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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

First Time a Charm?

Train I Ride

In a comment from an earlier post, Genevieve said:  “I wish there was a MorrisStars Beneath Our Feet equivalent for children’s books.”  It’s an interesting idea.  YALSA started the Morris Award in 2009 to honor a “first time author writing for teens.”  ALSC doesn’t have a similar award at this point, and the Newbery Terms and Criteria tell us “not to consider the entire body of work by an author,” so first-time status doesn’t impact the award at all.  

We’ve had first-timers win the Newbery Medal in the past, but very rarely.  MOON OVER MANIFEST was the most recent (2011), but, unless I’m missing one, then you have to jump back to SOUNDER (1970) and IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT (1964).  Honor books by debut authors are much more common, though.   Recent examples include Lauren Wolk’s WOLF HOLLOW (2017), Vince Vawter’s PAPERBOY (2014), INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai (2012), and THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly (2010).

Until I started thinking about it, I hadn’t realized how many of the books we’ve discussed on Heavy Medal are by first time children’s book authors (at least as far as I can tell).  The list includes  MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, THE HATE U GIVE, I’M JUST NO GOOD AT RHYMING, THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK,  AUMA’S LONG RUN, THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE, and SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS.  Here are two more worth talking about:

TRAIN I RIDE by Paul Mosier received three starred reviews and three nominations so far from Heavy Medal readers.  Like SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS and THE SOMEDAY BIRDS, it’s a road trip novel.  Rydr travels from Los Angeles to Chicago on a train, and along the way meets people, learns things, and gradually reveals the truth about her life to the reader.  Her first person, present tense voice is a strength.  She’s cynical and unsentimental, but we sense that she’s using that to hide some deep feelings.  Early on she looks back at her ninth birthday spent at a diner with her mom (p 14-16).  A guy comes by to talk to her mom, who then leaves to go to the bathroom.  “I could tell by her cheery tone that everything was going to get very bad.”  Rydr tells about the songs on the jukebox and the food she ate (“The waitress gave me a sympathetic smile, and I hated her for it”.)  Then bluntly describes the sirens and the paramedics who recognized her:  “It wasn’t the first time I’d see them and it wouldn’t be the last.”   

She uses that tough attitude and an ease with making up lies to get by on the train ride, where she has no money for food.  She makes some tentative friendships along the way, and the characters she meets are interesting and well-drawn.  The shifts back and forth from the train journey to events from her past keep the character development and the plot moving forward, and you’re not always sure which direction it’s going.  

By the time the journey’s over, a lot has happened.  Maybe a little too much,,as Rydr’s terse, pointed observations and opinions give way to big emotional moments.  The kiss from Carlos (140), the flight from the train (145-149), the conversation with Neal where they share how they’ve  both changed each other’s lives (168-171)…all of those are powerful individual scenes, but putting so many cathartic events into the last 30 or so pages seems a little jarring, especially given the restrained pace of the rest of the book.  I understand that the emotional build up is intentional and it’s set up carefully, but it wasn’t fully successful for me.  Still, this is a book I’ll recommend, and I definitely will be interested in Paul Mosier’s next one.

STARS BENEATH MY FEET, David Barclay Moore’s first book, earned four starred reviews and has two Heavy Medal nominations so far.  Setting, characters, and plot all shine.  Lolly’s Harlem neighborhood feels like a real, specific place, and one that impacts his life significantly.  

When you’re a little kid in Harlem, you can pretty much go anywhere and do anything as long as you’re careful.  But when you start to get old – about my age, twelve – things start to change.

You can’t go everywhere (4).

The buildings of New York City are important too, as Lolly and Big Rose walk through the city in search of Lego-building inspiration.

Lolly’s narrative voice has a natural ease to it.  You feel like the words he uses really come from a twelve year old kid, not from an author.  Like the way he responds when Yvonne brings home two bags full of Legos (31):  “I was so stunned I couldn’t say nothing.”  Then a couple paragraphs later:

I waded my hands through all the Legos some more.  There were so many.  They made a sound like money, like quarters tumbling together.

What do you think, Lolly?” Ma said again.

The thing was, I couldn’t!

Man, I just couldn’t!  

The plot includes several threads that are all connected in some ways, including the death of Lolly’s brother, the building contest, and the Lego theft.  Characters are well drawn and distinct.  I especially appreciated the ways that the friendship between Big Rose and Lolly evolves.  I read this one a while ago and have a feeling it will really hold up with a second read.  It’s in the running for my third round of nominations.


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


  1. I, for one, thoroughly appreciated the narrative voice of The Train I Ride and also found that there is a lot of tenderness and heart in the story. However, I also found myself being taken out of the story time and time again, wondering about the actual logistics and certain reactions/encounters of total strangers. It definitely took me a while to “buy” the instant bonding between Rydr and Neal. Or perhaps I never actually bought the friendship but resigned to it because I wanted things to work out?

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    Another debut novel that I think is as strong as any of the many debuts already mentioned is Burt’s GREETINGS FROM WITNESS PROTECTION! The protagonist is similar in some ways to Rydr, whom you describe as “cynical and unsentimental, but we sense that she’s using that to hide some deep feelings”, but I think Nicki/Charlotte is much more likable, and the book itself has a lot more page-turning excitement and appeal. I completely agree with your assessment of the climactic emotional scenes of THE TRAIN YOU RIDE – maybe too much and too much change in pace.

    I made a few comments about THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET in the post about PIECING ME TOGETHER and PATINA. I agree that setting is a strength. But though I liked many of the characterizations, I had problems with the counselor character, Mr. Ali, and, to be honest, Lolly himself. I did like his small interactions with Rose, Sunny, Vega, et al. Those were among the best parts of the book. I was less convinced by the handling of Lolly’s bigger issues: the death of his brother and his coping through Legos.. I also had a number of credibility issues, including the whole theft and Lolly’s viral popularity.

    • Steven Engelfried says:

      The Lego theft also bothered me a bit. The idea that anyone would throw away two garbage sacks of Legos is a stretch, but Lolly needed that many for the his project to take off. You’d think that even if Lolly was too dazzled to think twice about it, his Ma would have wondered….

      • Leonard Kim says:

        And Yvonne continues to bring him more and more Legos after those first two bags. But almost all Legos are sold in boxed kits. I’d be surprised if anyone outside of the official Lego stores sells them loose (the way described by Moore about Tuttle’s Toys), and if you’ve seen those setups in a Lego store, the idea that anybody could fill two trash bags (to seem like “millions and millions of Legos” to Lolly) without being noticed and do it repeatedly defies belief.

        Having raised two boys and lived among Legos for many years, Moore’s general understanding and familiarity with Legos and how they work seems a bit suspect to me.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Argh – my daughter likes Legos too. Don’t mean to perpetuate stereotypes. It was really just one of my sons for whom Legos became something of a Lolly-like obsession. I’m sure over all those years, hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars were spent. But I wouldn’t be surprised if even that many Legos still fit in a couple garbage bags. Legos are small, and the more I think of it, the more impossible this plot point feels to me.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Not that anyone cares, but I just read a news article about a 118 ft Lego tower that used ~500,000 bricks. If Lolly and Rose were each competing to build 10 ft towers, that would be about 50,000 bricks each, which I understood to be Lolly’s own (from Yvonne.) Legos run at about 10 cents per piece, so just to build those two towers (to say nothing about the supposed elaborate towns they build) would be a credulity-straining $10,000.

      • Leonard, actually, I care! Credulity is super important to me. I get super annoyed when I notice huge holes and always wonder how come no one in the editorial process questioned the author. Especially if it is something easily fixable! A colleague of mine pointed out a big inconsistency in the Nation Book Award winner Far From the Tree and we both scratched our heads as to how the mistake got into the final printing of the book. (A character has taken a cab to a friend’s house and then the next paragraph shows her pushing her bike into the friend’s garage.)

      • This is why I like you so much, Leonard. You catch things like this: sharp, observant reader that you are. As an editor, you’d keep many an author on their toes!

  3. Regarding GREETINGS FROM WITNESS PROTECTION! , I liked it, but struggled with suspending disbelief. I read it months ago so I may be misremembering, but I particularly recall wondering about cell phone use. Especially the brother’s. Seemed, based on my hazy recall, problematic in terms of the family’s security. There were little things throughout like that kept me wondering about security and safety.

  4. I’ve been a pretty strong advocate for TRAIN I RIDE ever since I read it way back in June. For the longest time, it was my frontrunner. Admittedly, I have found this year underwhelming, but TRAIN is still a top choice for me.

    At our last Mock Newbery here at the university, we had a spirited discussion about TRAIN, but the vote was decidedly split. Half of us found Rydr’s voice and experience authentic, with the moments of melodrama less distracting. The other half felt as some of you did: that the action was rushed, that there was Too Much Going On. All of us felt, however, that Mosier’s prose was truly lovely. Uncluttered, beautifully composed.

    I’m uncertain if the committee will be able to build consensus around TRAIN, but I think it’s an extremely strong debut novel. Mosier is certainly an author to watch. I have the ARC for his next book, Echo’s Sister, and – full disclosure here – I was a beta reader for a novel of his that is set to release in 2019. I can say that 2019 effort is truly stellar. Holy cow, you guys, I can’t wait to talk about it.

    • This has me excited for Mosier’s work, Joe! I definitely saw the talent in his writing, but for some reason, I just wasn’t as enthusiastic about the story in TRAIN I RIDE as some others. I know kids are put in situations like Rydr’s in the real world, but her ease at navigating the train and forming relationships with everyone she encountered on the train, was just a little too over the top for me.

    • (I’ve tried posting this response a number of times without luck, but maybe this one will finally go through?)

      I don’t generally read much middle grade but I, too, am a proponent for TRAIN I RIDE. One of the concerns that has been raised, about rushed action or too much going on, I felt was appropriate to the setting. The train is moving (most of the time) and there is a finite amount of time before Rydr’s destination approaches. This all propels the plot and the actions of the characters accordingly, just as it is with people in the process of traveling. Connections are made and unmade in a matter of hours or days. And people have a tendency to act more spontaneously when they’re outside their normal routines.
      The scene near the beginning of the book where Rydr finds her grandmother was perfectly written, capturing the quiet reality of the situation rather than with melodrama, clamor, and over-the-top shock, which can so often mar an otherwise well-written book.
      I also felt like there were a number of aspects of this book that were MG/YA borderline, which may have made it particularly appealing to someone who tends to read teen lit as I do.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Todd, I did feel that despite Rydr’s age and the lack of “mature” content this felt tonally to me like YA, and I’m sure that’s why I didn’t really care for it. (I’m the flip side of you; I don’t read much YA and much prefer MG.) I don’t question the Newbery eligibility of this book and probably don’t have much of an “appropriateness of style” argument to stand on though. I suppose Rydr’s level of self-awareness and social maturity and her situation suggest a YA treatment which is then undermined slightly by the more MG-like authorial cocoon of safety that multiple people above have mentioned as causing almost-incredulity.

    • Genevieve says:

      Finally read TRAIN I RIDE, and I thought it was terrific. I didn’t have issues with the pacing, as it seemed right to me that the emotions Rydr was holding in would be stronger and needing to burst out as she approached her destination and had to face leaving the people who were treating her warmly for a completely unknown guardian.

      Can’t wait to read Echo’s Sister and his 2019 book.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I think in some ways both of these books have what Joe identifies as Too Much Going On. I also think of it as the Okay For Now Effect (I was sure that book was a Medal winner until I got to the last 50 pages). I thought it was interesting how both main characters were impacted by a poet, Rydr by Ginsburg and Lolly by Wheatley. Both of those rang true enough to me when I read them; I like the the idea that this could happen and both characters seemed perceptive and sensitive enough to connect with those writers. But again, it’s the sort of thing that risks stretching credibility in order to pack in more grand meaningful element.

    • I felt the same way about Okay For Now – it was a five star read until the cluttered ending.

      For me, TRAIN is less cluttered than OFN, and there’s a nuance to the writing that saves it from being too over the top.

      In my Mock Newbery group on campus, we talked a lot (A LOT!) about the appropriateness of Howl. We wondered whether a child like Tenderchunks would really be attracted to that poem or if it was just a poem that Mosier himself likes and wanted to shoe-horn it into a narrative. We were divided. One participant thought that a poem by Mary Oliver, like “Coming Home”, would have been a more purposeful decision – especially as a mirror to Rydr’s own psychological struggle. We did like how “Howl” played into the final two pages of the book, but I’m still undecided about how I feel about it being The Poem of The Book.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I think there are a couple of common debut novel “sins” (which are completely understandable — you want to make the most of your first and maybe only shot). Doing Too Much is one of them. Gushy acknowledgments are another. Anyway, I think another one is the Shout-Out to Literary Inspirations (sometimes not quite credible in context) I think this may be true of both TRAIN I RIDE and STARS BENEATH OUR FEET and definitely GREETINGS FROM WITNESS PROTECTION!

      Also: THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK as well as THE EPIC FAIL OF ARTURO ZAMORA (another debut!) both make Marti an “impact” (and perhaps others – don’t remember). Bartok’s children debut, THE WONDERLING, repeatedly invokes T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.

      These are just what came immediately to mind. I’m sure there are other examples.

      Oh, and Okay For Now is a 5-star book for me from front to back 🙂

      • Leonard, I TOTALLY concur. There isn’t a single thing in OKAY FOR NOW that didn’t work for me. One of my top ten all time favorites!

        Great list, btw. You alluded to this on Goodreads when you reviewed WITNESS PROTECTION and I was curious to hear more.

      • sam leopold says:

        Leonard, I agree with your OKAY FOR NOW comment!!!!

  6. Chiming in a bit about The First Rule of Punk: I find the book thoroughly believable, charming, and with just the right pacing and action sequences. As debut novel goes, First Rule of Punk definitely feels polished.

  7. Thank you for this post – it’s great to have discussion of strong books by first-time authors.
    If there were a Morris for MG, I would nominate The Stars Beneath Our Feet, The Hate U Give, See You in the Cosmos, and Greetings From Witness Protection (a very well-done and engaging book, though I agree about the need to suspend disbelief on some aspects). But I haven’t yet read the others on your list, so my hypothetical nominations could change.

  8. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    The Newbery Terms and Criteria tell us to consider “Presentation of information including accuracy…”, which obviously has strong implications for a lot of nonfiction. But it can come into play for fiction too. Sometimes discussions about accuracy in fiction can get a little nitpicky. If the concern had been something like: “they used a purple lego brick” and there’s no such thing as purple lego bricks” (there is, but if there wasn’t), that would be an unfortunate error, but one of limited impact. But the scope and size of the buildings Lolly and Rose created, is such a central element in Lolly’s story that the unrealistic logistics of what they build is meaningful and definitely worth bringing up in committee discussion.

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