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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Strange but True

Do you get a jolt sometimes on your commute, at your favorite lunch place, suddenly looking at the same mundane scene you see every day and think: “how peculiar?”

A slightly distorted lens on the world in fiction, when done well, can make the story that much more believable.   Here are two titles that fit my bill, though I think ultimately both would be hard sells for the Newbery.

Several of you rooted for THE HUMMING ROOM over at Nominations. Any of you who recall my feelings about Ellen Potter’s THE KNEEBONE BOY won’t be surprised to hear how fast I opened her new THE HUMMING ROOM.  So fast, in fact, that I never noticed the little type on the cover: “A Novel Inspired by THE SECRET GARDEN.” It’s not just inspired by, it truly and completely mirrors the entire story of THE SECRET GARDEN from a contemporary perspective.  Potter’s quirky, detail-oriented voice is the perfect one to do this, and makes, in many ways, a better go at the story for today’s readers.  Unfortunately…she’s so good at it that when I finally noticed what was happening (when sickly Phillip is discovered in his room) I stopped believing the story.  Potter had set up a wonderful character and predicament with Roo on CoughRock island, and …I didn’t believe in that very-real character and narrative following that pre-written arc.  I felt like Potter had made them her own, and had more in mind for them, than readers got here.  However, I read this very early in the year (when I’m particularly critical, knowing the tendency to swing easy), and I felt upset by expectations, which perhaps isn’t being fair.  Have any of you shared this book with young readers?

Meanwhile, the only reason I picked up Hannah Barnaby’s WONDER SHOW was because a a friend who knows my tastes mentioned it to me.   Starred reviews eluded it, and thus–as often as not–no buzz (though one person did vote for it at Goodreads….now two).  This one bears some very interesting comparisons to this year’s SPLENDORS & GLOOMS and WILL SPARROW’S ROAD…   a melodramatic tone and setting finds Portia in a home for “wayward girls,” during the dustbowl; a frightening place where a tragedy she plays a part in leads her to run away and join a carnival…and there she eventually learns to confront her past.   The characters and setting in this story to me are on par with LIAR & SPY or SPLENDORS & GLOOMS: so wildly real that we never even have to be told what year it is: I know that it’s “the dustbowl,” but that doesn’t matter; the characters don’t know their own historical context yet and it doesn’t bear on the story, only their experience of it does, and that’s what we get, palpably real: their experience of family torn apart by hardship.  There is a little bit of awkwardness in Barnaby’s shifts into other voices, and from third to first…but it manages to hang together.  I know that some people will dispute this story’s age-level appropriateness for Newbery, but it does sit firmly in the 12-14 year-old coming-of-age perspective that catapultes the reader just off the precipice of childhood…as, to my mind, do JACOB HAVE I LOVED or CRISS-CROSS.  This is haunting, quirky, real, and my kind of 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. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I read several chapters in THE HUMMING ROOM and was quite enjoying it, but had to set it aside for review book deadlines. I note a couple of other books which reimagine classic children’s novels: WOODEN BONES by Scott William Carter (PINOCCHIO) and TIGER LILY by Jodi Lynn Anderson (PETER PAN). The latter book has four starred reviews, whle the former was also mentioned on the Nominations thread. Are either of them Newbery possibilites?

    I do note a lone starred review for WONDER SHOW from Kirkus. Yay, Kirkus! My curiosity is now officially piqued. Is WONDER SHOW straight historical fiction–or is there a fantasy/horror element to it like THE BROKEN LANDS?

  2. I had big doubts about the logistics of meeting, marrying, and bringing home an indigenous Brazilian woman, but it seemed foolish even to think about when THE HUMMING ROOM is not really straight realism. Imagine my surprise when I was reading a somewhat dense book of rainforest politics to discover that this aspect of the book was inspired by a true story…

    I’ve had WONDER SHOW on the “lower priority” side of my bookshelf–will knock it up front.

  3. So, I may be in the minority on this one, but I was really disappointed with The Humming Room, and this may be because I am such a huge fan of The Secret Garden. Understandably, this title is geared to a younger audience than the original, and making comparisons between the two is really a mute point when it comes to Newbery consideration, but I simply found this novel flat…

    I fully expected the garden itself to be it’s own character, and I just didn’t feel that in this novel. Ellen Potter is a lovely writer, but I just expected more magic. However, I completely agree this a great go-to novel to gets kids interested in the classic.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    WONDER SHOW is neither straight Historical Fiction or Fantasy/Horror. It’s fiction…set in the past, but that “past” part of the setting bears little relevance on the story…and has a *tone* of strangeness that might engage fantasy/horror readers, but there are absolutely no fantastical elements. Think KNEEBONE BOY, CANNING SEASON….all my favorites. 🙂

  5. I read WONDER SHOW months and months ago so am going on a very poor memory here and apologize in advance for any errors. I remember liking the writing tremendously, especially the atmospheric setting. What didn’t ultimately work for me was that the show people, the “oddities’ never came fully rounded. None of them, as I recall, were central characters. No doubt it is my problem, but I felt we never got past feeling that they were being exoticized. This is in contrast to Cushman’s WILL SPARROW’S ROAD where Will does change his view of the cat girl, she becomes well-rounded and a major and complex character. Similarly, Katherine March creates fully realized characters in JEPP WHO DEFIED THE STARS. Jepp is a dwarf and spend a significant part of the book among other different people (little people like himself and one overly large person) and is highly complicated as are all the others in the book. By the way, I think JEPP is worth reading and considering in terms of Newbery.

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    Monica, a slightly belated response here…to say that you’re right that the carnival characters in WONDER SHOW aren’t as fully rounded as those in WILL SPARROW’S ROAD. But I didn’t find them to be exoticized…. some of them were only thinly drawn, but so are many minor characters in novels, and I think these played their part as characters, not as oddities. A few of them (Marie, Jim…) were fairly complexly drawn, I thought, for the little page time they got. Portia is more of a central character, and older, than Will Sparrow and so I think her surrounding cast needs to be “used” a little differently.

    Now off to find JEPP.

  7. Nina, it was pointed out to me that one of the problems with my reading of WONDER SHOW is the title. The “wonder show” is just one of the settings of the book and the plot isn’t about it at all. Perhaps I would have felt differently with a different title.

  8. Nina Lindsay says:

    This is a good point…and also a good example of how minute the Newbery discussion can be. At some point, the choice of title and the expectations it sets can become a deciding point for a committee member.

  9. Erin, I agree with you entirely about Humming Room. I did know that it was inspired by The Secret Garden, a book that I have read and reread over my lifetime. I thought that it fell flat, that the magic just wasn’t there. Some of the characterization and growth of the original just didn’t come through. I gave it to a fifth grader, though, and she really enjoyed it.

  10. Laura Canon says:

    I read Wonder Show over the weekend and liked the concept, atmosphere and characters but fell foul of the storytelling. It sits on that telling/showing fault line. I keep feeling I’d love the book if I felt more involved in it instead of being told what was happening. Also the single chapters narrated by the show people didn’t do much for the book, I felt. Overall there was kind of a ragged feel, perhaps typical for a first novel. But so much originality that I’m glad I read it, too.

  11. How do people feel about the bookmaking choices in Jepp? all that blue….

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    It’s different, isn’t it? Haven’t read the book yet–it’s in my pile–but it seems that color might be better suited for verse novels with spare text (LOVE THAT DOG or WITNESS, for example).

  13. It didn’t bother me. But then, one of my favorite things about THE DREAMER was the green text! Maybe I just like color.

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      It really annoyed me when I opened it (“gimmicky”)…but it did disappear. Just finished this last night, so look for a post next week…

  14. Nina, curious about your take on WONDER SHOW as a YA (Morris Award finalist)–the Printz blogger says she hadn’t read very much of it because it seemed solidly middle-grade. I can see that from the beginning chapters, and the packaging, but I think it’s a good solid 12-15 book.

  15. Nina Lindsay says:

    Yes, I think solid 12-15…even 11-15. An old eleven, and a young 15. It stays pretty tame in terms of maturity of the perspective.


  1. […] Wonder Show (Houghton Mifflin) by Hannah Barnaby, a dark tale of historical fiction about a teenager who joins a traveling sideshow as she searches for her father. […]

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