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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Only two stars. None taken.

well that was awkward

The category of Funny-Middle-School-First-Romance is always well represented on library shelves, but when it comes to Newbery recognition…well, ”none taken,” as Gracie from Well, That Was Awkward would say. It’s her response when someone has insulted her, but hasn’t said “no offense” (p. 7, 134-5, 250). Published reviews of Rachel Vail’s book are strongly positive, but it has just two stars [Oct 14 udpate:  It actually has three stars now (HB, VOYA, BCCB), which is not bad at all…but I’ll keep the  title because I think it was just two when this posted]. Adults I’ve talked to who have read this book have liked it, but not loved it. When I browsed through GoodReads reviews I noticed the word “cute” pops up a lot. I double-checked, and no, “cuteness” is not one of the literary qualities delineated in the Newbery Terms and Criteria. But on the other hand, for a book in this genre, a high level of cuteness is not a bad thing, and maybe even a key element in “quality presentation for children.”  

Along with Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan, Well, That Was Awkward strikes me as a thoroughly excellent book in an under-awarded genre. It’s #3 on my list of funniest books of the year (#1: Dog Man Unleashed; #2: Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties.) The humor comes through in the rapid-fire wit of Gracie and her friends, especially Emmett. Their back and forth conversations, both in person and through texts, remind me of an old movie like His Girl Friday, where you can just barely process the last witticism, and then there’s another on the way. Gracie’s way of talking about herself is also funny, and endearingly self-deprecating:  “I love tortoises. Whoa, calm down, me.” (p. 25)  

There’s a lot more going on than the humor, though. Gracie’s struggles to make sense of the complexities of middle school social dynamics are handled with poignancy and insight. She’s smart enough to recognize the arbitrariness and unfairness of it all, but she’s immersed in it herself and not able to fully stand outside. She’s also trying to come to terms with the death of her sister, which happened before she was born, but still casts a shadow over Gracie and her family.  

Language, delivered through Gracie’s first-person narration, helps to carry the story and its themes. The words that Emmett and Gracie share are the spark of their relationship. They have a verbal connection that sparkles in their conversations, with pet words and phrases that they reuse with each other, like “whelmed” (p.194-5, 313). These are amusing, but also work as recurring indicators of how right they are for each other. And when they do similar clever language things while texting as someone else, like the routines on “favorite type of lake” (p. 171: “great, cornf, and Frostedf”….funny, right?) and “favorite type of used” (p. 225), it’s a hint (which they miss, but most readers won’t) that it’s really the two word people, Gracie and Emmett, who are doing the texting.

Gracie’s creative words are used for humor, but also for the more serious moments. For example, after a rift with her friends and a hard conversation with her dad about her deceased sister, she ends the chapter with “my phone still as cold and as quiet as a detached planet…” (p. 239) That’s just such a Gracie way to express that feeling. And also cleverly refers back to a phrase her father had just used.

The story echoes Cyrano de Bergerac, but is not at all dependent upon it. The key plot element in which Gracie and Emmett each pose as a friend while texting to facilitate the friends’ romance, is (as in Cyrano), just believable enough. The scene where Gracie insults herself to mock her antagonist Riley (p. 67) plays on a similar moment from Cyrano that most readers of this book won’t get at all, but it stands on its own just fine; it’s funny and demonstrates Gracie’s ability and courage to stand up for herself in creative ways. 

With the texting mix-up, most readers will catch on quickly that it’s Emmett texting back and Vail trusts us to get that.  Gracie gets it too at some level, and only refers to it obliquely at the end:  “was it always…I mean, were you the one…” (p. 312) I do feel Gracie would likely have caught on earlier and mentioned it, or at least speculated about it, but I think this way works too.  

The ending is just right for a light romance like this, as Gracie articulates what readers have known for a while about who she should be with:  “Emmett.  No way. But at the same time: Of course. Of course” (p. 314).

 I found Gracie to be one of the more memorable characters of any book this year, and Vail’s use of first person narration and dialogue to establish characters and develop themes to be at a distinguished level.  But maybe I’m the only one….? If so, is it just that this isn’t the book, or is it that this type of book just isn’t Medal-worthy?

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. This book wasn’t even on my radar because I haven’t seen it mentioned in awards-worthy discussions.

    But your write-up has convinced me to add it to my to-read list. It sounds like a lovely little book. Thanks, Steven!

  2. Listed on Jen J’s spreadsheet as having two starred reviews. I loved it and thought it was quite clever and sweet. I would love for a funny read to get Newbery recognition. Another funny and clever read is Doreen Cronin’s latest Chicken Squad book (Dark Shadows). Beginning chapter books just don’t get their due!

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Thanks for catching my mistake about the stars, Jennifer. I thought I checked Jen J’s spreadsheet carefully, but obviously missed that. Just updated the post (and title).

      • Dear Steven,
        Lovely review! Just for accuracy’s sake (and credit where credit is due): doesn’t the book have THREE starred reviews, in fact? The first is The Horn Book (which I found in full)
        ; the second and third are listed on the Amazon page (where I saw them) from BCCB and VOYA, respectively. Seems like such a worthy book so (though maybe it messes with your title yet again) worth noting all the amazing, deserved accolades!

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Thanks Sarah! I corrected in the text, but am keeping the title so it doesn’t look like a new post. I’m glad that AWKWARD did get such stellar reviews after all….but yes, it does sort of ruin my title, doesn’t it.

    • Someday I would love a Newbery that Just Makes Me Laugh!!! I’m with you!

    • I might be an outlier on this one, but I thought FLORA & ULYSSES was absurdly funny.

  3. Eric Carpenter says:

    No list of the funniest 2017 books is complete with out Sarah Albee’s Poison: deadly deeds, perilous professions, and murderous medicines. That is one hilariously morbid informational text.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Glad to hear that Poison is good…I don’t have my copy yet but will read soon for sure. Albee’s Bugged from a few years ago was excellent. And humorous non-fiction is another category that doesn’t get much (any?) award recognition. Sibert winners have been pretty serious stuff, except a few for the younger ages.

  4. Sara Coffman says:

    OH! I SO agree. I read this one right after its release, and it had slipped from my mind, but truly this is a worthy book. The writing is clever and sharp and true without being twee or condescending. It flies off my shelves, and I love recommending it to students – girls and boys. In fact, when I just went to grab it for a quote, I found it checked out! It doesn’t automatically make you think Newbery because it is unlike so many other contenders, but I’m thrilled you have suggested it. In particular, I think it uses the text format and voicing so well – it is innovative but doesn’t seem to be using that format merely for the sake of innovation. And it is funny, definitely, but it is not just funny (or even just a “light romance”). It captures those middle years honestly and respectfully. I put my vote behind this one getting further consideration.

  5. Funny gets no respect. Brilliant and hilarious movies not even NOMINATED for Oscars: Bringing Up Baby, The Big Lebowski, Duck Soup, Harold and Maude, His Girl Friday, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Local Hero, Modern Times, The Palm Beach Story, The Shop Around the Corner, Sweet Smell of Success, What’s Up Doc, This is Spinal Tap — to say nothing of the brilliant comedies that were nominated but lost to logy IMPPOOOOOOORTANT old-fashioned portentous dramas. Great comedy — in books as well as movies! — has great depth; it can be a slyly brilliant way to talk social issues and gender and politics without being heavy-handed. I hate that it gets no respect. To me, it’s terribly small-minded of the “deciders” in all awards fields. TAKE COMEDY SERIOUSLY, VOTERS!

    • The problem is that humor seems so subjective. Harder to reach consensus on what is funny, I think, than other emotions.

      • I agree Monica. From the writer’s perspective I find it so much easier to make someone cry than laugh. I think humor is much more bound by culture, ethnicity, class etc. I know how to make my own family laugh. I have much less confidence in making someone whose life is substantially different from mine laugh.

        That said, there is no reason at all not to honor humor. It’s harder to make folks laugh. It should be honored accordingly.

  6. Eric Carpenter says:

    Holes, The Whipping Boy, Dead End in Norvelt…Funny books win the newbery. Just not very often. I think it may have something to do with asking 15 individuals to have similar senses of humor. 4 or 5 committee members balking at a book because they don’t see the humor as successful makes it almost impossible to come out the winner.

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    I have read this book and feel the need to counter to some degree the impression that this is primarily a “funny” book. Some of the characters, like their models from Cyrano, are supposed to be articulate and quick-witted, and that does come through strong. But I don’t think this book is that concerned with eliciting laughs. My funny book of the year is Shannon Hale’s THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL, which I would totally argue for the Newbery if I thought it had any chance. (There’s FUNNY GIRL, I guess, but I was unfortunately disappointed by it, as I’d love to have a Newbery discussion about an anthology.) Also by Shannon Hale is the latest PRINCESS IN BLACK, which I hope I will have the opportunity to argue for Newbery recognition.

    But of Steven’s characterizing words “Funny Middle School First Romance,” I think “Romance” is the defining one here, though there is more to this book than that (e.g., the dead sister). Romance may not get a ton of respect Newbery-wise either. Eligible books with comparable romantic elements might include Reynolds’ MILES MORALES and Cartaya’s THE EPIC FAIL OF ARTURO ZAMORA (in that written communication plays an important courtship role in all these books.)

    I really appreciated this post, particularly the thought-provoking final statement, “maybe I’m the only one….? If so, is it just that this isn’t the book, or is it that this type of book just isn’t Medal-worthy?” My gut reaction was it’s “just that this isn’t the book.” But then my inner Jonathan Hunt asked, can I think of any books in this genre that were Newbery-worthy? (If not, then I am not being fair and need to re-calibrate.) But yeah I can think of examples. The two books that popped into my mind were Schmidt’s Okay For Now (which didn’t win, but I’d like to think there was general hue and cry about it’s not winning) and maybe Van Draanen’s Flipped.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      It was the humor that drew me to this book; possibly because I’m typically less interested in tween romance. I’m not sure I laughed out loud (as with Dog Man), but I smiled a lot. I admit that when I come across what I consider an award-worthy humorous book , there are almost always other key qualities as well. I think what I like might be the way the humor gets at those other qualities (romance, characterizations, sometimes even sadness…) in creative ways. True (for me at least) of Flipped and Okay For Now, too. Both very funny, both with a lot more going on behind the humor…or maybe along with the humor is a better way to say it.

  8. Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

    I don’t know that I would have even read this book if Steven hadn’t talked about it, and I’m so glad I did. I agree that it is worthy of some discussion and consideration. Yes, humor is subjective, and that may be hard to reach consensus around, but there are other things this book does well (although it is exactly my type of humor and made me laugh frequently, which is rare). I found Gracie so real and so charming and I thought Vail executed her voice remarkably well. There’s a risk, in this kind of story, of the author’s own voice coming through with writing that feels more complex than the voice of the narrator, OR of the narrator feeling inbelievable. Gracie, though, is clever, turns a quick phrase, and is laugh-out-loud funny without feeling too old or inauthentic.

  9. Meredith Burton says:

    Thank you for recommending this book, (one I refrained from reading as I read very few romances, middle school or otherwise). I loved Gracie’s wit, and her constant habit of belittling herself made her so endearing. She’s a wonderful character as is Emmett. I loved Sienna, too, even if her constant inability to know what to text tried my patience after a while. I’m glad she finally realized that she was too dependent on Gracie and needed to find answers for herself. It’s a true story of self-discovery with instances of sweet humor that made me smile. I especially loved how Ms. Vail explored Gracie’s relationship with her mother. The handprint plate, woman sitting at the pastry shop and the tortoise were excellent symbols. Thank you for recommending this novel. I enjoyed it immensely.

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