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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Thing About Debuts

It’s easy to keep track of authors from whom we expect excellence; harder to stay on top of debut authors.  A pitfall of debut writing can be when it serves as a “warm-up”: a good writer, with a good idea, works that idea into a novel that…works, though sometimes the idea can feel more present than the story.

CircusMirandus CIRCUS MIRANDUS by Cassie Beasley has been getting plenty of appreciation, but I can’t say I share in it.   The promisingly spooky magical premise never fully developed to me, and seemed more the central character of the book than any of the actual characters, who remained stock and flat.  I was particularly disappointed by Jenny, who seemed a token sidekick “of color,” adding no real diversity or interest to the story beyond being a foil for Micah.   I think Beasley is a technically good writer, with an amazing imagination for magical imagery, but this felt like pulling teeth to make a novel out of a concept, and I never believed it was real.   I’d say I was looking forward to her next book, except that it promises to be a sequel to this one.

ThingAboutJellyfishTHE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH by Ali Benjamin just came out last week (yes, we are going to start straying into fall titles…) and appears on the National Book Award longlist for young people’s literature. I admit I was surprised to find it there, as I’d just finished reading it.  I did find Benjamin’s writing beautifully evocative of that terrible time of being twelve, when everyone is changing in different ways at different speeds, and it’s easy to feel stranded.   But the story felt overburdened to me by its conceits, the presentation of research a little overboard, and the explanation for why Suzy felt she *had* to go see the scientist in person, rather than online, seemed manipulated for the plot.  I DO want to read Benjamin’s next book, I think this is fine writing, but just pushing too hard on the idea.

UnusualChickensUNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER is, of all of these, the most accomplished for what it sets out to do, in my book,  and makes a very satisfying read for a slightly younger set.  I appreciate the sense of mystery, the possible magic that is never fully proven or dis-proven, and the fully engaging main character Sophie and her triumphs, which the readers get to glory in, in a realistic way.   Sophie is bicultural, and that is notable as it is hard to find.  It’s handled nicely here, with her perspective wound through the narrative in ways that are simply true to her character, and rarely seem forced.  I can’t say I felt this book adds any authentic Latino cultural content the canon, but I don’t think that was the point. I believe that Jones is not Latina, but that she very carefully and deliberately made her story as diverse as she could responsibly do (as she suggests in this interview).  The resulting book is fun and funny, which are rarities when we talk about the Newbery.   So what are my reservations?  I guess the emphasis on “exceptional” poultry breeds as the concept driving the story struck me as a little trendy, potentially of more interest to grown-ups than kids, and one that may strike some chords of gentrification (city people with fancy chickens, of which I have been one)  or urbanization (city people taking over rural communities).   I don’t think most kid readers will notice this, and in that sense Jones has succeeded in “story over concept,” but when I consider a “contribution to American literature for children” it gives me a twinge.  Still, of all of these, Jones is the author whose next book I’m most looking forward to.



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. I DNF’d Circus Mirandus, so I guess I agree with you!

    But both I and my 10-year-old loved Unusual Chickens. And we’re not only NOT urban-coop-havers, but mockers of urban-coop-havers! The epistolary stuff was well-handled and funny and mysterious without being frustrating or static (that’s challenging in any narrative propelled by letters!). And I thought the diversity was thoughtful. The librarian making assumptions about Sophie being a migrant because of the color of her skin, then being mortified with well-meaning liberal white guilt, rang true. Sophie’s mama’s warning about having to be twice as good; Sophie’s thoughts about her abuelita. And on an intersectionality tip, I noted the matter-of-fact existence of an LGBT secondary character. Well-handled all around, I thought.

    • As some already know, I adore Unusual Chickens. And similarly, know nothing about chickens, fancy or plain. I’m currently reading it aloud and am learning side by side with my urban kids about all sorts of chickens ‘n stuff (‘n is meant to be annoyingly on purpose).

  2. I was also underwhelmed by CIRCUS MIRANDUS after hearing so much buzz about it. I think you put your finger on part of what I was disappointed in: the author was more in love with the concept than the characters.

    Not really a criticism of the literary qualities of the book, but something I wanted to vent about: the fact that the circus actively disqualifies the Jenny’s of the world from coming in. To make a choice that the kids who are daydreaming about test tubes instead of dragons are not worthy of wonder really bothered me. Yes, the kids who are looking for magic in the real world are going to be more appreciative, but if the goal is to cultivate wonder, then shouldn’t the circus also be letting in the borderline cases, the kids who wish there was magic but know that there isn’t? Maybe I just react so strongly because I know that I’d be turned away. I read fantasy every chance I get, I glory in imagined worlds, but I also know, deep down, that it isn’t real. When I was a kid we had a “haunted hall” in the neighborhood and truly scared ourselves with stories of the invisible witch who lived in it – but at the same time that I was being scared, I also knew it wasn’t true. Kids are more flexible in their perception of the world and the real/not real divide than I think the book gives them credit for.

    • Underwhelmed, yes. Sometimes, buzz is a disservice to the reader…I never emotionally connected with any of the characters, so I wasn’t invested in the story line.

      However, I love Shelely Pearsall’s, The Seventh Most Important Thing. My students do too!

  3. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m first on the hold list for THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH.

    I’ve read about 30 pages in UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER and put it down because it wasn’t holding my interest. I love the title, love the illustrations, love the idea of the book; the writing isn’t. I’m just not seeing distinguished anywhere. Maybe I need to read further?

    CIRCUS MIRANDUS isn’t my kind of book. All the things that I disliked about it–the tone, the earnestness of the writing, the whining, sniveling main character–were exacerbated by the audiobook narrator. I know there are fans out there, though, and I’d love to have somebody make a strong case for it here.

  4. Agreeing with Jonathan that there is much potential in Unusual Chickens but it seems a little under-developed. But, perhaps that’s my hyper fantasy thirsty mind demands: I want the chickens to do a lot more than what they did; I want the obstacles a bit harder to overcome; I want the emotional impact to be stronger — but perhaps that’s NOT this kind of book, which is much quieter than the title or the illustrations. Unsure.

    In the middle of Circus Mirandus and have not found it superbly exciting yet.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Jonathan & Roxanne, I shared your initial reaction to UNUSUAL CHICKENS as an adult reader, but by the end I felt convinced by it for its readership. I don’t know that it makes a top distinguished list for me either, but I think it’s got a nice balance of energy. Not all readers, especially younger ones, need huge emotional impact in this kind of book.

  5. I have JELLYFISH loaded to read on my vacation.

    Enjoyed CHICKENS, especially how original it felt. I think it really rocked in the setting.

    Very much disliked CIRCUS MIRANDUS – I’d seen all the characters before and the theme was so delivered with such a heavy hand I wanted to shove it away with a jumbo eye roll.

  6. Jonathan, I did think Original Chickens was a little slow to get moving, fwiw. But it’s a quiet and funny mystery that builds very well. I do think it has kid appeal. The typos on one side of the correspondence (I’m being cryptic) alone are HIGH-LARIOUS.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Did we all see the Kirkus Prize finalists?

    THE NEW SMALL PERSON by Lauren Child
    LILLIAN’S RIGHT TO VOTE by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane Evans
    ECHO by Pam Munoz Ryan
    FUNNY BONES by Duncan Tonatiuh
    THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough
    SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel Jose Older

  8. I adored CHICKENS! Maybe a bit slow at the start, but I loved the mystery and the wit of the letters and felt very satisfied at the end. I found it quite well-done but maybe not Newbery good. Love that it fits the diversity list without being heavy-handed!
    For all the hype about CIRCUS, I was very let down and dissatisfied after reading it. Definitely NOT on my Newbery radar!
    Still waiting for JELLYFISH.

  9. More love for UNUSUAL CHICKENS here — one of my favorite middle grade reads of the year. I wasn’t put off by any “trendiness” of raising chickens, possibly because Sophie lived in a pretty rural area so it just made sense to me. I thought it very humorous, sweet, and poignant, with the letters effectively unifying the themes of love and memory and what happens after a person dies. My only disappointment was that the villain was not all that villainous — I was hoping for something more Roald Dahl-ish, I guess — but I accept that’s just not the direction the author went with it. Not that it’s a Newbery qualification, but I also think this one has plenty of kid appeal.

  10. I also enjoyed UNUSUAL CHICKENS, though I don’t really see it as a contender when I consider other strong titles from this year. And I did enjoy CIRCUS MIRANDUS, though I can’t defend its merits to those of you who didn’t — again, it’s not up there at the top of my list.

  11. Leonard Kim says:

    UNUSUAL CHICKENS wasn’t bad, but I agree with Nina that it’s not quite a contender. I’d like to throw out as a comparable, Alison DeCamp’s MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% TRUE!), from even earlier this year. I suppose it is superficially nothing like UNUSUAL CHICKENS except for also being a “fun and funny” debut, using whimsical extra-narrative material (historical “scrapbooking” material in the case of MY NEAR DEATH ADVENTURES), and some new clothes for the very old “kid and parent(s) move to a new, lonelier place” tale. (Also something about the covers strikes me as being similar. Maybe it’s the yellow.) I don’t think it’s a contender either, but it seems to me comparably effective and well-written, and that in itself suggests neither is “most distinguished.”

    Here’s Betsy Bird’s review:

  12. I really liked CIRCUS MIRANDUS when I read it, but these entries are making me reconsider Jenny’s character. I’m curious if THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH is well received with younger readers?

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