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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Amal the Inspiring

Although the Newbery Committee will meet at the end of January, 2019, to choose the most distinguished books for children published in the United States in 2018, the full Committee has already convened twice in 2018: once at the Midwinter Conference to meet each other and be briefed of what to expect for their year-long service, and once during the ALA Annual Conference in June.  At the June meeting, there is usually a chance to practice discussing a few books.  Here at Heavy Medal, we are also going to offer the opportunity for a practice discussion today, and perhaps Wednesday.

Now, a brief description of a Newbery Book Discussion model before we start the practice:

Overarching Etiquette:

  • Civility and focus on the literary qualities of books are maintained throughout the hours of discourse.
  • Listen and respond to what is being said and not who has said it.
  • Committee Members should both express their opinions when needed and be mindful to not monopolize the conversation.

Discussion Procedure:

  • A member of the Committee is responsible to introduce each book in less than 2 minutes.
  • The introduction should focus on a few positive literary qualities of the book that warrant its nomination.
  • No book summary.  (It’s a waste of precious discussion time when everyone at the table is familiar with all the books.)
  • The Chair then would ask others who also have positive comments to chime in.  Members of the committee are encouraged to show their agreement with audible or visible cues: “yeses,” and “rights,” nods, smiles, silent jazz hands, etc.
  • After ample chances have been given to positive feedback, the Chair would open the floor for concerns and disagreements.
  • All critiques should be firmly grounded in the text – not vague feelings or conjecture beyond what could be found in the book itself.

amalunboundToday, we will discuss Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed.  It has quite a bit of Heavy Medal reader support and is on many end of year’s “Best of” lists. I will serve as the book introducer.  Heavy Medal Award Committee (HMAC) members (along with Heavy Medal readers) are welcome to discuss the book following the guidelines above.

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Saeed has created a brave character in Amal, who is also caring and resourceful. From the get go, you see Amal supporting her younger siblings, her parents, and her friends. Even when she feels envious of her friend Omar’s good fortune to attend a much better school, she is genuinely happy for him, hugging him. (Chapter 3) Her love of learning and intelligence also comes through many times. Saeed includes details that make the surroundings of a rural Pakistan village easy to imagine: from the sugarcane maze, the roses planted around Amal’s gray house, to the opulence of Khan Sahib’s mansion with its sunken living room, floor-to-ceiling windows, a tiled veranda, and the sprawling garden. Since readers see everything through Amal’s eyes, what she finds ordinary (the farm land) or unfamiliar (a rich man’s household) is conveyed organically to the reader, without traces of exoticism.

The theme of the intrinsic unfairness of a society with strict social hierarchy is presented with a fairly compelling plot line and in a style appropriate for the intended readers. Amal’s predicaments seem small and domestic, but they reflect the power structure and contemporary socio-economical realities. One distinguishing feature is that this story could be read on two very different levels: one just about Amal defying her odds and getting out of her unfortunate indentured servitude — unbinding herself from a personal oppression; the other to examine and challenge the systemic oppression and hope for a more liberated populace — perhaps to unbind many, via literacy and knowledge.

That is about 1 minutes and 45 seconds long. Now, I invite HMAC members and Heavy Medal readers to add to the positive aspects of this book – or expand upon what I have presented above.

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


  1. Jessica Lee says:

    In discussing this book with 4th and 5th grade students, they loved how Amal overcame obstacles and stood up for herself. They found the setting of the story the most interesting as well as the most challenging to understand. Many students equated “rural” with “historical” and were mildly confused when Amal had a cell phone. This is not a short-coming of the book at all but merely a learning moment for young readers when they realized that not all of the world matches their own experiences and expectations. We also talked about how the setting and character worked together to further the theme, that Amal and her struggle as an indentured servant is not one they personally face but definitely one they can relate to and learn from. Overall, I think this book really opened up young readers’ eyes to different experiences in the world and led to talk about literacy rates and gender inequality.

  2. I agree that Amal is a resilient character, and the rich exploration of both setting and culture was eye-opening and deeply satisfying. The plot was swiftly paced, propelled by Amal’s observations and her struggle with the imbalance of justice in her society. Her nemesis, Nabila, provides tension and is a nice foil for the warm friendship Amal enjoys with Fatima.

  3. Amanda Snow says:

    I’m a big fan of this one. Amal is a realisticly complicated character, without being “too much” for young readers and the intensity of her situation is conveyed in a manner that both provides relevent cultural context with suspense. I thoroughly agree with Jessica’s opinion regarding the book opening readers’ eyes to experiences from other parts of the world, as well as the opening of discussion of gender inequality.

  4. I particularly respected the world building in the village, the school and Amal’s neighborhood. Although it is far removed from places I’ve experienced, I actually felt very at home. I felt welcomed into the marketplace, and knew the women who went to gossip at Amal home. I agree with what others have said about Amal as a character and the pacing of the plot.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      I agree that the world building was a big strength of the book. We had many distinct settings, most of which would be entirely unfamiliar to American children, and yet it was easy to picture them all.

  5. samuel leopold says:

    The plot development is seamless and done quite well. The actions of the characters and the developing consequences are wonderfully written into the flow of the story. Character development could be stronger in areas, but overall it is an excellent novel.

  6. Jenn Potter says:

    I agree with the comments above. This book serves as a well written window book for so many American children. Giving them access and developing interest in a culture very much unlike their own.

  7. At this point, I’d like to invite Heavy Medal readers to comment on the literary qualities of Amal Unbound — to add to the positive or to share your opinions on areas that the book might not be as stellar.

  8. As much as I appreciated the village location, once Amal was moved to the compound by the villain of the story I felt more detached. Both the people and the environment felt more manufactured than genuine. As if they only existed to move the plot forward.

    • I whole-heartedly agree, DaNae. I think the compound, though necessary to the story, flattened the book’s trajectory (curiously enough) as well as Amal’s character. The tension was flushed from the book and the denouement didn’t feel particularly believable to me. After crossing someone as merciless as Khan Sahib, I thought Amal emerged from her struggles almost too easily. I know that sounds super-harsh considering the circumstances of the book: indentured servitude is never anything less than awful, but her release felt based less on her own agency and more on outside forces. What I thought was going to be a massive Amal-led uprising was a bit of a whimper in comparison.

      • I have in my notes that the turning point is by chance: Amal’s overhearing of the discussion regarding the dead man’s body, rather than perhaps centered on her reading ability (which seems to be what the author tries to emphasize by making it a big deal in Amal’s life) or her intelligence. In a way, her intelligence and abilities only serve as a way to impress her western educated teacher (Asif) who happens to have connections that could help “unbind” (thus save) Amal from servitude. The ease of resolution relying on “outside forces,” as Joe puts it, isn’t just not satisfying, but almost dangerous: setting up unrealistic expectations of how to dismantle systemic corruption and oppression.

      • To respectfully disagree with you I offer this counter.
        I think the book it trying to say it doesn’t matter that Amal can read. It doesn’t matter that she’s intelligent. Sometimes a system is so corrupt you cannot fight it from within, sometimes you have to know when to seize the opportunity you’re given. I didn’t find it dangerous because in life you can’t always think or will your way out of a situation.
        I felt that the compound was so detached on purpose. The servants and slaves inside are dealing with a completely different reality than the rest of the village. They’re constantly in fear. I thought that was a really stark and purposeful difference between the two worlds.

        I felt the book was really authentic and told a believable story that most westerners don’t know.

      • Adrian, thanks for your thoughts. I do, however, have to go by the author’s note in the book: that the whole book is inspired by Malala’s call for literacy. So, it would be very counter-intentional if the story actually makes the readers feel that reading or literacy does not matter.

        Also, the servant & upper class castes divide is definitely not an ideal social system, especially from a western perspective, but it is a way of life in Amal’s world. Her own family has servants. This one scary, high power family is portrayed as if it’s unusual and surprising to Amal: which surprises me, actually since she would have had been pretty familiar with the existence of the servant caste, having grown up in her society.

      • Roxanne, I was also surprised by the various things Amal is surprised by. As you point out, the servants, but also it seems to be the first time she’s noticed people really want boys rather than girls, and she seems surprised by each thing she finds out about the bad guys—even though she’s been raised with the idea of them as bogeymen.

  9. Deborah Ford says:

    We have so many books about Malala, it’s great to have a powerful fiction story from a different perspective relating to gender and education. Saeed also weaves in cultural expectations regarding sons versus daughters–a concept that could be foreign to our readers. In the US so many adults care for their aging parents–regardless of gender. You aren’t “given away” as they are in Amal’s culture: “You will get married one day. And then you’ll belong to a new family.”

    I love the opening chapter. Right away Saeed sets the hook of how much Alma loves school and is already helping the others in her dream to be a teacher. Then she lets us wonder with the closing sentence: … “how easily I took my ordinary life for granted.”

  10. I felt that the plotting was uneven in the story. The conflict doesn’t really arise until almost halfway through the book. The beginning of the book was necessary to create a strong impression of the life Amal left behind, but without any clear conflict it drags a bit. Then the second half is full of action with a clear antagonist and the pacing entirely changes.

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