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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Red Letter Day?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. Excellent point, Nina. I read Breaking Stalin’s Nose earlier this week and agree that, while very different, these three books do focus on politics and how they impact the main character.

    And completely on another topic, I hope you and others here do not miss Jack Gantos; turn on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me yesterday. (The audio and transcript is available at the show’s website.) The bulk of the interview part was our winner holding forth on his life in crime (as unforgettably described in his Printz Honor title A Hole in my Life). Not exactly your typical Newbery author stuff, I’d say. Oh, and Mr. Beancounter — anyway to find out if he (as someone else noted) the first former felon to win the Newbery?

  2. Yelchin! Not Velchin!

  3. Someone added another “Newbery Convict” comment to my blog last week, stating that Will James, winner for SMOKY, spent time in jail for cattle rustling.

  4. The theme last year seemed to be young girls abandoned or sent away from family–Moon Over Manifest, Turtle in Paradise, One Crazy Summer (haven’t read Samarai). Are these really just coincidences?

  5. Maybe it is just me…
    but is seems to me that a number of the award winners in recent years either remind the judges of their youth or the books are in an artistic style from when they were young.

    I wonder what the average age is of the committees from year to year?

  6. Susan, many Newbery committees play a game of spotting “unusual coincidences” in their year of reading…so many that they stop seeming that big a deal, and it becomes pretty clear that it’s hard to avoid. Family abandonment is a pretty common one. When I chaired Newbery, we read two books in which the protagonists lost an arm, and two which both opened with the death of a non-parent-adult-role-model who introduced the protagonist to the works of Mark Twain.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Keeping in mind that I’ve only read each of these books once, here are some final thoughts . . .


    I’ve mentioned that I’ve been conflicted about the middle grade novels in the field this year. Some of that is because I wasn’t able to do nearly as much rereading as I wanted, and some of that is because I wanted to find something in this group that I loved as much as I loved DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE for an older audience. On the eve of the Midwinter meeting, however, I did mention DEAD END as one of the few that I could get behind, and so I’m pleased to see it recognized. My only concerns with this book on the first reading had to do with pacing; I especially thought that it got bogged down in the middle. So on a second reading, I would have paid greater attention to that, especially to see how Gantos fused his episodes of humor with the more plot-driven elements of mystery.


    I liked this story well enough, but it felt very familiar to me having read ALL THE BROKEN PIECES by Ann Burg (another verse novel about a Vietnamese immigrant) just a couple years ago. I’m also not the biggest fan of verse novels, so that probably explains my underwhelmed response, but nevertheless I think the poetry here is rich with imagery and does more with less. While DEAD END approaches 75,000 words, this one is about 15,000. From a practical standpoint, it will probably be easier for me to sell this one to my student population which consists largely of second language learners. I’m also happy to see the streak live on–since 2004 every committee but one has recognized poetry or nonfiction–even if I thought AMELIA LOST was going to be the one to extend it.


    We spent lots of time here championing transitional chapter books–JUNONIA, SIR GAWAIN, TOYS COME HOME, THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS, ALVIN HO, and CLEMENTINE–and this book is similarly tailored for the reading needs of a younger audience of readers in grades 1-4 (short chapters, spot illustrations, appropriate vocabulary, etc), but like many of the aforementioned books it can also be enjoyed by an older audience, too. Like INSIDE OUT, it hovers around 15,000 words, making it appealing to my second language learners, even in junior high. What I think is done with exceptional skill is the depiction of a young boy who has begun to divest himself of an ideology he has inherited from his parents and from the state. That’s some very skillfully done character development there. For me, this book has kind of a surreal quality, a fable quality, too, and it reminds me for some strange reason of THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a story about a father and son; it’s also a survival story set in a dystopian past rather than a post-apocalyptic future; and finally the boy is adopted–a glimmer of hope–amid the unrelenting bleak outlook on the future. So, to take some of these themes and translate them for a much younger audience–very impressive. And, again, I’m happy to see a book for this young audience recognized (even if my own personal transitional chapter book Newbery Honor still goes to SIR GAWAIN).

  8. jrewrite, I’m not sure the best way to approach the question of average age on the committtee, except to maybe hunt down the press office photos from each year and hazard a guess. I can say that the nominating committee that puts together the slate for half the committtee, and the ALSC VP appointing the other half, all take diversity in age very seriously…. both apparent actual age and numbers of years in the profession. All that said….I’m sure nostalgia plays into everyone’s reading, even as it does here on the blog. The chair will always try to draw that out in discussion…as one of those “biases” the committtee tries to recognize and work around.

    I actually feel like this year’s winners are less about reading nostalgia than others. History nostalgia, perhaps? But since these books are all clearly about understanding a period in history, and that’s what distinguishes them, it seems hard to find fault with that.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I have a question for those who have brought this issue up with nonfiction: breaking the narrative over a double page spread. It was mentioned that this was slightly problematic in HEART AND SOUL and AMELIA LOST. Did you find it also to be the case here? Yelchin uses them quite frequently and once he uses two double page spreads in a row. I’m just curious why we always bring that issue up with nonfiction, but never fiction. A double standard?


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