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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal



This one hasn’t gotten a stand-alone post from us yet.  Jonathan headlined it at his Louise Erdrich post, but most of the resulting comments ended up being about THE ROUND HOUSE (which will be the first thing I read following this Newbery season).   He brought it up again at 2012 Best Books Outliers, but no one bit. Following our Mock Newbery, as I look at my shelves and think back to our discussion, this is the one title we passed over for our shortlist that I think would have stood its own.  So let’s talk about CHICKADEE.

In our first blogging year at Heavy Medal (then with co-host Sharon McKellar), we chose THE PORCUPINE YEAR as our Mock Winner. I wrote, of our discussion:

An incredible example of historical fiction, with totally believable characters–some of the most memorable and convincing characters of any of our books. The intertwining of daily details with a strongly emotional long arc allow humor and minor triumphs to support the readers through the transformative narrative.  …[this book] stayed with me more than others, and months later I continue to think about it. It’s strengths are palpable, even from a distance. 

I feel the same way about CHICKADEE, though I think it’s even stronger than the PORCUPINE YEAR.  It is a “fully satisfying” book in every respect: plot, pacing, voice, character, setting…  we talked in our discussion Sunday a lot about whether any given book did everything well that it was supposed to do, and this one does.  I appreciate the humor with which the not-very-funny plot is developed, setting an approachable tone for young readers.  I see the audience for this book as reaching from that precociously-reading younger set… the 8 or 9 year old who is still emotionally very young but can eagerly down a chapter book…to the 11 or 12 year old who will appreciate the humor (in which kids sometimes best adults) and strong sense of adventure, and may be well-served by the approachability of a predictable story structure and arc.

Compare this to STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY; THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE; THREE TIMES LUCKY; SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS…in each case I feel like this one is stronger in at least one regard (in characterization, in plot, in setting, in theme) and ultimately holds together in “every element pertinent to it“.  In the end though, what stays with me most is Erdrich’s voice, the sentence level writing: it is lyrical but natural, fluid, evocative, funny, and pleasurable to read aloud.

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 protest–several of us followed up regarding CHICKADEE on the Outliers post. As I said there, I found the beginning somewhat slow/weak, but the rest of the book as good as any of the other novels this year that we’ve talked up. Overall, I can forgive a weaker beginning much better than I can a weak ending–I wanted CHICKADEE to go on and on. I don’t think it’s better than THE PORCUPINE YEAR, but it is written at a slightly different level, and works that level very well.

  2. Wendy, Nina just said they hadn’t given CHICKADEE its own post and so now she was.

    Just to reiterate that I too am a fan of the book for the reasons Nina articulates above. Very accessible, some delightful and funny scenes, and something I can see a range of kids enjoying. I agree completely about the sentence level writing.

    I have two niggles. First of all, I found that there is a hard-t-believe change with the two nasty brothers that I had to just go with. They go from truly awful to sort of acceptable Three Stoogish types. The second is there is (I don’t have the book at hand) a moment when Chickadee has a grand epiphany about the greater world that seemed a bit didactic. But those are niggles as I see this as a strong Newbery contender and would be pleased to see it recognized.

    • (I meant the “no one bit” part–we’ve been trying! We both commented on CHICKADEE on the other post, along with others. For some reason this book doesn’t seem to have picked up steam on any front.)

  3. Ah, yes, we both bit. True, true:)

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    Ha, Wendy, you are right…but didn’t seem like many others picked up the conversation. I’m glad to see you think you plotting concerns are balanced by the overall package. I didn’t have that experience on reading, but I can see what you mean, there are a few different layers to get us started, and accustomed with the characters. In our Mock discussion, we noted a similar slow build in ONE AND ONLY IVAN, which we similarly found weak but not ultimately problematic to the reading. Could be, though, ultimately problematic in making either keep up in the final field of very strong contenders this year. We’ll see.

    Monica, I was also surprised by the turnaround in those characters, but I think a child audience will go more readily with it than adults (it’s hard for us to forgive kindnappers), and it was part of the overall tone to the novel that I came to appreciate so very much. I don’t recall the grand epiphany scene exactly, but I loved the sense of strength Chickadee gets from his namesake, how that was communicated and drove the plot and character forward.

  5. CHICKADEE for the Scott O’Dell! I think I called this somewhere.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yay! CHICKADEE was my own pick for the Scott O’Dell, but I did think the committee might go for CROW which had more buzz earlier in the year. Plus, I believe Erdrich is the first repeat winner of the O’Dell . . .

    Anyway, I have to say that while I deeply appreciate all four of the middle grade titles on our shortlist–SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, LIAR & SPY, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, and STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY–this is the one that stands out to me. I don’t know that I could build consensus around it as easily as those other titles, but it is my favorite. And it surprises me to say that–and it probably surprises anybody who has heard me complain about the earlier books in the series, but there you have it.

    One of the things that our mock Newbery discussion kind of crystallized for me is that I really don’t prefer LIAR & SPY over the other contending middle grade novels–and I had thought that I prefered it until I reread it. Oh, it held up just fine (and is still Medal worthy), but I didn’t really care for the bullying theme the second time around; EACH KINDESS does that theme the best this year, I think. I also recalled Mark’s criticism of the secondary voices in NO CRYSTAL STAIR feeling very exposition-y and because of the first person narrative voice I felt the same thing whenever information about Seraut or taste buds or whatever was dumped into the narrative. I don’t really think of these as criticisms, however, so I don’t expect them to mean anything to anybody else. I did guess the twist fairly on in my first reading, but since this is more than just a mystery novel (just as WHEN YOU REACH ME is more than just a sciience fiction novel), that really doesn’t bother me. Still, I kind of had LIAR & SPY pegged as first among equals in terms of middle grade fiction–and now I don’t.

  7. Nina Lindsay says:

    I liked both of these quite a bit….JAKE & LILY is in the WONDER camp for me though…although it’s better written, ultimately what makes it “rise” is it’s message, rather than the writing.

    • Oh, I strongly disagree–I think JAKE & LILY is a fine example of how to write a “messagey” book that is more about being a good book than it is about instructing kids about how to live right, or some king of wish fulfillment for adults. It’s very skillfully written, and one of the best examples of the year of “presentation for a child audience”.

  8. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Well…I agree with you up to the very last…I think there are many better examples this year. I would easily bet that this is being discussed by the Newbery Committee though. I just thought felt that at some point the message was driving the characters and plot more than the characters were themselves.

    • Just to be clear–it’s not that I think this is the best BOOK of the year overall (though it is one of my top ten). I think the area in which this book is particularly distinguished–just as some books excel at character, some at setting, etc–is that it seems to excel in speaking to children, especially in speaking to children about this topic; Spinelli seemed very aware (though not overtly so) of “children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations”–unlike many books about which we say, disparagingly, that they are more for adults or will speak more to adults (which doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but usually is a big negative). That’s what made me compare this book to Beverly Cleary, who has always had the knack of that.

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