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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Beneath a Meth Moon

woodson Beneath a Meth MoonJonathan introduced this title briefly into discussion, and it might be the outside longshot on our shortlist.  I’ve seen comments from otherwise-Woodson-fans call this one “too afterschool special,” or note that the parallels between Laurel’s addiction and the Hurricane seem “too forced.”  Then of course there’s the age-range question.  Yet others, myself included, can’t help but acknowledge what a finely crafted book this is.  And the more I look at the craft in detail, the more I’m convinced this IS a book “for children” according to the terms of the Newbery award.

I found it a little hard to get into on first approach, and then I was completely sucked in (kind of like stepping into a double-dutch rope).  It’s entirely comprised of short, unfinished anecdotes that flash through Laurel’s memory…addressing four different locations and time periods in her life (Pass Christian–before the storm, Jackson–during the storm and aftermath, Galilee–”moving on” and slipping into meth, and Donersville–moving to recovery). At times it’s hard to tell where you are, what mind-state…but the clipped-ness of each chapter, and the highly metaphorically emotional voice allow the reader to slow down, and let each scene pass, layering one on the other as we build an emotional storyline, even before we understand fully the linear sequence of action.  On second read, I found images everywhere that foreshadowed backstory (if that makes sense): for instance, when Laurel first enters New Sunrise, which is across the street from a Walmart, she says: “The first day there, I stared out the small window in my room, imagining the water washing over Walmart and floating it down the highway.” At that point in the story, we don’t know the full relevance of Walmart in the Pass Christian disaster…but the lights from the Walmart sign haunt Laurel, and we feel it when she makes her escape.   By the time we as readers know the full details of her family’s tragedy, Laurel is on her way to what is shaping up to look like recovery…and there the book ends.  Her telling of it is inextricably bound with her letting go of “the moon,” and that’s the entirety of the story. So although Karyn Silverman at Someday my Printz Will Come found this book didn’t give *enough*…I feel more and more that its strength is in sticking faithfully to this unique perspective and voice, and keeping it contained, and focussed.

This unique and consistently developed style is also what makes me feel this book fits exactly within the upper age range of the Newbery. Let’s put that definition up here:

2. A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.

Consider the “appropriateness of style” with which Woodson approaches “Interpretation of them or concept.”   For the 12-14 year-old reader who needs or wants to read about the experience of meth addiction, here is a story that expresses the physical and emotional devastation through metaphor that they will be able to connect with.  Metaphor allows a distance, a filter, through which the reader can “feel” a story, empathetically, without being traumatized themself.  It may be indeed that this book *isn’t* as strong under Printz criteria, as Karyn Silverman argues, if a wide teen readership (a Printz criteria) would better appreciate the more realistic take that a fully developed cast would allow for.  Putting aside the division between “children” and “teens” for a sec (because there really isn’t one)…isn’t this is a book for  an audience that firmly includes 12-14 year olds? And one that appeals, in its literary technique, to their less-matured, non-adult understandings?

It is “style” that determines audience age level, more than content.  Consider a front-runner in the YA lit this year: Code Name Verity.  Though this might be the best written book I’ve read this year of any type, and though I did due diligence of asking myself whether I could make a case for it under Newbery, I was satisfied to just say: nope.  It was not the subject matter that convinced me: there are appropriate children’s books about wartime attrocities, Nazis, resistance and spying.   It’s the highly developed, allusive plotting and voice–which deliver very adult emotional sucker punches–that are what make this book so good…and that style is not one that “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.”  Woodson’s, absolutely, is.

Finally, for those that just can’t accept that this could be a Newbery book because of it’s content, please remember: the Newbery award does not need to go to a book that you can teach to your own Elementary classroom, or put in your own Elementary school library.  The award is strengthened the more we can share it, but we can share it further if the entirety of the winners express a diversity in readership within the definitions of the award.   There is room within the Newbery canon for a book like this.

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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:

    I haven’t been able to reread this one yet, but I was very impressed on the first reading. I found it Woodson’s best novel to date (at least, of the ones that I have read). It’s one of those quiet books, but I remember the melancholy tone and the mesmerizing quality of the prose.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I finished rereading this one yesterday morning. The subtitle of this book: An Elegy. An elegy a short piece of mournful music or a poem lamenting the dead. Such a perfect description for the mood and function of this piece. Laurel is mourning not only her mother and grandmother, but the life the family might have had together–and, of course, now she is mourning the loss of her innocence to the drugs and addiction.

    I’ll add my voice to Nina’s in being very impressed with the discrete settings and how each of them is not only rooted physically to specific places, but emotionally to different states of mind as well. Try as I might, I can’t really see a larger role for Moses or Kaylee. Not every YA book has to be 300+ pages. I also like the subtle biblical imagery: floods, plagues, miracles, promised land, deliverance. Nice touches.

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