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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Polly Horvath

Do you have a favorite author that provokes a Pavlovian response?  When I hear “Polly Horvath’s new book” I drool.  “…two new books..” knocked me to the floor in fits.

Up and dusted, I tried to put my brain in order so that I could read her current titles as objectively as possible…meaning, likely, that I overly-tempered my feelings. ONE YEAR IN COAL HARBOR and MR. AND MRS. BUNNY–DETECTIVES EXTRAORDINAIRE! (both from Schwartz & Wade) are both interesting to consider for Newbery; after first read I set both aside, not hearing wild enthusiasm out there from more than my friends in frothy fandom.  As the year wears on however, and we have a field and some distance for comparison, I find myself looking closer.  Still not sure if these would get into my nominations field, but they certainly stand for comparison with our other contenders.

ONE YEAR IN COAL HARBOR is truly a “companion” novel (to EVERYTHING ON A WAFFLE), rather than a sequel as Jonathan earlier placed it.    It stands alone, only character development aiding readers of the previous, and honestly I felt I was meeting them all again for the first time.  Here is the world through the perspective and machinations of Primrose Squab, as she tries to understand and make life better for an amazingly well-drawn cast of quirky side characters in her life.  The Newbery Committee had this to say about EVERYTHING ON A WAFFLE:

When 11-year-old Primrose Squarp’s parents disappear at sea, her faith in their return defies all adult logic. Set in British Columbia, Everything On A Waffle combines quirky characters, recipes, and amazing twists of plot in a striking combination of the barely credible and profoundly true.

Committee Chair Kathleen Odean says, “Told with wit and tongue-in-cheek humor, Horvath’s vivid tale is grounded in tenderness and wisdom.”

Isn’t all the same true for COAL HARBOR? I see many Goodreads comments that call this “not as good as” WAFFLE…  but to me, all of the strengths in WAFFLE are still here in COAL HARBOR.  When I read it, I wanted to be no where else; setting, voice, and character feeling palpably real, inside and out.

MR. AND MRS. BUNNY–DETECTIVES EXTRAORDINAIRE! is a little more “out there,” which to anyone who knows Horvath should make you run for cover. Frankly, I’m still having a hard time with it, though friends in Goodreads seem to get it better than I (note Mark Flower’s review: “It’s a shame this isn’t eligible for the Newbery award since it is a translation from the original Rabbit, but what a translation!”)  It requires many leaps up faith, but sets the reader’s expectations perfectly for them,  which I find to be one of its tremendous strengths (and reminded me of an undersung favorite of mine in the same vein: Tor Seidler’s MEAN MARGARET).   But oddly…I just didn’t find Mr. and Mrs. Bunny to be funny, and it’s their character quirks that drive the narrative, rather than the plot, which is more of a tone than a plot with all of its non sequitirs.  I had to wonder if they work better as characters to readers who spend a lot of time with pet rabbits.    Or am I just not reading like a 9 year old?  Or am I thinking like a Marmot?

I know from Goodreads that many of you have opinions on these two.  How do they stack up against you other favorites, or ours?

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 thought One Year in Coal Harbor surpassed Everything on a Waffle. The character development was stronger, it was more engaging. In general, I thought it had more zip. I didn’t like the cover. I don’t see how it describes the story, and the illustration is oddly muted. The writing for this book in some passages was really wonderful and subtly profound.

  2. MR. AND MRS. BUNNY is, with the possible exception of the vastly different TWELVE KINDS OF ICE, the book that Rachael and I agree most strongly about for this year’s Newbery. It’s inventive, highly funny, and fits firmly into the tradition of Daniel Pinkwater, or even THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. As a kid, I loved both Pinkwater and TOLLBOOTH, and so maybe that’s just the Pavlovian part that you talked about, but I really think we may look back on MR. AND MRS. BUNNY as a modern classic.

    Also, for what it’s worth, when we asked Jack Gantos about his favorite authors and books he was looking forward to, Horvath was the only name he mentioned.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Horvath is such an acquired taste for me, and a little of it goes a long way. My favorite of hers remains THE TROLLS. I haven’t cracked ONE YEAR IN COAL HARBOR, but have taken two shots at getting into MR. AND MRS. BUNNY with no success. Maybe the third time will be a charm?

  4. I was one of those who wrote that I didn’t think COAL HARBOR was as good as EVERYTHING ON A WAFFLE. I was sent that book as a fluke when it first came out in paperback, and along with A YEAR DOWN YONDER, I credit it with rekindling my interest in contemporary children’s books. (As a rule, before that I spent many years reading only mid-century children’s books, with a moderate number from my own 80s childhood–basically zero interest in anything currently being published.) Of course, I’ve read hundreds of contemporary children’s books since then, so my point of view is different; I would no longer be surprised that I could enjoy a recently-published children’s book so much. Anyway, I felt that COAL HARBOR lacked much of the humor and warmth that made WAFFLE special, and the combination of depth and quirk that made it sparkle. The non-fluffy parts of the book seemed more sad than profound. The plot in general seemed sort of… imprecise. And considering that *I* found the adult romances really boring, I have to suspect many kids would, too. Also, the recipe schtick that worked well for me in the first book didn’t feel as natural or relevant here. We are not, of course, comparing this book to WAFFLE for Newbery purposes–but there’s nothing here that gets me excited about COAL HARBOR on a level with the rest of the best fiction.

    MR. AND MRS. BUNNY, on the other hand… it isn’t a perfect book, but it is a fascinating one. It’s one of those about which I can say that it’s odd, but “it does what it does perfectly”. To enjoy and appreciate this book requires the reader, I think, to suspend not only disbelief but every expectation. It’s like enjoying a movie like BRING IT ON–you have to just go with it, and if you do, it’s a great movie. WHY do the rabbits go to the Old Spaghetti Factory? Don’t worry about it; they just do.

    That Horvath was able to write a book about a human girl going to live with rabbits without it being sentimental or cloying… that’s remarkable.

    (And I don’t have pet rabbits… I don’t even know much about them. What it did remind me of, occasionally, was Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books–and I only just realized that both are detective stories; I was thinking only of the secondary characters and the setting. I haven’t read either Daniel Pinkwater OR The Phantom Tollbooth.)

    I could see MR. AND MRS. BUNNY as an out-there honor choice on the strength of its “does what it does perfectly” quality. And perhaps a “does what no one else is doing” quality. It wouldn’t make my personal nominations list, and I wouldn’t vote for it early, but if it got down to a few other popular choices that I’m not enthusiastic about and this, I would happily vote for it.

  5. I’ve never really gotten the Horvath thing… I didn’t find anything particularly special about either Trolls or Everything on a Waffle (Canning Season has been on my to-read pile for years and I still haven’t cracked it open) so I wasn’t particularly keen on reading COAL HARBOR or MR AND MRS BUNNY when they showed up on netgalley. After seeing some positive buzz for MR AND MRS BUNNY on got hold of a copy and just started reading it earlier this week. I think it’s an absolute hoot. I haven’t finished it yet but I’d agree with Wendy on the “does what it does perfectly” quality and if the second half is as strong as the first I can see myself throwing a nomination its way.
    Speaking of newbery worthy comedy….. this year’s Brixton Bros. book DANGER GOES BERSERK is as fantastic as the previous 3, if not better.
    I get the feeling that at some point Barnett is going write a stand alone title with the same incredible pacing (seriously, do any 250 page books read as fast as these do??) and smart humor that will seriously contend for the award.

  6. Sam is right, this is going to be a classic. It is a brilliant satirical social commentary that somehow melds the helpless parents/homeless child/talking animals/villans/detecive story with humor that works on multiple age levels.
    My first Horvath book was Trolls and I fell in love with her writing, then later was so turned off by some of her more perverse books that I quit reading her for years. But the “Bunnies” book jacket was too enticing and I fell off the wagon. Although I haven’t encountered many readers who love it as much as I do, I would be ecstatic if it won a medal!

  7. Sam Bloom says:

    I absolutely adored Mr and Mrs Bunny. It is one of the few contenders I’ve read twice, and the humor was even more spot on the second time. And of course, “contender” is a bit of an overstatement here… I think it is extremely unlikely that ANY group of 15 people would come to a consensus on this one. But I can always dream, I guess.

  8. I laughed almost continuously through Mr and Mrs Bunny — sometimes at hoomans, sometimes at bunnies, sometimes at foxes — a multispecies laugh fest. It didn’t seem to matter whether the humor was goofy or bitingly satirical or dark or absurd, I laughed. And through it all I cared about the characters — well, about Madeline and Mr and Mrs B. But I agree that building committee consensus around it would be extremely difficult, because I know from sad personal experience that its humor does not appeal to all. But in terms of Newbery criteria, it meets them all. So I wonder if an argument could be made, a la Jonathan, that one does not necessarily have to LOVE a book (ie, Splendors and Glooms) to recognize its worthiness. I wonder if a Newbery committee could put aside their individual senses of humor and just look at the *craft* of this book…

    By the way, for the Horvath fans above, Polly will have a piece in the March issue of the Horn Book (partially written by Mrs Bunny. And possibly partially by Mr Jack Gantos). So stay tuned!

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      It is indeed so hard to evaluate humor in writing…maybe because we have to evaluate it differently than other writing? I’m taking note of all the trusted voices saying “this is funny!” and continuing to think about it. Ultimately, even if I don’t find it funny myself, as Mock committee member I need to understand how the book works for those that DO find it funny. I’d love to hear from anyone who has shared this with kids, about their reactions.

  9. I loved Trolls, but I didn’t find Mr. and Mrs. Bunny funny. I’m still scratching my head at those who laughed all the way through. It seems like it would be harder to build consensus around a humorous book than others, because what a person finds funny really depends on the person. I liked Waffle and thought Coal Harbor was even better, but I’m still trying to figure out what I’m missing with the Bunnies.

  10. Just finished One Year in Coal Harbor and I’m with the “it’s even better” than Waffle crowd. I feel the same was as Nina when I see a new Horvath book on the shelf, and for some reason, I’d missed this one until I saw this post!! I have read Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit, but it didn’t seem to have that same punch for me as Coal Harbor. Clever, funny, yes. But those poignant moments that Horvath is so good at describing so accurately . . . those are what distinguished Coal Harbor for me.

    Horvath lives in BC . . . but is still an American citizen (so no eligibility questions here?) I’m truly just wondering . .. I’m a huge fan and setting is such a presence in Coal Harbor (and Waffle).

    • To me, and maybe to many other Mr. and mrs. Bunny fans, the humor was not the key-it’s not a rolling on the floor laughing book-okay, it is on some pages–but as Nina points out it is so well constructed, on so many layers, that the humor is only one of those supporting mechanisms. Here is a young girl who is taking care of her parents, which makes it one more story of a neglected child, living among rather decrepit old hippies, still being pulled by the outside world (Prince Charles is coming!!). Then she is kidnapped, and let’s face it, she falls down a rabbit hole. The adults are not the most endearing characters…but the bunny adults are. Rather than finding the Bunnies humorus, it was the asides about reading Lee Child, British royalty, Fox news, etc. that let you know how much fun the author was having.

  11. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Yep, unless Horvath has given up her American Citizenship recently, she’s still eligible. Susan Cooper and Robin McKinley are similar examples (Americans abroad); Neil Gaiman a recent reverse example (“foreIgner” resident).

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