Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Goblins, Elves, and a Different Kind of Book

inTHE ASSASSINATION OF BRANGWAIN SPURGE is the last of the five National Book Awards finalists we’re featuring on Heavy Medal. We decided to post about all five this year, because it’s unusual to see all of the NBA Youth Finalists fall so clearly within the Newbery range (well, let’s say four clearly and one maybe, with some discussion of THE POET X’s eligibility going on currently). BRANGWAIN also received three reader nominations on Heavy Medal, even though it had only been out a couple of weeks.   

The storytelling is inventive, utilizing three distinct points of view. Most of it is told in third person through the eyes of Werfel, the goblin historian, who hopes that the visit of Brangwain Spurge from the Kingdom of the Elves will lead to peace and interaction between goblins and elves. We also get funny, and increasingly distressed letters from Lord Spymaster Ysoret to the King of Elfland, which reveal the true nature of Brangwain’s mission. And, most challenging from the Newbery point of view, extended sequences of illustrations by Eugene Yelchin which are actually the transmissions that Spurge sends back to Elfland.

Skipping the illustration question for now, the structure provides a pretty dynamic plot. Readers learn about the world, the characters, and the story lines bit by bit. We know pretty early that both sides are up to mischief, but don’t really know where it’s going. There’s a delicate balance throughout between humor and tension. The goblin custom about friends, where “the closer you are with them, the more you make fun of them.” (117) is funny, but also potentially dangerous, as when Spurge tries to join in and ends up actually insulting Reginald du Burgh (181). Later, Werfel remembers falling in love with his late wife in a scene that’s both humorous and tender:

He asked her if she was happy, and she answered that no, he was the most boring, tedious snooze of a date she had ever met.

He knew then that they would be together forever.

He reached up and put his hand gently on her hair, and whispered happily in reply that being there with her that evening was as sweet and pleasant as being repeatedly struck in the skull with a ball-peen hammer.

They chuckled, and the sky burned. (221)

Spurge is the title character, but we get to know him mostly through Werfel, who is overly generous and kind to his strictly-business guest. The development of their relationship takes a while and doesn’t happen easily, but it’s convincing and triumphant in the end.

There’s some subtle, and not so subtle satire, as the customs and events mock diplomacy, politicians, and social conventions, but it all builds towards serious insights about war and peace. The illustrations work to reveal plot elements that are not narrated, and at the same time contribute to the broader themes, since we eventually realize that the visual transmissions Spurge is sending are not accurate, but reflect his own fears and prejudices.  

Recent discussions on this blog on graphic novels in general and HEY KIDDO in particular raised ideas about how we can see “pictures as text” in considering the Newbery Criteria which states that “the committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.”  I feel that it’s even clearer in this book, since the illustrations exist as separate chapters from the written portions, and while they reveal events that the words mostly don’t, the word provide added meaning to the illustrations as we see how the transmissions impact the plot and learn that they are not completely accurate.

Both the satire and the illustrations could potentially have proved gimmicky, but instead they’re handled expertly and are essential to developing the plot, characters, and themes. It’s an innovative book, unique among others I’ve read this year in terms of format and style. I’m curious to see how others rate it (my guess is: mixed), and also how kids will respond (my guess is: they will love it).

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. Eric Carpenter says:

    I think this is the best book of the year. That said I believe you’re underselling the importance of the illustrations. The book doesn’t work without the reader’s slow realization that the illustrated “transmissions” from Brangwain reflect his terrified perspective but not the reality of the situation.
    We take the first couple batches of illustrations as factual representations of the Goblin Kingdom, it’s only as the story moves forward that we begin questioning the accuracy of the illustrations. As a reader we see the goblins as monstrously huge creatures, and though the text hints at elves and goblins being similar in size, we don’t believe it at first because of what we learned from the images. Anderson and Yelchin use the images to build up prejudice in the reader and then over time use the text to force the reader to undercut those prejudices. The pictures simply carry too much of the thematic and narrative load to award the book a newbery because that award would go only to Anderson which would be a grave injustice to Yelchin.

    • steven engelfried says:

      Good points about the illustrations Eric, and I agree that this may impact Committee discussions. I’m still going to try to talk myself into it. The quality of the illustrations is excellent, but even if they weren’t, it’s the content of the pictures that are so crucial to the book’s success. The idea that Spurge transmits huge goblins when they’re actually not…can that be seen as essentially textual, a plot element developed by the author, but executed by the illustrator? If the pictures were only of average quality, I could see them still conveying the same themes and narratives effectively. I’m not sure I could say the same about say, BABY MONKEY, PRIVATE EYE or BE PREPARED, where it seems like those specific illustrations are required to make the books work. Does that mean this one’s a better Newbery fit?….Or am I just wanting it to be?

    • Eric, I fully agree with you. This is the best book of the year. I love it like crazycakes, and I think a lot of children will like it as well.

      Having said that, I am also in agreement that the pictures carry too much of the narrative load. Although many of them simply recount sequences that have already been narrated, most of them tell the rest of the story – and, quite frankly, they *have* to tell the rest of the story. Had Anderson just written the sequences that Yelchin draws, the book would have been far less successful.

      But! I think there’s hope for it! I strongly feel that Flora & Ulysses *also* relied heavily on images, so I think there’s precedent. (I am thinking in particular of the exposition being set up by the vacuum chasing around Ulysses and then the first time he types [Squirtel!] on the typewriter.) I’m not ruling out Brangwain, but I’m also not pinning my hopes to it.

      What a wild ride the book was. It will stay with me for a long, long time. And if it weren’t going up against both CHARLIE and THE POET X for the NBA, I’d think it’d medal easily there, too. But. I think POET X will (rightfully) win the NBA.

    • It’s clear from what they’ve said in interviews that Anderson and Yelchin created the book together as a team. It’s not as if Anderson wrote it and then gave it to Yelchin to illustrate (in the case of FLORA, K.G. Campbell was given DiCamillo’s manuscript to illustrate). I think it would be weird to give the Newbery to Anderson and not Yelchin because Yelchin had a hand in the plot, characters, themes, etc.

  2. I thought the delineation of theme was particularly well done, as well as outlining of character (though the argument can – and certainly will be! – made that much of Spurge’s character is drawn, no pun intended, through the illustrations.) It is a brilliantly done satire that is accessible to children.

    However, what I want to talk about right now is the way that torture is used through the book. I realize it’s a satire, and I think most kids will recognize that cutting fingers off is not a rational response to frustration with an underling. But what kept setting my teeth on edge was that the torture of the Spymaster was clearly supposed to be funny. We weren’t just being given evidence that the Elf King is not a fair and noble ruler, we were invited to be gleeful that a clearly odious character was getting what was coming to him. His goals are awful, he’s devious and manipulative and frankly a nasty guy. I’ll admit that it didn’t bother me when his plans were totally reversed and he died in the bomb blast with which he had intended to kill Ghorg from a safe distance – but while ironic, it wasn’t intended to be funny the way the finger torture seemed to me to be.

  3. Steven wrote that his guess is that children would love the book. I have yet to “test it out” on my students yet (only have galley and library copies are arriving soon) — so I’m curious about its reception from the target readers (4th grade an up? 5th? 6th?) Anyone has shared this with children yet? What are their views?

    • Hannah Mermelstein says:

      I have three students in 5th and 6th grade who have read it or are reading it (we just got it and put it into Mock Newbery last week). They’re all kids who appreciate clever humor and they’re all really enjoying it (and pretending to insult each other when we discuss the book). They also happen to be the only three boys in Mock Newbery, out of a group of almost 30 students. I strongly believe it does nobody any good to think of books as “girl books” or “boy books,” but it seems worth noting that that’s who was drawn to it here. [The way our Mock Newbery works is that we have about 35 books and the kids choose what to read–some kids read 3 books, some kids read 20–before we vote for finalists in mid-November.]

    • Gave this to one of my 4th graders and he gulped through it. Need to find a moment to chat with him about why he liked it so much.

      • I am sitting with my 4th-grade student and here are some of his thoughts:

        He really liked the “minimization of fingers” of the Order of the Clean Hand. (So those who worried about kids’ response to ironic torture, needn’t be — at least for this sort of young reader.)

        The pictures, he says, were exquisite and balance out the story to an extent.

        He really loved the idea of the otherworldly Ghohg (may he reign forever!) ruling over the Goblins.

        He liked the complexity of Regibald’s character.

        Totally got the way the pictures are demonizing the Goblins as they are from the Elves’ point of view.

        Found the end, with the changing of skin surprising. The medieval-inspired artwork was amazing, detailed, and beautiful.

        In others word, he loved the book!

      • Hannah Mermelstein says:

        Actually, I found the changing of the skin surprising too. What do we make of that? We had a discussion in our high school group (because we’re reading the NBA finalists) and folks had different theories: 1) He’s part goblin. 2) Further proof that goblins and elves really aren’t all that different (but why didn’t he know about the changing of the skin before? Does it only happen in certain climates?). 3) He is actually physically changed by being in the Goblin’s land. 4) It’s just pure metaphor and doesn’t have to make sense.

  4. I’m extremely curious about what kids make of the theme of this subtle (albeit overt in some of its humor) political satire.

  5. steven engelfried says:

    Good question about the skin changing. Of the four theories from Hannah’s class I lean towards #3 and #4. We don’t really get to know (unless I missed something), but I had the vague sense that the friendship between the two was so important and so unique that it resulted in actual physical changes. And points to a future where goblins and elves will be more connected. But it didn’t feel like a loose end to me, just a really interesting surprise…

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      I thought that it was meant to show that goblins and elves were the same species. That goblins shed their skin now because they live in this harsh environment but if they spent their lives in their traditional homeland (ie where the elves currently live) then they would not need to shed their skins.
      Since Brangwain has spent time in the harsh environmental conditions of the goblin kingdom, his skin sheds as well.
      Remember the artwork on the artifact turned wmd portrayed a battle but no one could agree on which side is being depicted. That is because both elves and goblins are identical in this artwork and the modern incarnations of the two species would be identical to everyone involved if it weren’t for the lenses of prejudice distorting everyone’s perception.

  6. Hannah Mermelstein says:

    Ok, so that’s more theory #2. Call me weird, but I actually thought the shedding of the skins (and Werfel’s archive of them) was quite lovely, so I’m sad to think it’s only a need because they’re in exile (the implication being that a more ideal situation would not involve the skin shedding at all).

  7. I found this challenging. I’ve come to understand that I am not a visual reader or learner. Some of the art confused me until I could put it in better context with the outing of Spurge’s bias later in the book. That being whined about, I concur to its brilliance, but then slapping the name M.T. Anderson on anything is basically a label for never-before-executed excellence. A name I associate with eclectic consistency.

  8. I had to listen to the audiobook because it’s not available on Kindle (the reader was really good!). It included a PDF of the illustrations so you could stop at those chapters and look at them, or it said you could just listen without them for a different experience. I did look at them and I think you would lose some things if you didn’t, but it would still work. The ending is the part where it’s the most necessary and I think you’d get somewhat confused, but there’s just enough there you could piece it together without the illustrations. So I think it is possible to consider the text alone, even if it’s better with the illustrations.

    Would the Newbery necessarily go just to Anderson? They are presented as co-authors rather than author and illustrator. In the little interview at the end, it says that Yelchin came up with the idea originally and then they worked on the story together. So he’s still a co-author of the story, if not of the text (or does that only work on screenplays?).

    It’s an odd book, but I definitely liked it! The letters were my favorite–very funny. It’s hard for me to evaluate it overall properly since I didn’t get to read it myself. I find it harder to concentrate on audio, so it’s hard for me to tell if when my attention wandered it was the pacing or because I was listening to it.

Speak Your Mind