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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day

downloadThis blog may be as divided as our nation is when it comes to this book, but I gave MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY a read and it just doesn’t rise to the top for me.   Don’t get me wrong, I like this book very much, but it doesn’t scream Newbery to me.  It is the writing itself, perhaps, that doesn’t knock me off my feet.

Unlike Facebook posts trying to sway my choice for this presidential election, I am willing to be swayed by your keen discussion.  So, let’s play Mock Newbery here.  Tonight, instead of biting your fingernails to the quick while starting at the television or computer, why don’t you take some time to tell me, in the comments, what about this book would make it a Newbery choice for you.

When writing their nominations, members of the committee are tasked with writing justifications of their picks.  From the manual, “The written justifications serve as preparation for oral discussion at Midwinter and provide practice in stating clearly and succinctly your ideas about books that seem distinguished.”  Clearly, you don’t need to write a formal nomination here, but it might be fun for us to practice defending a book along the lines of the below criteria.  And if you disagree with a comment, let’s talk that through with the following in mind as well.  I promise to join in!

Distinguished is defined as:

  • Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
  • Marked by excellence in quality.
  • Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
  • Individually distinct.

And in identifying “distinguished contribution to American literature,” defined as text, in a book for children, committee members need to consider the following:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Also, committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.

You can find more Terms & Criteria in the manual, available on the ALSC website.

 

 

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Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Community Relations Librarian for the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children's Recordings Committee as well as the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at sharon@mckellar.org.

Comments

  1. Leonard Kim says:

    I’ll start with “delineation of characters” where I think Anderson does reach the level of significant achievement – arguably more than any other top contender. I’ll choose one: in the character of Steve, Anderson has created one of the best representations of a type of boy character that is rarely represented (and even then often as a shallow caricature) and yet probably is a mirror for a lot of boy readers who read more than most but mostly in escapist genres (fantasy, superheroes, etc.) If one thinks of boy characters in the literature, I would suggest they often fall into two broad types: the confident, irreverent types that get into and out of trouble (going all the way back to Mark Twain’s boys and their spiritual descendants and represented in this book by Topher) and the serious, courageous types who deal with adversity through determination and a sense of fairness (people like Harry Potter, Stanley Yelnats, Jonas from the Giver, and in this book, Brand.) But being a bit of a Steve myself, it was rare and refreshing to see the boy character of a certain nerdy stripe captured in such a perfect way. A caricature usually spouts facts for only one reason, to show he/she lacks the imagination/empathy/sensitivity of the “real” protagonist. Even when sympathetically portrayed (e.g., autism-spectrum protagonists) the fact-spouting is still one-note, an easy way for an author to represent a coping mechanism. But each time Steve speaks, even when it is ill-advised or opens himself up to ridicule, Anderson gets why, with all the shades and nuance of a real person. Across 3 pages (135-137), for example, Steve invokes 1 fact per page: the sand tiger shark (which reveals his relationship and attitude towards Christina is not as black-and-white as Topher has always made it out to be, something that will be further developed), tadpoles (unsaid, as Steve knows, as close friends do, that it’s better for both Topher and himself that Topher discover it on his own, beautifully and subtly illustrating his depth of feeling for Topher), and Miracle Max and Katniss (honestly trying to make sense of Topher’s tirade against marriage). This last is important to what Anderson really gets about boys of that age. I wrote on Goodreads: “the author knows that’s what it felt like, at that age: the constant, varied coping process of trying to sort things out, alone and with friends, while life ceaselessly happens. And this is managed across the multiple protagonists, each deeply and differently characterized.”

    Some more general comments from my Goodreads review: “I like that the author more often than not makes the non-obvious choice of protagonist to narrate the various events. And I like how effectively (and again non-obviously) he places transitions between memory and observation and action, introspection and interaction. Finally, as much as I liked it as an adult reader, this is one I absolutely want to give to my 11-year-old.”

    • Kudos, Kim! I loved this book too, for some of the same reasons you cite. These boys seem very real, very authentic, and unforgettable. I think this title is in at least my top 10!

  2. Mary Lou White says:

    Wow. Leonard Kim has said it so well in the post above. The splendidly developed characters were my first love in this book, followed by its portrayal of male friendship. This book goes deep into the complicated connections that adolescent boys make with each other: the shifting loyalties, the bursts of violence, and finally, the love that holds them together. I loved the story itself, but it is that portrayal of friendship that felt unique and gave the book its power.

  3. In regards to ‘delineation of characters’ I too, thought this was a strength of the book. I like how each boy’s voice is different in the alternating chapters. This is not an easy feat. Authors try this and often times, I hear the author’s voice coming through instead of different characters. Not true with MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY. Each of these boys felt authentic and original. That is a huge accomplishment in a book like this.

    The one thing that always bugs me a little bit, and I don’t know why, is when authors FILL their books with specific cultural references that could very quickly ‘date’ their book. It’s a tough line to walk, because the references I’m talking about added to the unique character voices I loved. It’s just a gut-instinct/reaction I had while reading. If I picked this book up a few years from now, I fear that some of the popular cultural references throughout, would lose their meaning and impact.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Exactly right about the character’s voices, Mr. H.

      Look at how something is rendered in Topher’s ceaseless, action narrative mind, reflected in sentences where the clauses just tumble out: “A car screeches to a halt, tires peeling, and George slams into it, catching the bumper with his knee. He spins once but keeps on running, causing more screeching and honking. The driver of the car that nearly flattened him rolls down his window and starts cursing as Brand and I catapult ourselves into the street. You don’t look both ways when you’re chasing the bad guy.”

      And compare this to Steve’s more deliberative, parsimoniously declarative prose: “I followed Topher down to the stones that crossed the creek and we found the least wobbly ones to stand on. It was too early in the year to find tadpoles. The water was still too cold, and the frogs were just now laying their eggs, but I didn’t want to tell Topher that.”

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I don’t know. I feel like the references chosen can be expected to have shelf life (and in many cases have already demonstrated that they do: Star Wars, The Princess Bride, classic comic book superheroes, Lord of the Rings…) I am some generations older than the target audience, and I was familiar, from my own childhood, with most of the references. If anything I wonder if the target audience will feel the references are a bit dated. Were you thinking of references to things like Minecraft and the Hunger Games?

      • Yes, I was thinking of Minecraft and The Hunger Games, but also Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, The Goonies, Led Zepplin… But I guess after hearing your explanation, I kind of agree. There seemed to be a lot of popular culture references throughout the story, but I think you are right. Looking back at them now, they were chosen appropriately and fit the boys.

  4. Brenda Martin says:

    I have yet to read this title, but a contemporary of mine who is married to an Asian man said that she felt that the Chinese family was rendered in a very stereotypical manner. But she also said that she enjoyed the book and that aspect wouldn’t deter her from recommending it… with that reservation.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      As an Asian-American (but only one, and Korean, not Japanese like Steve), I hope I can reassure y’all that I thought Anderson got it exactly right. How can it be a stereotype when Steve and Christina are so individually distinct in their formation under the pressures they feel? How can it be a stereotype when what little we read of the father and mother also suggest they are very different in how they cope with life?

      i play the piano like Christina and though I’m lenient about letter grades, I have had meetings with teachers when I felt my children weren’t getting a fair shake like Mr. Sakata. But I also comment overlong on a particular Newbery blog, which maybe isn’t expected behavior from someone like me. We are all a basket of shared “stereotypical” and unique qualities. Asians should be allowed to play the piano and care about school performance in books without crying foul if the book is well-written and the characters ring true, as I think is the case here.

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    Development of a plot:

    Although the characters in MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY are as finely drawn as any this year, this really is a plot-driven “quest” novel. This gives the reader a sturdy frame around which Anderson manages a wide range of pacing and pivots between voices, past and present, “observation and action, introspection and interaction.” With each chapter, character advances plot. With each chapter, plot reveals character.

    Example: in the Topher chapter following the Steve chapter I referenced earlier. The bountiful action includes a chase, Topher’s injury, the squishing of the cheesecake, and Brand’s abandonment of the quest. For the chase, we get Topher’s brain’s play-by-play, but when his imagination fails him and he gets injured, his internal response to Brand’s “You’re not Superman, you know” is “I know that. Of course I know that” (I love that “of course.”) This leads to a brief meditation on the tooth fairy and choosing lies. I won’t speak to what this bit does for Topher’s characterization, because I’m focusing on plot. Instead, I want to highlight its structural effectiveness. In a movie, the camera can visually linger on the wreckage of a climactic crash — allowing the audience to exhale after the excitement but also think, oh crap what now? before moving on. In a book, this is a hard effect to create. Most authors fall back on a chapter break to the point that I now sometimes find it tiresome. Last years’ Echo had an interesting take on this problem of pacing, and I argue that MS BIXBY’S LAST DAY also presents a distinctive and well-executed approach. The tooth fairy may seem like a non sequitur, but the transition in and out of this section is well-handled (and circles neatly back to Topher’s injury) and I argue sections like this (and the closing one after Topher yells to the retreating Brand, “What about Ms. Bixby?”) are an effective and excellent way for Anderson to manage the pacing of his quest plot even as they deepen our understanding of the characters.

    Finally, I like how, even though this is a classic quest, it doesn’t exactly work out as planned, because in real life, you sometimes have to make substitutions (Jack Daniel’s, not wine), improvisations (the carnation), and concessions to reality (Ms. Bixby can’t finish her last meal cheesecake from heaven.)

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