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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

P.S. Be Eleven

There’s no doubt that P.S. BE ELEVEN is one of the best books of the year, and most of the criticisms that I’ve seen about this book (including one of my own) fall on the peccadillo side of the fence rather than the fatal flaw side of the fence.  Let’s consider a few of them before we move on to other things.

1.  The Sequel Peccadillo: Yeah, yeah, it’s a sequel and you might want to read the first book, but it’s not absolutely necessary or even kind of necessary, so get over it.  If the real Newbery committee has as many fans of this book as our Virtual Mock Supercommittee does, this argument isn’t going to convince anybody to withdraw their support.

2.  The Setting Peccadillo: I mentioned earlier that the Jackson 5 concert was moved up a couple of years early so that it would coincide with when the Gaither sisters get off the plane after their 1968 summer in the previous book.  But I don’t know that the year is ever specifically mentioned in this book, and Williams-Garcia does acknowledge this ever so vaguely in the afterword.  Again, not the kind of thing that’s going to convince anyone to change their mind about the book.

3.  The Plot Peccadillo: The book just kind of stops abruptly and randomly after Valentines Day.  It’s loosely episodic and it appeared that we were moving through the school year, the whole school year, when everything wrapped up and ended relatively suddenly.  But THE THING ABOUT LUCK kind of does that same thing, too.  Both books are character-driven rather than plot-driven, and since the characters are the main attractions in both, this plot peccadillo would be a bigger problem in a plot-driven kind of book.

4.  The Fairness Peccadillo: It’s not fair that the girls didn’t get to go to the concert!  This peccadillo (and the previous one) aren’t really true peccadillos as they have more to do with our expectations than they do with weak writing by the author.  I agree that this injustice ends the novel on a bitter note, but I think it just goes to show that the father, for all that he loves his girls, is just as much of a flawed parent as the mother was in the previous book.  It’s a refreshingly brave take on parenthood in children’s literature.  Kudos for that, Rita.

I have no problem dismissing all of the complaints I’ve heard about this book, but here’s where things get difficult for me.  As I sort of hinted at earlier, I believe that one of the strengths of this book is the characters, but no characters this year surpass THE THING ABOUT LUCK, and the characters in our other shortlisted novels are also quite good.  Another strength of this novel is the setting, but again as good as it is, all of our novels have strong settings, and I don’t know that this one separates itself from the pack.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I understand why this novel is distinguished, but I’m having a harder time understanding how this one is most distinguished.  It’s firmly ensconced in our top six as of our last set of nominations, so it has the kind of broad support necessary to go far, but I’m not sure that it’s anything more than . . . wait for it, Nina . . . an Honor book.  If you feel otherwise, and surely some of you do, please make your pitch in the comments below for P.S. BE ELEVEN as the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.


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. Sara Ralph says:

    For me, part of the strength of these characters is that we have met them in another book. Obviously, the consideration of past books is not part of the Newbery criteria, but I wonder if someone who hasn’t read One Crazy Summer would view the characters as distinguished. I didn’t find the setting any more distinguished than the settings in some of my other favorite books from this year. On the negative side of the sequel dilemma, I had issues with the plot, but that is because One Crazy Summer had a tightly constructed plot and this one seemed to be the opposite. Again, I realize that previous books in a series cannot be considered, yet if I had never read One Crazy Summer, I might not have been bothered by this fact. If I were ever part of a Newbery committee, I would have a hard time not making such comparisons.

  2. The “fairness peccadillo” also relies on a particular belief about parenting and how money should flow from parents to children–that parents should make children work for their money for the experience of working, but that the money is always there if the children really need it. Sometimes, if there’s no money, there’s no money, no matter how hard you worked. It’s not the girls’ fault that their money was stolen–but replacement money doesn’t just appear by magic when bad things happen. Bitter, but true, and fair in its own way.

    (I’m not rooting for this as #1 Most Distinguished, but I do think there’s a difference between “I would’ve made a different choice as a parent” and “at what point is something anachronistic in a detrimental way?”)

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    Did any of the 12 people nominating this book not read One Crazy Summer? I agree with Sara Ralph in wondering if someone hasn’t read the previous book, whether this book as a stand-alone would seem distinguished. In addition, I also agree with her that, as a sequel, perhaps it isn’t that distinguished either — the character’s voices are strong, but that was established in the previous book, and I wasn’t particularly struck by character development either within this book or as a continuation of the previous book (as I mentioned previously, I thought CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP was good in that latter regard.)

  4. The Setting Peccadillo is a fatal flaw to me. The Jackson Five were unknown at the time of the 1968 presidential election. Both were important events in the lives of African American kids. If you put them together it’s historically dishonest. It’s not like getting Joe Peppitone’s baseball schedule wrong. It’s more than getting a concert date wrong. The Jackson Five were a phenomena that had never happened before. There had never been a pop group of African American kids, on tv, hugely popular. A very popular new thing that had powerful meaning, especially in the lives of their young African Amercain fans. You can’t just move that back in time. It’s like writing about Beatlemania during the Kennedy Administration. The author’s note as I remember was indeed “ever so vague” as Johnathan says, and it needed to say more. Or alternatively, the author could have not messed around so freely with history.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Ronnie, I agree that of all these “Peccadillos,” this one may turn out to be a bigger deal. The thing is, in fiction, you *can* “just” move things back in time, and the question then becomes–for what value, and at what expense? I’m wrestling with this one…but I got talked into accepting a hill in flat West Oakland. This is different, but on the same scale to me.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I dither on the importance of this one, too. On the one hand, it is *historical* fiction and one of the conventions of that genre is to be historically accurate, so I think it’s probably more important in this kind of book than it is in another. The afterword helps, but would help even more if she had specifically acknowledged it, especially since she discussed the bell bottoms on the cover art. If you need Delphine’s point of view, why not pick up the book a couple years later? If you just like that age, why not use the point of view of one of the younger sister’s in a couple years? I’ll be very curious to see what wins the Scott O’Dell this year. This book has five stars, ONE CAME HOME and NAVIGATING EARLY have four apiece, or will something off the radar win? Hmmm.

  5. Nancy Baumann says:

    P.S. B Eleven is a so strong in its characters. This is one of our mock choices at Daniel Boone Regional Library. My group (grades 4-7) and 9 boys and 2 girls had trouble with it being a sequel, knew about MJ but only recent things about him, and were really mad about not going to the concert. They really liked the characters, our discussion centered around “life is not fair” which they got to by themselves. They really got it about not having someone rush in and make things all better. Which they compared to Summer in The Thing About Luck and also the kids in Doll Bones. they talked about real life is not happily ever after.
    but on another note, they absolutely loved What the Heart Knows. they read important lines, compared poems to their lives and even did a spell for lost objects and found a lost iPod! Very favorable.

  6. Yeah, I think the Fairness Peccadillo was a feature rather than a bug. It’s those kinds of weird decisions that make Williams-Garcia’s characters distinguished. Real parents make weird decisions that may seem stupid and unfair in retrospect, and this particular decision was in character for this particular parent.

  7. Sam Bloom says:

    But all the Peccadillos (love that term and it thrills me to actually use it in a sentence, btw) to me are trumped by the fact that the writing is so fabulous. I just finished a second reading in preparation for our Mock Newbery and loved the episodic nature of the story not only plotting-wise, but also (in a way) thematically. (I’ll try to expand more on this when I have the book in front of me.) And I am not sure I understand the problems with this one in terms of setting – can someone explain what they found not satisfactory? Because I personally think this is one of the top handful of titles this year in terms of setting. I’ve never been to the area of Brooklyn where they live, but I could picture it vividly. And the pop culture references really made the time period immersive. Here’s another thing – the characters aren’t distinguished if you haven’t read OCS?! Maybe so for the sisters (although I would argue that point) but what about Big Ma? Miss Hendrix? Pa? Uncle Darnell? Wonderfully, realistically developed characters here in THIS book, as they were largely off-stage in OCS. Anyway, I’m not great at making arguments via print (I wish I could be there at one of your California events!) but I can’t wait to discuss this one – and support it – in Cincinnati next month.

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