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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Chimney Sweep and the Elevator Trade

Though they’re different in many ways, I’m pairing STYX MALONE and SWEEP in this post because I had a similar experience as I read them: I started out thinking I knew what each book was going to be like and was prepared to probably dismiss them as “good, but not great;” then got quickly hooked and realized in both cases that there’s a lot more to each of them than I thought there would be. You’d think I’d know better by now….

SeasonStyxMaloneTHE SEASON OF STYX MALONE is fun, funny, and generally lighthearted on the surface, but it contains insights and subtleties that are powerful and expertly drawn. Caleb’s sees exciting new possibilities and a chance to be “more than ordinary” when Styx enters his world. Caleb is one of the most interestingly drawn characters of the year for me. He’s curious and observant, and the way he uses Styx, or at least his image of Styx, to push himself into the kind of person he thinks he wants to be, is fascinating.

Maybe we just plain wanted everything he offered. Adventure. Excitement. The biggest trouble we’ve ever gotten into in our lives, we got into with Styx Malone. (1)

His mom declares that Styx is “a handful of trouble…the first time she laid eyes on him” (73), and readers get that too. Caleb ignores this and doesn’t care, at least at first. There’s clearly more to Styx’s story than Caleb knows at the outset, but he gradually catches on. I like the way the mystery of Styx’s past builds steadily, but without overshadowing the character development that’s really the heart of the novel. The truth about Styx isn’t nearly as interesting as the way Caleb’s understanding about him changes as it’s revealed.

And while the Caleb/Styx interplay seems to be center stage, the relationship between Caleb and Bobby Gene is equally important. In his rush to emulate Styx, Caleb’s almost dismissive of his less reckless older brother, but by the end he sees him very differently:

Bobby Gene met my gaze. Then he reached right across that ocean and took my hand. I wondered if it was hard for him, saying the right thing at the right time to Dad. Sticking up for me, when so much of what we’d done with Styx had pushed him to the limits, and beyond.

I was wrong about my brother. He wasn’t on the ordinary side of the canyon with Dad.

He was the bridge. (280)

The plot thread where Styx and the brothers try to complete “the Great Escalator Trade” for a moped is engaging enough, but for me this book excels in the areas of “delineation of characters” and “interpretation of the theme or concept.”

sweepJonathan Auxier’s SWEEP has received five nominations on Heavy Medal, and it has many strengths. As historical fiction, it presents a vivid picture of 19th century London. Readers get a feel for the city and also the people who populate it, especially the poorer ones. The book is also a fantasy, with a single magical element: the golem that Nan Sparrow receives as a parting gift from the Sweep. And it’s kind of a mystery, as Nan tries to find out what happened to the Sweep. Nan herself is a very engaging character, and the plot that’s built around her is multi-layered, but never confusing. Her adventures as a sweep, her wish for a better life, and the challenge of figuring out how to live with Charlie all move forward neatly and with plenty of surprises.

Underlying it all are multiple themes that are deftly explored through the unique story: the treatment of child workers; the nature of monsters; the importance of courage and decency. There are definitely some harsh realities in Nan’s world, and her view of that world and the people in it is often pretty grim, but I appreciated the way there’s also a positive spirit running through the novel. Like when Toby the mudlark explains the holiday Hogmanay to Nan:

“You know what they say about Hogmanay?” Toby said. “Whatever you’re doing at the stroke of midnight is what you’ll be doing all through the new year.”

Nan considered this. Sitting on a rooftop. Charlie on one side. Toby on the other. A clear sky above. The whole world below. She hugged her knees against her chest. “I could do worse.” (181)

I’m considering both of these for the two slots left in the December nomination, but that’s true of about a half-dozen other books too…this won’t be easy.

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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 sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. I agree about the characterizations in Styx. I felt even the secondary characters were nuanced, say Cory of the fireworks-sale, the boys’ parents with specific behaviors and styles, and that tongue-in-cheek manic pixie foster sibling. (I think Magoon was intentionally playing that particular trope:) I’m planning to start reading this aloud to my class next week and am excited to see how that goes as I find it ften helps me to appreciate a book even more. Especially as I already so love the sentence level writing, eg: “The white of the sky and the chug of the train, the speed and the rocking and the grease scent tipped me toward giddy.”

    • Steven Engelfried says:

      Yes, I really liked the sentences too. Caleb always sounds like a kid, and the times when he gets kind of eloquent aren’t jarring and don’t feel like an author’s intrusion. Like when he recalls Styx just after they get the moped:
      “Styx, from that day, lives in my mind like a series of snapshots. Styx, by the roadside, straddling the bike, with joy stamped across his face. Styx, gazing across the field, looking nervous and kind of scared. Styx on Pike’s porch, thoughtful and still. Hands clutched in his pockets.” (239)

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    I think STYX could be usefully compared to Lesa Cline-Ransome’s FINDING LANGSTON, which I preferred. The setting is reversed (Caleb is in a small town, longing for the big city, Langston is in the big city, longing for his small town). Both have African-American first person boy protagonists contending with a father who, entangled with the setting, represents the boundaries on the boy’s aspirations. I thought FINDING LANGSTON had stronger characterizations in that I thought Caleb, Bobby Gene, Styx, the parents, et al. were written a bit predictably. Maybe they felt a little one-note: the dad does little more than repeat, Sutton good, Indy bad. Caleb doesn’t want ordinary. Bobby Gene is cautious. Styx is typically exciting but safe. The loner who wants love. I am exaggerating, but you could almost spin out the whole story with just those caricatures. I guess that means I disagree with Monica about the characterizations seeming nuanced. Of course FINDING LANGSTON has much the more conventional plot, and I wonder if I would have found STYX’s plot more novel if I hadn’t read Alvin’s Swap Shop multiple times in elementary school.

    • Steven Engelfried says:

      An Alvin Fernald reference…excellent! It seems like The Great Brain or Soup could have had plots like this too, though maybe not.. Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s “Seventeenth Swap” is another good book about trading up. I feel like STYX uses that plot device as a framework for character development. I don’t disagree with the one-note descriptions as initially accurate, but the point of the book was how most of those characters either grew beyond those (Caleb and Bobby Gene especially) or turned out to be more complex than it seems at first (Styx). The change Father makes (buying the museum tickets) seems simple and maybe predictable, but it only happens because of all of the things his sons go through, with Styx’s help.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      OK – I concede that the relationships do develop and that the characters’ coming to understand each other is the point of the book. I still have reservations about characterization in this book. Maybe it’s that there were no surprises for me in any of the character arcs that gave me the feeling of lack of complexity? I dunno.

      • Surprises for you as an experienced adult reader perhaps? Might that look different for a child reader?

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Monica, as I indicated, I do think the escalator trade concept is rare enough that it will feel fresh to most child readers. I’m still struggling to understand what is particularly surprising or nuanced about these characters, but I do think readers will relate to Caleb and his attraction to Styx and the thrill he offers, and I do think they will respond to this book. I did, but I guess I’ve had these buttons pushed before. This is not to take away from what’s good about this book – I think it is a good book.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    The book I would set SWEEP against is GHOST BOYS. Both are essentially historical, socially conscious novels with a supernatural twist. I mentioned how GHOST BOYS evoked Dickens to me, and I think that spirit too animates SWEEP as well as William Blake’s. I think SWEEP is more obviously kid-appealing, with its strong heroine (whom I compared to Robinson and Zoey in a previous comment) and exciting plot elements, but on purely “literary” merits, I think they feel about equally distinguished to me.

    • Leonard, I have some difficulty to consider Sweep & Ghost Boys as similar — especially the tone and the actual plot line. Sweep really centers on the fantastical elements and it is equally the story of Nan and Charlie — girl and monster. The “message” also seems a lot more layered and multi-faceted while Ghost Boys is singularly focused (the historical story serves as support) and a lot more simplistic in its storytelling and approach.

  4. Sweep is rising to the top for me. As I scramble to read what I can before the end of the year, I always have one or two books that just seem to linger in my mind and heart. This year it’s Sweep. After everything settles from a year of reading, I find myself thinking back to the layered messages and symbolism in this fantastically dark tale quite often, and I am still filled with wonder.

    Nan Sparrow is beautifully drawn as a girl with grit and tenacity, but Auxier makes it a point to expose her vulnerabilities and innocence as she explores the horror of sweeping in Victorian London. I loved the pitch perfect tween relationship between Nan and Toby – the tug and pull between annoyance and affection. Charlie’s growth from infant monster to fully fledged Golem is both original and fully realized, and though the ending was pretty much foretold, it still left me a heap of both sadness and joy.

    This one feels like a classic already, and I think it’s going to have a shiny new sticker on the cover by early next year.

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