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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist – Orphan Island

orphanislandShort List Title:  ORPHAN ISLAND
(Titles on our short list will be included in the live Mock Newbery in Oakland.)

There is maybe no more controversial title on our list, and I really look forward to the discussion of this title, here, and in person in Oakland.  For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on why I think the title deserves inclusion on our short list (why it was nominated) and what I think it does well.

The writing in this novel is exquisite. Word by word, sentence by sentence, it might take top honors for me, just based on that.  It is crafted beautifully.

The ambiguity of the world, and what happens at the end of the story is, to me, an asset and not a flaw, mimicking the confusion and ambiguity of exiting childhood and entering adolescence.  The author respects her child readers’ abilities to withstand the uncertainty and knows that many will, in fact, relate to it.

I found the world that Snyder built was strong, albeit sometimes frustrating due to the lack of clarity.  As a reader we are used to reading on for answers to our questions, and this book doesn’t deliver those answers.  The feelings, though, are clear.  Jinny’s confusion, anger, sadness, loss, and fear are strongest.  But the other children on the island, although side characters, have personality traits that start with strong feelings. Though the reader may not have answers as to why these children are as they are, they can imagine.  Again, this seems to mark a deep respect for her child reader, allowing for interpretations of theme.

The concerns are also relevant, of course, and as was discussed by Roxanne earlier, the theme seems deeply disturbing to some, but most commenters seem to agree that the interpretation of theme, which is the relevant criteria, is done in an outstanding way.  Do you feel that the world building was successful?  Was the plot and character overshadowed by theme and if so, is that OK in this kind of story?

Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at


  1. Just commenting that I definitely seconded this nomination in our discussion. I definitely feel that I could be swayed to appreciate this book and disregard my strong disliking of (what I first perceived as) the theme. Whatever that theme is, I think Snyder does an exceptional job in delivering it. I also agree with Sharon that those moments of uncertainties throughout the book actually kept my interest level high and made me consider deeply — the conflicts between “responsibility” and “personal wants” are meaty and could inspire much discussion, too. Who knows, I might even end up voting for this one!

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      I’m super interested in how few people immediately thought of this book as their pick and/or used a nomination for it, but yet how well it meets the criteria! It is the title on our short list that confused people by being there, but at the same time, I think that a pretty passionate arguement can be built around it. I’m excited to see how this one does, in person, online, and in real life Newbery!

  2. Tristan Miller says:

    I agree with this pick. My students love it and hate it(the ending). It’s memorable and sparks discussion. It’s number one on several of our lists.

  3. I agree that it’s very well-written. I do find the ending frustrating, since solving the mystery of the island is the focus of the book (until it’s not). I think the book overall works *if* you are thinking of it as a metaphor the whole time, but I don’t think it works as a story if you don’t know it’s supposed to be allegorical in some way.

    I read that she wrote it about her experience of being 12 and that that age was very specific for her. So I do wonder a little if it works for other ages or not. Does it only work if you’re right on the transition to adolescence, 6th/7th grade? There’s a clear cliff there when you’re transitioning to junior high. So I wasn’t sure if it worked if you’re in 4th grade. But I think it probably does, because the cliffs might be smaller, but you’re always nostalgic about your younger ages and the next grade is always an unknown.

  4. I agree with Sharon, that the sentence level writing in ORPHAN ISLAND is top notch. I remember the opening chapter very vividly, in the way she set the tone for the novel. There is so much mystery surrounding this opening scene and so much great suspense. I enjoyed how Snyder discreetly set up the island without including a bulleted list of rules for the reader. We learn about the island through thoughtful, detailed description and character development. I also appreciate this book’s ability to divide readers so much. It really is fun to talk about and debate!

    However, I do NOT look at the plot holes and unanswered questions as strengths. I think they cloud the message actually. I look at them as potential plot holes, and that is my biggest concern with ORPHAN ISLAND. As a reader, I found myself far too invested in the workings of the island, way moreso than the development of Jinny’s character. I felt as if Abigail’s left behind books served as too convenient of a plot device to supply the kids with knowledge they would otherwise not have. And I further question how much knowledge about how to survive on this island could truly be gained from these books. Books written at a level far beyond what any of them would be able to read fluently or comprehend (remember how they arrive illiterate, incoherrent, snot faced, and shivering, but are fluent readers of middle grade fiction and young adult novels in just a few short years?!?)

    I don’t think the book hides the fact that it’s a metaphor for growing up but that metaphor unravels a bit when it is dissected. If the island is malfunctioning because of Jinny refusal to leave, how does that relate to the message of the story? Why is growing up Jinny’s fault? Why do the other inhabitant’s lives need to be altered or endangered by Jinny’s refusal? What is the island telling Jinny? Especially in the end when the island allows her to break the rules and leave with an injured Care! (Isn’t this proof, that something is lurking behind the scenes, keeping everyone safe? Doesn’t this impact the carrying out of the coming of age theme? The kids felt too manipulated, too safe, to me. Never truly in danger. I think these hints take away from the focus of coming of age and growing up.

    I feel like I’ve gotten over my own disappointments and what I wanted this story to do in a way that I can openly hear an argument for it as a Newbery contender (because as Sharon says, the writing is fantastic). But I’m still not there. Divisive and discussion worthy? Absolutely. Distinguished delineation of plot and interpretation of theme? That I’m not sold on.

    • Yes, the reading! How do they become such fluent readers? And they figure out what all kinds of things in the books are that they’ve never encountered, but they make up their own words for so many things they do encounter and they don’t know how to spell their own names (some of which must appear in those same books). (I like the made-up words for atmosphere, but it doesn’t really make sense.) And how old are these people? If you assume they come once a year, then Ess must be about 4, but she seems like she seems more like 2. I mean, she can barely talk! (But is supposed to be learning to read.) And then everyone else (other than Lou) seemed junior high aged even though they have to be stair-stepped in-between. And Jinny seemed like the youngest of the older kids rather than the oldest.

      Also, one of the places the metaphor runs into problems for me is that all of the activities they are doing make more sense as things you would learn to do in adolescence–cooking, taking care of children, etc. So it’s kind of weird as a metaphor but also especially doesn’t work very well as story. The letters seem to establish that the parents send them there on purpose. But why would you send very small children out to be raised by other children? It would make more sense if they came at age 12 instead.

      I think the basic idea is the island is childhood and childhood is a magical place where you learn to do things in a safe environment with just enough risk to give you feedback and help you grow but nothing can really hurt you. Which I think is the goal for the environment you want to create for kids, but it’s obviously not the reality for many kids. And I don’t think it’s how childhood feels for any kid. It’s scary and it’s hard being a kid. So if it’s a book for MG readers, it’s kind of weird that it presents adolescence as scary but childhood as safe, since that only seems to make sense if you are an adolescent.

  5. I’ve never struggled with the mystery part not being revealed. To me, it is part of what makes the book work for children. We are all going into the unknown. The rules are changing and we flail against them. Jinny does such a good job of illustrating how ineffectual that is. She tries everything, but she can’t turn back time. I love how the rules abide. I’m fascinated by the mystery of how things on the island came to be, but I don’t want the author to explain it to me. It’s like how a movie never casts the right people when putting a book I love into film. I’d rather figure it out for myself.
    I’ve said before that this is the strongest title for me. It’s about not knowing where you come from (birth) and not knowing where you are going (death) but having to live by the limitations of the world you are in while here. works equally well for childhood into adolescence, but I like the bigger idea. It makes me sing to think that that kids are reading and debating and pondering all it’s big questions.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Sharon, that last question that end your opening post get right to the heart of this book and trying to answer them helped clarify things for me. “Was the plot and character overshadowed by theme and if so, is that OK in this kind of story?” With my first read I did feel that plot and character developed too much in services of the themes. Since I’m usually a character and plot kind of reader, it wasn’t the kind of reading experience that usually resonates with me. But I was fascinated and got very involved. The second time through I was more aware of how carefully she moves the themes forward, using the people and events directly for that purpose. For example: When Jinny can’t teach Ess how to swim, then Joon steps in and later Ben talks to her about it (p 86-92)….none of that is exactly riveting, and some of it kind of repeats the concerns we’ve already heard about Jinny’s treatment of Ess. But it’s all part of the gradual exploration of the island and our insight into Jinny’s thinking, and it helps us when we try to understand the decisions Jinny makes later. Snyder could have revealed greater depths in her characters or put more interesting incidents into the plot, but that might have reduced the impact of her themes. So my answer to the first part of Sharon’s question is still: “Yes, plot and character are overshadowed by theme,” but now I’m realizing: “Yes, that is totally OK in this kind of story.”

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I don’t have anything new to add from my comment on the original post, and not to distract, but I wanted to say that I am slightly uncomfortable with the idea of a Newbery winner showing distinguished qualities on re-read. Yes Committee members must absolutely re-read the nominees. And yes a Newbery winner should be distinguished enough to invite and reward re-reading. But over the years I’ve seen plenty of variations on the comment, “I didn’t really like this book the first time I read it, but I appreciate it now that I’ve read it again.” I would think the vast majority of the reading public would not give the book that second chance. Many readers may not even finish a book that starts slow or has issues towards the beginning, even if it turns out great (BOUND BY ICE). I think I am more on the side of the opinion also occasionally expressed on Heavy Medal over the years that “a Newbery should be obvious from the first page.”

      ORPHAN ISLAND doesn’t have exactly this problem, as I agree with those who think it hooks the reader well at the outset and may only put off readers as it approaches and reaches the end. But except for Committee members, what reader irritated by the end would go back to re-read in order to conclude now that I know where it’s going, I can appreciate how it gets there?

      • Such a great point, Leonard. I was so angry at the book’s ending that I would never re-read unless I absolutely had to. I truly wanted to throw the book across the room, but it was a library book, so I refrained.

        Obviously, I am not a fan of ORPHAN ISLAND, but I will say a re-read can also allow a committee member to try to read the book from a perspective outside of their own very personal reaction. There are many people who loved ORPHAN ISLAND on the first read. So in the second read, maybe I’m trying to see what they saw? I’m trying to get out of my own head as a reader and broaden my perspective? So in many ways I think it’s a valid point to bring up at the table.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        I disagree with you here Leonard. I think when it comes to picking a newbery that re-readability is super important. That wouldn’t be the case if the purpose was to pick a book the largest number of children will enjoy, but that isn’t nor has it ever been the purpose. The newbery purpose is to identify and celebrate the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature, and to encourage creators and publishers to take chances and strive for literary greatness.
        The book that is the most intellectually rewarding after careful and detailed literary analysis should come out ahead even if the audience for said book is small. I want publishers to support books like ORPHAN ISLAND and HOKEY POKEY and THE RIVERMAN that push children’s literature to places it rarely finds itself. I want authors to be celebrated for taking risks and not feel boxed in by what the largest number of children want or feel comfortable with in their reading.
        When we look back at the best of the best of newbery history it is those titles that get stronger and stronger upon rereads that, to my mind, are the strongest (WHEN YOU REACH ME, WESTING GAME, TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE).

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        I cannot even imagine participating in a Newbery discussion without re-reading. My first time through I take notes and try to identify author techniques and choices, but mostly I’m reading for myself. I take in plot, characters, and themes as a reader. The second time through, I’m much more able to identify how the author made it all work (or not). And to start to articulate that in ways that will make sense to someone else whose read the book, and may not have had the same reader response that I did.

        Another benefit to re-rereading as a Newbery member is that you may need to be able to identify strengths in a book you didn’t enjoy. If a book has a lot of support around the table, you should be trying to understand its strengths, even if you ultimately won’t vote for it. You can find yourself on a Committee that honors a book you don’t like….you may not change the “don’t like,” but hopefully you’ll be able to see why others judged it worthy.

        A re-read can also prepare you to argue against a book that you think falls short. For examples, if others cite character development as a strength and you don’t see it, you might re-read the book, identify what they’re responding to, and be better ready to argue that another book does this better, and show where and how.

        To me, Leonard’s example of a re-reading response supports the need for re-reading: “I didn’t really like this book the first time I read it, but I appreciate it now that I’ve read it again.” It’s exactly the difference between “like” (a reader’s response) and “appreciate” (a critical response) that the re-read helps us get to.

        Quoting Leonard again: “the vast majority of the reading public would not give the book that second chance.” Absolutely right. If I’m not in Newbery mode, I wouldn’t even think of re-reading a book that didn’t impress me a lot the first time through. I only re-read books that I know will hook me again the second time through. But we’re not talking about the “vast majority of the reading public,” we’re talking about 15 people who are committed to looking a the current year’s books in exhaustive detail in order to make a difficult, important decision.
        So they have do this while being highly aware of Newbery Criteria, their own personal biases, filtering out buzz, etc. I don’t see how you get there without that second read. And I have to admit…I sometimes need three.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        I agree with everything Destinee, Eric, and Steven wrote. I hope I wasn’t interpreted as saying something I didn’t mean to. Perhaps I should have written that I was uncomfortable with a Newbery showing distinguished qualities *only* on re-read.

  7. Not much I can add to this discussion that hasn’t already been touched upon.

    In our Mock Newbery committee here, we slated this book for discussion along with two others. We didn’t even get to talk about the other two titles. ORPHAN ISLAND not only proved to be an immensely discussable novel, but it also proved to be an extremely divisive book. There was no middle ground in our discussion. Most of our discussion was about theme – some of us interpreted the book one way, others in a completely different manner. We met somewhere in the middle, but not a single mind was changed in the hour we discussed the book.

    I’m on the “love it” side, but I recognize a theme that is so widely Up For Interpretation could be the book’s undoing. I think this book is less about Jinny and more about the confusion of adolescence. The wide-open ending is deeply satisfying to me and echoes the Not Knowing of being a child on the cusp of adolescence. For me, this is title is a shoe-in… but, if the Real Committee plays out the way my Mock Committee is, it will be close to impossible to build consensus around ORPHAN ISLAND.

  8. Ugh, too much profanity rocketing about in my head.

    I feel like this book absolutely betrayed its readers. From the beginning I was in it to find out why boats with babies where washing ashore. When I disliked Jinny and was bored with her interactions with Ess, I hung strong with the promise of the reveal of this tantalizing mystery. I figured it would come about three-quarters of the way through. When I neared the end of the book and realized that was all it was going to do – end, I experienced a visceral reaction equal to discovering my wallet had been stolen.

    Who the hell cares that adolescence is uncertain. Not may adolescents. They know this, they want a damn story. Yes, the Newbery is to recognize high literary quality, but lets not allow “quality” to make it unreadable.

    • DaNae, that describes so much of my own journey with the book. However, I do not interpret it as the author betraying the reader — at most, Snyder is incredibly skilled in setting up false expectations, red herrings, and manipulating the emotions of the readers. I might argue that if the themes of the book are uncertainty, frustration, and attempted rebellion (and potential redemption?), then Snyder has done a flawless job at interpreting the themes she set out to write. This might be when we consider the cardinal rule from the CCBC discussion guideline, “Look at each book for what it is, rather than what it is not.”

      • I realized I deserve to be chided for complete lack of positive content in my posting. I’m having trouble feeling chagrin. If Emotional Manipulation is a theme, then – well done. I didn’t know my mother’s method of parenting qualified as literary quality.

        I’d be happy to look at this book for what it is: a betrayal. I feel guilty even book-talking it to my students. It has such a great hook to draw them in, and in the next breath I want to warn them away. Would we even be talking about this book if the ambitious ending didn’t somehow make it feel loftier than its contrived plotting and its shallow character development warrant? Is its adulation akin to telling the Emperor that his new outfit is stunning, particularity the breaches that allow such an effective breeze the flow about his package?

        I’m sure I broke all types of protocol, but its late in the game and most won’t get to it.

      • Roxanne, we can’t just call this book a metaphor and dismiss any critique of its plot though. This book is more than just a metaphor.

        The author has stated that she wrote a prologue (or an epilogue, I forget) that detailed the island’s beginning and after an editor or friend read an early draft, they suggested not including it. The author has also stated that she is beginning to work on a prequel story from Abigail’s point of view, in diary format.

        Point being, there IS more to this story. This isn’t simply one big metaphor for adolescence. These aren’t just false expectations and red herrings. There really is something going on beyond the fog. It’s not just some ambiguous unknown. I may read Abigail’s diary in a year or two and change my tune and decide I love this world that Snyder has created (meaning this book does not stand on its own then.) I might also read Abigail’s diary in a year or two and realize there are still a lot of unanswered questions or I might dislike the dystopian world that Snyder has created.

        Either way, it’s unfair to cast aside criticism of this book by simply saying, “Adolescence is frustrating and so is this book therefore Snyder achieved her goal.”

    • I agree, DaNae, that I felt, maybe not betrayed, but jilted. I expected that we would get to see Jinny move on halfway through the book, but instead I was bored by her and her constant anger (though I did want to slap Loo, also). I feel like we didn’t really get to see her grow and change. When she finally left, it wasn’t because she’d grown, it was because she felt guilty that her actions were going to kill a child.

      Also, as an avid fantasy/magical realism reader, I was bothered that there were too many questions unanswered. Where did the clothes come from? There was a storehouse, but who restocked the storehouse? Shouldn’t there have been a yearly supply shipment tucked into the boat with the new child?

      And why was there a big deal about never picking the last of something made at the beginning, but then everyone followed the rule! That was a Chehkov’s gun that never fired, and I was a little disappointed. It seemed like it would have gone well with Ess’s behavior near the beginning, and especially with Loo’s defiance.

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