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Inside Heavy Medal

Damaged Families, Resilient Girls

octopusI read SNOW LANE and THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS back to back. Both are about abusive family situations and narrated by girls who don’t reveal the depth and details of the abuse until they’re well into their stories. Both are excellent, but in different ways.

In OCTOPUS, Zoey doesn’t address the abuse early because she doesn’t recognize it herself. When she does, it’s not all at once, but in bits and pieces, and the realization is strongly tied to her gradual recognition that her own actions can change things. Through her eyes, we see how Lenny’s verbal abuse impacts people in different ways. Like when Zoey uses the phrase “Little Miss Clueless” on herself (158), but then rejects that self-criticism when she realizes it’s a phrase that Lenny used on her mother (152).

Similarly, the small, but frequent reminders of the way poverty impacts Zoey and her family build up . Like when Matt brings a smoothie onto the bus:

I try to picture my mom pulling herself out of bed to make me a smoothie because I’m tired in the morning. As if she wasn’t exhausted. As if she didn’t have to take care of Hector. As if Frank wouldn’t throw a fit for getting woken up by a blender. As if we had a working blender. As if we had bananas.

As if. (83)

Initially Zoey swallows those reminders with shame, but eventually gets more angry about them.

The octopus analogy works well enough, and makes sense as a sort of defense mechanism that a girl like Zoey would use. It almost seemed overdone at times. But I really like the way it drops off towards the end of the book, in tandem with Zoey’s emergence as a more assertive person. Unless I missed it, there were no octopus mentions in the last 60 pages or so, except for when they’re driving away from Lenny and she mentions it more as a protective role in relation to the people she loves (234). Nicely done.

snow lane

In SNOW LANE, Annie’s first-person narrative conveys the chaos of her household and the bullying from sisters pretty vividly (though also kind of casually), but she avoids directly describing the even more frightening abuse of her mother for quite a while. That moment when it’s revealed is as powerful as anything I’ve read this year. We don’t really know that her mother has been abusing Annie until it happens:

I can’t understand why she would want to hurt me, and that hurts more than the hitting. Not right away, but later. It’s like an echo that gets louder the farther away it is because it keeps coming back, and each time it comes back to you it hurts more and more. No matter how hard you push it down, or tell yourself it isn’t happening, it is happening. It’s happening to me right now and I can’t pretend it isn’t anymore. I can’t pretend it doesn’t happen anymore.

It’s about a coat, but it’s not about a coat. It’s never what it’s about.

And now I’m not just in trouble. I’m in danger. I can tell by her eyes… (119)

The growing realization of just how damaged her family is, and how resourceful Annie is as she tries to survive it, is very well crafted. It’s not a generic story with messages about abuse, it’s about a distinct and memorable family and how that abuse rules their lives. The plot elements are engaging and specific. When Annie has to go on a date along with her sister Aurora, it’s odd at first, and almost seems like it could be amusing, but then there’s the awful boyfriend and the long walk home and then a fight between older sisters, which leads to Aurora running away. (148-157) And while Annie relates the events, we see her exhaustive efforts to keep peace, cheer people up, and cover up the troubles, even though it’s all way more than she can fix.

Like OCTOPUS, there’s some hope in the end of SNOW LANE, and it seems credible, especially in terms of Annie’s hopes and expectations once the family is finally getting help:

I want to make it better. And not just for us kids, but for Mom and Dad, too. I want it to be us, but not the worst us. I want the best us. Even if that’s still a little crappy.” (186)

Both of these books garnered October nominations (two for OCTOPUS, three for SNOW LANE), and have more already coming in during this current November round. Both seem like strong candidates for our list of 15 finalists, but there’s plenty of competition….

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. Leonard Kim says:

    I think we could discuss JUST LIKE JACKIE in this group as well as the Suggested but not Nominated WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW since these books also center on situations where the protagonist’s caregiver fails in the giving of care (though in these other two books, not because they are abusive.) And this results in a number of broad similarities – all four protagonists have something a bit quirky in order to cope, running away is a plot element in all 4 books, all four explore the tension between independence/resilience vs trust/accepting the kindness of others, etc.

    I do think SNOW LANE is the best of the bunch (though I admired OCTOPUS) and that’s largely on account of the integrity and strength of Annie’s voice which I think may be the best of the year along with BOOK OF BOY. I quoted her at length in a comment to the YOU GO FIRST post. I think that example shows how something like her counting is integrated into her character and voice rather than feeling tacked-on.

    The titular octopus, which Steven mentions, did feel a bit tacked-on to me. (I’d say the same thing about the Jackie Robinson element in JUST LIKE JACKIE, also titular and also felt more or less just dropped by the end.) Even the debating element in OCTOPUS ended up being kind of irrelevant, no? It ended up not having the impact on Zoey one would normally expect. (And I could say the same of the bee lady subplot in WATERMELONS). That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I liked the somewhat individual viewpoint of OCTOPUS – but Zoey isn’t so compelling a character that I was on-board reading about her doing anything whatsoever. And I think the treatment of the octopus element is perhaps illustrative of why she wasn’t as compelling as she could be, and not as compelling as Annie.

    I just hope nobody raises a fuss about the language in SNOW LANE, as some people appear to have on Goodreads, even though that too is part-and-parcel with Annie.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Last thing – despite its darkness, SNOW LANE isn’t one of those depressing books you don’t really want to read. That too is on account of the strength of Annie’s voice. Sometimes when a character has issues or is “difficult”, it’s not easy to see what other characters see in them (other than they are the protagonist) that make them (and therefore us) keep showing interest, giving chances, and wanting to spend time with them. One could say this of Robinson in JUST LIKE JACKIE and even a little with Zoey and her teacher in OCTOPUS. (And definitely looking at you in this regard MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER with your 2 nominations.) But despite her issues, Annie’s relationship with Jordan, for example, feels right to me, because with her voice, I can see in her what Jordan does. It feels good to spend time with her. Maybe Annie is a little like Mason Buttle in this respect, though I think she’s in a tighter book.

      • steven engelfried says:

        Leonard mentions that SNOW LANE is a “tighter book” and I agree. When I went back to it a few weeks after reading it I was kind of surprised to realize that it’s less than 200 page. It packs a lot into those pages, and every bit seems necessary.

      • Hannah Mermelstein says:

        Regarding the issue of doing so much in such a short book: My Mock Newbery students were discussing SNOW LANE yesterday and how they were surprised that with such a big family, each character was really distinct, and we noted that that’s especially impressive in such few pages.

    • Here’s my favorite quote from SNOW LANE re Annie’s strong language:

      “I’m going to find my destiny, and then it will all make sense because even when you’re scared, having a destiny means you’re going to be okay, because people with destinies don’t just shit (fifteen Hail Marys) the bed. I’m not supposed to swear even in my own head, but sometimes you need a word with a little more oomph in it than a regular word, so a swear word is the only thing that will work. This is a swear-word moment. This is the moment I’m going to find my destiny.”

      • steven engelfried says:

        The use of expletives in SNOW LANE remind me of how they’re used in HEY KIDDO. In both cases they seem so to be so much a logical, explainable part of the person’s character (the grandma in KIDDO, is who I’m remembering…maybe other characters swore too?). Taking those out would take something away from those characters, which isn’t always true of characters who swear a lot.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    Rereading my post, I come across as harder on OCTOPUS than I feel. OCTOPUS is excellent. My negative comments are pretty much the only ones I would make about it (i.e., they are not representative).

    Its positives are many: it is not boilerplate, it packs a strong emotional punch, it is age-appropriate despite being about abuse, and it does an excellent job with rural poverty (as Steven also mentioned – I would say it’s better in this respect than HOPE IN THE HOLLER which has 3 nominations). I wrote on Goodreads: “In the acknowledgments, Braden shows gratitude to those ‘that helped me make this book as honest as I could’ and that effort shows.”

  3. I haven’t read OCTOPUS yet, so I can only comment on SNOW LANE.

    I thought the way the mother’s hoarding was shown (and Annie’s denial) was very well done. Right in the first chapter Annie mentions there’s “about fifty things that are scattered up and down the sides of the steps” and there’s several times throughout the book that people trip on the things, or the house is described as a mess but Annie mentions it in such an off-hand way that it seems like a normal amount of clutter in a house with so many kids – precisely because for Annie this IS a normal amount of clutter. It’s not until the end of the book that she allows herself to see the scope of the problem. I think that was a lot more effective than constant detailed descriptions. It’s also consistent with Annie’s characterization as ignoring anything unpleasant that isn’t happening in the moment as a coping mechanism.

    I absolutely loved the part where she thinks about how unfair it is that she’s being reprimanded for not being responsible when she knows for a fact that most of her classmates had their backpacks filled by their mothers, who also reminded them to do homework and generally eased their way in the world. That really stuck with me.

    I’m not sure how I feel about Annie’s repeated assumption that she’s dumb (and I definitely didn’t like that there was no pushback on Fay’s use of the word retarded. We find out later that she’s frequently mean, but we don’t know that yet when it first comes up). Annie says she’s always the first to understand things, and she gets all A’s except for spelling tests, and knows the answers without trying. But she’s also completely confused about why she’d be in the ACT class because it’s supposed to be for “smart” kids and that’s not her. I get that she has poor self-esteem, and that many aspects of school are harder because of her dyslexia, but I’m also not sure why there seems to be such a disconnect between stellar achievement in school and assuming she’s stupid. If she was struggling in school because the environment wasn’t recognizing her unique strengths or thought processes, I’d understand it better. It’s not a huge flaw, but it’s something that kept standing out to me, since she is continually being reinforced by the school that she’s “smart” by the school’s definition of smart.

  4. “In the acknowledgments, Braden shows gratitude to those ‘that helped me make this book as honest as I could’ and that effort shows.”

    Leonard, I think this is why I feel Octopus is something special. Zoey’s experience in poverty and how it affects her school life, her friendships, her family relationships, how she sees herself – all of it felt honest and rooted in genuine experiences. Very rarely do I see my life experiences reflected in children’s literature, and I try not to bring in my personal experience when analyzing books here, but Braden captures rural poverty brilliantly by showing how it infiltrates every part of life.

    I actually highlighted the very same paragraph Steven quotes in the post, because there is so much buried in just those few words. We recognize that she is walking on eggshells in her own home, that she has little food or personal luxuries, that she worries for her exhausted mother, even though she still desperately needs someone to worry about and nurture her. It’s a true example of showing rather than telling, and there are many more examples of this throughout the story.

    I never felt the octopus analogy was overdone. Relating to the octopus is an emotional crutch for Zoey, so in some sense it needed to feel obsessive to the reader. It’s her way of making sense of her crazy life, sorting through her mixed emotions, and finding out who she is and needs to be when no one else is there to guide her.

    The fading of the analogy happens as she gains more confidence and realizes there is a lot she can change on her own, but also a correlation to the guidance and support she gains from debate and her teacher. Once she recognizes she has inner strength and support from others, she needs that crutch less and less. So, though we never really see Zoey in true debate form, the relevance of that plot point comes from how it uncovers her strength, gives her the courage to use her voice, and essentially shed her dependence on the octopus to make sense of everything going on around her.

    I wrapped my arms around this book when I finished. It’s distinguished in many ways, and though I haven’t yet read Snow Lane or Just Like Jackie, I think I will be hard pressed to find a book that outshines Octopus.

  5. I’d add Louisiana to the list of emotionally abused (and physically, too, being kept hungry often) resilient girls.

    • YES!! I’ve not read either of the titles in this post, but I imagine Louisiana’s resiliency similarly measures up!

    • Leonard Kim says:

      But Joe, you were the one who astutely said on Goodreads that DiCamillo here and elsewhere is a writer of fairy tales. Yes, resilience is a characteristic of fairy tale heroines, but I personally have trouble lumping Louisiana with the characters here, except possibly Annie. One could maybe argue that Annie, Louisiana, and Mason are modern examples of Boy in BOOK OF BOY in their naïveté and “faith” that to some extent shield and lift them from the world’s darknesses. They are depicted, perhaps, like Blake’s “innocent” sweep that Nan rejects in SWEEP and presumably more hardbitten, “experienced” characters like Zoey and Robinson would reject as well.

      • Well, Leonard, I did add the caveat that I hadn’t read the titles in this post. I was just seconding Roxanne’s comment about Louisiana’s resiliency. I may be far off the mark comparing her with the characters in these books and just don’t know it.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Yes, sorry I didn’t mean to shut down this comparison that you and Roxanne made. It just made me think there does seem to be two kinds of “resiliency” at play here. To invoke Auxier and William Blake from SWEEP again, there’s an “innocent” kind and an “experienced” kind. The former seems to be the sort that characterizes resilient characters from fairy tales, and also characters like Louisiana and Annie – things that would crush ordinary people have less of a grip in the face of the character’s optimism and purity. The latter seems to be more about being “tough” and I think characters like Robinson and Zoey are more representative of this kind.

  6. I totally see what Leonard means here and agree with the different types or origins of resilience. Usually the innocent kind annoys me!

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    Just finished my reread and am just as impressed as before. This book is a little like the Penderwicks, with many of the same strengths (vivid, quickly-drawn characters, colorful shifting interactions) without the gauze. Like Bizarro Penderwicks or Penderwicks in the Upside-down. Actually had to start rereading Penderwicks at Last when I finished to set things right again.

    • Since I don’t share the same positive associations when it comes to the Penderwicks, this comparison only makes me more reluctant in approaching Snow Lane. Although I feel obligated to read it now with such enthusiastic responses from readers I respect. I find myself avoid the practices of using certain titles to demonstrate the positive aspects of a new title — I think there is always the danger of assuming that others share the same views of the books I use to illustrate my points since my taste tends to be odd and more out-of-the-box. This seems to be a common practice by marketing folks, “Reading Book X is like reading Book A, and Book B, and Book C combine!” believing that the potential readers will react with excitement at the mention of the other, well known titles. I often find myself react less enthusiastically than the presenter wishes me to.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Roxanne, point taken. It’s clear I like both books very much. I do hope this could still be a useful comparison for judging the relative merits of both books without turning into a “if you liked A you’ll like B!” The setups are quite similar: protagonist is a fifth-grade youngest sister of large Massachusetts families: Annie is the youngest of 9, Lydia of 6. Except for one brother, all are sisters, some very accomplished (Annie has a sister at MIT and another who is a professional caliber pianist; Lydia also has a professional caliber musician sister and one who is an astrophysics grad student.) Both are a bit clueless and become intrigued by the concept of “destiny.” As Steven pointed out, the large cast obligates Birdsall to efficiently establish character, and Angelini faces the same challenge and pulls it off admirably: I think I could, on just the two reads, describe each of more than a dozen characters in SNOW LANE. But obviously the Penderwicks are an idealized family in an escapist book whereas the Bianchis are deeply troubled, and the book implicates the burden of having such a large family as a partial cause. So I can easily imagine someone not liking the Penderwicks liking SNOW LANE (actually I don’t have to imagine- the person who introduced to SNOW LANE feels exactly this way) for having what’s strong about Birdsall’s writing without the bad.

  8. I just read them pretty close together too and I agree with what everyone is saying about Snow Lane. I was wary of it because it sounded depressing, but it wasn’t and I wound up really liking it. It felt so lived in (which makes sense since the author’s note said it was based in part on her real life) and emotionally complex. I like the comments about it being specific. It wasn’t a “Book About Abuse”–it was a real story about real characters. I really liked Annie and her various coping mechanisms were interesting. I liked that she had friends and that it ended on a very hopeful note with a sort of third way solution (neither just staying in the abuse or going into foster care–although maybe not the best message to kids who do go into foster care). It did such a good job of showing the complexities of abuse–that she loves her family just as much as the social worker loves hers. The voice is really good–very actual kid. I did find the swearing a little annoying only because of the hail mary’s. I think the idea is cute and totally makes sense with the character, but it broke up the flow occasionally always having those in parenthesis.

    Octopus, on the other hand, I didn’t like. I did like it at first because of the voice. But the story didn’t work for me. Unlike Snow Lane, it did feel like a generic Book About Abuse. It’s interesting having it be about verbal abuse, but it didn’t feel lived in. I didn’t buy Zoey not understanding for so long that Lenny is a jerk and blaming her mom. It would be one thing if they’d been together for a long time or if she was much younger, but she was there to watch the transformation, so she would have seen him slowly wear her down. And she sees him be a jerk to various people, including her little brother, but still thinks he’s a good guy. If Bryce is so affected by it all even though he never sees the fights she sees that make her finally realize what’s going on, how is she not absorbing the stress, etc.? The end felt too After-School Special-y to me–like the point of the book was just to convey that verbal abuse is real abuse and this is how you deal with it. I like good modeling, but it can’t be the whole point of the book.

    The big middle chunk is mostly not about abuse at all, which was confusing since I was expecting a book about abuse (but it did come back eventually). I got bored in this part that was mostly about school and that deep detour into gun control, which seemed really random. In the author’s note, it says she was writing to represent rural poor kids, so that made me see the connection, but also makes it seem like she came up with a list of things to address is a Book About Rural Poverty and stuck them all in. But it didn’t seem a very thorough or nuance portrait of rural life. (But that’s something I have experience with, so, Erin, if it reflects your own experiences, I assume you know what you’re talking about more than I do!) But I didn’t get a very good sense of place–it felt really generic. It didn’t seem all that rural–nothing about things being really far away or any sense of community issues because of being rural. And everyone else at school was middle class, it was just Zoey and her friends that were poor. That’s funny, Leonard, that you compare it with Hope in the Holler in this regard, because I actually was just specifically thinking the opposite. I did get a really clear sense of place in Hope in the Holler and liked how it showed a community with various levels within all being poor and rural.

    I liked the octopus stuff at first, but then it did get a little overdone for me. And the whole debate thing never really came together for me. Finding your voice through debate and using that to confront a verbal abuser sounds great, but it didn’t seem like it wound up really affecting things that much.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Katrina, I guess my problem with something like HOPE IN THE HOLLER is less about how setting itself is handled and more about how setting is treated as something external and not formative. All the good guys in HOPE IN THE HOLLER are basically Good Progressives in their attitudes who wouldn’t seem out-of-place at the school in HARBOR ME. I think part of the honesty of OCTOPUS, for example in its handling of the gun debate, is how intertwined Zoey’s situation and character are, and how this sets her apart from her more affluent classmates. I mentioned before also admiring BREAKOUT for similar reasons.

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