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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

2013 Best Book Outliers

You’ll recall my Best Books Overlap post which demonstrates the way that Booklist, the Bulletin, Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly have already come to a kind of consensus.  But each journal champions books that the others do not, and they are not necessarily any less distinguished because of it.  Earlier this season, I also talked about how we can really only scratch the surface in terms of the many excellent books published this year, and then we do something really unfair in late November.  We pick eight of them for our shortlist, lavishing even more attention on them, while other books get hardly a passing mention here.  Here’s an effort to rectify that.


“With grace and charm, as well as recipes for Cady’s various cakes, Graff develops a clever series of plot twists and eccentric, fully formed individuals, each of whom has his or her own secrets, worries, and points of intersection with the knotty problems arising for the other characters. Complex without ever being confusing, witty, and sprinkled with gently scary bits, Cady’s story is as satisfying as her cakes. Combining the literary sensibility of E. B. White with the insouciance of Louis Sachar, Graff has written a tangle that should satisfy readers for years to come.”

A TANGLE OF KNOTS by Lisa Graff has been in my pile to read all year long.  Despite a pair of starred reviews, and making the NBA longlist, and a cover that looks suspiciously like SAVVY’s, I was never able to make it to this one, but Booklist makes a very strong case for it.


“As in the previous books, Dowell moves the third-person narration back and forth, getting under their skins with honesty and empathy through vivid, often humorous prose. She refuses to oversimplify, allowing readers access to the girls’ homes as well as school, making it clear that their inner lives are as complicated as their readers’. . . Dowell and readers leave Kate and Marylin poised between childhood and adulthood–they are not finished, but they are on their way. Another quietly perceptive tour de force.”

This review of THE SOUND OF YOUR VOICE, ONLY REALLY FAR AWAY actually comes from the Kirkus starred review (because I don’t get the Bulletin and can never find their reviews online anywhere).  Last year, a different Dowell book, THE SECOND LIFE OF ABIGAIL WALKER, was the PW outlier.  Apparently, she just keeps writing good books that slip under the radar.


“Like Little House in the Big Woods but with a considerably larger cast (miners, Eskimos, old-timers, good-time girls), the small events (a birthday party, a visiting plane) and crises (a grizzly, pneumonia) keep the story involving even while it lacks much of a through-line beyond the seasons. The frequent use of simple pen-and-ink drawings further the Wilder resemblance, but Pham’s are more sophisticated, befitting the era and situations.”

I’ve been wondering what will win the O’Dell Award this year (as I write this it has yet to be announced, but it probably will be by the time this goes live).  My pick is obviously GHOST HAWK (sorry, Debbie), but given Roger Sutton’s glowing review of BO AT BALLARD CREEK, and the relative dearth of obvious contenders, I’m going to predict this one.  Horn Book is the lone star and list for this book.


“Sarah’s 12-year-old voice is believable and her anxieties realistic. Intellectually precocious and responsible beyond her years, she is also a needy child who finds helpful support when she reaches out to a grieving elderly neighbor. Although her situation is difficult, Sarah is resilient and hopeful. Readers intrigued by the premise of this moving story will sympathize with the plucky protagonist and rejoice in the way her summer works out.”

Like A TANGLE OF KNOTS, SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY by Karen Harrington has been in the pile all year long, and I only just saw an advertisement for it recently that touted four starred reviews (I’d had it down for three).  Mea culpa!  I will say that the opening sentences–“You’ve never met anyone like me.  Unless, of course, you’ve met someone who survived her mother trying to drown her and now lives with an alcoholic father.”–make me roll my eyes.


“Weaving historical personages such as Dr. Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead with fictional characters, Hopkinson illuminates a pivotal chapter in the history of public health. Dr. Snow believed that cholera was spread by contaminated water, not by bad air or “miasma,” which was the popular theory at the time. With the help of Eel and his friends, he convinces an emergency committee that the water from the Broad Street pump is responsible and has the handle removed, thereby curtailing the outbreak. Although detailing a dire period in history, Eel tells his story in a matter-of-fact and accessible manner, making his story palatable and entertaining.”

I’ve browsed this book with every intention of reading it because I like Hopkinson’s picture book texts and her nonfiction books, and it did get two starred reviews.  I find it such an interesting premise, and it’s set in a time and place that I’m partial to.  Would anyone like to make a case for this one?


“Long writes with modest restraint, never drifting into sentimentality or overpowering the story with historical details, while remaining squarely centered in the story’s time and place. The novel sings with graceful recurring motifs, true emotions, and devastating observations about the beauty that can be found in the darkest hours.”

Like SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, WHISTLE IN THE DARK is a debut novel.  Being a debut novel puts a book at a disadvantage in terms of buzz, but since the Newbery Medal isn’t based on buzz, it leaves room for surprises like this.  The O’Dell Award might be another possibility for this one.  Like BO AT BALLARD CREEK, this has a single star and list–from PW.

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. Eric Carpenter says:

    I liked Tangle of Knots (not newbery liked, but enjoyed it). It’s very plot-y and whimsical in a Raskin kind of way.

    Regarding BO AT BALLARD CREEK, as I recall, couple years ago Roger was the only one hyping BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE and we know how that turned out. I’m reading this one as soon as I get my hands on it.

  2. Popping back in for a moment. As I said a year ago… I’ve “retired” from Newbery fandom, and I’ve had a great reading year of reading only the things I felt like reading (lots and lots of adult books and non-fiction, and any children’s / YA that sounded good). I’ve skimmed the blog for most of the season… partly, waiting for someone to talk about Bo at Ballard Creek. I may not have read nearly as much as I did in past years–20 or 30 eligible books instead of 60 or 70–but this seems, to be honest, like a really weak year for “books for ages up to and including 14″. And the *only* book I’ve read that I’m interested in for the Newbery is Bo at Ballard Creek. It isn’t a masterpiece but it is very well-crafted, and nothing else I’ve read seems worthy–though I wouldn’t object to PS Be Eleven as a runner-up. (I thought Ghost Hawk was decidedly mediocre, Jonathan, beyond any cultural problems. “Sentence-level writing” excellent because Susan Cooper is an excellent writer, but no points for plotting or character.)

    I’m likely to read three or four more eligible books, some of them front-runners–The Thing About Luck just came off a long library waitlist for me–so I may find another favorite, but I’m curious to hear whether others are finding this a weak year.

    A Tangle of Knots and Bo are both very quick reads, Jonathan–maybe you will find time for them before the end of the month…

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I’m enjoying a reread of MORTAL FIRE by Elizabeth Knox right now, and then I might be able to squeeze another book or two in before the YMAs. We’ll see. TANGLE is still packed away in a box somewhere, and I’ll check for BO when I drop off my books at the library later today.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Hi Wendy! Thanks for piping in about BO AT BALLARD CREEK. It is also one that stood out to me, and was on my list to mention in these final weeks if Jonathan didn’t get to it first. I appreciated the tone and pacing, and the characters, and nicely crafted prose. I had minor quibbles hardly worth mentioning, and somehow it just didn’t stand out to me in the way that PS BE ELEVEN, THING ABOUT LUCK, or CLEMENTINE do, in a similar vein. But I can see this as one easy to overlook in the popular buzz, which might get great appreciation on a committee.

  3. Happy to see attention given to Fran Dowell’s book. I find her critically underappreciated, but well appreciated by the students in my school.

    I dearly wanted to like BO, but found it info-dumpy and lean on character development. I never finished it. Maybe I should give it another shot.

    I also never finished SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, for no other reason than it didn’t pull be away from other books.

    The only book on the above list that I’ve finished is TANGLE. Not a book that stood out for me. I’m going to read the Hopkinson book, as she is awesome.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read it but HIDING OUT AT THE PANCAKE PALACE by Nan Marino was a favorite of mine last year. I didn’t really ready with Newbery in mind, but I can announce that it is one of the most popular titles in my student Mock Newbery.

  4. Genevieve says:

    TANGLE to me wasn’t Newbery quality. I enjoyed it but definitely saw the seams while reading it.

  5. Jonathan ~ What makes you roll your eyes at the opening lines of CRAZY? It just arrived new in our library and I brought it home yesterday, expecting to make it through a page or two when I finally crawled into bed with it last night. Instead, the opening lines had the same effect as the unexpected fire alarm in school Monday morning. Suddenly, I was wide wake and had to reread a few times to be sure I’d read it right. Why? That is exactly the story of some students in our school. (Actually, three of the four are now in the high school; all are now in wonderful adoptive or foster families.)

    We cope with our students’ unthinkable experiences by telling ourselves, “You couldn’t make this stuff up.” But then again, maybe someone can. Or maybe these unthinkable experiences are more common than we’d ever want to believe. In any case, as shocking as they are – in children’s fiction or their real lives – I fear we are so inundated with horror that it is becoming blasé.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Lynn, it’s not that second sentence, it’s the first one: You’ve never met anyone like me. Really? Let’s see. Last year I met Mo LaBeau and she was a lot like you, and then a couple of years ago Calpurnia Tate, and before that India Opal Buloni, and, and, and. So, it’s definitely a personal bias that I wouldn’t get to indulge in if I was on the real committee. I make it a rule to read all four star books, so I would have definitely read this one earlier, if I had realized it picked up its fourth. I’m happy to see you argue for it here, and hope that others will do so, too.

      • Who gave it its fourth star? I only have SLJ, Kirkus, and Booflist.

      • I wouldn’t say I’m arguing for CRAZY – I’ve really only just begun to read it – but I do think it deserves to be read before being dismissed.
        The other Newbery candidate on my night stand right now is SCOUTS, which I’ve tried to read three times during the past two months. I loved THE UNDERNEATH, but I just can’t get interested in that swamp!

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    According to the Little Brown ad in the December SLJ, SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY also got a starred review from PW, but Titlewave doesn’t corroborate that. Can anyone clarify?

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    The Little Brown ad lists several LMC stars for other books, so they must have just gotten mixed up. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, at least. LMC is a school library publication. Some publishers like to pretend a 5Q VOYA review is a star, too. Not in my book.

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I just noticed that Monica linked to the ALSC Notables Discussion list on her blog. I had failed to see it, but here is the link–

    I remember listening in to the discussion of PRINCESS ACADEMY the year that I was on the Newbery committee, and their discussion of the book was so very different from ours.

  9. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    ONE CAME HOME and FAR FAR AWAY are Edgar nominees.

    • Great news!

    • I agree, this is good news… though I have a hard time wrapping my head around how OCH gets picked as one of the best mystery reads for kids with (imho) such a disappointing ending. But the first 200-some pages were fabulous. FAR FAR AWAY is still in my top 3. Loved it.

      Out of the books you listed in your post, Jonathan, I only read BO, and I really did like it. I actually thought character development was one of its strengths (only mentioning that because someone above said they thought it was weak in that area), and the episodic plot was – to me – perfect. But I wonder about the audience for that one: Bo is young (6 or 7? younger?) but the story and language were sophisticated enough that it would be more appropriate for a tween reader, yet this doesn’t seem like a Ramona book where an older kid would be willing to read a younger-child protagonist. So it may lose points in my esteem in the Appropriateness of Style criterion. Just a few points, though, because I liked it so much overall.

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