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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Amina and Auma

I’ve been thinking a lot about didactic content recently.  As the Newbery Criteria states:

The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity.

So, what do we do with books that are important and what counts as didactic content?  In some cases it is obvious – a picture book written expressly to teach a moral lesson, but with terrible rhyming scheme and little literary quality.  OK, great.  That’s easy.  But what about places where the line is finer.

aminas-voice-9781481492065_hrAMINA’S VOICE is a book that walks that line for me.  There are ways that this book is clearly excellent.  Amina, as a character, is believable and lovable.  The story is engaging and Hena Khan is an excellent writer.  We need #ownvoices books and seeing this kind of representation in middle grade literature warms my heart.

That said, I think this book is trying to do too much in service of didactic content.  There are so many intermingling plot points in such a slim volume that I felt like the author was just trying to make sure we got the message in every way possible about what the experience of an immigrant in American is like.

  • Amina’s voice and her fear of singing in public at school
  • The Quaran competition
  • Her best friend becoming a citizen and possibly changing her name
  • Her best friend becoming friends with a girl who they used to dislike
  • The destruction of the Muslim Center
  • The visiting uncle and the pressure that places on the family

While Khan does manage to tie all of these things together and resolve them satisfactorily, I do feel that all together it was a bit much and more focus on just a couple of these things would have made for a stronger title.  I know we can’t judge what we wish the book was, only what it is, so I guess I’m saying that maybe what it is was a bit too much, in terms of plot devices, for me.  Trying to make things relatable to a broad audience while also staying true to the experience of the narrator as a Pakistani Muslim is a real challenge.  This book provides a window and a mirror.  Like I said, this book is important.  I’m not sure it’s Newbery quality, though.

I also have questions about how the Korean-American family is portrayed, as this author is writing outside her own culture for that part of the novel.  Nothing raised red flags for me, but I’ve seen hints that it might have for others.  Please chime in if you have thoughts.

aumaThinking about AMINA’S VOICE and titles from this year I might compare it to, AUMA’S LONG RUN comes up for me, and not just because the color schemes of the covers and the names of the main characters are so similar.  In many ways these stories are quite different.  One is focussed on the experience of an immigrant family in America, while the other is a story taking place entirely outside of the United States.  One is contemporary and one set several decades ago.  Both are #ownvoices stories, telling us about experiences of communities outside of white middle or upper class America.  Both are important.

Eucabeth Odhiambo, however, does a better job of hitting the criteria.  The content feels less didactic, even though it is also a story with a capital-m Message.  Where does this succeed in ways that AMINA’S VOICE didn’t for me?  Development of plot.  Deliniation of characters.  I think Auma’s running as a plot device and character builder works better than Amina’s singing talent.  Both of these books belong in collections, but I think only Auma belongs on the Newbery discussion table.

What do you think?

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


  1. Eric Carpenter says:

    To tie today’s post into yesterday’s nomination discussion, I was wondering how a chair might deal with written nominations that bring up qualities outside those mentioned in the criteria. Specifically what is to be done when a nomination notes a book’s story, or its “relevance” or “timeliness” or even the demographics of its creator(s). These are all important qualities for collection development but not part of the newbery discussion.
    Does the chair look at the nomination text before it goes out to the committee? Are members gently reminded that story or “relevance” aren’t part of the criteria. I imagine if these topics were brought up during discussion they would be swiftly squashed, but in written nominations it must be handled differently, right?

  2. As far as my experiences went, the Chairs never edited or made specific requirements for the nomination text content. Steven was my 2013 Newbery Chair, and the only reminder we got was delivered face to face during our summer meeting. And it was about our charges to look closely for the literary qualities as delineated on the criteria. So, since theme is not part of the criteria (the presentation of the theme is), I don’t remember many people even mentioned it.

    Steven, as a chair, what was your reaction seeing our nominations submitted to you?

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      I agree…I don’t think chairs generally have a lot to say about nominations. They are a basis for discussion when the committee comes together, and in discussion anything that needs to come up would come up.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    Since we are discussing different versions of Newbery documents in another post, I have this question.

    The Newbery Manual PDF is dated October 2009. But if you go to the Newbery Award Selection Committee – 2018 webpage here:

    there is also a Word version of the Manual, that also has October 2009 on its cover page, but the file name when you download it says 2015 and crucially includes the added section on Diversity. So there’s the obvious question, why are there two versions, with the same date?

    I bring this up in regard to Eric’s comment, because I want to point out that the new section has the statement, “It is the responsibility of each ALSC media award and notables committee to reflect this value [i.e., inclusiveness] in their approach to their work.” I would argue that this statement is an example where the committee considers factors that are not explicitly mentioned in the Criteria. I’m pretty sure I’ve said before (probably in response to Eric) that I think “Committee members need to consider the following” does *not* mean the same thing as “Committee members must only consider the following.” Yes, the six elements of Criteria 1a need to be considered, but I disagree they are the only things committee members can consider. I think any element pertaining to literary quality is fair game, whether explicitly named in the Criteria or not. It’s interesting that the Criteria state, “the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the *named* elements” (emphasis mine). I think this makes possible the interpretation that there are “unnamed” literary elements that may be pertinent and considered.

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      Agree here too. I’m hoping the ALSC website re-do will clear up some of these issues with different manuals sitting in different places. It’s quite confusing! I do think the diversity statement is of critical importance in how we look at the breadth of literature each year.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I don’t believe that the 2015 Newbery Manual identifies “inclusiveness” or “diversity” as literary qualities to consider. (I’m not sure that’s what Leonard is saying, just trying to clarify). The first paragraph states that “everyone benefits” [when ALSC awards] “authentically reflect the diversity found in our nation and the wider world.” But rather than saying to members: Pick more diverse books, it’s saying (in the third paragraph): Be better at evaluating diverse books.

      I read it more as a reminder to committee members to acknowledge their own “gaps in knowledge and understandings, and biases.” And to “be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.” To me, it’s not saying: lots of inclusiveness necessarily adds to the literary quality of a book, but rather: be aware that you will need to apply your evaluation of literary quality with a wider, more open lens than you might be used to. If members succeed at this, the result should be a more diverse range of winners, but it still seems different than directly guiding members to choose books because of diverse or inclusive elements.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Steven, can you provide examples of how cultivating inclusiveness, evaluating with a “wider, more open lens,” might change one’s evaluation of literary quality? I am having trouble imagining this myself, and I sort of think that the end result would be little different than treating diversity and inclusiveness as a literary quality.

      • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

        When I think “wider lens” I think about being more open to the experiences of young people outside of your community.

        So, I could, for example, imagine a table of committee members thinking about a book as being “too mature” or having too limited an audience or tackling issues that are too tough for the sensibilities of children, and the “wider, more open lens” helping them to see beyong those initial thoughts to children for whom the book is not depicting experiences “too mature” or topics and issues too complicated, but children that have lived those sorts of experiences and deserve to see them represented.

        That book may have high literary quality, but the diversity statement helps remind committee members of the breadth of children that are our readers and that the book may be for.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    Please understand it’s been some months since I’ve read AMINA’S VOICE (and MILES MORALES which I’m also going to write about), so please forgive me if I get some details wrong. Reading what I wrote before posting, I think I am basically agreeing with Sharon, but standard disclaimer: I am not speaking for anyone except myself.

    1) A lot of Korean-Americans officially or unofficially take an “American” name. I think there could be an interesting and sensitive treatment of this phenomenon in a children’s book. All immigrants must balance changing to assimilate vs. sticking to origins. Immigrants may actively embrace change – they immigrated after all. It’s a very tired and constant and typically American exhortation in books and films to “always be true to yourself.” In some Diverse presentations, this can veer into a patronizing “we accept/admire/tolerate/include/value you the way you are! We don’t want you to change; it’s really our fault you aren’t as successful as we are!” I think to some cultural perspectives, including maybe the stereotypical Asian-American one, that attitude, however well-intentioned, doesn’t always sit well. Anyway, I just felt this book used the name change subplot to take Amina’s side and peddle a “stay true to your roots” message when reality is more nuanced.

    1a.) I think it is often more interesting when “be true to yourself” and “be true to your cultural heritage” are *not* the same thing and there’s a genuine tension. I too liked AUMA’S LONG RUN better, and I think this is one of the reasons why. I do think in AUMA’S LONG RUN, “be true to yourself” is clearly favored—there’s no contest there–but as I said on Goodreads, the book is still effective despite such criticisms.

    2) Speaking of names, where does Jason Reynolds get off having his Korean-American sidekick character question whether his name is even Korean? Sure the Romanized spelling is unorthodox, but I see no reason to doubt the original creator’s claim the character was named after a classmate of one of his kids.

    2a). And what Korean-American would ever Google his/her name to find out “what it means”? The Chinese characters/words that are homophonic with the individual syllables that make up a typical Korean name have meaning. So you ask the person who named you or knows how your Korean name was intended to be written in Chinese (remember: homophones). Some more recent names may actually mean something in Korean as well (i.e., be a Korean word), so that a name has two “meanings.”

    3) I don’t think using foreign words (often of food) make a Diverse book, and I see this even from writers writing of their own (but assuming, it seems, that their readership isn’t going to be their own.) I think using the names of things can be effective. Again, AUMA’S LONG RUN did this well, and even when writing “from the outside” it can work well, as in THIS IS HOW WE DO IT. But in AMINA’S VOICE, the description of Soojin greeting her elder (don’t remember the exact relation) with “annyeonghaseyo” while not inaccurate felt off to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t expect first-person narrator Amina to follow the sounds let alone transliterate. It would be perfectly fine and far more credible for first person Amina to just note something like, “Soojin greeted her elder in Korean.” I saw no reason to spell out what was said in a first-person narration except to score a point with someone somewhere. The “authentic” detail comes off as inauthentic given the narrative voice.

    3a) Not thrilled about the way Reynolds appropriated sijo into a classroom poetry project. It’s fine with me to appropriate the form – a little variety from writing haikus and sonnets and limericks in school is fine – but I bristled at the suggestion this was some respectful, virtuous thing, and I especially bristled at how it was this revelatory, find-my-roots thing for Ganke. But maybe this is irrelevant. I may just have opinions about teaching poetry, and the book pushed to make it seem like this was such a great poetry class for what I think weren’t particularly compelling reasons. Going back to Sharon’s framework, maybe this felt like a case of too much “moral lesson” instead of literary quality.

    4) I think it’s important for these books to carefully consider whether portrayal is accomplished through outsider-insider interactions or intra-cultural interactions (such as between generations) considering the culture/group being portrayed, the intended audience, and thematic choices. AMINA’S VOICE uses both but suffers a little from using the interactions to favor one side rather than really illustrating different perspectives. AUMA’S LONG RUN necessarily relies mostly on the latter (except a bit towards the end when Auma goes away to school) and succeeds by being relatively less judgmental. Even the most questionable of adults (grandmother and mother, teachers, bachelors and widowers, etc.) get a pretty fair shake — their behaviors and cultural mindset seem coherent. Oddly, I would say it’s really Auma herself who is the least nuanced presentation (Marriage? Completely out of the question!)

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      1a makes me think, again, about THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK, which I think also does a better job than AMINA’S VOICE in showing the tension between “true to yourself” and “true to your culture” in an authentic and age appropriate way.

    • Leonard, thank you so much for these detailed and personal/emotional responses to some of the books from 2017. I share some of your reactions when it comes to authors referencing Chinese cultural and historical stuff incorrectly or superficially — especially when the books are well liked by critics and young readers. (Walled City by Graudin, for example) And the only thing we can do is keep letting the industry insiders KNOW what the “real deal” is and keep educating them so less and less carelessness happens at the expense of someone else’s culture.

      I also appreciate that you challenged the author’s handling of of a first person child narrator’s voice — it’s one of the trickiest POV to master and yet I often find readers do not demand their authors to be more diligent in considering how to craft it better. This is a constant point of frustration to me as a picky reader when it comes to voice and narrative devices.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        I think it’s funny that I am not particularly put out by Gravel’s OLGA AND THE SMELLY THING FROM NOWHERE, which has a K-Pop character whose name isn’t remotely credible, being the name of a Korean food dish, and even that name isn’t right. Maybe it’s because it’s so shameless, or maybe it’s because even I recognize that K-pop is a bit ridiculous (and a form of appropriation to boot), and heck if an American singer can be called Meat Loaf….

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    As chair I felt that my job was to make sure nominations were submitted and then share them with the committee, as is. It’s possible that an occasional nomination might have touched upon areas that weren’t in line with the criteria, but I trusted that if any of us strayed too far from the criteria during the discussion, we would get back on track. I had to be aware of that as chair, but the group as a whole was also pretty focused.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I like Sharon’s point about “so many intermingling plot points” in AMINA’S GIFT “to make sure we got the message.” It makes me think about YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR by Mitali Perkins, which also packs all kinds of plot threads and cultural nuances in, but somehow it all seems less forced. It is longer, and for older readers (but still Newbery range I’d say), and I do think that some of the episodes weren’t as strong as others. But overall it was more involving and more memorable. I felt like I was getting the story of a particular family, rather than one representing an particular background or experience….if that makes sense?

  7. So glad to see Sharon is in my corner as to AUMA’S LONG RUN belonging on the table in a Newbery discussion. In addition to a strong showing in all the criteria I think it stands out in two especially: “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” and “Delineation of a setting.” Within a moving, engaging, and strong story and never being heavy-handed, Odhiambo provides a great deal of information about the time and place. But for me I think it is her writing of the setting that stands out so much for me. I lived in a different part of Africa at a different time, but there were still aspects of her telling that felt incredibly familiar and real to me. And she brought in —sensitively, thoughtfully, and clearly — so much about Auma’s people and some hard things that were happening in response to AIDS in that time. I think it is impossible for an outsider to do this. I’ve read many attempts featuring different places and times on the continent (several well-meaning titles are out this year) by outsiders and there is simply a completely different feeling in this title. It feels authentic, real, known in a way those others do not for me. She brings in a lot, but it doesn’t feel piled up (in the way it does for me too in Amina’s Voice) and I think that is quite a feat. To introduce so much that will be new to the readers in a clear and informed way is something to think about, I think.

  8. Some of the discussion reminds me of Melinda Lo’s post about the perceptions from reviewers when reviewing diverse books– and especially the 2nd point: “So Many (Too Many?) Issues”. She pointed out that sometimes, that’s just the reality: an intersectionality of all types of identities and events converging onto one main character and the authors are being penalized by portraying such characters faithfully. Of course, as Steven pointed out, there are degrees of success and skill levels in being able to pull off the many layered and multi-issue protagonists and plot. I simply want to point out that there are other ways to looking at the “too many issues” aspect of some of the books.

    • Brenda Martin says:

      Thank you for bringing up the “too many issues” point. So often I feel like this is just a person using unexplained shorthand for the critique that they have with a book. Is it too many plot points? Too much diversity (as Malinda Lo rails against in the link you provide above, and others have as well)? Too many threads that the reader (child or adult) has a hard time following them all? Too many concerns that make it seem like ‘piling on’? Or other? There are so many possibilities that the phrase really requires more explanation.

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