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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Keeping it Real

Moonpenny Island

I’ve been looking for contemporary middle grade stories to compliment our shortlist-in-progress (soon to be announced), and having a hard time find ones that easily rise to the top for me.  What am I missing? Here are some that I’ve liked.

MOONPENNY ISLAND. I’m a sucker for Tricia Springstubb, whose writing is detailed, emotionally precise and seamless. I was drawn into the perspective of an small island town, and felt the character narrative, of how some people are suited to this culture and some are not, compelling.  With very little plot to go on though, and lots of pages, the book did lose me here and there for all it’s vividness, and the protagonist Flor or her sister were occasionally a little too insightful.   Cody and the Fountain of HappinessFinishing this one made me turn back to Springstubb’s CODY AND THE FOUNTAIN OF HAPPINESS, also out this year.  It is certainly short enough, with the same high quality prose, but similarly lacks in plot.

Tiger BoyTIGER BOY, by Mitali Perkins, is perfectly plot-oriented for the younger reader, and opens a world many will be unfamiliar with.  Neel lives in an island community too, but in the Sunderbans, and when a tiger cub escapes from a nature reserve his determination to rescue it from hunters puts his family at risk.  The politics of a how a community keeps itself is articulated conveyed, and Perkins writing is trim and to the point, but feels less dynamic than other contenders.

Bayou Magic BAYOU MAGIC by Jewell Parker Rhodes shares a similar sentiment to Perkins’ work, as the story of a girl fully engaged with and protective of her home.  Rhodes evokes Maddy’s relationship with her Grandmere beautifully through gesture and dialogue, and the magical realism or fantasy, as Maddy grows into her powers, is compelling and appealing.  The ending doesn’t quite come together for me, and ends up feeling contrived, oddly out of tune with the rest.

Finding SomeplaceFINDING SOMEPLACE by Denise Lewis Patrick stands out to me from other Katrina stories by focussing on the havoc wreaked in a family and community in the hurricane’s aftermath. Patrick is an exceptional writer, partly so in that her writing style doesn’t stand out.  She evokes character, setting, and weaves in plot with a perfect tension and clarity that simply puts the reader right there.   Perhaps because her story of displacement is so real, the story here feels unresolved.

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:

    I haven’t read any of these. 🙁 But the one that I am the most tempted by is FINDING SOMEPLACE as I find the cover appealing and I always mean to read the author’s previous book, A MATTER OF SOULS, which sounded intriguing.

  2. Eric Carpenter says:

    What about ORBITING JUPITER for a contemporary middle grade story? I think Schmidt’s novel along with GOODBYE STRANGER and PENDERWICKS are the top eligible contemporary fiction titles this year.

  3. Nina Lindsay says:

    ORBITING JUPITER didn’t work so well for me…didnt quite buy it.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    I don’t think this book has any chance, but I’d like to put in a plug for Claudia Mills’ THE TROUBLE WITH ANTS. I think it is one of the better depictions, along with Calpurnia Tate, of a kind of character that seems to be popping up more and more in children’s books: the STEM kid. Unfortunately, I think many such portrayals are stereotypical, and why should the STEM kid be portrayed so one-dimensionally compared to other “types?” I thought this aspect of Jackson’s character in CRENSHAW was the weakest part of what was otherwise a very good book. It was this aspect of THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH that made that book not work for me. And it is even worse when the character is the sidekick or a foil (like in CIRCUS MIRANDUS, though maybe Jenny is not strictly speaking a STEM kid). I lose patience now when I encounter yet another character who is rigidly and simplistically devoted to “facts” (and is constantly telling them to us). This seems to be a time we are advocating for effective diversity in children’s books, and my flag is flying for better, less lazy, representation of the STEM kid.

  5. Melanie Roy says:

    I really enjoyed THE HONEST TRUTH by Dan Gemeinhart was very good.

  6. Two of my very favorite middle grade novels of 2015 are Finding the Worm by Mark Goldblatt and The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I just finished FINDING THE WORM and liked it very much. I had liked its predecessor, Twerp, which I thought didn’t get enough attention. The odd thing is that the two books feel very different. Compared to Twerp, I thought FINDING THE WORM was almost de-fanged. I thought FINDING THE WORM felt a lot more like Gary Schmidt’s Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now than it did to Twerp (and I also think more similar than Orbiting Jupiter was to those two books.) FINDING THE WORM has the voice, it has the authentic heart, and it feels its heartbreak deeply. But it also felt slightly unreal the way Schmidt’s books do, more conventionally fictionalized than Twerp, which is not necessarily a knock against it. But, for example, Lonnie, in Twerp, was a character you couldn’t ever feel sure about–he made you squirm–but here he seemed completely harmless.

  7. I get asked to blurb a lot of middle grade novels, especially for debut authors, and while I’d love to say glowing things about all of them, one that really stood out for me this year is Jen White’s SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE. It’s smart, it’s earnest, at turns funny, at turns heartbreaking. Wonderful storytelling.

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