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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Will Woodson Win?

harbormeIt is hard to argue against Jacqueline Woodson’s writing in any given year, and this year is no exception.  She not only has written a stellar picture book (THE DAY YOU BEGIN) that has real Newbery potential, but she has also brought us the beautiful HARBOR ME.  Woodson has a rare gift of covering topics that are complex, topical, political, and important without being didactic and without talking down to her audience.

In HARBOR ME a group of kids sit in a room and, given the safe space to do so, talk.  They talk about ther lives.  They talk about the challenges they face in this country where they are not so safe.  They talk about the challenges they face in their families.  They open up and they grow.

If this sounds too good to be true, too fake to feel real, or too simple to make sense, I get it.  I would think so too if it was in the hands of anyone other than Woodson.

In her hands, though, it works.  Yet, does it have the strength of other titles this year?  Are the characters eacday you beginh real enough?  Do they each seem full? Is the set-up a little too easy (6 kids given the space to talk, and then utilizing it the way they do)?

Woodson is a brilliant writer.  Her word choice, sentence strutcture, and turn of phrase are perfection.  I’m not sure, though, that this books hits all the right notes when it comes to charaterization and story, especially compared to other strong titles this year.

Even compared to herself! I’m not sure HARBOR ME does a better job, with all its words, as THE DAY YOU BEGIN does in 32 pages.  What do you think?



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. Kate Todd says:

    I used to teach a course about How Juvenile Books Portray the Prison Experience. So I was pleased that Woodson has included this infrequent theme in HARBOR ME.
    I understand why so many people include this title in their top picks since the writing is really beautiful. However, the characters did not come to life for me in the same way as Little Charlie or Mia from Front Desk.

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I have to agree with Sharron and Kate. Beautiful writing, important themes, and a book I would want to share with kids. But I really felt the author’s presence, especially through the plot and the characters, who were interesting more because of their situations than their personalities. Sharon suggests that the “set-up” may be “too easy,” and that plays a big part in my reaction. WINTER LANE and STYX MALONE, to use a couple examples, bring us right into the world of the characters, and even though big themes are explored, and you can see how the authors convey them, you’re not thinking about how they convey them when it’s happening. MASON BUTTLE and FRONT DESK have some plot moments that may stretch credulity, but still I was involved in the worlds of the characters in a deeper way than I reached with HARBOR ME. I actually think the deliberateness with which the themes are raised and explored make HARBOR ME an excellent book for group discussion, and I believe it can have an impact on individual readers, but for me it falls short of excellence in plot and characterization.

  3. This was a difficult truth for me to face as a Woodson fanboy: I did not like HARBOR ME.

    The plot stretched credulity (in what school in this country would six students, no matter how good they are, be allowed to just sit in a room by themselves for an hour? That is a lawsuit waiting to happen.). But the biggest issue for me was that the children didn’t sound like children. Woodson, as always, explores timely, important events – but she did it here as Woodson talking through the characters… and those characters didn’t sound distinct. They sounds like Jacqueline Woodson.

    Plus – the nearly identical theme of finding your place and being “seen” – was better explored and with far less didacticism – in THE DAY YOU BEGIN. Particularly effective was her use of the second person in TDYB, putting the reader in the shoes of each child. The voice was crisp, clear, and distinct.

    So I suspect she’ll have a chance with TDYB, but not with HARBOR ME.

  4. I agree with pretty much everything being said here: The Day You Begin was a much crisper, more resonant presentation of some of the same themes of fitting in, being seen, and realizing that everyone around you is struggling with something, even if you can’t see it.

    Harbor Me felt like it was trying too hard to send a message. It’s the sort of book that I want all children to read in the classroom and discuss because it feels important and will start some very important conversations that kids need to have…but at the same time it felt like a book that was carefully designed for that purpose, and I could see the hand and the work behind that design. The award doesn’t care about didactic content one way or the other – so the fact that it has a message neither helps nor hurts it from the perspective of the criteria. But at the same time, I think the execution of the message does fall under the criteria when we think about delineation of themes, and I don’t think that the book rises the level of Most Distinguished when compared to some of the other books this year – not even, as Sharon points out, when compared to Day You Begin.

    • The Newbery Criteria does speak to didactic content: “Note: The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic intent or for popularity.”

      • Susan, I think you and Alys are saying the same thing. The award is not for didactic intent; the committee also should not deduct points for didacticism. Not a plus, not a minus.

  5. Linda Wolfe says:

    To me in a time when our country… our people… need to be harbored more than ever, Harbor Me is a beautiful, meaningful and important piece of work for both children and adults. Each and every character was well defined, vulnerable and accessible. How could anyone read this book and not feel Esteban’s pain? While there is not a single child at my school who has a parent in prison every single one of them need to know the love, confusion and anger that must accompany that scenario. I sincerely wish that no child had to experience having a parent in prison but, sadly there are many who do. I would never wish that my students would experience the lives of those in the book, but I do want them to understand (and have empathy for) those who do. I think Jacqueline Woodson is inspired, beautiful and gifted beyond measure. If she won every gold prize in existence, it still wouldn’t reflect her genius. To me, when you have beautiful writing that is relevant and needed, that is what the Newbery should be about.

  6. I feel like THE DAY YOU BEGIN is a better written work, than HARBOR ME. Other people nailed most of the reasons HARBOR ME didn’t stand out as a contender for me this year (school environment felt unrealistic, message was front and center, no real story…) but I’m going to steal something both DaNae and Katrina who both posted on Goodreads, not on here, that I thought was insightful and really applies to a Newbery conversation around this book. It has to do with the distance created between the reader and the characters since Woodson chose to tell this story in almost entirely flashback form from just one character’s perspective. As readers, we never actually see any character in the present except Haley. Every conversation we experience is not happening in real time, but is a conversation among characters that has already happened and is being remembered by Haley. It’s an interesting choice as an author. As an audiobook I think it worked better because the characters were all voiced by someone different, but in print, it’s an odd choice, made worse by the lack of any real story arc.

    I think in order for me to be swayed toward this one, someone would have to convince me that there was a purpose for this decision by Woodson.

    THE DAY YOU BEGIN however, was fantastic. I loved it. I especially appreciated the anxiety Angelina feels listening to all the magnificent vacations her classmates went on over the summer. The feeling expressed in that sequence will resonate with MANY kids!

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    Joe, DaNae, Mr. H, Katrina, and I had a discussion about the plausibility of the setup on Goodreads. One thing I pointed out is that though it seemed farfetched to the librarians and educators among us, Woodson might be writing from experience – her son attended the Brooklyn New School which seems like a model for the school in Harbor Me. The book describes the school as “one of the best schools in the city” yet is economically and racially diverse. It is also unapologetically progressive in its philosophy and is able and willing to support experiments such as this pull-out group. All of this is consistent with this description of the Brooklyn New School:

    I do think, though, that the book seems to aspire to thematic universality, and yet Woodson is writing from a place of privileged education so rarified as to seem implausible to many of us. I am not sure that works.

    With all the monologues, this is another book I think would have been more effective formatted as a dramatic piece. We need more Good Masters!

  8. Admittedly, I had to ask myself, who did Woodson write this book for? With so little plot movement, I was at first underwhelmed and confused. But after I finished the book, I felt Woodson had created something very powerful and original. The novel is minimalist, a style not too common in middle grade literature. It asks a lot of the reader, but in my opinion Woodson pulls it off.

    I can’t speak to Woodson’s intentions while writing, but clearly this ongoing conversation between the kids was tantamount to the story she wanted to tell. In many ways, the conversation was a character in its own right, developing over the course of the novel – swelling and retracting – changing directions. The conversation and its impact on each of the characters’ lives was the real star of the show. The story demonstrates that just talking and listening to one another can change the course of one’s life, expose vulnerabilities, bring people together… When I look at the book from that perspective, it’s a game changer for me.

    Was there a better way to plot the gathering and interaction between this group of kids? To bring the kids together for conversation repeatedly enough to pack in all this powerful thematic content? Perhaps, but I’m not sure I can think of one.

  9. I can’t really add anything here. You’ve all said it all. An “important” book in a year of “important” books, but falls short in story-telling. I give it the award for the title I most anticipated, but delivered an entirely different book than expected.

  10. Mary Lou White says:

    I am about halfway through this book and I keep waiting to fall in love with it. The writing is beautifully poetic, but kids just don’t talk like that. That is a stumbling block for me, and makes me too aware of the writing. You all have defined the problems in this discussion. The book feels like a lesson rather than a novel that lets me learn by walking in someone else’s shoes.

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