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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

West of the Moon

There is a myth that spring books don’t win awards, and several theories about the myth…that it is a  self-fulfilling prophecy because publishers save their better books for the fall, or is because committee members have time to get disillusioned with early books and don’t with late ones.  I find the reverse of the latter however: that the strong spring titles have time to prove their worth, and I find that especially true with WEST OF THE MOON.  I’ve read this now three or four times…and am not sure I have much to add beyond my initial appreciations, so as we spend our last week before our in person discussions and voting, I’ll point out why this still remains firmly in my top three.

Like JOEY PIGZA, this book stands out for its deep emotional impact with extraordinary brevity.   While Gantos achieved it through a scintillating voice and strongly formed character perspective, Preus achieves it not wasting a single word, by putting us right into the story and relying on the resonance achieved by conflating story styles and memes.  The folktale / immigrant-historical-fiction mishmash provides both the interior/emotional coming-of-age and brutally real coming-of-age survival stories in one.  She refuses to explain what she trusts readers will find on their own–her writing her is fully respectful of her audience’s abilities, at least on par with REVOLUTION and FAMILY ROMANOV in this respect, if not more so.

This book is written in the present tense, which we had a great discussion on back here.  As I re-read through those comments now with my eye particularly to WEST OF THE MOON, I think that this exchange between Sarah and Jonathan about cognitive dissonance gets to what Preus has achieved by using this difficult form to excellent affect.   Sarah said,

Sure, there is absolutely cognitive dissonance. People don’t generally narrate their lives as they happen, and first-person present requires a strange negotiation of the gap between experience and articulation. Both can’t really happen simultaneously….Fiction means using forms that evoke our ways of experiencing the world; it’s not a concrete reflection of reality. I’d say, in fact, that metaphor relies on cognitive dissonance.”

The uneasiness of Astri’s perspective (is she is a fairy tale or not?) is to me what makes this story ultimately distinguished …it could have easily been bland and unremarkable without this dissonance.  Is Astri nice? Is she acting morally? What is the difference between moral and right, given a threat?  If the threat was only perceived and not real, could you still have been right? It is hard to see, precisely because we are inside Astri’s thoughts as they happen, and as she interprets what she sees and experiences through the various lenses that adults have provided her. Over the course of the story, her lens, and so perspective, becomes more and more her own: this is her coming of age.   This sense of self-questioning, world-questioning, and self-discovery is to me so much more powerful here than in, say, REVOLUTION, or pretty much anything I’ve read in a very long time.  I think that this year BROWN GIRL DREAMING is the title that comes closest to it, though in a completely different way.

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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 ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. I just read WEST OF THE MOON over the holidays and loved it. I’d been looking for a middle grade title that wold ignite my reading for the year—this was it!
    Your last paragraph here is such a perfect description of the book and Astri’s journey. Yes, her perspective is one of the things that makes this story remarkable. I’d give a nod to its structure too, how each section begins with an analogous fairy tale snippet.

  2. Nina, you have nailed what makes this book my top Newbery pick. I haven’t had a chance to reread it, but remember vividly the tight writing, the brilliant twining of real and folktale, gorgeous description, and the punch-in-the-gut emotional moments. I agree wholeheartedly with you that what makes this book so remarkable is Asti’s perspective. She is so fierce, so intent upon taking care of herself and her sister no matter what — even when it involves doing bad things. I have heard from some that they can’t warm up to this book because they dislike Asti. But I adore her, the very complicatedness of her makes her endearing to me, and I am sure there are plenty of young readers out there who will feel similarly. We don’t seem to come across unlikable main characters like Asti that often in books for this age level today. I remember noticing not too long ago how surprised some were when rereading Harriet the Spy to see how distinctly unpleasant Harriet was. But what makes that book and this one so amazing (among other things) is that they do give us very very, very complicated characters — ones who are not necessarily that nice. But perhaps still ultimately good? Preus really asks readers to grapple with this idea. We seem to accept these sort of difficult protagonists more often these days in YA or adult stories, don’t we? (Adults love way more than me the complicated characters of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and GoT to suggest a few.) Why can’t there be one equally complicated in a children’s book?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know why a young girl who steals in order to survive hunger, or who defends herself fiercely from molestation, should be considered unlikeable. When we say we want books about strong girls, do we mean we only want “spunky” girls, who like to spit and stamp their feet?

  4. I wholeheartedly support this! This is a standout for me this year, absolutely.

  5. This is my pick, too, for all the reasons you’ve noted. The genius of this book is in how difficult it had to be to write, but how elegantly smooth the story pours out. I’ve written a review on my website in case anyone would like to read it:

    http://tanyaandersonbooks.com/wp/over-the-moon-for-this-fairy-talefolktale

    Fingers crossed for this one!

  6. I should say I have read this more than once, just not recently.

  7. This was an early choice for me, as well. When I read it back in June, I couldn’t help but think how potent and powerful the book, both in its scope and its execution. Until I read Brown Girl Dreaming, West of the Moon was my front-runner. I still don’t know if I’m just caught up in the whole BGD Is Amazing Whirlpool (because it is, indeed amazing!), but part of my heart is really, really rooting for West of the Moon.

  8. I couldn’t finish West of the Moon. I was so traumatized by it I had to remove it from my Kindle. I decided there was nothing I could say publicly about the book and the trauma. I resolved to hope the book didn’t win the Newbery. But this post plus all the comments make me think it’s likely to win. And that makes me think maybe I should speak up. I’m speaking now for all the kids who will be traumatized by the scene where the goat man lays down on the older sister with the clear intent of raping her. She holds a knife at his throat and he backs off, saying it’s probably better to wait until they get married. I think kids who grow up without sexual trauma will be impressed by the girl’s courage. But those who are growing up like I did, in a family where sexual abuse was rampant, may feel they want to throw the book away, they want to take a shower, they may never want to touch the book again. If they are suppressing the abuse, they may not understand why the scene makes them so uncomfortable. And if the book wins the Newbery, those kids may wonder, like I will, what the children’s literature community is saying to them about their experience.

    Now that is entirely too much sharing!

  9. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Liz,
    Thank you for being generous with sharing this, so that those of us with luckier life circumstances can better understand.

    We’ve not delved deeply into this particular scene on this blog; there have been qualms voiced here and there about this scene being disturbing, as well as a latter one where Asti fights back in other ways.

    I cannot begin to imagine what you must wonder “the children’s literature community is saying to you” about your experience. But children’s literature is not without depictions of horrific trauma, and there is a place for it. This particular story lays Asti’s trauma’s pretty bare, though within a setting and in an arc that many of us find compelling and ultimately distinguished….but that evaluation and opinion of the book is not a comment on how individual readers’ experiences. I do hope, and imagine, that the Newbery committee is gathering as many opinions on this aspect of this book as possible, to fully understand how readers may come to it.

    I hope this post reads as I’m intending: I hear you; I don’t (can’t!) dismiss what you say. I’m trying to set it in a broader frame of consideration and am still chewing on it. Thanks again for sharing more than you may have wanted to.

    • I think, too, because West of the Moon follows the “fairy tale” formula, there’s a certain safety in the underpinning of darkness. And this is true for most fairy tales that we tell children: we begin with “once upon a time” to frame the story in safety. It’s our way of telling children that some terrible things might happen in the tale, but goodness and virtue will prevail, the main character will be ok – and, in the best moments, demonstrate perseverance, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.

      After all, a lot of the stories that the Grimm brothers collected came from that heart of fear. The undercurrent in these stories sheds light on (often) a child, not an adult, facing adversity head-on and becoming a stronger, better person for it. Even a seemingly simple story like ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is about famine, parental abandonment (because of famine), and facing deeply disturbing circumstances as a result of the abandonment. And when we tell the story to children, they somehow know that they’re safe in the telling – that this is fiction, it isn’t real, but there’s something to be learned.

      Like Nina, I certainly don’t want to underplay the trauma of children who have faced horrendous, unforgivable acts of violence in their lives. But I think ‘West of the Moon’ is handled deftly and beautifully, and if it doesn’t nab a medal or an honor, it certainly holds a truly admirable position in the children’s lit canon.

  10. Nina,

    Thank you so much for your response! You’ve given me some things to chew on.

    It was incorrect to say “what the children’s literature community is saying to them about their experience.” I should have said “what the Newbery committee is saying to them about their experience.” And what would I think the Newbery committee would be saying if it awarded West of the Moon the Newbery Medal?

    First, I’d think the committee was saying that the excellence of the book outweighed the problematic scenes. I thought the book was great up until the scene with Asti and the goat man. I thought it was one of the most compelling books I’d read in 2014. The scene took the book away from me, and I was disappointed about that. So for me the problematic scenes far outweighed the excellence of the book. How would I react if the committee thinks otherwise and gives it the Medal. I’d feel alienated.

    Second, I’d think the committee was saying that it’s okay to include sexual trauma in middle grade books. I know there is terrible trauma in children’s literature. But this is the first time I’ve encountered sexual trauma in a middle grade book. I read middle grade books partly because they are safe in terms of sexual trauma. I don’t read much YA because I expect sexual trauma may be part of a YA novel.

    In thinking about sexual trauma in middle grade books, I wonder about developmental psychology. It seems possible to me, as I said in my previous comment, that a middle grade kid who had not been sexually abused would not pick up on what happened to Asti. Such a kid would see her courage in threatening to use the knife against the goat man. If a non-sexually abused kid would not pick up on it, and it would make a sexually abused kid not want to touch the book or talk about book, why include it? Is it necessary to the setting or to the story arc?

    That’s as much chewing as I’ve done so far.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Liz, I’m not sure that you would be able to answer this question since you didn’t finish reading the book, but do you think it’s possible that a child reader who has recently experienced or is currently experiencing sexual trauma could read this book and either find a measure of healing or the courage to reach out for help? Or must their reading of it trigger the same emotions that you felt? I don’t have the answer either, FWIW . . .

  11. Thank you, Liz, for your writing about your personal response to that scene here and raising questions we really need to grapple with. I do think that children will read this where they are developmentally and with what they know or don’t know. Younger readers are not going to know enough to imagine more than some sort of violence that Asti has to protect herself against while older ones — those who are almost 15 — will do so with understanding.

    As to why include it, it seems to me that such a thing was probably all too real and, as Joe points out, the sort of dark thing at the heart of many fairy tales. In fact this conversation highlights even more for me the brilliance of using Asti’s relating of fairy tales in contrast to her own harsh reality. I’m doing a Cinderella unit right now with my 4th graders and we not only look at the familiar type, but two others, one of which —Donkeyskin — involving the girl having to run away from a royal father who wants to marry her. (The other for those who may not know is the King Lear one.) I think this scene is important as it does point out to those ready for it what marriage to the goatman would mean. And then how Asti is the one who takes control with the goatman ending up pitiful and ultimately dead. It also is important to explain Asti and her often not-nice-at-all behavior. She’s been through stuff, horrible, horrible stuff and she is going to do whatever it takes to get the two of them away and safe.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Monica,

      I would say, though, that the reader for WEST OF THE MOON is not the younger reader of fairy tales, but the older reader who is aware and interested in the dark, repressed heart of fairy tales. I am re-reading it now, and I think it is a very fine book, but I now think it is an “age question” book in a way I had not previously appreciated. Not only for the scene in question, but also, for example, the one shortly after (p. 35-36) when Astri is beaten by Svaalberd and then has the chamber pot dumped on her. I would put the ideal reader for this book at about the same age as the ideal reader for FAMILY ROMANOV, 13-14 (as Astri is herself.) Eligible but definitely sympathetic to qualms.

      As an outsider, could someone explain to me why there should be any overlap between Newbery and Printz-eligible books? Based on years of discussion here and elsewhere, it seems to me there are a lot of reasons to eliminate this overlap.

      • Leonard,

        I think there is overlap in the two awards. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster won honors in both camps. I’m working off memory, but I think House of the Scorpion also receiveed nods from both camps.

        Last year, Navigating Early won a Printz Honor (which was, personally, quite shocking to me because I found the book quite elementary/middle school). West of the Moon might have a shot in both camps.

        Joe

      • Leonard… I think I interpreted your question correctly? Re-reading, I’m not sure that I did. Please correct me if I didn’t.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Joe, I think I wasn’t clear. I know there is overlap between the two awards. My question was whether there were any good reasons this should be so.

      • Leonard,

        I completely agree that the book is best suited for the top end of the Newbery age range for the reasons you give. And I also think it overlaps as a Printz contender. In fact, I’ve put it on my Pyrite shortlist over at Someday my Printz Will Come. Also agree that it is similar in terms of the age-range as the Family Romanov.

  12. The reason for the overlap is primarily bureacratic. ALSC (sponsor of the Newbery) covers library services for those through the age of fourteen, and YALSA (Printz) for those twelve through eighteen, and these main prizes need to reflect those demographics. The organizational overlap reflects the reality of library service, where, depending on where you work, service to the 12-14s might be part of children’s work, adult work, or a YA specialist.

  13. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Even if one or both organizations revised their ages of service, it still wouldn’t be a guarantee against overlap as the Newbery committee can look at WEST OF THE MOON and decide that it’s for an 11-year-old reader and the Printz can look at it and decide that it’s for a 13-year-old reader.

  14. Liz, I’m glad you spoke up about this title. I stopped reading in the same spot for slightly different reasons. My own experiences with violence had an impact on my reading as a child and continue to shape my adult reading. And I find I’m of two minds about violence in kids books.

    The experience of being re-traumatized by a story should be understood and acknowledged by people working in children’s literature. All to often I hear people say, “the child will put the book down if it’s too scary.” It’s simply not true. How will a child know a story is too scary or too traumatic until after they’ve read the damaging part. A scary book should have a cover that indicates it’s contents. The Night Gardener does a great job of that. I think West of the Moon does an okay job of suggesting the contents are dark. And just as children ought be free to read any book of their choosing, they ought to be free to refuse a book of their parent’s or teacher’s choosing.

    But here’s why I think it’s important to have books that go to those darker places. It can be a powerfully validating experience to see in a book some bad experience that has happened to you. Many young women get their first understanding of how to name date rape from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. If a child is in a circumstance where their abuse is denied and covered up, she may find in a book a means for telling what has happened to her and so find a means to escape. So while the experience of the read is still traumatic, the end result is a safer life and an affirmation of her reality. When a book with a traumatic incident is used in a classroom the teacher should be prepared to deploy a community’s resources for those students in need.

  15. Roseanne, I’ve been thinking about your comments all day. And I’m still thinking about them. At this point, I think you’re right about books having a validating effect. I have two concerns, though.

    First, young adults, the readers of Speak and other books like it, are at a stage where they are very actively questioning authority. If they read something traumatizing, I think they are more likely than middle grade kids to push adults and friends to listen to their reaction to the book. It seems like middle grade kids, especially those at the young end of middle grade, still respect authority. They are less likely to push adults to take them seriously if they read something traumatizing. Besides that, their friends are less likely to be actively supportive than the friends of young adults.

    Second, an adult tuned in to the kids in his or her classroom (or library, or home), might spot the trauma caused to a middle grade kid and be able to get help for that kid. What a great thing that would be! But are teachers and librarians and parents likely to be that tuned in to the kids in their charge?

    These are not at all my final thoughts.

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