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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Starry River of the Sky

This is essentially a mystery novel, and while the central mystery is what happened to the moon, Lin delivers up little mysteries along the way: Why did Rendi run away from home?  Where did the innkeeper’s son run away to?  Why can no one else hear the moon wailing?  Why are Madame Chang and Mr. Shan so strange–and just who are they exactly?  How do the stories figure into everything?  The answers to all of these come tumbling in rapid succession toward the end of the novel, and Nina felt they did so less than artfully, but I didn’t have a problem here.

With Chinese folktales being an inspiration for this novel, it’s not surprising that the characters and prose style of the book approximates this form.  I mentioned that the characters here present an interesting foil to those in SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS because while both have an ensemble cast of characters, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS has off-the-charts characterization with relatively little character development (following in the tradition of certain Victorian novels), whereas STARRY RIVER has relatively flat characterization (a problem we had with WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, but which we decided could be forgiven because of the obvious fairy tale influence).  The character development is quite impressive.  Rendi grows and changes the most, obviously, but some secondary characters grow in important ways, too, while others do not change as much as our perception of them changes once we know their backstory.  The effect is that our perception of virtually each character in this ensemble cast has changed over the course of the novel.

The setting is nicely done, but more impresive, I think, because, in contrast to WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON which frequently changed setting because of its quest plot, STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY has a single setting.  Sometimes I feel like the character development in a quest plot is superficial, that it’s more external than internal, but with a stationary setting you really can’t hide character development behind plot quite as easily.

The storytelling concept is once again impressive while the themes of peace and forgiveness are also developed throughout the novel.  It’s hard to parse out individual literary elements in this book because I feel like they are all fused together so well.  While none of them necessarily strike me as most distinguished in isolation, I think the total effect is very distinguished.  Alluding to a previous decathlon metaphor, I ask if it’s possible that we might acknowledge that the plotting isn’t quite as distinguished as BOMB or the characters aren’t as distinguished as SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS and so on down through all the criteria–and yet it may end up winning the whole thing in a holistic kind of evaluation.

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 just finished this book and found it enchanting. I was pulled through it by the vivid images of setting and scenes, the engaging interactions between characters, and the flow of the language. The spot and full color illustrations add to the pleasure. I found that the stories gradually reveal real identidies and back-stories, so that the ending brought a satisfying confirmation and pulled all of the characters and their stories together. A message was provided for readers through the theme of letting go of anger and gaining peace through forgiveness, but it was not didactic – quite integral to the story lines and character development of multiple characters. A very complex book to construct, I suspect, but not to read.

  2. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I did initially feel the tying-up-of-strings was less artful…but so many of you argued otherwise that on re-read I realized that… I just found the number of toads confusing. I think that’s my problem.

    As in her previous work, I find the prose sometimes clunky, and that usually drags a book way down in my estimation. But it’s that “holistic” strength that Jonathan alludes to that keeps this afloat….an overall structure that is very very attuned to and considerate of its reader, that I really appreciate. Re-reading this, I felt like I was sitting down for a childhood birthday dinner with Mom dishing up a spread exactly to my order. Everything just right.

    Interesting also, with the “flat” characterization paired with nice character arcs, is that almost every character is equally well-developed. Rendi changes the most, but every single one felt equally well drawn. I think that’s a benefit of keeping a small cast, and short arc.

  3. I’m rereading this via audio, and just walked in from listening to a section. I’m reminded how marvelously it’s pieced together with all the stories. I’ve heard criticism that nothing happens toward the beginning where Rendi keeps thinking about leaving but not doing it, and I have to concede the pacing is a little slow at the beginning. But I particularly love the way the stories, each good on their own, also contribute toward the overall story. And, as you say, there are several mysteries going on. And character growth! Really a stellar book.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    The more I think about this, the more I like the presentation of the mystery element as much, or even more, than in LIAR & SPY, but I would welcome other thoughts on the matter. THREE TIMES LUCKY and MR. AND MRS. BUNNY may also provide instructive comparisons.

    Anyone notice that we’ve kind of got a Newbery reunion theme going on this year? WHEN YOU REACH ME, CLAUDETTE COLVIN, and WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON were recognized by the 2010 committee–and now LIAR & SPY, MOONBIRD, and STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY are all fairly serious contenders again. And the chair of the 2013 committee was on the 2010 committee. Interesting!

  5. Jonathan, are you thinking of “the mystery element” as falling under “development of a plot”? I do think it’s developed better here than in Liar & Spy. The main mystery in Liar & Spy is simply what Georges is withholding from the reader about his Mom. Also what Mr. X is up to, but that rather falls flat. In Starry River, Rendi is also withholding major information from the reader, but that is gently revealed, and doesn’t end up being the climactic mystery (what happened to the moon and to Jiming).

    Now that you point it out, they are similar in this way. Both are keeping something from the reader, but both have things they themselves don’t know. But I did find that aspect more satisfying in Starry River. And then there are the stories in Starry River, and the way they provide clues to the various mysteries.

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