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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Mighty Miss Malone

434201 256x300 The Mighty Miss MaloneThere are several worthy books out this year by Newbery medal- or honor-winning authors.  One word as we embark on this discussion: Resist.

That’d be: resist the temptation to compare these books to the author’s previous work.  In other discussions, that comparison can be useful. The Newbery Committee, however, considers only eligible books in comparison to each other. This year, they are reading eligible titles published in 2012, as if no other books existed.  Christopher Paul Curtis?  Sure, he’s the author of one eligible book, THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE.

Like WONDER, this seems to be a title that invokes high passion on both sides. On my first read, I was completely enthralled by the voice, this wonderful realistic lens through which the reader experiences an African-American family’s plight in The Great Depression.  I recall also being surprised at the lack of a strong plot line; though ultimately I completely enjoyed the ride.  I thought “Newbery discussable for sure, though I can see stronger titles coming along to diminish it.”

On second read–frankly, looking for the flaws in plot or narrative–I am actually more impressed than ever at Curtis’ mastery of a storytelling voice, ability to set a scene, and to transmit a sense of historical context and emotion without breaking the character or his voice, and without showing his hand as author.   I could  tell how well he hides his hand because the one place that didn’t do it quite so well jumped right out to me.  It’s on p.181 of the ARC. (“Jimmie whispered in my ear, ‘ A hobo’s someone who rides the rails the rails all over the country.’ I already knew that but I said, ‘Thanks Jimmie.’”)

I wonder if some of the mixed reactions to this book have to do with what readers expected of it.  Thinking of the book for what it is, and its ideal reader, it offers a wonderfully vivid family portrait in a well developed historical context.  I think it’s very respectful of and responsive to readers of historical fiction, with characters more believable than any I’ve encountered this year.  I’m particularly confused by complaints that Deza is a “passive” protagonist, or that the story focusses on other family members rather than her.  Put the title aside for a moment (not that it’s not a consideration, but just humor me):  isn’t this a story about the whole Malone family? Told from Deza’s point of view?

It’s her point of view, in fact, that is the most distinguished aspect of the book.  I never felt like she left my side: I felt she was telling me the story, and in breaks in reading, while I went about real life, I could sense her hanging out under the tree, in the corner of the kitchen, at the bus stop, looking at me and saying “Hey, I’m not done–when are you coming  back?”

The power of that point of view really hit home in my re-reading, when we got to the part where the father goes on his fishing trip and does not return.   My memory of this period of the story was of  torment, time crawling by…excruciating, in a good way.   If you’d asked me how long that part of the story was, I’d have said “forty or fifty pages.”  Yet, on re-reading, as excruciating as it still was, I found that the whole thing transpired in under ten.  I was totally flabbergasted.  On p.100 (ARC) Deza says “Time crawled by,” and Curtis somehow made it actually happen.

On my re-read, I especially appreciated the skillfulness and subtlety of the character development in Jimmie and Deza; we’re not hit over the head with it, they change in realistic ways, and they remain the same at the core.  My favorite line, today, is a perfect example of this, and of Curtis’ overarching sense of humor that makes his story of difficulty work so well: p.257 ARC “I know it was wrong, but I twisted my hips and swung as hard as I could. My fist crumpled against him and pain shot through my arm like a epiphany.”

So, coming to it a second time with low expectations, I find that I find little wrong with this book, and much wonderful. I’m betting, somehow, that someone would like to disagree with me.  Don’t worry; I can’t throw a punch to match Miss Malone’s.

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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 ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The strength of this novel is character and setting–and I will gladly buy into all of Nina’s arguments above–but I think the plot is what lets this one down. It just felt like a loosely connected series of episodes rather than a unified novel. Since I’m a plot-driven reader, there’s probably a matter of personal taste involved, but I know that I’m not alone in this criticism.

    It didn’t strike me as a very serious Newbery contender way back in February, but it’s hard reading the early novels because you haven’t read enough to begin comparing them against each other. Did I compare MALONE to WATSONS, BUD, and ELIJAH? Probably, but I also have a fixed, intangible idea of what I’m looking for in a Newbery book and this one just didn’t deliver it. And now that I *do* have a fairly sizable body of novels to compare against each other, it still doesn’t rise to the top. But perhaps a rereading will change my mind. We shall see.

  2. TeenReader says:

    I really loved this one. Curtis has such strong characters, and even though I do see the plot argument, I though that even if the plot wasn’t completely mastered I still wanted to follow these characters. I do think it is hard to separate this from his other novels., which may hold it back.

  3. Laurel says:

    Looking back at my Goodreads review, it seems that my main objection to the book (which I really liked) was actually in the character development– I felt that Deza’s transformation was sudden. Like she went from happy-kid to self-aware-kid too quickly. I wanted that to be a more subtle transformation.

    That said, what sticks with me is not that. I remember her now as very clearly voiced, a strong character.

    But as I think back to the book, I do feel like the end was a little hard to swallow. Essentially the same criticism people have offered of Ivan, that it’s just hard to believe everything would work out so nicely.

    And while I didn’t mind that happening in Ivan, because there was something of a fairy tale quality to a book about talking/spelling animals, it bugged me a bit in this historical novel.

  4. Nina says:

    Laurel, it didn’t seem to me that things worked out very nicely at all. What part was implausible? That they found the father (mentally scarred for life)? Or that Jimmie was making money (and they’d probably rarely ever see him again)? They had a house back in Gary, but no jobs for Mom or Dad, and nothing good for them on the horizon.

  5. Laurel says:

    Hmmm. When you put it like that I struggle to defend my vague complaint. That does sound like anything but a fairy tale.

    But:

    I think it was that the solution came in the form of Jimmie’s “discovery.” It felt like the sort of thing a kid fantasizes about. Maybe I’m just a cynic, and was waiting for another sort of hard-won solution?

    Though to be really fair, I read this alongside CROW, and the end of that book was such a surprise (in the opposite way) that might have colored the way I responded to Miss Malone.

    I’ll need to reread and think about this…

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yeah, but when you consider what could have happened: the father could have died or never been found, and if Jimmie had never gotten the job, they wouldn’t have the house in Gary, so . . . a couple pretty fortunate coincidences there. Sure, everything isn’t rosy by the end, but it’s a far cry from what it could have been. The question is whether Curtis stretched the credulity of his plot too much in order to get there . . .

    Looking back through the reviews, Booklist–

    Curtis tries to do too much here. Consequently, just when readers are getting invested, the story changes course or important plot points are dropped. Deza is devastated when she overhears her father say her rotting teeth make him avert his head, but her suffering is forgotten until, at the conclusion, she goes to a dentist.

    and Publishers Weekly–

    The resolution of the family’s crisis is perhaps far-fetched, some readers will feel they are due a bit of happiness; others will be struck by how little has changed in 75 years for the nation’s have-nots.

    seem to think so, but SLJ–

    [Readers] might wish for a more comforting resolution, but Curtis does not sugarcoat reality and focuses instead on the resilience of a memorable character.

    comes down on the other side of the argument.

  7. Brandy says:

    I agree with Booklist. I felt that there was too much trying to be done. Added to that Deza’s character didn’t really resonate with me at all. There were places in the book where I was flat out bored and resorted to skimming. I almost didn’t finish it. Which I never thought I would say about a book written by Curtis.

    I am however willing to be convinced I’m wrong. I think part of the problem was I read this book right after I read PEACEWEAVER and I don’t think I was entirely recovered from the book-hangover that one gave me.

    As it stands now I think there are many other stronger candidates: IVAN, CROW, LIAR & SPY

  8. Rachael S says:

    Like others here, I had trouble with the plotting in this book. I think what bothers me is not that it’s not plot-driven, but that it tries to tell a story and fails. It’s not like a Kevin Henkes novel, where nothing happens and nothing’s really supposed to happen. It feels like something’s supposed to happen here – all of the narrative tools of suspense are present – and it doesn’t.

  9. DaNae says:

    I take exception with the Booklist comment about Deza’s teeth. I saw her failure, in a first person narrative, to mention her ever-present pain as telling of her character. She is not a child who complains. Having other characters mention her teeth and not her was a device Curtis used to tell us about Deza.

    I agree that the strengths of this book are big. But it is agreed that it falls apart on plotting. Plotting is my least necessary element as a reader. But in a discussion of books for Newbery it is an omission that can’t be overlooked.

    I also found that Deza was more of the story-teller for her family and not the instigator of action. Although her trip to see Jimmy on her own, was impressive, I’m not sure it moved the plot much. I adored her voice, and could have listened to her narrate her life until her dying day.

  10. Nina says:

    Hm. Laurel and Rachel, thanks. It’s possible that on second read, knowing the shape of the plot, it wasn’t as distracting for me. It is true that “the narrative tools of suspense are present” and that perhaps sets readers up for an expectation that it doesn’t deliver on. Yet, I just found the voice and setting and characterization so much stronger here, than in, say, CROW, that I don’t quite want to set this one aside yet–I think it makes a good foil to others we may be considering.

  11. Elizabeth Bird says:

    DaNae said best my own problems with the book. Deza has a great voice but ultimately she’s a passive protagonist. The only real act of chutzpah she takes is to go see Jimmy, which ultimately just leads to the knowledge that he’s the one changing the family’s fortunes and not her. Frankly I found Jimmy a much more compelling character than Deza at that point. There were the problems with the plot too, but that was my particular sticking point.

  12. Nina says:

    See, I don’t get the “passive protagonist” idea. There’s noting passive about her voice. And I couldn’t agree more with DaNae about the teeth. I never noticed that Deza wasn’t an instigator of action because her storytelling voice, and observations of a time and community, were so strong. This strength is exactly what makes the book stick in some readers minds despite the lightness of plotting.

  13. Mark Flowers says:

    Wait a minute – is THE GREAT GATSBY a bad novel because Nick is a “passive protagonist”? He’s just the narrator, not the protagonist, and his passivity is a crucial component to why that novel works so well. I’m not saying there’s an exact parallel, but I do think that we’re getting sucked into a trap if we say narrator=protagonist. Someone else said that the protagonist of MIGHTY MISS MALONE is the whole Malone family, and I think that’s exactly right. Why does it matter if our narrator doesn’t instigate all the events of the novel?

  14. DaNae says:

    Mark, I actually thought of GASTBY as well. And the whole dynamic of TMMM didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book at all.

    But somewhere, possibly in my imagination, I heard that it was a truth, universally acknowledged, that in a children’s book the child protagonist must do something to create the change needed for the eventual outcome. So, once I finished the book. Gave it my five stars. I looked hard at what Newbery might find fault with. I realized Deza was not the agent of change, and pocketed the fact for this discussion.

    I’m trying to set aside my bias for strong characters and splendid language and look at the whole. I am more than willing to be convinced that this element is not necessary to make a distinguished book.

  15. Nina says:

    I don’t believe in universally acknowledged truths, at least not in literature. :) . I think it’s probably true that most child readers respond best to a protagonist that is the agent of change. But that’s not how I would approach a Newbery discussion. I want to ask who is the ideal or intended reader for this book, and does it respond to them.

    I’m not necessarily relighting my torch for this one. I’m just saying….

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, here’s a better parallel: ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY. Cassie narrates the larger story of her family, especially that of her older brother Stacey and his friend, T.J. Same historical period, too: 1930s. It’s a good thing ROLL OF THUNDER isn’t published this year because MIGHTY MISS MALONE pales in comparison. :-(

  17. DaNae says:

    There is not much that doesn’t pale in comparison to ROLL OF THUNDER.

  18. Jess says:

    I listened to this one on audio and really enjoyed the way it came across as a told story – Deza’s voice is superb (and the narrator – Bahni Turpin – was great, too, which is of course beside the point for a Newbery discussion). I didn’t write down my initial impressions because I immediately wrote this one off in terms of the Newbery. Enjoyable, yes. But there were multiple times when the plotting pulled me out of the story. In some ways it feels plot-driven, but it’s a bumpy ride. I’d have to reread it to pull out specifics, but I can’t say it feels worth the time.

  19. Wendy says:

    Interestingly (to me, anyway), if The Mighty Miss Malone wins the gold, this will be the first book with a black female protagonist SINCE Roll of Thunder. In 1977. And that was the first.

  20. Brandy says:

    I didn’t have a problem with Deza being a passive protagonist, as others have said she is the vehicle for the whole family’s story. I just didn’t find her voice all that compelling and thought there was too much being told, so much of it unnecessary. Reading others comments it seems that if the reader doesn’t connect with Deza the book doesn’t work for them. I’m curious as to what is causing the difference in that response. Any thoughts? (Other than the passive voice.)

    Nina, I’m really fascinated that you found the voice, character, and setting here stronger than in CROW. I had the exact opposite reaction. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts when we get to that one.

    I came into this thinking I would absolutely not be rereading this and now I think I might have to. I’m having a hard time being excited about that when I almost didn’t finish it the first time around.

  21. Jonathan Hunt says:

    There’s no way I can spend one of my seven nominations on this one, let alone put it in my top three. Does anybody here feel strongly enough about this book to rate it that highly?

  22. Nina says:

    Well, I’m not making my rankings yet, I have to say. Still early in the game for me.

  23. Marla says:

    Reminds me of Peace, Locomotion – how I ABSOLUTELY ADORED that sequel. What a powerful voice.

  24. Mary R says:

    I thought this book was absolutely brilliant. I read quickly- desperate to know what happened to Deza. I do need to go back and re-read and really take apart the text more. Also, I had the privilege to hear CPC read form this book this summer at BookFest in our town. CPC is just incredible.

    Deza was telling the story of her family- desperately trying to stay together- and what happens to hard working people without safety nets. I loved how CPC really got into her head- I felt like I knew her. I cannot imagine how she and her mother and brother remained so resilient and kept going on. And her Father’s mental health crisis- who wouldn’t crack under such pressures. Seeing what a bad hand can do to someone’s spirit is devastating. I am hopeful for the Malones- they work best together and that’s how they end up. Not all better- but together.

    Also, seeing the African American lens of the Depression- and also seeing how different the American experience is still today for people-especially children- of color- has frankly been a call to order for me in this election year.

    I see Deza as an agent of change. She is able to adapt to horrific changes, endure terrible dental pain and just manage, and continues reading, thinking, and growing. I think the MIghty Miss Malone would go on to do big things as an agent of change- as an adult.

    I do think this book will be even more divine on the re-read.

  25. Genevieve says:

    I found Deza’s voice and character development very strong, as well as the setting. I didn’t have any issues with the plot or find it lacking, and this book is high on my list.

  26. Genevieve says:

    Sorry, I pushed “submit” too soon. With character development, I didn’t feel that Deza changed too suddenly — she had more to deal with, in terms of her father fearing losing her job, that got her to be a bit more serious (though as it’s revealed that she stayed home from school for a year to take care of her mother, it’s clear that she’s not the pure happy-go-lucky smart tween the reader might’ve thought — she’s stepped up to deal with adult troubles before). And as her life becomes more and more serious/traumatic, first with the apparent loss of her father, then with him being found but severely injured, then him leaving the family (while not yet healed) to look for work elsewhere, and then the family losing their home, she has to take on more and more adult responsibilities and cares, and therefore is worried more about survival than about writing the top essay in the class, though she still keeps one foot in childhood (caring about her gingham dress and seeing the gingham curtain in their tent as a sign, liking to please the woman in charge of the camp, worrying about teachers’ unfairness at her new school). Her development seemed to proceed at a realistic pace.

    The plot didn’t seem like unrelated vignettes to me: one event after another took away more and more of the Malones’ security and settled life and the things that were important to Deza, as described above. I thought Curtis did a beautiful job showing her unhappiness at what she was losing but her resilience in adapting to each new circumstance, the way in which she found something to strive for in each place (i.e. in the camp, working the daily rounds and mentoring the new kids)and her sensitivity in appreciating their new situations (i.e. noting when the camp was forcibly broken up that the children who were “fresh” to the camp were the only ones who really seemed shocked, essentially because they weren’t used to having everything taken away from them yet).

    On the point about her teeth, there are multiple times throughout when she mentions biting down on them to distract herself from something she didn’t want to think about, and it was clear from the writing that biting down on them caused her a lot of pain (I think she mentioned it feeling like sparks at one point) — it’s almost matter-of-fact to her that they hurt, and so she doesn’t dwell on it, but it’s repeated enough to be clear that it’s a real problem. Also Curtis does a great job of showing-not-telling with this, when she gets an apple and has to cut it up small to be able to bite it, and has to mush up some other food so she can eat it.

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