So: I’ve finally finished reading, and rereading, our medal and honor books. Jonathan has pointed out that no one should be that surprised to see DEAD END IN NORVELT and INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN “stickered,” since each had previously been so… Gantos winning the Scott O’Dell award, and Lai the National Book Award. But I think that those of us in the theater in Dallas where the Youth Media Awards were announced were surprised. We were prepared to be surprised… there were so many ways to call out what was distinguished in this year’s crop of writing for children. But while Jonathan and I were harping on our “short!” “nonfiction!” “younger readers!” rampage, the Newbery committee, as it always does, hunkered down on its own terms, and by giving us the two titles above along with the true surprise of BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE, have presented a particular theme as a lens for “distinguished” writing, whether or not that was their intention.
Since I served on the committtee, I’ve started paying special attention to the comments about each book in the press release. Those word counts are strictly adhered-to, and within them the committee has its one chance to craft its public “why” regarding each title. So here are their thoughts, followed by mine. I’m going to do mine in reverse order (honors are presented alphabetically) so that Velchin gets to wind up on top. We’ve remarked on his work the least so far, so here it will get the most.
BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE
On the eve of his induction into the Young Pioneers, Sasha’s world is overturned when his father is arrested by Stalin’s guard. Yelchin deftly crafts a stark and compelling story of a child’s lost idealism.
In his blog post about Horn Book’s fanfare list, Roger Sutton said of this title: ” It needed one person—me—to bring it to the Fanfare table; much debate and discussion later, it needs another person—you—to help it flourish.” Clearly at least one person on the Newbery committee heeded his call (or led it?). I will admit that I’d have been one of the ones on the committtee thinking “really?”…who would have needed to be convinced, as it doesn’t jump out with the sorts of things I’m usually on the watch for. Yet, this is definetely one of the books Jonathan was championing when he posted about the length of some of this year’s books. Yelchin’s prose is not fancy…but it does achieve a keeness of child perspective that is respectful of its readers, allowing Sasha’s conscious and subconscionus to exist in tangible layers, in and between the lines of text. (For instance, Sasha’s observations of Stukachov while his father is being arrested. “So we’ll be moving in then?” p.28. This scene has two readings, one in the moment, and one with hindsight.) This is a book where “interpretation of theme or concept” and “presentation for a child audience,” stand out…especially in its eerie, open ending (where I have to point out the effectiveness of the illustration that snakes across the final four spreads, even though the committee would not have)…and it’s these strengths in particular that suddenly made me see the committtee’s three honored titles as of a piece.
INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN
Hà and her family flee war-torn Vietnam for the American South. In spare yet vivid verse, she chronicles her year-long struggle to find her place in a new and shifting world.
We’ve talked about this one many times, and while my initial feelings about it haven’t changed, my appreciations of it continue to develop, especially rereading it following BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE. It’s the voice and perspective that have always stood out to me here, and the story, while completely different, and appealing to a different readership, than BSN, has a remarkable parallel to it’s co-honoree in treating a child’s reaction to related periods of recent history.
DEAD END IN NORVELT
The importance of history and reading (so you don’t do the same “stupid stuff” again) is at the heart of this achingly funny romp through a dying New Deal town. While mopping up epic nose bleeds, Jack narrates this screw-ball mystery in an endearing and believable voice. “Who knew obituaries and old lady death could be this funny and this tender?” said Newbery Medal Committee Chair Viki Ash.
And: yup, there are the Communists again! Happily, DEAD END IN NORVELT is bigger than its politics, but the parallels in these three titles is a little startling. I truly appreciate how Gantos weaves in his politics equally with humor to shape a world view for his protagonist… er, himself. His three formative adult role models couldn’t be more flawed or, therefore, effective. The ending has always been my favorite of the year…requiring even more of a leap of faith than in OKAY FOR NOW. I’m so glad the committee made it.
So: three works of historical fiction dancing around the impact of the rise of Communism in the 20th century. That’s surely a coincide. What may not be is that in these three works the major strength is in how the author shows the protagonist coming to terms with the politics of the world they live in. They show it in remarkably different ways, and that makes each one’s place on the podium all the stronger.