Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Eyes on the Prize

Civil rights elicit a wide range of deeply felt emotions–horror, outrage, disgust, sadness, admiration, and conviction–especially in relation to black holes and shore birds. Generally speaking, we care more because we’re talking about people. Not surprisingly, these books often get their just due, especially when they are well written. Indeed, half of the nonfiction Newbery books in the past decade–THE VOICE THAT CHALLENGED A NATION and CLAUDETTE COLVIN–relate to this very struggle.

This year there are no less than five good nonfiction books with a specific focus on the civil rights: WE’VE GOT A JOB by Cynthia Levinson, MILES TO GO FOR FREEDOM by Linda Barrett Osborne, TO THE MOUNTAINTOP by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, MARCHING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP by Ann Bausum, and LITTLE ROCK GIRL 1957 by Shelley Tougas. I’ve read them all and while each book has something to recommend readers, the cream of this crop is WE’VE GOT A JOB, a book that recalls MARCHING FOR FREEDOM with its narrow focus, vivid narrative, eyewitness accounts, and striking photographs.

On Thursday morning, May 2, 1963, nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks woke up with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, there was something important she had to do.

“I want to go to jail,” Audrey told her mother.

Levinson’s narrative pivots around four young people as they become caught up in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. I’m impressed by the detailed account of this event, and the way that each viewpoint informs the development of the plot. Because each character is drawn so vividly and because the setting becomes so real, the drama in this story builds wonderfully.

In any other year, this might be the leading nonfiction book, and the most likely Newbery contender, but it’s a crowded nonfiction field. I do think it’s better than most of the fiction. Then, too, it’s not like the Newbery has a quota on nonfiction books that it can’t exceed; it just seems that way.

The committee has shown an affinity for historical fiction over the years. All three titles last year were historical, for example, and four of the five from the previous year, too (including ONE CRAZY SUMMER which fits squarely in this era). So it stands to reason that historical fiction plus civil rights could be a winning formula, and there are a handful of novels this year, but only two have cracked my starred review list: CROW by Barbara Wright and THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK by Kristin Levine.

I talk a lot. Just not out loud where anyone can hear. At least I used to be that way. I’m no chatterbox now, but if you stop me on the street and ask me the directions to the zoo, I’ll answer you. Probably. If you’re nice, I might even tell you a couple of different ways to get there. I guess I’ve learned it’s not enough to just think things. You have to say them, too. Because all the words in the world won’t do much good if they’re just rattling around in your head.

Marlee’s voice is one this novel’s biggest strengths, and readers will recognize echoes of other beloved heroines, but she’s also very long-winded and it takes her quite awhile to work her way through the entire school year. Nevertheless, the family dynamic, the treacherous territory of junior high friendships and romances, and the backdrop of school segregation are all well drawn. However, I think there are some conveniences in the plot that allow for the friendship to be torn apart and put back together too easily.

The buzzard knew. He gave the first warning. I was playing in the back yard while my grandmother stirred the iron wash pot over the fire. She had gray hair and a bent back. Standing, she looked like the left-hand side of a Y. If she could straighten her back, she would be taller than me, but since she couldn’t, we were the same height. I called her Boo Granny. She joked that I should call her Bent Granny.

Just as LIONS gives us an unconventional perspective (i.e. the year after the Little Rock Nine), CROW takes us to the dawn of the Jim Crow era to see how the hard work of the Reconstruction was undone. The third person narrative is more to my taste, but even so I found it took me quite awhile to become fully invested in the story. Here, as in LIONS, the presentation of the the family dynamic, the childhood friendships, and the glimpse into the larger political turmoil within the community is handled adeptly.  I don’t have quite as many quibbles with this one; however, it still comes shy of my leading fiction candidates.

All three books have obvious strengths–they all have their eyes on the prize, so to speak–and clearly deserve a prominent place in our discussion.  Even so, I’m not convinced that any of the three rise to the level of most distinguished.  What do you say? 

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I haven’t read Crow, but I’ve read Lions of Little Rock once and listened to it once. The audio was problematic, since Marlee didn’t have a southern accent, but that’s beside the point. I was impressed with the structure of the book — getting so much into the story. That is, Marlee’s not talking and needing a friend, Civil Rights in Little Rock, girls and math, cheating or not, standing up for what’s right, social justice… It is long-winded, yes. And some events seem a tad unlikely, yes. But I agree that it’s up there among those that deserve consideration. Plot, characters, setting, and theme, are well-done. I agree that it’s not necessarily the most distinguished. But it does deserve consideration.

  2. If it weren’t for the giant pink BOMB in the room, I would say WE’VE GOT A JOB is the best NF book of the year. Tremendously well written and researched. The plotting was wonderful, the characters vivid. Just excellent.

    I’m only half-way through CROW, but I’m not loving it. I feel like there’s a lot of infelicitous language, where the prose gets strangely stilted. I’ll try to dig up some examples.

  3. I didn’t care for THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK and am interested to see that it’s one of the top votegetters on the Goodreads poll. I thought the plot was contrived, and too slow. Overall, this is one that it’s easy for me to write off, so I’m interested to hear what exactly so many people think is great about it.

    CROW is, I thought, a riskier and more “literary” book, with a lot to recommend it, but I’m not sure it hits the child audience. In particular, I didn’t think kids would pick up on the subplot about Moses’s grandfather, and to miss that would miss some of the power of the book. Also, I thought the story arc wasn’t very clear, and that seemed like a weakness.

    WE’VE GOT A JOB was great, I thought. I approached it with some weariness, because I feel like I’ve read SO many civil rights books lately, but it surprised me by feeling fresh and exciting. The characters and setting were especially vivid; the author did a great job picking out compelling people and sticking with them. And the style is excellent and consistent. The only criticism I could make is that the timeline wasn’t always clear to me. “Better than most of the fiction” riled me a little, because I think there’s so much great fiction this year, but I realized that it isn’t that I disagree–I just think it sets up a false dichotomy and makes it sound like there isn’t a lot of good fiction. This is just one of the better BOOKS of the year. It’s the whole package.

    Another historical fiction about the civil rights era this year is GLORY BE, but that doesn’t make my own list.

  4. @Wendy – completely agreed on the fiction v. NF issue. This is such a great year for both Fiction and Nonfiction that there might be as many as 10 books that I’d be thrilled to see get the medal. I can’t speak for Jonathan, but I read his line as just being another version of what you said – “one of the better BOOKS of the year.”

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Of the books that we have profiled here on the blog so far, I’d list these as my top six: NO CRYSTAL STAIR, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, MOONBIRD, BLACK HOLE, and WE’VE GOT A JOB. While this is only a small sample of what we will discuss and what is eligible, I definitely think this 50-50 ratio will carry over into a longer list. I really can’t think of a year when I’ve been able to list a serious nonfiction contender for every serious fiction contender. So, yes, that’s to take nothing away from the fiction this year . . .

  6. Funny. I read the post in two sections, and forgot about the first half when I wrote my comment. Yes, I also agree that We’ve Got a Job is outstanding. I read Marching to the Mountaintop as soon as I finished it, so the two tend to meld in my mind. But thinking back, the focus on specific children in We’ve Got a Job gives the book real focus and power. And, yes, I think it does rise above The Lions of Little Rock. (And above No Crystal Stair… but that’s not as big a reach for me. Especially for presentation to a child audience.)

    Marching to the Mountaintop is outstanding as well, I should add. But when two books are so similar, you’re comparing apples and apples, so it’s easy for one to clearly rise to the top. Again, the focus on specific children puts We’ve Got a Job on top for me.

  7. I thought Lions was too long and the voice wasn’t right at all–Marlee’s voice seemed off to me in terms of her age (I can’t remember now if the voice was too old or too young sounding… I’m thinking it was too young sounding for her age). I liked the idea of the book more than the book itself (great time period, interesting friendship between the two girls, the practice of passing, etc.).

    Crow was more solid than Lions, but I’m not sure I’d vote for it either in comparison to the other awesome contenders (this is a GREAT year, I gotta say–I feel like I can really nitpick since there are so many wonderful potential winners).

    I DID like Glory Be, though. I’ve read a LOT of Civil Rights era books for middle grades, but Glory Be is more of a 3rd-4th grade audience. It isn’t as “deep” or complex as books like Crow or Lions, but I think it handles the era well for its audience.

    Still waiting on our library to get We’ve Got a Job…

  8. THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK: I thought this a good book and had many strong qualities: the different angle, the friendship, the girl who loves math for once, but it falls short of Newbery standard for me. Yes, many elements of the plot felt too contrived. I also thought Marlee’s voice was off. It sometimes sounded like a 12 year old’s thoughts and at other times like a 12 year old’s writing. It was jarring because suddenly she would sound far less articulate and wordy than she had just a page before. I can’t site a specific instance of this as I don’t have a copy in my house. I do remember that it really bugged me while I was reading on it. I wanted to be one or the other. Didn’t care which really-just stick with one.

    CROW: I really loved Crow and it is, as of now, one of my top picks. I do need to reread it though. It was a long time ago for me and I think some of my love for it was influenced by the fact that I graduated from high school in NC, went to a NC college (where I took a class in NC history), and taught school in NC and NEVER KNEW ABOUT THIS. So yes, I need to reread it now that that wow amazing factor will be taken out of the equation. I thought the characterization, setting, and treatment of theme were the strongest qualities in this one. Wendy makes a point with the age for this one being older. Not only due to the subplot of Moses’s grandfather, but also the scene where they are discussing rape and lynching around the dinner table. (My favorite scene btw.) That scene right there meant that I can’t use this with my 4th-6th graders.

    WE’VE GOT A JOB: I’m also waiting on my library to get this book. (Same library as Betsy actually.) Also waiting on them to get A BLACK HOLE IS NOT A HOLE. I did go ahead and buy BOMB because of all the good stuff everyone was saying. I can’t buy them all though. I’m a girl on a budget.

  9. CROW is in my top five at the moment. It and LIONS are both on our semifinal list on For Those About To Mock, so I’ll have a chance to think through them a bit more, which I’m looking forward to.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sondy: MARCHING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP by Ann Bausum is the only other civil rights nonfiction that I would seriously reread with Newbery criteria in mind. The opening introduction about the garbage collection in Memphis is one of the more powerful pieces of writing I’ve read all year, but I don’t think the intensity of that horror/fascination was sustained throughout the narrative and I’m concerned that the segue between strike and assassination kind of unfocuses the book slightly toward the end.

    Sam: I notice that you have both THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK and CROW on your longlist of twelve titles for the Maryland Mock Newbery, but not WE’VE GOT A JOB, and I’m curious about that. I’m not sure either you or Rachael have read it. I couldn’t find it on your blog. Wendy and I have read all three and found WE’VE GOT A JOB the most distinguished. Anybody else read all three and come to a different conclusion?

  11. I’ve read all three and personally enjoyed CROW the most because as a former North Carolinian I was fascinated by a piece of history that I’d never encountered (not relevant the the newbery discussion I know). It’s been a while since I read CROW and would need a reread to speak to any specifics. Laurel speaks highly of this title so hopefully she will chime in soon with her case for CROW.
    I read WE’VE GOT A JOB with some reluctance since I feel like I’ve read so many nonfiction accounts of the civil rights struggle over the last few years. I did enjoy the read more than I thought I would but I’m not sure how distinguished a CONTRIBUTION this title is (I thought Marching For Freedom was significantly better). I’ll agree that the writing is quite distinguished and would have no problem with this earning a honor (unless it’s at the expense of BOMB, then I would be furious!).
    LoLR is a good read, but not up to newbery level in my mind. To many issues with both voice and plot.

    I’m interested in what Jonathan wrote in the opening paragraph of this post. Civil Rights related books (both fiction and nonfiction) elicit strong emotion with readers because of their subject matter sometimes regardless of the level of distinction in the writing. What I thought was so amazing about BOMB was that it was able to elicit an incredible amount of emotion while still challenging readers to draw their own conclusion. Its incredibly easy to decide where we as 21st century readers stand in terms of the civil rights movement, segregation and jim crow laws. As readers we don’t have to struggle with these ideas, we know who the good guys are and we know who the bad guys are. This is not a flaw in the writing of these books, simple a by product of the subject matter.

    BOMB on the other hand never paints the Russian spies or American communist sympathizers as anything other than humans who want to defeat the Germans. Sheinkin reminds the reader multiple times that American socialists/communists did not have any idea what Stalin was actually doing in the Soviet Union. This is not to say there aren’t villains here. Both Stalin himself and the Nazi party are not clearly the bad guys but everyone else from Heisenberg to the Japanese military, to the KGB men, all have multiple dimensions which allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

    In a literature circle of 12-14 year old I imagine a lot of group head nodding while discussing WE’VE GOT A JOB and a lot of differing opinions about the characters and motivations in BOMB. Both deliver a emotional reading experience one just makes you think a lot more than the other.

    Its format prevents it from even reaching the Newbery table but THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS was in my opinion the best civil rights related book of the year.
    Can the committee discuss a 2012 (i.e. otherwise eligible) graphic novels in terms of comparing the level of distinction in handling of specific themes/topics even if a case can’t be made for the title to actually get through any voting (because of format)?

  12. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we all seem to be completely burned out on Civil Rights books, and yet we also acknowledge that they pack more emotional punch. I don’t think that means anything, I just thought of it.

    I completely agree with what Eric has to say about about the distinction between WE’VE GOT A JOB and BOMB. You certainly can’t fault WGAJ for being on the right side of history, but it definitely makes BOMB much more interesting reading.

    I’m also interested in Eric’s distinction between “contribution” and the “writing is quite distinguished.” I presume Eric means that it’s less of a contribution because the subject matter is more well known. If that’s the case, how do we weigh the “contribution” issue, or do we weigh it at all? Seems like we would have to downgrade a lot of fiction titles for being just another coming of age story (or whatever), no matter how well written. Personally, I didn’t know the story of the Children’s March, so WGAJ was a huge contribution to my own personal knowledge, but that presumably is not a question that is revelant to the Newbery.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Eric, I share your reading responses–CROW is new and different, while WE’VE GOT A JOB seems more familar, especially next to MARCHING FOR FREEDOM–but when I get past them and look at the criteria, I do find WE’VE GOT A JOB more distinguished in terms of the criteria, especially plot, character, and setting. Yes, it’s kind of a well worn story by now, but so too is the Spunky/Feisty/Lovable Herioine with a County/Folksy/Southern Voice and a Dead/Missing/Absent Mother–yes, THREE TIMES LUCKY we’re looking at you. We could say the same for any number of fictional tropes.

  14. But WE’VE GOT A JOB and MARCHING FOR FREEDOM are about different historical events! I think it’s a mistake to equate them too much just because they’re both about children’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Would anyone say the same about two books about different historical events during, say, the Civil War or World War II? Maybe they would, but I think it’s wise to tread carefully there.

    That said, I think it speaks to WE’VE GOT A JOB’s strength that it does seem to offer a fresh reading experience on a topic that many of us are apparently feeling inundated with. Eric talks about it being an easy thing to agree with, but actually I thought the book did a great job of showing how complex all of it was, actually NOT as easy to go along with as it would seem to the 21st century reader. There were serious consequences for joining in, and not all of the children did; and their involvement and commitment varied. The book also touches on the experience of the white children in the town and shows the complexity of their situation. I think before reading the book, children would be more likely to be gung-ho about “I would have been out there marching and going to jail!” but after reading the book would understand more of the nuances of that decision. (not that I’m praising the didactic content–just illustrating how the book is more complex than suggested above)

    I can’t bear “spunky/feisty/lovable heroine with a country/folksy/southern voice and a dead/missing/absent mother” on general principles and generally make acerbic comments about such books, but I thought THREE TIMES LUCKY had some things the average such book doesn’t. Likewise the Civil Rights movement and WE’VE GOT A JOB.

  15. @Wendy – I actually do think that if there were two or more books out about different events during the Civil War or WWII they would be equated, especially since, as in the case of Civil Rights, these two topics have been done to death. Not that there isn’t more to be said – there always is – but it certainly would be nice if we could start plumbing some different historical periods.

    To that end, CROW is definitely a step in the right direction, since it actually isn’t about the Civil Rights Movement, but about the beginning of the Jim Crow Era.

    Another book which is probably too old for Newbery (but I think I saw it on the goodreads poll anyway) that goes in a completely different direction is THE WICKED AND THE JUST, which isn’t just a standard fare “medievalish” story, but a historical novel about a very specific uprising in Wales. I’d love to see more novels (and NF) about events like these that many of us have not the slightest clue about, but I guess publishers know that Civil Rights, Civil War, and WWII sell the most books.

  16. I think that with any of it, the fictional tropes or the NF topics the important thing is to look at how much our genre fatigue is contributing to our thoughts on a book. I know I reached a place this year where I had to say no more MG historical fiction with female MCs for a while because I reached a point where I was hyper critical of all of them. (Which is why I never got around to GLORY BE. Maybe I’m over it now?) I tend to get easily excited about all the non-fiction because I don’t read it frequently. I’m experiencing that excitement right now as I’m reading BOMB. It is difficult to force my brain analyze if something is truly distinguished writing or just a nice breath of fresh air. Which is why I need to reread CROW. (Time. I need more of it.)

    @Wendy-THREE TIMES LUCKY surprised me too. I especially hate “quirky southern” novels because I live in the south. I don’t find it all that quirky. I liked that one though.

    @Mark-You know I don’t think that THE WICKED AND THE JUST reads any older than CROW or NO CRYSTAL STAIR. When I read it I wasn’t thinking of it in the context of the Newbery, but now that you’ve mentioned it…

  17. It seems like IT JES’ HAPPENED, by Don Tate, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie should be on the table. A picture book biography of the artist, Bill Traylor, it follows the subject from his birth into slavery through his long years as a share cropper and finally to his days as an artist. I love reading this book out loud for the wonderful, authentic cadence of the language, and the mystery of Traylor’s art. The text is not dependent upon the illustrations, so it can definitely stand alone.

    It’s not set during the Civil Rights movement. Traylor died in 1949. But it’s a great look at a life that spanned almost a century, most of which was spent doing difficult manual labor, but then, in his twilight years, from the age of 81 until he died at 95, he began to draw and paint, using his art to illuminate those hard years, and also the sweetnesses that wove in and out of his memories. It’s a wonderful testament to the human spirit and what is possible in the evening of our lives. I like stories that celebrate youngsters and their indomitable spirit, but it’s refreshing to see a book for kids that really revels in aging. Life isn’t over when we become adults, especially older adults. It’s such a worthy story.

  18. I’m waiting for WE’VE GOT A JOB to show up from interlibrary loan, believe it or not, as none of the local public libraries seem to own a copy. I’m hopeful that it will arrive in the next couple weeks, and that I’ll be able to take a look at it then — and possibly add it to the longlist.

  19. Thinking about the accuracy issues discussed in the TEMPLE GRANDIN post I remembered a small quibble I had with WE’VE GOT A JOB. Unfortunately I’ve already returned my copy to the library and don’t remember exactly where in the text it occurred, but at some point it’s said that a news organization’s (local or national, again don’t recall exactly) had video cameras on the scene of an event. Since the events described occurred in 1963 it would make way more sense for these to be film cameras and not video cameras. This was approximately 10 to 15 years earlier than portable video was being employed to record news events.
    The phrase “……film at eleven” comes from tv news shows simply describing a days events during the early evening news show and telling viewers to watch the 11pm show to see the filmed footage since it takes time to develop and then edit and telecine the film (usually 16mm) before it can be broadcast.

Speak Your Mind