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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist – Vincent and Theo

Vincent and theoShort List Title: VINCENT AND THEO (Titles on our short list will be included in the live Mock Newbery in Oakland.)

Vincent and Theo is not a book that I would casually pick up or leisurely read as entertainment.  It would have been the book that makes me slightly groan, “Oh, really? Now I MUST read it all the way through?” when someone else nominates it for Newbery Midwinter discussion.  It would also, ultimately, be the title that makes me feel incredibly lucky to serve on the Newbery Committee — because it allows and compels me to reach beyond personal and limited leanings to read more broadly and variedly.

And what a compelling read this is!

Steven details much of Heiligman’s dexterity in shaping the tensely intimate and often melancholy tale of these two brothers in his first post for this year’s Heavy Medal. He cites the effective recurring motifs, carefully constructed present/past tense verb uses, effective imageries and short sketch-like chapters, among other positive qualities of this title.

I want to echo all of these and add that the length and details (even repetitive ones) are necessary for readers to live in the brothers’ skin and ultimately feel the profound impact of their joint fate.

This is the final page before the Epilogue:

vincenttheolastpage

 

VINCENT DIED in Theo’s arms.

Theo dies alone.

Any reader who has taken this long and volatile journey through the duo-biography would simply have to sit back in deep contemplation for quite a moment and process the two brothers’ influences on and devotion to each other.

I wonder how many Heavy Medal readers have read this title because it is on our short list.  And how many would vote for Vincent and Theo as your top three?

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Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Leonard Kim says:

    Top 3? This is my top 1, though I am open to age range arguments and willing to vote otherwise.

    Question for past Real Committee members — How secret is the balloting? in the discussion do people indicate how they will vote? Or in later voting rounds, do people reveal how they voted before?

    • Leonard, I am not playing coy when I say that each winner comes as a surprise to me — whenever I serve on an Award Committee: whether the book is one that I’ve been secretly rooting for all year long, or whether it’s a mind-change in that locked room over two days of intense discussion.

      I often even surprised myself when finally casting the ballot and it is an absolutely secret, anonymous, and respectful process. Sure, everyone has a pretty strong inkling of each member’s likes and dislikes. However, since it rarely is really between just a couple of titles, there is always room for strategically placed votes and even voiced opinions.

      It is totally possible for someone to never voice any objection to a book but also to never vote for it. It is also totally possible for someone to champion loudly for a book and then decide in the 11th hour that the book actually has some fatal flaws and not vote for it. I also learned from the few times I served that too strong an opinion, voiced too frequently could be a total turn-off for others who do not quite share the same passion!

      I am hoping that we will experience some of real-life tension in next week’s Newbery 15 process!

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      The ballot’s been totally secret in my experience. Even as chair I never knew for sure who how people voted…just the vote totals, which were shared after the ballot (or ballots, if there was more than one). You might be able a pretty good guess at a couple people who voted for a particular book, based on vocal support, and a couple who did not vote for it, based on concerns expressed. But with 15 people, that leaves a lot unknown. And even if you’re pretty sure one person cast a vote for one book, you don’t know if it’s 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.

  2. Roxanne, I want to thank you for this comment: “I want to echo all of these and add that the length and details (even repetitive ones) are necessary for readers to live in the brothers’ skin and ultimately feel the profound impact of their joint fate.”

    Because the length and age appropriateness is something I struggled with personally, the first time through this. It took me a long time to read. I wondered about the subject matter and the length together as being not really suitable for a child audience. But I think I agree with you, that this would not have worked as a shorter text. That breadth (or depth) is needed for true impact. And I hadn’t really thought of that until you just mentioned it in your post.

    I think this is without question, the most beautifully written text I have read this year. But I still wonder whether the style is suitable for a child audience. I read this feeling like Heiligman is walking me through an art gallery, describing this scenes from Vincent and Theo’s lives as if they are works of art. It’s a very sophisticated style. Are children going to get that? Furthermore, the subjects are both adults, dealing with very adult things. I understand that even kids could reflect on their relationships with their own siblings, but to the same extent of Vincent and Theo’s impact on each other? I question that.

    I think this is definitely a title at the far end of the age range and therefore, according to the expanded criteria and definitions in the manual, wouldn’t one need to argue that this text is SO distinguished that anyone in that narrow age range should read it?

  3. sam leopold says:

    My 6th and 7th graders have read this book and, in our recent mock Newbery election, it has received the gold medal. Their reason: more than any other book this year, it is highly distinguished in all the criteria areas.

    • Sam, thank you so much for sharing your students’ feedback. It definitely helps with the “age” question. Do you know how they react to the inclusion of Theo’s & Vincent’s relationships with prostitutes?

  4. This is, hands down, one of the best books I read all year.

    And if, like me, you’ve ever loved someone who suffers from bipolar disorder (or, I’d argue, anyone with a severe mental illness), it is a *very* tough book to read. It dug up all sorts of painful memories for me.

    Heiligman’s writing is heads and shoulders above the rest. I’d argue it is nearly, but not quite, matched by THE WAR I FINALLY WON. The sentence level writing is crisp, clean, and uncluttered, and moves swiftly like the strokes of a paintbrush. Like any artist goes over details again and again, trying to get the right light, the right mood, so too does Heiligman. Therefore, the repetition is not only stylistically appropriate, but it is also metaphorical.

    In our Mock Newbery group on campus, we spent quite a while discussing this title. We were very much split on age-appropriateness. A lot of the participants were hung up on the prostitutes. I wasn’t. The sex wasn’t explicit, it was implied. For me, VINCENT covers nothing that hasn’t been mentioned in previous YA-ish Newbery medal winners (I’m looking at *you*, Jacob Have I Loved). Therefore, for me, there is no confusion of audience: yes, Heiligman is writing for older children AND teens. Both, not just one. I think her word choice and her sensitivity to things like syphillis (it’s not like she describes the afflicted body parts) keep in mind the child audience.

    Alas, our Mock Newbery team here dropped it from our working list. But I would be delighted if this won a Newbery medal (and the YALSA and the Printz). I think it’s an uphill battle, though, for many of the reasons people have expressed here.

    Also, I really want a nonfiction book to win. It’s been too long!

  5. Roxanne, thank you for your response. My sixth graders and I talk about a lot of serious social issues from the death penalty to Sexual harassment. So, the issue of the prostitutes was discussed and dealt with realistically and maturely. They thought it was a necessary part of the story in order to develop a close empathetic relationship with the brothers. They do not believe the inclusion of this issue creates a problem with the criteria concerning age.

  6. I don’t think the prostitution is an issue, especially for junior high. It’s so delicately handled. But I also grew up in church so I knew what prostitution was before I knew what sex was. (No, I have no idea what I understood prostitution to mean!) It comes up in the bible so often that even elementary aged churchy kids I don’t think would bat an eye. (That is a specific population though, of course.)

    I learned a lot and thought the relationship between the brothers was really interesting. I particularly liked seeing Vincent as a kid and discovering that he wasn’t recognized as gifted as a kid and that it took him awhile to get started painting as an adult. And that he had to learn things. I always kind of assume famous painters just picked up some paints one day and started making masterpieces. Which is dumb of me! So I found that all very encouraging and that part seems particularly relevant to a kid audience.

    I was kind of confused on the age because the tone felt very MG with all of those short, declarative sentences. The writing felt choppy to me. Which is so surprising, because I’m generally a big fan of short sentences. And then I did get bogged down in the length or possibly the nonfiction-ness. Partially I was expecting it to be more narrative and it turned out to be more straight biography (and a lot of summary of letters). And a big part of it was my Kindle counted all of the endnotes in calculating the percentage, so it said I was 40-something percent done when I was around page 270! So I just kept feeling like I was making no progress, even though I was. But that is not the book’s fault, of course!

  7. My concern with this, and I really should go back and read more thoroughly is that I felt that while all the facts about the brothers were carefully laid out and documented, the art opinions were not. No making up history here, but surely the critics have varying views of Van Gogh’s work and I felt that we weren’t treated to anything but adulation. I’m not sure if this is a quibble that stands up. I need to go back to the text, but I remember being uncomfortable.

    • That’s interesting, Carol. I took the art opinions to be the author’s own descriptions, rather than an attempt at criticism. Although, actually, there were some in-story negative opinions presented, such as when Theo kept trying to get Vincent to lighten his palette and not thinking his work was ready to sell. And that big fight Vincent had with the painter that sent the letter criticizing The Potato Eaters.

    • If on the committee I would have to justify such statements. So I want to point out the difference between the quote of Vincent saying “they’re immense stretches of wheatfields under turbulent skies, and I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness”

      and
      p. 247 Vincent paints the view from his room in Theo’s apartment: a cityscape, blues and greens and whites, red shutters. Light, happy, pretty. His perspective, his point of view.

      p. 331 A painting Vincent makes during his time at Saint-Remy shows both his despair and his hope.

      p. 349 He paints not in the colors if the Dutch masters, but in what has become his palette, one full of sun and color, rich and vibrant, the paint thick, tactile, reaching out, begging the viewer to touch Vincent’s memories of home.

      We ask that authors verify every statement that is attributed to the person being revealed, and Heiligman carefully shows her sources. But these seem to me to be statements we are asked to accept as truth, when they seem very much like opinions to me.

      • Carol, I see what you are saying. This is definitely the case where the author inserts personal observations & opinions in the presentation. What I am unsure is whether this authors crosses the line too far: since it seems to me that these are not opinions masked as facts. I envision that the readers (even young readers in 7th and 8th grade) will not take the line “begging the viewer to touch Vincent’s memories of home” as “factual presentation.” Some of these lines also seem to me interpretations of artwork, which fall in the theoretical, nonfictional, and informational space — as art history is full of critics’ interpretations based on artists’ life experiences. So, in a way, the biographer here is also an occasional art critic — which I see as a fitting element to be included in this book. Of course, I did not quite consider these aspects until you mentioned your objections.

      • I want to agree with Roxanne here. I’m always aware that works of nonfiction have a slant, a bias, if you will. Heiligman’s is very much here throughout the book in the sort of lines Carol quotes. In fact, I prefer authors to be upfront about this rather than suggest that the book is factual and without a POV. I think this underlying appreciation for the art and the brothers is one reason for me why this book is stellar and one of my favorites of the year. I don’t see this book as one featuring art criticism at all so it seems the description of the art from the writer’s perspective is apt and, in fact, is part of the sensibility of the whole thing.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      “surely the critics have varying views of Van Gogh’s work and I felt that we weren’t treated to anything but adulation.”

      Carol, I am not sure whether the examples you cite were meant to support that specific statement, but I felt these examples are not so much personal, critical opinions but more in the genre of “art appreciation” which I think is appropriate for this book. Heiligman is not saying whether she thinks a painting is good or bad, nor do I think she is really presuming to say what Vincent’s intentions were. To me, phrases like, “Light, happy, pretty”, “shows both his despair and his hope”, and “one full of sun and color, rich and vibrant, the paint thick, tactile, reaching out, begging the viewer to touch Vincent’s memories of home” are descriptive statements, not really opinions, informed by Vincent’s biography. Sure, the language is figurative, but that’s hardly unusual. I think they fall in the same category as Garcia-Williams’ description of music in CLAYTON BYRD. Katrina cited a sentence that includes the phrase “smooth chords.” I think “smooth” is no different in function than “Light, happy, pretty.” Roxanne quoted, “Electric blues sparks jumped out into the night.” I think that works similarly to “full of sun and color, rich and vibrant.” Garcia-Williams’ personifying Clayton’s music to say, “When, Cool Papa, when?” attributes the same quality to music that Heiligman does of a painting “begging the viewer to touch Vincent’s memories of home.” And I don’t think fiction vs. non-fiction makes a difference here. For both, it’s a time-honored way of describing visual or aural art for a non-technical audience.

  8. I admire this book very much. I admire how wonderfully we get to see the brothers lives and the intertwining of those lives with the development of the art. I also appreciate the authorial voice in nonfiction. I prefer it to be in more ” I ” statements. I think for the Newbery especially, the reasons an author tackles a subject and their engagement and opinions about it need to be clear from the facts of the story they are telling. We don’t let authors put words into their subjects mouths or imagine feelings and ideas without documentation. I think that the art is critical and want my own responses to get out of the way of the reader, and equally hope that the author doesn’t have too heavy a hand in telling the reader how to respond to the art. Van Gogh’s work does that so well on it’s own, that it feels unnecessary to me to insert opinions.
    All that said, it’s a teeny tiny quibble about a book I really admire. Wonderfully executed in so many ways.

    • Brenda Martin says:

      Carol, I understand exactly what you mean about Heiligman’s insertions in VINCENT AND THEO. I had a similar problem a few years ago with Candace Fleming’s THE FAMILY ROMANOV. As incredibly researched as that book was, there were too many moments where I felt her authorial voice was directing the reader in one way or another, rather than letting them come to their own conclusions. Of course there must be opinion in any nonfiction book, but if it’s too strong or not handled carefully it can be distracting or even off-putting.

    • I am not sure that interpretation or even articulating emotional reactions of art pieces comes naturally to everyone — so I don’t feel that Vincent’s artwork speaks as clearly to all viewers (especially since this is not a heavily illustrated/decorated, colorfully presented book) as Carol might believe.

  9. VINCENT AND THEO left me in such a dark place it is hard to be objective. I get PTSD just thinking about it. There is no doubt the writing is solid, direct, and emotionally devastating. Heilgman does what she does with precision. I question the age range, not for the prostitutes but for the deep dive into mental illness. How much can, and should, a younger audience appreciate such a raw portrayal. Of course many young children have a front row seat and might find comfort in not being alone. I sure didn’t.

  10. We had our mock discussion and Vincent and Theo won for the Sibert. It did not win for the Newbery.. That may have been due to the fact we were voting on more than one award. We did a marathon session of Caldecott, Geisel, Newbery, Printz and Sibert. I do admire this book very much. I think that it deserved more of a focus on the art work. The insert seemed inadequate to me. BUT– I also can’t imagine anyone reading this and not immediately going to a library or book store to get a more intense look at Van Gogh’s art. A museum would be even better. I read this on my way to the Netherlands and was fortunate to be able to go to two museums there with collections of his work right after reading it. A great experience, that possibly influenced my take on the book.

  11. I just had a Mock Newbery visit with sixth graders and many of them straight up said they didn’t think they were old enough to really get this book. They said there was too much going on and it was overwhelming and depressing.

    This is just one group of sixth graders, but it was a bummer for me as a big fan of V&T.

    For context, the sixth graders ended up choosing MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON as their Mock Newbery winner. Their honor winner was FOREVER, OR A LONG, LONG TIME. So it’s not like they can’t handle heavy stories.

  12. I finished this one yesterday and I was so torn about it! It was really lovely. The prostitutes weren’t what worried me about age appropriateness (and I loved the comment here about how kids who are pretty religious have read about prostitutes in Bible stories – SO TRUE!). I was a little surprised by the mention of STDs. Have syphilis and gonorrhea been in Newbery books before? I can’t think of any off the top of my head!

    I too have a question like what Carol mentioned. When it discusses the painting of the mill in great detail the text on page 164 says that this is THE image of Vincent’s relationship with Theo . . . I wondered exactly how Heiligman was backing that up. It felt like a bold claim to make with no evidence (or maybe I missed the evidence? Can someone point me in the right direction)?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I think the Author’s Note might be the place to look, as this seems to be an original contribution by Heiligman to the field. I don’t have the book on me, but she says in her SLJ interview, “I describe my big “eureka” moment in the author’s note—when I realized that Vincent’s painting of a particular windmill is the painting of the brothers’ relationship. I was writing about their walk to the mill when they were teenagers, the walk during which they made a pledge to each other. I wanted to see what the mill looked like, and I found the painting online. When I confirmed—by finding old photographs of the mill—that it was the same building, I screamed and threw myself on the floor. So yes, that was a “eureka” moment.”

      • That makes sense, Leonard. I read the author’s note first and didn’t remember that part of it. Thank you!

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