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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Gallery: Curse of the Three Star Book

Last year, I noted here and here that it’s very easy for books with three starred reviews to slip under our radar and earn Newbery recognition.  We can’t read everything, and what we do read, we can’t always read as carefully as the Newbery committee.  Here are thirteen books–a baker’s dozen–which earned three starred reviews.  They all deserve more attention, but we will only have time to discuss some of them in greater depth.  If you see a pet title here, then speak up!












































































































































































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


  1. Leonard Kim says:

    I’ve read 8 of these. None make my top ten, but I do recommend BEAUTIFUL BLUE WORLD and THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE.

    BEAUTIFUL BLUE WORLD: I think this could be discussed alongside PAX. PAX has an unspecified wartime setting. LaFleur invents fictional countries and peoples, but BEAUTIFUL BLUE WORLD is very World War II Europe-ish. I wonder if the scrutiny that some books are now being subjected to is driving some authors to avoid real world settings, even when there doesn’t seem to be much reason not to set a book in the “real” world. Perhaps some authors want to be able to tell stories without constantly looking over their shoulder for critics dissecting every phrase for historical “accuracy.” Would SOME KIND OF COURAGE be generating the discussion it is if it were set in the same world as BEAUTIFUL BLUE WORLD? And if not, what does that say? Anyway, I enjoyed this book, more than PAX – it’s well-written in every aspect (except “world-building”) and is refreshingly a bit outside-the-box.

    THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE: This is set in World War II Britain, but then again, so are the Narnia books. I thought the writing strong in evoking the required atmosphere of dread and suspense, and I liked the characterization of the female STEM protagonist. I liked less the ending, which both went on too long (partly to set up a sequel) and lost tension. It is sort of similar to Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener (and a lot of horror in general): once you’re at the point where you are confronting the bogey-woman and running from her and fighting her, a lot of the suspense and tension is gone, so why drag it out? I personally liked the mashup of genres here, but I believe I’ve read some complaints about that too.

    I personally did not like FREE VERSE or THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. Regarding the latter, its subtitle is “stories about sons, fathers, & grandfathers.” I thought it a bit narrow that all of these stories focus on the obvious flaws and imperfections of the fathers & grandfathers. It became monotonous for me, and I think for a story collection, a little variety of approaches and perspectives is called for.

    THE STORYTELLER: coming to the end of Starmer’s trilogy, I confess feeling disappointment. I thought the first book, THE RIVERMAN was one of the very best books of its year, and I feel somehow there was some miscalculation in the overall arc that I can’t quite define. On Goodreads, I suggested that maybe this book should have come second, and THE WHISPER last.

    I think children will gravitate towards THE DOOR BY THE STAIRCASE. It’s a bit like a Disney movie, so for me at least held few surprises.

    Don’t have much to contribute regarding FALLING OVER SIDEWAYS and MAYBE A FOX.

  2. I absolutely loved both THE DOOR BY THE STAIRCASE and MAYBE A FOX. As far as awards go, I have somewhat higher hopes for the latter. I didn’t read any of the others mentioned here, although most of them were at one point on my to-read list and got cut as I came to the realization that there is, in fact, a limit to how many books I can read in one year. BEAUTIFUL BLUE WORLD is one that I hadn’t heard of until recently, when a mom who had just finished reading it told me how much she and her daughter enjoyed it.

  3. I’ve read four of these (FOX, ROOKSKILL, VERSE, SALT).

    Of these four, I think VERSE likely has what it takes to surprise us. The characterization is fabulous: the protagonist, Sasha, is extremely frustrating and unlikable – but her struggle to find who she is and cope with her loss is beautifully rendered and will speak to many children. This book didn’t sugarcoat the hardscrabble life of coal country, either. Like many books that take place in Appalachia (many who which won the Newbery), the setting is as big a character as the actual flesh and blood characters. An admirable piece of writing, though a bit contrived toward the end.

    MAYBE A FOX was lovely. I don’t think it holds up to the tall trees this year, but it’s the first Appelt book that has resonated with me. The fantasy/realistic element didn’t really hold up toward the end, but I very much enjoyed the story and found the theme fleshed out in a satisfying way.

    ROOKSKILL was a snoozefest for me.

    SALT was truly amazing, but I think the committee would be hard-pressed to build consensus around it. For one thing, the violence is brutal. If it were considered, it would firmly be for the 13-14 set. Not that it couldn’t be done, but I think it would be a very left field choice. As for a Printz? I think it’s far more likely the book could be recognized there.

    • I just finished SALT today and very much agree. It’s an amazing book, but even the upper end of the Newbery is stretching a bit.

  4. Four of my favorites of this year are above: Falling over Sideways; Free Verse; Maybe a Fox and Salt to the Sea. All four are books that have stuck with me, whose characters have found a permanent place in my heart. I would happily reread any of them in an instant.

    Salt to the Sea pushes the age limit for Newbery though, with its difficult subject matter, war crimes/ atrocities and vivid description of the ship sinking. My eighth graders are recommending Salt to the Sea to each other. The other three titles don’t spend much time on my library shelves and my students usually enter the library hugging the book and/ or dragging their friend to check it out next.

    In Falling over Sideways, Sonnenblick has done something special – depicted a loving, supportive father-daughter relationship and a realistic portrayal of an average teen (and her family) coping with catastrophic illness. I can think of only two or three titles in which the father-daughter relationship is positive and interesting. His male fans remained on board. The book circulates briskly and equally among boys as well as girls and they are giving me terrific feedback about the how emotionally invested they got in Claire’s story. Those are my words of course, but my students consistently reflected on what they would feel if they were in Claire’s place. While I always try to elicit opinions about books my kids are returning, I didn’t need to ask with this one, they wanted to talk about it before letting the book leave their hands. Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie was his Newbery winner but technicalities got in the way. Drums remains my all-time favorite “cancer” book because of how much he got right. It is usually the first book by him my students read and, invariably, they make their way through the rest of his titles.

  5. Salt to the Sea is the only one of these I have read, and I agree with the comments above that it would be a more likely contender for the Printz. I would love to see it recognized for something, but just don’t see it as a Newbery, even for the upper reaches of the age range.

  6. Currently reading DIVE and cannot put it down…but probably not in my top five. Earlier this year I would have cheered for SALT TO THE SEA but feel Printz more likely. I loved MAYBE A FOX and ROOKSKILL CASTLE (a sequel — yay) Love Avi but this one is a miss for me. THE DOOR IN THE STAIRCASE and GREAT WHITE SHARK SCIENTIST have been popular in my library, but not Newbery worthy. Could not get through FREE VERSE or STORYTELLER, just not for me.
    So, Jonathan, I’m no help with recommending these!

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ll chime in on a couple:

    I’ve noticed that Sy Montgomery always uses three columns of text in her Scientists in the Field books whereas many other authors in the series use two columns and more photographs and charts to break up the text. You can clearly see this by comparing Montgomery’s THE GREAT WHITE SHARK SCIENTIST, for example, with Turner’s CROW SMARTS.

    DIVE, for me, suffers from the same problem as SOME WRITER! in that it has the misfortune of not being SAMURAI RISING. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the committee recognizing two nonfiction books. Really surprised it wasn’t shortlisted for the YALSA Nonfiction Award. If we have time, I’d like to do a more in depth post on DIVE, pairing it with BANDIT’S TALE and STEAMBOAT SCHOOL. Fingers crossed.

  8. I’ve read three of these, all of which are part of our Newbery Club reading list: LUCKY STRIKES, MAYBE A FOX, and THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. I’m not sure which journals are used for the starred review count, but LUCKY and FOX both got starred reviews from 4 journals. LUCKY got them from Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and VOYA, and FOX got them from Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and VOYA. (Is VOYA not included in the count?)

    I enjoyed LUCKY STRIKES, but struggled with a racist remark. I don’t have my copy on hand, but at some point she made a comment about someone probably having a “darkie” servant. I know this is historical fiction and I understand the context issue, but considering this story really didn’t feature characters of color, I felt like this line was an example of doing more harm than good.

    I wanted to like ROOKSKILL more than I did (admittedly because of the cover and because of a reviewer’s comparison to Harry Potter and Narnia), but I struggled with how little hope there was in the book. It seemed to be so full of despair, without any of the fun or hope you would expect/ want from a book featuring both magic AND a castle.

    MAYBE A FOX seems to resonate with my students who read it. They like the magical element. I read it over the summer, and I have to admit that it’s really stuck with me as well. I can still vividly picture many of the scenes. Personally, I found it terribly sad, but my students don’t seem to be too overwhelmed by that.

  9. Hi Susie,

    For my spreadsheets I do not track VOYA stars for 2 reasons. The first is, unless they’ve changed recently, they don’t seem to really do stars? They have the quality and popularity ratings – so what constitutes a star – 5Q5P? or just a 5Q? Since I track stars to create reading lists for awards mostly and most of the awards explicitly say they aren’t for popularity, it seems unclear which would be the appropriate metric. The second is that they only review books for teens (middle school and high school) which means they’re not matching the age range for the other journals I track or for the Newbery. Others probably find VOYA useful, but I already feel like it’s a bit uneven comparing Horn Book with its six issues a year versus Kirkus with its 24 issues – at least they are pulling from the same basic pool of books to review for birth through high school!

    • Ah, good to know. I often look up titles (when I don’t have time to scan your spreadsheets!) in the Follett Titlewave system. In their “Reviews & Awards” section, they include VOYA. Now I understand the discrepancy between your spreadsheets and their starred reviews listings. Your reasoning makes sense ~ Thanks for the clarification!

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Unless practice has changed, the editor doesn’t override the reviewer’s rating, making it simply another opinion no better or worse than anyone else’s. Publishers will also use School Library Connection and Shelf Awareness for starred reviews, but I don’t count them either. Cuz then I’d have to start passing out starred reviews, too. 😛

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