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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

What the Heart Knows

Jonathan included Sidman’s WHAT THE HEART KNOWS among his October Nominations, noting that it’s for a slightly older audience than her picture book collections.  These mostly free verse poems engage at different levels, and to different audiences.  Some of my favorites:

“Silly Love Song” (p.61) speaks best to those in the flush of romance, though even young romance works here, and the poem is a wonderful play with metaphor that will tweak the curiosity of most readers: “If you are the Maserati / then I am the oil change // If you are the midnight neon flash, / I am the silver hint of dawn // If you are the raptor’s wings / I am the elephant’s eyelashes….”

“Heartless” (p.41) is for the heartbroken, but works, sadly, for any kind of heartbreak–not just one borne of romance: “You don’t want my heart? / Fine. I will climb a hill / where the sky is wide. / The sun will be setting / and the wet grass will drag at my feet.”   I love the rhythm that this poem sets up; the first line of all stressed syllables like a rat-a-tat-tat; the 2nd-4th lines setting up a hard stomping stride, that then gets bogged down in the long 5th line, in the wet grass, forcing the poet/speaker/reader to slow down,”I will crouch there / as darkness wraps me in its arms / ….”

“Invisibility Spell” (p.27) also has magic in its rhythm, as evidence to the title.  As the reader speaks the incantantion (of 3 stressed lines in couplets: “When taunting eyes chill me, / when laughter stings like sleet….”), the rhythm shifts at the climax .(….”Who needs this heavy coat of shame? / Beneath it / I burn with beauty.”) and into to spell itself.,: “It is spring. / I belong to the air. / I step from my body, / invisible.”

As is the case with any collection (poems, stories, etc.), some of these are stronger than others, and I think that some work better for a child audience than others.  “How to Find a Poem,” for instance, speaks better to an adult, yet there’s still plenty there for the young reader, and the collection on the whole is solidly with the age range for the Newbery.

My biggest quibble has to do with the very beautiful illustrations by Pamela Zagarenski. Sidman and Zagarenski collaborated on the Caldecott-Honor-winning RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS, so I’m not surprised to see them brought together here.  But here, in a smaller format, and with a different sensibility to the collection, the illustrations overtake the enjoyment of the text.  I found myself crowded and distracted, trying to read them.  I wonder if it’s the same for a child audience, or just my old brain…but poetry tends to do better, in general, with as little illustration as possible.   Here is where a certain clause from the Newbery criteria might come to bear:  “Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.”    But I’d put this question to the committee, if I were on it…this book still strong enough to be discussed at the table.

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 Jonathan Hunt says:

    I find that an excellent poetry collection is like buying a music CD. If you’re like me, you buy it for that hit song from the radio, and you listen to that one song obsessively–a dozen straight times, maybe, constantly pressing the replay button. Then as your infatuation fades in intensity and your attention wanders you allow other songs to play, and then you find new songs to be infatuated with until you gradually like the whole album. You even come to appreciate those songs that aren’t your favorite, noting how they provide balance, contrast, and thematic connections to the overall CD.

    For me, then, “Silly Love Song” is one of the hit songs. I’ve read it probably a couple dozen times now, and I like the imagery Nina noted, not just the metaphors but how the analogies are either complementary, contradictory, or seemingly incongruent. I love how the poem seems to accelerate after a few stanzas (You are the knife / I am the spoon // You are the sun / I am the moon) and then even more (You are this, I am that).

    I’ve read “Heartess” and “Invisibility” several times, but they haven’t captured my imagination quite they way they have Nina’s. At least, not yet. But then I was trying to read “Heartless” solely as a poem for unrequited romantic love rather than just general heartbreak as Nina suggested. So now after rereading them both after Nina’s comments, I like them even better than I did before. On the other hand, I can probably name a half dozen of my favorites, and some of them will almost elicit an underwhelmed response from other readers. But I find that is the way with most collections. Some people like some poems; some people like other poems. At the end of the day, in that random group of fifteen individuals known as the Newbery committee how many of these poems will not speak to at least one of them? I don’t think there are any weak poems here.

    As for the illustrations, I think they are a strength rather than a weakness so I can’t really discuss them. 🙂 I will say, however, that illustrations and text rarely appear on the same page (and when they do the illustration is relatively minor (a chair, a swirl, etc). In other words, it’s entirely possible to read this book without looking at the illustrations. But should you choose to, then Zagarenski offers up a nice complement of mysteriously enigmatic images.

    Needless to say, this book remains firmly entrenched in my top three.

  2. Nina, I understand what you are saying about the pictures. Somehow the illustration in WTHK seem to narrow the focus of who and what the poem can be about. On the other hand in our other poetry book IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE the illustrating broaden the meaning of the words.

    I did have a lovely conversation this morning with one of my students and all we loved about WHAT THE HEART KNOWS. I kind of felt like Nina that the audience was not defined for most of the poems with a few being directed at a younger audience. I’m not sure it detracts in anyway. Young reader are most assuredly ready for all of them.

    I’m kind of crazy about Jonathan’s description on HOW TO READ A POETRY BOOK.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    I was speaking with our local children’s bookstore owner recently and telling her how I and “others on the internet” thought IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE might be Newbery-worthy. She admitted it was lovely, but demurred. I asked her if that book didn’t rise to the level of Newbery distinction, what poetry book ever could? Her standard was A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL (which won a Printz honor.) The “affirmative action” question I would pose to Jonathan (who obviously feels strongly about this) and others is to what extent, if at all, do we relax our standards for the sake of inclusiveness of other genres like poetry and non-fiction? Elsewhere on this blog, people seem to say that it’s not that they are against considering these genres or only consider prose novels out of habit, but that there seems to be a bigger quality drop as far as basic literary standards in some genres when aimed at younger readers compared to novels.

    Anyway, it is clearly not Newbery-eligible, but to me the best book of the year in any genre, the book that every child and person should know, the book that confirms language’s power to provide comfort, joy, community, and meaning, is GIVING THANKS. (And Katherine Paterson’s six contributions to this poetry collection are as good as anything written this year, but obviously doesn’t change the eligibility.) It’s not fair to hold WHAT THE HEART KNOWS to this standard, because Paterson can select whatever she wants (though again, the choices and presentation are amazingly well done so her achievement should not be discounted). Nevertheless they are very much in the same genre and perhaps even more similar in that I believe Joyce Sidman tries to achieve similar poetic effects. I am sorry, but I just couldn’t consider WHAT THE HEART KNOWS when there is this example of what is possible for a book like this. (I am still behind IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE without feeling I have to compromise anything.)

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Leonard, your bookstore owner friend has very good taste as A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL is one of the all-time great books of poetry written for young readers, but if we used the same logic with novels we could say that CHARLOTTE’S WEB is to the children’s novel what EMMETT TILL is to children’s poetry (i.e. the cream of the crop), and since the five books that have been clustered at the top of our nominations–THE THING ABOUT LUCK, P.S. BE ELEVEN, TRUE BLUE SCOUTS, DOLL BONES, REAL BOY–are in no way, shape, or form in the same league as CHARLOTTE’S WEB we really shouldn’t expect to have a novel recognized this year either. You see the double standard?

    I don’t think we can–or should–lower our standards for nontraditional genres, but we need to acknowledge that excellence in these genres may look and feel slightly different (just as we have recently acknowledged that lowering the age of the audience isn’t necessarily lowering the standard of excellence). I really don’t see it as “affirmative action” as much as it’s holding the committee accountable for the breadth of their charge. The criteria explicitly state that there is no limitation as to the character of the book.

    It’s not that the quality drops off in nontraditional genres so much that the quantity drops off. The field of novels under consideration is far greater than all of the nontraditional genres combined, so that depth (coupled with a natural inclination toward fiction) often makes it easier to build consensus around fiction. That doesn’t necessarily explain why some committees choose novels that come out of left field (e.g. THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY), though.

    I’m completely sympathetic to how GIVING THANKS makes you less enthusiastic about WHAT THE HEART KNOWS. (Something similar happened to me with THE LOST CONSPIRACY and WHEN YOU REACH ME–and I think Frances Hardinge’s A FACE LIKE GLASS which I read earlier this year as an e-book is the best middle grade novel I’ve read this year.) I think this illustrates the difficulty of building consensus. You can have lots of people who like poetry on a committee, but they may not be able to agree on (a) which poetry is the most distinguished and (b) whether that level of distinction rises to or exceeds the level the other books under consideration.

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