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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Starry River of the Sky and Will Sparrow’s Road

I’d like to take a moment to commend all of our excellent writers who win Newbery Medals or Honors and then…keep writing excellent books.

It has got to be hard to follow up on expectations, and we’ve got a lot of prize winning authors with new books out this year.  Their ARC tend to filter *up* to the tops of our piles.  Here are two that I read as soon as I came across them.   I’m not sure they will make it to “distinguished” on my list, though I think they’re both wonderful books. Not every book needs a seal to be a gift for readers.

Karen Cushman should be practiced, by now, in the Newbery follow-ups; but WILL SPARROW’S ROAD may be a personal breakthrough book for her: her first male protagonist.  She explains why she did it in her author’s note: “When I decided to write a book about a child in Elizabethan England who runs away and joins a troupe of ‘oddities and prodigies’ traveling from fair to fair, I knew the child had to be a boy. In the often-brutal sixteenth century, a girl on the road would not have long survived. And I did not believe a girl could successfully disguise herself as a boy in a world with so little privacy. So the child had to be a boy–” Cushman gives us a fully believable boy, and an artfully depicted period setting and side-characters.  I enjoyed being in this story at every moment, and that it was a story you could fully be in as a reader: Cushman’s art in world-building still stands out.  So why didn’t the book as a whole rise for me?  The pacing lagged at times, though never to the extent that I lost interest, because the characters were so lively and interesting. It had a *very* simple journey story, very nicely done, though I can imagine some readers hoping for a little more in plot.   Still a lot to be said for it, and less against.

Another boy on the road features in Grace Lin’s STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY.  She uses exactly the same format as WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON (and a mountain meets a moon in this one, too) and the same cadences.  I felt at the beginning that she was finessing and improving on this form; it seemed more natural, and less visible to the eye.  I enjoyed all her side characters, and the way in which she teases out Rendi’s story.  I got more and more excited about this story as I read it…up until the very end in which all the stories become linked and self-referrential in a way that to me felt manipulated and not true anymore to the characters.  (The mountain comes–boom–because…why? Why are there two toads? Is the sage the sage, or the tiger/sun–because his toad is a rabbit? )  This robbed me of the joy of seeing the character develop beyond their stories.   I think the intended audience will be more forgiving, and very much enjoy what is still a lovely and unique book.

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 was glad to see these two books thrown into the mix, especially WILL SPARROW’S ROAD which I reviewed for the forthcoming issue of Horn Book. I thought Cushman did a terrific job with her first male protagonist, delighted in her deft and rich rendering of Elizabethan England, and admired the skill with which she had Will deal with his own ignorance about those different from himself in a way that felt both accessible to 2012 young readers and sufficiently of his time as well. I could imagine some finding the plot a bit spare, but it is to my mind it was a case of enjoying the journey. To my mind, a most delightful read.

    And I also took a great deal of pleasure in STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY. For whatever reason, perhaps the fact as Nina suggests that Lin is becoming more skilled and confident in her particular form, but I enjoyed this book more than her first one. I was engaged immediately, curious about this boy called Rendi and his refusal to let us in on his backstory. In fact, while he isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator, he exhibits some of those characteristics that make you the reader wonder if you can trust him. The ending worked for me — somehow by then I had completely bought in to all aspects of the book and so just went with the final bits.

    And though it doesn’t “count” for Newbery the design and art for the Lin book is extraordinary. And more and more this inability to recognize this is frustrating me. The book is not eligible for the Caldecott as it is not a picture book, nor something in the vein of HUGO CABRET and that is too bad. I have railed many times about the “design thorn” where we can’t admire or consider in a positive way this aspect of the books we are looking at when these have so much to do with advancing the story. Growl.

  2. I’m surprised not to see more jumping to Lin’s defense, Monica, but perhaps not everyone’s read it yet. I like to think of it next to Cushman, because…to put this really crudely, with no slight meant towards two incredible authors…Lin is still a Newbery golden girl, while Cushman’s were a while ago, so the sheen may have worn off. That is…we hear more “I can’t wait” for Lin’s next than Cushman’s, but I think it’s pure volume. I do hope, and would bet, that both of these titles are on the suggestion list among the Newbery committee right now, as they both certainly have distinguished elements and should be used at least in comparison to others. And who knows….my feelings about these might develop.

  3. I only just got my hands on STARRY RIVER, so I would guess others are in a similar position.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY pubbed on Oct 2; WILL SPARROW’S ROAD on Nov 6. We’ll probably have to wait for the discussion on these titles to catch up to their availibility, but we can weigh in on the halo effect that Newbery recognition has on an author’s subsequent work. I think we also see some of that this year with Stead, Hoose, and Schlitz. I’m not saying they aren’t worthy of their praise, but the buzz accrues around them in a way it probably doesn’t for less heralded, but equally excellent titles. It also seems like there’s a saturation point. Nina cited Karen Cushman, but for me the most egregious example of this is Katherine Paterson who won the Medal in 1978 and 1981 along with an Honor in 1979, but nothing since, despite a consistently excellent body of work.

  5. I’m not surprised that more people aren’t jumping in: when this post went up the book had not been published yet. It’s difficult for those of us who do not have access to ARCs to participate in the discussion if the book is brought up before most of us have a chance to read it.

  6. We’ve also got great books this year from Jerry Spinelli and Patricia MacLachlan, and one I haven’t read yet from Sharon Creech–are they going to fall into some kind of “old hat” zone and miss the buzz?

  7. I liked Starry River of the Sky, but I loved Lin’s DUMPLING DAYS. Is the January publication date to blame for the lack of buzz? I read it last November but it has stuck with me way more than most fiction titles I’ve read this year. I haven’t read Year of the Dog/Year of the Rat and had no problem with this one standing on its own.

  8. mslibrarian says:

    Starry River… is hands down a better book than Where the Mountain… in structure, in prose fluidity, in metaphorical language, in character and character relationship building, and in reshaping traditional Chinese tales. I was very surprised by the Newbery Honor of Where the Mountain…. since I found many literary flaws with that book that should not have withstood the scrutiny of 15 sharp literary eyes. This one is improved and unlike Nina, I don’t find the bringing everything together at the end weird or forced. The only question I had was, if you’re not a reader familiar with Chinese, and that you don’t know that Mr. Shan’s name means “Mountain,” was the identity a jarring surprise? Does it work?

  9. ms, I think that the Honor for Where the Mountain–despite its many literary flaws that DID come up here and in our discussions (it was one of our picks, nevertheless)–shows how outstanding it is. I’m sure the flaws did not escape the committee. Those 15 always pick over *everything* about a book, and none is flawless. A book’s distinguished elements have to carry it above its flaws, however, to stand out.

  10. mslibrarian says:

    Nina, point well taken. I should not have expressed skepticism of the committee’s process — of course they examined the book closely and weighed the strengths and weaknesses and made a thoughtful decision. However, I will not take away my disagreement with the final decision/choice — I believe every reader has the right to do that, even against a group of 15 diligent and capable readers.

  11. ms, point taken in return. I think we all have Newbery winners or honorees where we just think: huh?

    One truth is that a different, equally competent committee of 15 might have come up with slightly different winners/honors. But i’ve learned over the years, and by experiencing the process, that it is difficult to argue in the end with whatever selections are made…to argue with the fact that the books selected do represented “the most distinguished contributions to American Literature for children” that year. There may be some that we feel are passed over. There may be some represented that exhibit true identifiable flaws along with what distinguishes them. But each honored book IS distinguished in some way that adds to our understanding of what makes great literature for a young audience.

    I think the personal disagreement is healthy and ABSOLUTELY necessary; at the same time, it’s the trust in the decision and the process that I most hope to teach through this blog. They may seem at odds, but I believe there’s a way to hold both.

  12. I agree with you Nina that it’s hard to argue about the final results being distinguished. Of course there are years where I’m disappointed that a favorite wasn’t given the nod, or I think an honor book should have gotten the gold. But (with the caveat that I haven’t read them all) I so far have not read a book from the Newbery canon, winner or honor, where I could not see what the committee saw and understand why they chose that book, even if I would have chosen a different one. I think it’s entirely possible to cultivate both personal opinion and trust in the process.


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