop because Johnny has cholera, and as soon as you get going again, your wagon axle breaks. I think what people mean by “contrivance of stuff happening” is that it doesn’t feel like natural plot development.

    I think it’s the rare historical fiction that is good without having plot as one of the most important elements. (Turtle in Paradise, for instance–I have to think hard to remember what the plot even is, but I remember vividly the Key West setting, and I think that was the distinguished element there.) One of the reasons I think The Witch of Blackbird Pond is probably the best children’s historical fiction ever written is that every historical element is in place to serve the plot. The setting is gorgeously present, but there’s nothing extraneous, nothing that is setting just for setting’s sake.

    Anyway, I still have this book as one of my top seven, and I think it’s way less contrived than Wonderstruck.

  8. Wendy, I had the same thought about Oregon Trail! Though I’m sure there were many people who had just that amount of rotten luck. I wasn’t too bothered by all the bad stuff (or stuff in general) that was happening. I felt that it was all there to convey the time and place and it did this remarkably well. The little snippets of frontier life in the Pacific Northwest was my favorite part of reading the book.

    This has me thinking about Okay For Now, which also had a whole lot of stuff going on. More than it needed. I loved that book despite that, but couldn’t fall in love with this one. I think that is mainly because I read for character above anything and for whatever reason I did not form the attachment to May Amelia so many others have. I felt sympathetic for her, rather like I feel sympathetic for people in terrible circumstances when I hear about them on the news or from a second hand source. When a novel is first person I expect a stronger connection than that. Whereas in OFN I didn’t just feel sympathetic for Doug, I felt WITH him, and I can’t quite put my finger on what made the difference. I really think it just boils down to my personal preference for one author’s writing over the other.

    I do admire what Holm did in terms of setting here and agree that it is one of the most distinguished novels of the year in that criteria. This is one of those books that I didn’t personally like, but can still see needs to be considered. It’s not in my top 5, but seeing it awarded something this year will not surprise me.

  9. I loved this book and I haven’t read the first in the series. I think it stands alone and I fell in love with May Amelia in this book. There’s lots to love about this book.

  10. I think The Trouble with May Amelia shows us again that Jennifer Holm writes kid lit historical fiction better than anyone.

    I don’t see the plot holes. At all.

    My only question is: will this be Newbery honor #4 for Jenni or Newbery winner #1.

  11. I love these books. More than that. I just…believe them. Every word. Like many readers and writers, I tend to read with an eye for author’s craft, reflecting on and often admiring the writer’s choices. I found my usual reading mindset to be borderline impossible with this book. To me, Jenni Holm was completely absent from the page, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Nothing about the narrative voice felt like a choice, it just felt like the truth. I don’t know how to explain it, really. These characters are just so fully alive in my imagination. My husband and I talk about the MAY AMELIA characters like they’re people we know. In church on Christmas Eve, a little girl in front of us was behaving in such a manner that my husband scrawled “HELMI” on his program and I had to stifle a laugh.

  12. I agree with Melissa, After reading this book I felt like I could sit down and have supper with the Jackson family (although not quite sure I’d want too after some of the mealtime scenes Holme’s writes!) I had no trouble with the plot events in this book or the hardships that May Amelia and her family experienced. Yes, maybe it wasn’t the norm for EVERY or even MOST western settlers at the time, but I bet there were some families out their that had years like this. Heck, I bet there are families out there RIGHT NOW having years like this one, give or take a cougar or two. And that’s called relevance my friends!

  13. I thought Trouble With May Amelia an enjoyable book, but I don’t know if it will win.

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