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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Serious Work

There’s a concern, somewhat but not totally borne out by reality, that the Newbery only goes to “serious” works. While it does seem harder for lighthearted or funny books to win, there are no limits to the type of literature that is eligible, just that it be “original work.”  Here, however, are three titles from early in the year that have remained strong in my memory, and all fit the bill of “serious” work.

warTHE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. This has been a favorite on Goodread’s Mock Newbery for quite a while (perhaps as it came out in January?)  It’s been nine months now since I read it, so I’ll need to give it a re-read, but the clarity of the setting and emotional narrative, in strong unadorned prose, stands in my memory.  I appreciated the happy ending that felt deserved and realistic.

XANovelX: A NOVEL by Ilyasah Shabazz, with Kekla Magoon, was just nominated for the National Book Awards Longlist in Young People’s Lit.  This has, of course, several things working against it in a Newbery discussion, the first which someone while take issue with being age.   However, I believe this is easily for many readers ages 13 and up, which makes it eligible for Newbery (See definition #2. It doesn’t have to be for every 13 and 14 year old, just the right ones).   Secondly, a fictionalized biography seems rife for dispute, and I’ve seen many commenters online say they wish they just had a straight biography to read.  However, I think this daring approach is what makes the book strong, and opens his story to a new readership through what I assume is Kekla Magoon’s fine hand in shaping the writing.   My quibbles are where the story tends to a didactic tone, but I think that may be my taste.

BlackDoveBLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN by Elizabeth Wein.   For me, this title may stray over the age line for Newbery, as I think it’s best appreciated by an audience well above 14; however, it’s worth considering solely for comparison to others.  I’m an Elizabeth Wein fan, so I have a hard time not holding up her storytelling prowess and sentence-level technique against all others.  Here, the breathtaking flying scenes alone strike me as award-worthy and stay firmly in my memory.  The narrative conceit sets a wonderful tension for the length of the book that allows her to take time with each potion of the story.  She admits twisting history to suit her fiction, and I’d be curious to hear from experts whether the gist of her story feels true to the time.

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:

    THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE has been a big favorite among our mock Newbery readers here in San Diego! I, too, find this one a serious contender. I’m not sure that I’m driving the bandwagon for this one, but I can certainly be convinced to jump on it.

    X: A NOVEL is one of my favorite books of the year! I’m sure we could all agree on how excellent it is; what we can’t agree on is (a) whether it falls in the age range and (b) if it does, whether it achieves excellence to a greater degree than (or at least equal to) the younger books under consideration. Side note: the CSK goes up to age 18, so I’m calling this one here and now!

    I’m currently listening to BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN on audiobook during my daily commute–three CDs left–and I knew that Nina, being a big fan of CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE, would naturally gravitate toward this one. And, you know, I think this one has the best shot! The characters are younger, and in some ways the book is less intense than her previous ones. A dark horse, to be certain, but a very good one.

  2. Should we expect individual posts about these three books, or is this where discussion on these particular titles will take place? I want to save my best arguments for an in-depth discussion if there’s going to be one, but don’t want to miss my chance to have a conversation if this is going to be the only mention.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I don’t think either of us know the answer to that question. I think this may well be the end of the line for X: A NOVEL and BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN (unless they both get many raves on this thread), but I think THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE is a shortlist candidate, and as such it would get another post, at the very least.

  3. I was not entirely comfortable with the portrayal of disability in The War That Saved My Life, and that discomfort kept me from really being able to evaluate it on any other level. I keep hoping the folks at the Disability in Kidlit blog will review this, because I would like to know if it’s just me being overly sensitive to something I think I should be sensitive to….I don’t know. Does anyone else have thoughts on this aspect of the novel? I’m hoping to be able to reread it now that some time has gone on, but I don’t have happy thoughts whenever I think of it so it’s been hard to work up the enthusiasm.

    • Brandy, can you explain a little more what you didn’t like about it? You’ve piqued my interest. Thanks!

      • Hannah Mermelstein says:

        I was also a little uncomfortable with it, but ultimately decided that I liked it. But I’ve also really been wanting to read what folks with disabilities think of it. My main concern with the portrayal of disability was the idea that a person with a disability can’t be whole as she is. Then again, I don’t think that’s the overall message and the aspects of the book that suggest that are probably historically accurate and read as authentic to the character. It’s also a bit complicated because the character has a condition that is indeed “fixable” — or would have been at a young age. So I’m undecided, and like Brandy am waiting for Disability in Kidlit or others to review it.

      • Sorry for delay. My notifications for comments here are all going to spam. I’m trying to fix that….

        Part of my concern is the same as Hannah’s below, but I agree with her that is probably historically accurate. (I say probably because I’m becoming more and more aware of how much my historical assumptions are based on portrayal in fiction and I have done no actual academic study in the area of disability in the 1940s). I also felt Ada was portrayed rather too much as inspirational! and not as much like a real and true person. The other more major issue I had as the frequent use of the word “cripple”. We were able to fully see her mother was a TERRIBLE human being without that word being repeated on the page as often as it once as a slur. All of this together left me highly uncomfortable and was distracting.

  4. SAM LEOPOLD says:

    What about GEORGE?

  5. I appreciated all three of these, most of all X:A NOVEL. The driving, pulsing voice seems perfection for the young Malcolm. It feels such a quintessential YA novel in his quest to find out himself, the restless movement, reckless and careless choices, the yearning for something different. Wonderful evocation of the setting, just gorgeous. However, I am not sure I read that definition #2 to mean a small cohort of 13 and 14 year olds who read books that are generally intended for kids older than them. We’ve been through this before, but I do feel we have to see a difference. This particular book reads as absolutely YA, the themes, the activities, etc all for perfect for a kid in that part of life, that is NOT a child for whom the Newbery is.

    As for the other two, I appreciated the historical world building in both very much, but it is Wein who excels most of all in providing a driving emotion to her story. There were moments I had trouble going forward given the expressed emotional distress being evoked. And what a unique and different take on the war. A feat indeed. She does deep abiding friendship like no one else. Fabulous.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Monica, I guess I don’t see it as a small cohort, and I think the book is intended for them. I’m trying to make room for those that recoil when they think of certain 13 year olds reading this. Not every 13 year old reader has to. But the book does not require a fully mature perspective, in fact, it pitches to a pretty squarely adolescent one, and I think that adolescent is included in the Newbery.

      • Certainly I can see certain 13 and 14 year olds reading this and can understand your wish to “make room for those that recoil when they think of certain 13 year olds reading this.” Yes it is “squarely adolescent”, but to my mind older teens, not younger ones. I think this would have spoken to me especially when I was around 16, battling with adults all around me, behaving somewhat wildly, oppositional to whatever they said, engaging in some risky behavior, etc. So while I can see certainly younger kids reading this, it seems the themes are directed at older teens.

  6. I only just finished THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, and I do hope it gets its own post later — it jumped right up into my top 5, albeit without a second, more considered reading which might reveal flaws. Haven’t read either of the others yet, though I own a copy of the Wein, so maybe I will get to it soon. Regarding WAR, the disability question is an interesting one. I would also be interested to hear if anyone found it a bit emotionally manipulative? I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I suspect that I might see the strings being pulled if I gave it a closer read…

    • Hannah Mermelstein says:

      Small update regarding the disability question: I wrote to the Disability in Kids Lit folks yesterday suggesting they review it, and they’ve already responded saying they found someone with the same/similar disability who has agreed to read and review it. So let’s keep a lookout for that!

      • I saw that they sent a call out for someone with a similar disability and was hoping this was why. Thanks for contacting them Hannah!

  7. The only one of these I’ve read is BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN. I *loved* it, but hadn’t thought about it for the Newbery. Now that I’m thinking that way….

    Characterization, double check. Plot, check. Theme, check. But maybe I’m just an Elizabeth Wein fan… It’s been awhile since I read it, and I’m not sure about the age level.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Should the grass roots movement for BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN gain ground, I’ll gladly join.

    Judging by Newbery criterion 1a (style, setting, character, etc.), the meat of most of our discussions, it’s very strong indeed.

    Discussions about age often center on whether content is inappropriate for 14-and-under and disqualifies the title. In the case of BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN, there really isn’t anything inappropriate. The most extreme content, I think, may be the descriptions of the effects of gassing, and they aren’t too graphic or upsetting. Nevertheless, except for Nina, we often forget to use age as a *positive* argument, and we should. After all, there is a criterion 1b (“must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.”) And the terms and criteria’s final note states, “The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality AND quality presentation for children” [emphasis mine].

    As great as BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN is, I feel that, even when there’s nothing inappropriate, her books are arguably indifferent to “children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” She writes the books she wants to write. And they’re great. This is not a knock on her books. But for the Newbery this factor could be something to consider alongside its literary excellence.

  9. THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE is fine historical fiction and better than most. I adored the setting both London and then the children ending up at Dunkirk of all places. The plotting was a blast, especially the daring capture of the German spy. I loved the thematic element of showing the unjust persecution against the three central characters for inborn traits and/or disabilities: left-handedness, homosexuality, and club-footedness (is that a term?). My main quibble with the book is the extreme vileness of the world’s most horrible mother this side of Tony Soprano’s. She was almost too much to be believable. It also made if feel less “serious”.

    I loved BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN but I feel that Wein’s writing style would be out of reach for most of my students. She relies on a more developed knowledge of world history than most elementary students have so I didn’t consider it for Newbery.

    I’m afraid I set aside X after the first chapter when I realized it was a fictionalized biography. I dislike fictionalized biographies, I really do. I know, I know, I have no foundation to stand on, with its six starred reviews and NBA nomination. I will get over myself and give it another shot.

    • BarbOutsideBoston says:

      I am terrible at trying to determine if a book will win or deserves to win but I CAN say I loved this book. It has really stayed with me.
      Quite a few of my girls AND boys (4th & 5th gr.) read this over the summer because I pushed it at the spring book fair and through discussion we seem to appreciate how horrible the mother was. They have a vague knowledge that there are parents like that in real life (for example, the Baby Doe story is everywhere in the Boston area right now), so it seems real to them and also keeps the book from being too sweet.
      All in all it has become one of the most popular books in our school.

  10. I loved THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE. I found it gripping, harrowing, heroic, true-to-life, and beautiful..

    Ask any social worker whether there are parents as horrible as the horrible mother. They’ll tell you.

    I’d like to question that term “emotionally manipulative.” I’ve seen it used before and I don’t know what it means. I think of manipulation as the use of covert power–for example, if my nephew takes me out and wheedles me into buying him an ice cream when I don’t want to, I think of that as manipulation. One feels manipulated when one relinquishes power agains one’s will.

    To be emotionally manipulated means that you feel you’ve been betrayed into feeling something. But that seems like a crazy criticism for a book, because a book is supposed to move you. In the case of a book about the healing of an abused child, if the book doesn’t move you, there’s either something wrong with you, or something wrong with the book.

    If what the reader means to say is, “I felt that I was meant to be moved by this book, but the author didn’t move me,” I think that’s a valid criticism. But to say, “I didn’t want to be moved by this book, but I was,” is really more a statement about the reader’s state of mind. It’s a backhand testimony to the writer’s skill, and should be ineligible as criticism.

    • Laura, I love your comments here and think that make a really good point–perhaps using the phrase “emotionally manipulated” isn’t so great in terms of semantics. But it’s a phrase I’ve used in the past when an author has (to borrow a phrase from a friend) played “cheap tricks” on the reader. You see it some times when a character is wholly likable and therefore wholly sympathetic, and yet an author piles it on… killing the character’s dog, running over the character’s best friend, etc. etc. The kind of authorial choice that makes the reader throw his/her hands up and wonder, “What next?!”

      Personally, I didn’t necessarily find THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE to be a case where the author was playing andy cheap tricks on the reader. But I must say, I really didn’t like the way it ended… far too neat for my ambiguity-loving self.

  11. Ah, Sam, that’s much clearer. Cheap tricks; stacking the decks, piling on the agony. Now I know what we’re talking about!

    –But I loved the ending. I burst into happy tears.

  12. Do kids still read GOODNIGHT, MR. TOM? That’s my go-to for war-evacuee tearjerkers.

    • BarbOutsideBoston says:

      I don’t think so. I had never heard of it and there are only a few copies in the Minuteman library System (MetroWest-ish in Mass.)

      • delurking to say that in the UK it is often required reading in elementary school. They do a module on the war that is heavy on the evacuee experience.

  13. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I finished BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN on audio and must say that I enjoyed it very much. I loved the Ethiopian setting and while I do think the time and place will be unfamiliar to most American children that is not necessarily a bad thing. Since Wein’s previous series was also set in Ethiopia it was nice to see her revisit the same geography in a different context. Definitely a middle school book, more a likely candidate than X: A NOVEL (which I love).

    I’ll also put in a good plug for THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE on audiobook.

  14. I’m always behind on these discussions… *sigh* but… Just posted my not entirely positive reaction to X: A Novel on my own blog and am still puzzling and needing others to help me through — either convince me that the way I was looking at the book was just wrong, of letting me know that it is all right for me to feel lukewarm (or even a bit worried) about this particular telling. I am linking to the post here but can easily copy/paste my reactions here — Nina and Jonathan, let me know what you want me to do.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      We want you to recant your criticisms. 😉

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Roxanne. I am with you and don’t have much to add. I was really struck by the author’s comment at the end about essentially wanting this book to be a corrective biography. That intent surely contributes to the didacticism some readers are seeing (as do I) as well as making the book less effective as literature in the ways you mention.

      Among CSK contenders out there, I really want to put forward TURNING 15 ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM, which I feel is distinguished, moreso than X, MARCH:BOOK TWO, STELLA BY STARLIGHT, and even GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Roxanne, thanks for sharing. I don’t necessarily disagree on your perspective of the character, I guess I expected it, as a fictional biography. He didn’t seem fully real to me, I always understood we were trying to imagine a real person through a fictional lens, and that necessarily made it….fuzzy. It does make for a different reading experience, and I think one that may be hard to build consensus around.

  15. The War That Saved My Life worked so well for me on an emotional level that I was willing to forgive some of the aspects that I don’t think were as successful. However, two of these make me wonder how the Real Committee might be expected to respond.

    One is the fact that this book is set in England during WWII yet it had absolutely no British flavor to the writing–not in word choice, sentence structure, cadence, or characters’ voices. (Ada did call her mother “mam,” but I believe that’s more common in Ireland and northern England; in London it would much more likely have been “mum.”) On the one hand, I thought that perhaps the author didn’t feel she was capable of writing this authentically and so chose not to attempt it. On the other, this omission had the effect of making the setting feel less authentic to me.

    The other is that the titles of the books Susan reads to Ada are given incorrectly, not once but several times. Unless this is done to indicate that Ada remembers the titles incorrectly (though I saw nothing to indicate that) these are errors, and ones that somehow got past the author, editor, copyeditor, and proofreader. The titles are not an integral part of the story, certainly, and this isn’t nonfiction, but is this something that the committee has to–or does–take seriously enough that it could harm the book’s chances?

  16. Eric Carpenter says:

    my main problem with War That Saved My Life was the extraordinary way Ada learns to read and write so quickly. The way her childhood is described she should have incredibly low language abilities and her vocabulary is like less than 5000 words (she doesn’t know what a tree is). These are major obstacles to learning to read and write yet, Ada seems to pick it up well enough to send short letters to her friend in less than 6 months. This seems absurdly quick.
    Also as a narrator Ada seems to randomly point out words or concepts she’s unfamiliar with, but this is very inconsistent and often done only when it serves the plot.

  17. Yes, yes, what Eric said! And that she teaches herself how to walk in what seemed to be a couple of weeks, this after an entire life of not being able to, despite other attempts she must have made. And that she is somehow able to get herself onto a horse successfully the first time–that’s a difficult thing for anyone to do, much less someone a club foot. And, and, there are so many issues like this in the book. I see them, and they’re certainly enough for me to feel it shouldn’t get the gold, but because Ada’s emotional journey is so beautifully handled, as is the healing process of an emotionally abused person, I could see it getting an honor. With Okay for Now, the question was whether the committee would vote with its head or its heart. I wonder if this will be a similar discussion.

  18. As to the British flavor, I didn’t notice the lack in the writing because of the excellent narration by Jayne Entwistle in the audiobook version (she has a very nice British accent). I highly recommend listening to the audiobook! I also didn’t notice the errors in the book titles, can you point them out more specifically?

  19. Aha, a great British audiobook narrator would certainly make a difference! Don’t think I’d have noticed the lack of British flavor in the language in that case. The reading experience is so different when read on the page, and when heard. I find I retain a lot less and notice far fewer details when I’m hearing rather than seeing, but that might just be me. Does the Real Committee have to read print versions in addition to or in place of audio, to cover all bases?

    The title errors I noticed: the first Alice book is referred to several times as Alice in Wonderland (real title is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), the second book is referred to as Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass (real title is Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There); The Secret Garden is called A Secret Garden, The Swiss Family Robinson is missing the article “The.” There are so many that I wonder if it’s a choice, meant to impart Ada’s limited experience with said books, yet the titles aren’t changed enough or in clear enough ways for me to feel certain that the errors are intentional.

  20. Hmmm…Carroll’s book is often called Alice in Wonderland. I need to go look at how the other titles were used, but I can’t see an issue with leaving “The” off Swiss Family Robinson. Simply a shorthand. The other two seem a bit more careless, but wouldn’t be deal breakers for me if I were on the Committee. (Need to look at this book again.)

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