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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Underdogs?

We’ve often worried that we create a bit of an echo chamber effect here, picking a shortlist to focus on at the expense of many other wonderful titles.  Previously recognized authors along with highly praised books tend to dominate our shortlist, exacerbating the effect.  Sometimes, I wonder if we should do something radical like exclude authors who’ve previously appeared on our shortlist or omit books with four or more starred reviews, as many of those titles probably don’t need our attention as much as some others.

Earlier this year, Tim Wadham profiled THE SECRET LIFE OF LINCOLN JONES on the eve of its publication.  I hope some of you have had the opportunity to read it based on his glowing recommendation.  Admittedly, it’s still in my pile–but much closer to the top.  The holidays–along with binge reading–cannot come soon enough!

Here are six additional titles that have been put forward in the comments over the past couple months on the blog.  They may only be underdogs in the sense that the echo chamber does not love them, but the Newbery committee is its very own echo chamber.  And speaking of echoes . . .

9781634059626_p0_v1_s118x184ARE YOU AN ECHO? by David Jacobson . . . Betsy Bird first brought this one to our attention on her blog, and Leonard Kim has been championing it here.  It’s a lovely book by a small press.  The committee will not be able to consider the poems interspersed in the main narrative or the poems in the back of the book, but the biographical narrative is fair game.  With the stiff competition in the Newbery field, it will probably be easier for it to breakthrough to the Sibert or ALSC Notables.

I already returned this one to the public library, but here’s the publisher’s description: “In early-1900s Japan, Misuzu Kaneko grows from precocious bookworm to instantly-beloved children’s poet. But her life ends prematurely, and Misuzu’s work is forgotten. Decades later her poems are rediscovered—just in time to touch a new generation devastated by the tsunami of 2011. This picture book features Misuzu’s life story plus a trove of her poetry in English and the original Japanese.”

9780553498080_p0_v1_s118x184THE BORDEN MURDERS by Sarah Miller . . .

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

Gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one!

Today, everything most people know of Lizzie Andrew Borden is contained in those four singsong lines of doggerel.  And nearly everything in those four lines is wrong.

This book probably sounds gorier than it is, and I don’t think the cover does it any favors.  In fact, I wonder if the cover might be part of the reason why its praises have been under sung this year.  I also think–I wonder–if there is such a thing as TMI (too much information).  It’s a masterful piece of narrative nonfiction, but is there too much detail here for some readers.  That’s entirely subjective, of course, but could still be a very real obstacle.  The ENYA finalists were announced yesterday, and I’m mildly surprised that that this one didn’t make the grade.  Anyone up for second-guessing the ENYA committee?  Anyone?  😉

 

9780763688035_p0_v1_s118x184CLOUD AND WALLFISH by Anne Nesbet . . . Monica Edinger first brought this one to my attention. She reviewed it for Horn Book and I think Roger Sutton has mentioned it on his blog.  From Monica’s starred review: “In this atmospheric page-turner set just as the Iron Curtain begins to lift, Nesbet deftly ratchets up the tension, using a close third-person omniscient narration to keep readers experiencing one unnerving event after another, just as Noah does. Scattered throughout are “Secret File” sidebars with facts and information about East Germany and the Cold War at that time. This is edgy, dramatic, and emotionally rich historical fiction that provides a vivid look into an extraordinary moment in history.”

Noah knew something was up the moment he saw his mother that May afternoon in fifth grade.  She swooped up in a car he didn’t recognize–that was the first thing.  And secondly, his father was sitting in the other front seat, and in Noah’s family, picking up kids at school was a one-parent activity.

9780374302610_p0_v4_s192x300GERTIE’S LEAP TO GREATNESS by Kate Beasley . . . I was attracted to this book when it came into my office from the cover alone.  I mean, who could resist that wonderful Jillian Tamaki cover, and the matte finish?  Not me!

The bullfrog was only half dead, which was perfect.

He hunkered in the dark culvert under the driveway and gazed at Gertie Reece Foy with a tragical gleam in his eye, as if he knew her lovely face was the last thing we would ever see.

And who could resist the opening?  Not me!  Moving it toward the top of the pile.

9780545665773_p0_v1_s118x184SOME KIND OF COURAGE by Dan Gemeinhart . . . This one was mentioned early on in our discussion of PAX and then came up again in our Top Five discussion.  Everyone seems to agree that the book has a strong emotional appeal, but the question seems to be whether the literary elements are strong enough to put the book in serious contention.

I reckoned it was the coldest, darkest hour of the night.

That still hour just before dawn.  Mama always called it the “angels and devils hour,” on account of how only angels or demons would have any work worth doing at a time like that.  I didn’t know if I was doing the Lord’s work or the Devil’s, but I knew it had to be done and the time had sure enough come to do it.

Hmmm.  Not a terribly great opening, to my mind, especially compared with GERTIE.

9781484728543_p0_v3_s118x184WHAT ELEPHANTS KNOW by Eric Dinerstein . . .

Mary Ann recommended this one to us.

My mother is an elephant and my father in an old man with one arm.  Strange, I know, but true.

For a short time, I was under the care of dhole, wild dogs that live in the jungle.  Before the dhole, I had a different mother and father who tied a red string around my neck and left me alone in the world.  They believed the red string would give me protection.  I do not know what become of them or why they abandoned me.

Interesting!  The reviews are generally positive with only the occasional nitpicky reservation.  Booklist was probably the most glowing: “Poetic and old-fashioned (in a good way), this coming-of-age story features a resourceful hero and a little-seen world. Dinerstein, who has lived in Nepal himself, beautifully recreates the lush, dramatically populated world of the Nepalese borderlands. Touching and unique.”

Calling all fans of these books!  Now is the time for you to state your case.  What makes each of these the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children?

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I’m going to disagree on the opening to SOME KIND OF COURAGE. You get a lot of who Joseph is in that opening. He’s a polite boy who’s been raised on strong values. His Mama’s words guide him through the story. Plus, as a reader, I’m intrigued to read more and discover what kind of work he’s doing in the middle of the night.

    In terms of the Newbery criteria, I think SOME KIND OF COURAGE hits a lot of high marks.

    Interpretation of Theme: The themes of compassion and perseverance and family resonate throughout the story in every relationship Joseph forms with people along his journey. Even the people who mean him ill-will or harm. I think these themes are developed in a straight-forward manner, easy for kids to take away meaning. I also loved the role language played in this story, and how Joseph and Ah-Kee’s friendship grows despite not being able to speak the same language.

    Presentation of Information: Gemeinhart lives in the area that this book is set, so I’m going to assume he knows it’s history better than I do. I have heard that readers had issues with the presentation of the Chinese characters in the story (is this ‘accuracy?’) but to that, I remind everyone that this is told from the point of view of Joseph and I believe the vagueness of the race was intentional because to Joseph, Ah-Kee’s race didn’t matter. Joseph was kind to him regardless.

    Plot: The plot moves quickly. Joseph knows he doesn’t have time to waste and he keeps after Sarah’s trail. Most chapters end with a cliffhanger or twist that introduces a new hurdle for Joseph to jump. I believe this is distinguished because Gemeinhart always has his readers in mind.

    Characters: Joseph’s character was one of the strongest elements of the story. His character’s values are tested but he remains steady throughout in the way he handles each new challenge. He grows in the end by being forced to make very difficult, adult decisions but even when doing so, he makes them with compassion.

    Setting: Another one of the book’s strongest elements, in my opinion. I think Gemeinhart captured the setting in the character dialogue and in Joseph’s detailed descriptions of the landscape.

    Style: I loved Joseph’s voice and it never wavers. He speaks with a late-1800’s, western twang accept that comes through loud and clear. I’ve read where readers found this a bit corny but I felt it genuine and necessary for the character of Joseph.

    I believe the novel is highly distinguished in a few of these areas (theme, characters, and setting) and has elements of distinguished writing in the other areas (plot, information). Maybe it’s just a personal preference. As I read more, my undying support of this one is slipping a bit because there are so many other good titles out there that I would be happy to see recognized. It was one of the earliest books I read this year, but I reread it to my students this year and they loved it even more than last year’s students which reinvigorated my support of it! Maybe it’s more of a popcorn-movie type of a read than a distinguished piece of literature type of read, but when executed well, those type of novels can be viewed as “distinguished” too.

    • I would agree with you on all of these points, Mr. H. My Newbery Club members have spoken so eloquently about this book, and done a powerful job of advocating for the strength of all its literary elements. I raised concerns a colleague expressed about Ah-Kee not having a real voice in this story, about it being one more story told from the white male’s perspective, but my students raised interesting counter-points about how Ah-Kee spoke loudly through his actions, and how it is just Joseph’s perspective because it is just his story. I think there is good fuel for debate and conversation about this. I was especially moved by SOME KIND OF COURAGE because of the strength of Joseph’s character. I appreciated how he was guided by his strong moral compass and concern about living up to his parents’ expectations, especially when he put himself at risk in an effort to do the right thing. I didn’t feel like he was too boy scout-ish – I really felt like he struggled to determine what was right. And the plot was SO exciting! One fifth grader said she felt the theme was, “to never give up on the people (and animals) you love – they are always worth fighting for!” I love when a novel resonates with so many of my students. I think that is the most powerful argument for the quality of this book.

      • Susie, I’m glad that you raised your colleague’s concerns with your students. I too have a lot of trouble with the delineation of characters.

        Ah-Kee’s lack of English makes sense within the story, and it tidily sidesteps the need for Gemeinhart to voice a Chinese boy, which could have its own challenges. And I was glad that Gemeinhart acknowledges the presence of Native Americans and Chinese immigrants in Joseph’s America—to write an American West story in this time period without this would be fundamentally inaccurate. But the depictions of both groups are pretty problematic, and I don’t think they represent “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”

        In his actions, Ah-Kee is a magical Asian. He is not a child who doesn’t speak English; he is a deus ex machina. And while Joseph tries to explain it away—maybe he worked with a midwife in China, maybe the bear was just surprised because no one had ever tried to talk to her in Chinese—this is a classic stereotype and not an example of distinguished literature.

        Ah-Kee’s racial identity may not matter to Joseph, but in realistic historical fiction, it matters to the reader. My fifth grade class read Meindert DeJong’s Newbery Honor, The House of Sixty Fathers. (White) classmates called my little brother Tien Pao and asked me if I had ever had chocolate before. I haven’t reread the book recently, but Tien Pao’s name and his inexperience with chocolate, at least, make sense within the context of that story. Reading Some Kind of Courage, I couldn’t help thinking about non-Chinese readers wondering if their Chinese or Asian classmates could ward off bears or deliver babies. It’s just sloppy and, in the absence of any context, absurd.

        Similarly, Gemeinhart relies on tropes in his characterizations of American Indians: “He bared his teeth like a wolf and snarled a word low and mean in his native tongue” (54). Use of animal registers to describe non-white characters offers nothing new or excellent.

        Arguably, these quibbles just represent a small portion of a larger story. I had high hopes for the story (I’m always rooting for a librarian-turned writer!), and I think it could have gone another way. But these flaws weaken the plot, and they disrespect the intelligence of children. In revisiting well-trodden racist ground, Gemeinhart falls short of something truly distinguished.

      • “Similarly, Gemeinhart relies on tropes in his characterizations of American Indians: “He bared his teeth like a wolf and snarled a word low and mean in his native tongue” (54). Use of animal registers to describe non-white characters offers nothing new or excellent.”

        So, how was Gemeinhart supposed to portray the Native Americans? This story is told from the point of view of a white boy, in 1890. I think him describing them as he does above, makes sense and is far from a disqualifying description.

        I’m not sure that Gemeinhart’s portrayal of Native Americans, in a story that is about SO MUCH MORE, needs to necessarily be original or distinguished. The story is about Joseph’s journey and the Native Americans are one very, very small component of that journey.

        I can see what you are saying about Ah-Kee and the way he magically saves the day in a few moments (bear, baby). Some would say this is convenient and I wouldn’t have much to argue in defense. I just read it as there is more than meets the eye with Ah-Kee. Why would any Chinese reader be disrespected by Ah-Kee being a hero in the story? I don’t see it as being reduced to a stereotype either because of Ah-Kee’s weight in the story. If Ah-Kee only showed up for a brief moment, and magically saved the day and disappeared, and Joseph thought the only reason he was able to save the day was because he was Chinese, I could see where disrespect would be felt in response. But that’s not the case. Ah-Kee is a very important character. In fact, Joseph’s version of those two events really aren’t stereotypical. He explains them away as if Ah-Kee could be any nationality. He may have just confused the bear and he may have been a midwife’s assistant. The point is, he knows very little about Ah-Kee and the friendship continues to grow regardless of the lack of background knowledge and language barrier.

      • Also, for the record, I had two students in my homeroom last year who had family in China and both spoke fluent Chinese and visited there often. Both students loved Ah-Kee and cheered him on and took no offense to his character whatsoever.

        Furthermore, no other students even joked or insinuated that these two students in my room would be able to perform similar feats (scaring bears and birthing babies) simply because they were Chinese. In fact, to assume that kids would behave in this way, is also “disrespecting the intelligence of children.”

      • These flaws, for me, were significant enough to me that I cannot think of calling Some Kind of Courage the MOST distinguished book of the year. It sounds like you’re willing to overlook these issues, within the broader context of the book—or you don’t necessarily perceive them as flaws. I found that they troubled the plot development and character delineation sufficiently as to not merit recognition as “conspicuous excellence.”

        “So, how was Gemeinhart supposed to portray the Native Americans?” I think he could have described them using human terms, rather than animal terms. Alternatively, Gemeinhart could have provided context in either the narrative or back matter, as appropriate—now that I’m think of it, I would love to read an author’s note on this text.

        You ask, Why would any Chinese reader be disrespected by Ah-Kee being a hero in the story? The issue is not that he’s a hero, but rather, that his actions are inexplicable within the story’s framework. Relying on a stereotype, whether positive or negative, to move the story forward does not demonstrate excellent or distinguished writing. These plot points only work if the reader is willing to believe that a Chinese boy can do these magical things.

        I think we both want Ah-Kee to be a real, fully-fleshed boy. Your words: “In fact, Joseph’s version of those two events really aren’t stereotypical. He explains them away as if Ah-Kee could be any nationality. ” But in fact, Gemeinhart relies on Ah-Kee’s Chineseness to cover the fact that Ah-Kee is doing things that make no sense.

        In the example of the bear, here’s the text: “Ah-Kee was talking to that bear in Chinese” (48); “I stood… looking down on a mama grizzly and a Chinese orphan” (48); “He bowed to her, stiff and quick” (49); “I doubt whether anyone had ever stood before that big old grizzly and talked to her. But I sure reckon no one ever stood in front of her and talked to her in Chinese” (49); “A Chinese boy, thousands of miles from home, talking face-to-face with a mama grizzly” (50). In Joseph’s telling, Ah-Kee’s Chineseness and his ability to talk to/ward off bears are inextricably linked.

        Regarding the baby: I would have had an easier time, within the novel’s framework, believing that Joseph, who grew up in a homesteading family with a younger sister, might have more experience with pregnancy than Ah-Kee. As a Chinese boy in America in 1890, he more than likely works and lives solely with men, laborers, since immigration of Chinese women was extremely limited. The reunion seems to reflect this, as only men are mentioned in that scene. The text just does not support a coherent characterization of Ah-Kee.

        When viewed in isolation, it can appear that there is simply more to Ah-Kee than meets the eye. However, Ah-Kee’s magical abilities are actually key elements of a well-worn trope. Publisher Stacey Whitman talks more about the magical Negro (and Asian and Native counterparts) here: http://www.stacylwhitman.com/2011/12/14/writing-diversity-avoiding-the-magical-negro/

        I’m not here to trash Some Kind of Courage. I think it does a lot well, and I agree with many of your comments on the book’s merits. Gemeinhart does attempt to give Ah-Kee a sense of independent identity and mission (although he also has Ah-Kee offering to sacrifice his family reunion to help Joseph). My agreement with you that Ah-Kee is a very important character is why it was frustrating that his actions cannot be supported by the text. Because he is so important, I cannot overlook the flaws in his characterization to call this text a truly distinguished contribution to American literature.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I have a question but I think it is a Reading While White question more than a Heavy Medal question since I’m not sure that either SOME KIND OF COURAGE or GHOSTS appear to be strong contenders for the Newbery with or without the reservations many have expressed.

        My question is this: When a book is flawed in respect to the presentation of a certain minority group (or we suspect that it may be so), but we know children who enjoy the book nevertheless–what are we to make of it? If we have Chinese American students who like SOME KIND OF COURAGE or Mexican American students who enjoy GHOSTS what are we to do with those books? Do we ignore the situation? Are we tasked with being the wet blanket? I’m just curious what courses of action people would suggest . . .

        I want to be clear that I’m not arguing these books are not problematic (either for Newbery recognition or in general) based on child responses from the affronted group. This question really hit home when I visited a predominantly Latino middle school where the librarian told me how much the student body loved the book, and–lo!–a Latina brought a copy back in to the library while we were talking.

      • Hanna,

        I can see where you are coming from with Ah-Kee, especially in the birthing scene. His involvement in that scene does come out of left field a bit. The bear situation I chalked up to coincidence. And Joseph stammering on about his “Chinese” was simply him describing the situation unfolding before him. Ah-Kee IS Chinese and he WAS speaking in Chinese to the bear. I’m not sure I’m reading into that scene that Joseph thinks the bear departed BECAUSE Ah-Kee was Chinese. It might be, but even Joseph is just guessing. He doesn’t know.

        I think, the reason this still remains near the top for me, despite the stuff you bring up, is because the elements of this story that I find distinguished (Joseph’s character development, setting, and theme of compassion toward one another) aren’t affected by the problems you point out (and I’m not sure I see all of them as problems either). I think there is a lot of positives readers can get out of Joseph and Ah-Kee’s relationship, without taking offense to any of Ah-Kee’s character traits.

        As for the Native American portion of the discussion, I guess I just disagree. If Gemeinhart would have described the Native Americans like you said, I think it would have felt like he was attempting to be politically correct and not true to the character’s voice. It’s 1890 and Joseph does not deal with Native Americans first hand much until this journey of his. To me, he’s using figurative language (in Joseph’s voice) to describe the way the Native American approached him.

        I’ve read many similes in many books where authors compare human actions to animal actions to help readers visualize. Is this supposed to be offensive because it’s a Native American? On the third page of the book Gemeinhart describes the white man Joseph is running away from using the word “snarl.” Another few sentences later and the man’s arm strikes out “like a snake.” We can use animal similes on white men but not Native American men? I’m just not seeing why it’s offensive to describe the Native American on page 54 the way Geminhart has. It truly felt like a way Joseph would have described him.

      • Johnathan, thank you for asking that question. I wish I could reply directly to your remark but I think it was too embedded in another thread. As someone who has worked hard in my state to educate on intellectual freedom, I have a hard time with the idea of pulling a book if a group finds it objectionable. We can certainly point out issues in context of a discussion on how others might interpret different portrayals, but I would argue that it is never our job to limit access to works that have readers among our patrons.

        Many people in my state object to books which show positive LGTB lifestyles and families. I’ve gone to the mat to keep those books on my shelves. I would do the same with books I myself found objectionable.

      • Like Danae, I have had to defend books in my collection – not for LGBTQ characters, but for black characters. That’s right! “Violent urban lifestyle” was an objection (by white parents!) in two consecutive years – the first for Yummy, the second for Monster. Both went to reconsideration committees. Thanks to help from the OIF, a sane reconsideration committee, and a ton of pressure and anger from me, both books remained on the shelves.

        If I personally objected to the content in the book, I would still defend that book. That’s my professional obligation. My personal opinion cannot factor into my professional life. I don’t believe in censorship. Period. Plus, I think children are perfectly capable of forming opinions without my input.

        For the record, I was the one who shared that several Mexican-American students in my school loved GHOSTS. One girl shared it with her parents, first generation immigrants, who thought it was wonderful. So even if I was offended by the book, even ONE family finding merit in the book is enough for me. After all, not every person in a single culture is going to agree on what is/is not offensive.

  2. By the way…

    Thank you for mentioning SOME KIND OF COURAGE Jonathan. Hoping for more people to discuss it…

  3. I am happy to see Gertie’s Leap to Greatness on your underdogs list. It is my number two favorite for this year. The narrative is so well crafted, without any extraneous words or ideas, that it appears simple. But I think that impression is deceptive since the characters and story line are completely beguiling.
    My number one favorite is not on any short lists: The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. I admit to a bias toward this book because it speaks so directly to my family experience with drug addiction. Other elements of the story serve to make it more than just an opioid tract. The Irish clog dancing, the ice fishing and entomophagy (gross but interesting) are all topics outside my own experience that were expanded by this book. And I particularly liked the way Messner linked the wishing fish into an entire canon of folk lore and children’s literature about the difficulty of phrasing wishes so there are no unintended consequences.
    The Seventh Wish was briefly in the spotlight when Messner was uninvited for her scheduled visit to a school in Vermont. But this is a title that has resonated with me all year.

  4. GERTIE! Thank you. One of the most genuine age-appropriate characters of the year. This year’s book kids were hard to pin down. Some acted more sophisticated for their age, BEST MAN. Or over-abilitied-Dudley-do-right to be believable, SOME KIND OF COURAGE. Or were too age-illusive, WOLF HOLLOW (was she seven or seventeen? Her inner voice never seemed to know.) Or just not present, as in Luna of THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON. At first Gertie, in all her show-offishness, and utter lack of social grace, was a bit hard to take. Then I realized I know kids just like her. Kids dying to be seen, dying to be the best at something, but having no clue how to navigate the mine field of other ten-year-old egos. The peripheral characters were also dense, rounded, flawed and lovely. The story problems are complex, not easily solved, but presented right at the eye-level of a child’s understanding. There are no neat bows to wrap up the ending, but an act of expansive generosity.

    I so hope the committee is giving this a good look. If it ends up winning. Twinkies for everyone!

    • You know DaNae, SOME KIND OF COURAGE and THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON are two of my personal favorites, but I see what you are saying about the main characters in both of them. Joseph was a little too Boy Scout-like while Luna was a little too, absent minded and undeveloped. In defense of Joseph though, I would have to say that Joseph makes a lot of decisions throughout the book that challenge him.

      I’m moving GERTIE to the top of my To-Read pile because of you, too.

      • Mr. H., I so agree that SKOC is a great book for the cannon, I think I mentioned before, but I nominated it for out state list, because I’m thrilled to have a western to bandy about. However, Joseph’s lack of an inner arc pushes it out of Newbery contention for me.He really doesn’t change over the course of the book. And why would he when he is so fully noble and twentieth-century PC from the beginning. But I will freely admit that I’m a character driven reader. I need flawed and messy characters to keep me reading. Go Gertie, go Ghost.

  5. Kate McCue-Day says:

    I absolutely loved What Elephants Know!! It was in my top 5 list.

  6. I have to second my support for Some Kind of Courage, but this book has also dropped down on my list. I am a character driven reader, and I just found Joseph to be such a unique and beautiful young man. Certainly, the story is a little over the top, but totally in step with a traditional yarn.

    For me, many westerns tend to exude the traditional idea of “masculinity,” but in Joseph we see so many other ideas of what masculinity can be – his tender friendship with Ah-Kee, his tears, his affection for children, and his undying love for his horse…

    In terms of the style and dialect, I found the words easy to read (beautiful when read out loud), authentic, and necessary for Joseph’s character.

    I know we don’t factor in kids’ genuine excitement about particular books, but the truth is, kids really dig this book. It’s quick pace, action, and cast of characters all come together for a fantastic ride.

    My concerns for this book lie in a missed opportunity. So few books feature Native Americans in substantial ways, and I just felt like Gemeinhart could have really taken more time developing his Native characters and their culture. However, Gemeinhart seems more focused on developing Joseph and Ah-Kee’s friendship – which he does brilliantly.

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    Just finished THE SECRET LIFE OF LINCOLN JONES. There is a book that is quite high (#12) on the Goodreads 2017 Mock Newbery List, ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK, that I think is quite comparable to this one, but I think THE SECRET LIFE OF LINCOLN JONES is better.

    It does make you wonder just how many good books there are that go through the year without getting noticed (which is the point of Jonathan’s post). THE SECRET LIFE OF LINCOLN JONES doesn’t appear to have gotten any starred reviews, and I think those of us reading it only did so because of the guest post here (and similarly Monica is surely single-handedly responsible for many of us reading CLOUD AND WALLFISH.)

    And what about ARE YOU AN ECHO? This is one of the best books of the year, but I wonder if Betsy Bird hadn’t chosen this particular year to attempt to read *every* new picture book whether anybody would know about it. (Booklist did star it.)

    I did know about GERTIE because, for whatever reason, it was featured and excerpted in Entertainment Weekly of all places back in January. And yes, based on that opening, I knew I would read it. I have to say that personally, the rest did not quite live up to that opening.

    http://www.ew.com/article/2016/01/14/gerties-leap-greatness-excerpt

    It’s a little disheartening how even here, as in everything else in life, we are so dependent on buzz.

    • ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK is one of my favorites of the year, and I am sad that it has not gotten more attention, anywhere really. Once I finish all the books I have not gotten to yet, I need to reread to parse out emotional response vs. true literary excellence. This makes me really want to go read THE SECRET LIFE OF LINCOLN JONES!

  8. Eric Carpenter says:

    I’ve been a big supporter of THE BORDEN MURDERS all year and if I were on the committee it would likely have been one of my nominees. It’s also a book that I would probably abandon pretty quickly if the other 14 committee members didn’t seem convinced.
    THE BORDEN MURDERS is a book that likely works perfectly for a specific reader, but I agree wouldn’t have the widest appeal.
    I think the book hits its mark with all 6 criteria and is especially strong in presentation of information and development of setting (the socio-political picture of 1890s new england is wonderfully developed)

    Outside the purview of the committee’s work I would also make a strong case for this book’s inclusion into middle school curriculum as an example the way the press/media can use its power to sensationalize in order to misinform readers and cement fictions into presumed facts. Again this isn’t relevant to the newbery worthiness of the book because the story and themes of a book are completely irrelevant at the committee table.

  9. A few thoughts on these books with thanks for everybody who makes an effort to read outside the buzz. THE BORDEN MURDERS: haven’t gotten to this one but I did see a rock opera a few years ago about the Lizzy Borden murders and at the time thought the material would make a great YA book. So much more to the story than I thought.
    WHAT ELEPHANTS KNOW: Over the weekend I met an ELL teacher from my former grade school which now has the largest concentration of Nepali speakers in Oregon, so I was thrilled to be able to recommend this title. Thank you. Knowing that there’s a Nepali community nearby I’ll make an extra effort to keep it in our local bookshop too.
    CLOUD AND WALLFISH: When I was writing my Cold War book, I found books for kids on Cold War Germany very hard to find and yet it was such a fascinating time. I lived in Bavaria when this story took place and I’m eager to get to this one.
    SOME KIND OF COURAGE: I read this one many months ago as an ARC and really enjoyed it. I do agree that Joseph is a bit of a Dudley Do-Right. But he does reflect a value system common to the Western culture of the day and to a great extent still a common value system. It may seem quaint to outsiders but it I found it solidly in line with the western community I’m familiar with. The rural western experience is in the minority when it comes to books and the literary qualities of westerns have long been overlooked when it comes to adult literary awards. It would be sweet to see some recognition for this one.

  10. Hanna Lee, thank you for your thought-provoking comments. I’m grateful for your insights. It’s so important to have these discussions.

    There are things I admire about the SKOC. It’s got terrific pacing, nice attention to detail, and the sustaining love between boy and horse is movingly described. The pitfalls Gemeinhart falls into are too familiar to me as a white writer.

    “He is not a child who doesn’t speak English; he is a deus ex machina.” So much this! To the point that I can’t understand how anyone could perceive Ah-Kee (is this a real name?) as a three-dimensional character.

    I am Deaf. I often have to cross communication barriers. That’s not what happen in SKOC. Ah-Kee is so oblivious, he doesn’t even understand when Joseph tells him to follow him. It’s not that difficult to convey! Being Chinese makes Ah-Kee magical and totally clueless. Joseph: “Can you swim,” I asked him. Ah-Kee, of course, just blinked back at me.” Why ‘of course?’ And why is he blinking? This is repeated over and over, in just about every situation.

    The’ Ah-Kee spoke Chinese’ passages remind me of my frustration with closed captions/SDH, when they just say: [character speaks foreign language]. As if it makes no difference what they character is saying! Is it a true friendship, when one person is a mute sidekick? The romantic/tragic trope of the western lone rider demands that there are no equals. Except maybe the horse.

    The section about the Native American people is negligible is so many ways. First of all, which Native Americans? This is historical fiction. Which Nation are they from? The Indian boy doesn’t seem to understand that he broke his ankle. Why wouldn’t he understand that? Again, Joseph is taking the lead and everyone else is following in his dust, impressed by his aptitude. The Native people, who have been badly abused by white people, loan Joseph a prize horse, believing that he will return it. Does this ring true? Of course, Joseph wins the “Indian horse race.” (Is that a real thing?) Near the end of the book, Joseph, recalling his journey, remarks that the Native people he encountered are, “what remains of the Indians.” This is historically inaccurate and maudlin.

    As far as asking what we should do with books that present stereotypes and offensive portrayals. First of all, those books don’t age well. And we are adults, who read critically–unlike young children. I don’t see it as a case of having to be a “wet blanket.” You don’t have to grab the books from their hands and scold them for liking them. But we do need to know better. We need to provide young readers with authentic portrayals of themselves and their families and communities. There are many authors and illustrators doing this.

    I was born in the late 60’s. I grew up Deaf and lesbian. I grasped at any portrayal of myself I could find, or intuit as a kid. When I’ve gone back to some of those resources as an adult, I realize they have all kinds of problems. But my young mind seized on them, erased the bad parts, and filled in the details that I needed to see to grow up. I know kids do the same today. That’s a large part of fanfiction. For example, I saw a gay teen writing about the relationship between two male Star Wars characters that isn’t really there. Those stories will be there in the future. They need to be. The downside about digesting stereotypes in our youth is that we internalize them. It’s a fight to kick them out. A child who reads SKOC now, may read AMERICAN BORN CHINESE as a teen. It is not uncommon for young people to become radicalized because we are searching for representation of our lives.

    Can we listen to Hanna, without having to contradict everything she writes? When she shares personal anecdotes about how she and her brother were treated in school, are we totally insensitive as to just dismiss it?

    Why did censorship come up in this conversation? It’s a bizarre, knee-jerk reaction to intelligent criticism. To quote film critic Pauline Kael, in a review of A Clockwork Orange: “There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movies, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films — the freedom to analyze their implications.”

    • Jonathan Hunt says:

      Did censorship come up in this conversation? I’ve read the comments several times (which are admittedly a bit of a mess since they discuss various books), and can’t seem to find it . . .

      I’m also perplexed about your comment about listening to Hanna without contradicting everything she says. Mr. H is arguing for SOME KIND OF COURAGE; Hanna is arguing against the book. I don’t really see too many voices aside from those. Personally, I find Hanna’s arguments very compelling, and if I hadn’t already crossed SOME KIND OF COURAGE off my personal list of contenders, I think her comments would convince me to do so. But it’s what we do here: we argue.

      I’m going to leave SOME KIND OF COURAGE behind here and focus on GHOSTS. What I find interesting here is that we have had lots of online activity that raises our awareness about the potentially problematic aspects of GHOSTS. This is important and necessary, and I think that even people who don’t necessarily come around to wholeheartedly believing in all the problematic aspects of the book are enriched by considering these claims and empowered to act upon new knowledge.

      While raising of awareness has been good online (and raising awareness is a huge and fundamental task in and of itself), I’m finding that the accompanying calls to action range from vague to nonexistent. I find that your own propositions start extending into abstractions rather than focusing on concrete steps. Naturally, since there will not be a one-size fits all solution for what to do with GHOSTS we would expect to see a range of ways that people are learning from the discussion and applying that knowledge to their professional practice. This is the part of the conversation that I’m missing, and that would be very helpful, I think, for people in our industry whether they are librarians, teachers, parents, editors, publishers, and booksellers.

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