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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: SNOW LANE by Josie Angelini

snow laneFrom the moment you enter Annie’s world, you are surrounded by chaos. You are immediately immersed in this family: the nine children who are often rough with each other, the neglect and abuse, and the coarse language (realistic, but controversial to some). Annie is the youngest and this is both a coming-of-age and a survival story.

SNOW LANE is distinguished from other titles I read this year in three ways.

First, like many, I fell in love with Annie and her voice. She is often overwhelmed by what she is dealing with and yet she is a delight, especially when she is engaging with her friends. She shines brightest at school, which makes sense because it is, for the most part, a place where she feels successful and cared for, despite the disparity she can see between her life and the lives of her classmates. When she is discussing her DNA project on pages 48-49, you see the combination of her intelligence and her quirks that makes her such a winning protagonist. Furthermore, her naïveté about the world strikes just the right note. Angelini is masterful when she shows Annie being clueless about the dance because no one at home is communicating with her. That is also balanced with her savvy when it comes to compartmentalizing her life and keeping her friends away from her family even as this causes her to inadvertently hurt Jordan’s feelings because of her panic about someone seeing her house. At the same time, Annie’s patient understanding of Jordan and her sense of humor make

her a heroine with a singular voice to remember.

Second, the subjects of abuse and hoarding are handled with sensitivity and revealed slowly in a way that does not feel like a trick to the reader. Though the full extent of what Annie’s home life is not understood until later in the book, Annie herself says on page 2, “My mom never throws anything away.” The first time I read this, I glossed over it, but upon reading it again, it impressed me even more with how carefully the clues were dropped along the way: piles on the steps, items moved from one room to another, and even her brother’s room having things to trip over. It all seems relatively normal because Angelini has taken care for it to sound that way. When Nora tells Annie on page 37, “You can’t be a kid anymore, because no one wants to take care of you,” this at first sounds like a simple case of older siblings being tired of Annie’s needs, but as the book unfolds we realize that it is more complicated than that because each child has enough to take care of on their own. Even Fay, the sibling who is the most cruel, has another side when she protects Annie from their mother. And when Annie (and the reader) begin to admit the full extent of the problems, the crumbling that Annie feels as those walls fall down is palpable. This is seen especially on page 180:

“But you do what you have to do, don’t you? You tell yourself what you have to tell yourself to hold on to whatever it is that’s outside of all this insanity that makes you feel normal.”

Third, it was bold of Angelini to include coarse language and coping mechanisms and to have Annie constantly assigning herself rosaries to pray in order to make amends as a way around possible objections to including some of that language in a children’s book. I am going to take this opportunity to argue that it distinguishes the book from others because of its realistic use of language and portrayal of trauma, when so many other books are sanitized to “protect” children from darker themes and language.

We have discussed the effectiveness of the ending in several books, but, to me, SNOW LANE is an excellent example of a hopeful yet realistic ending. Annie has optimism about her family but she sees her mom starting to make piles again (p. 181). Though the story was inspired by Angelini’s life, it has not been reduced to a problem novel, and Annie and her voice and her story are not easy to forget. This is a small book but it is powerful and deserves strong consideration.

Introduction by Kari

Discussion of SNOW LANE now begins below in the comments section. All readers, including Heavy Medal Committee members, are invited to join. We’ll start with positive comments, but feel free to add concerns and criticisms at any time after 12:00 noon (EST) / 3:00 pm (PST) today.

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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. Kari, I agree wholeheartedly with your points. Many of us grew up with course language at home and we rarely see it in a children’s book. Angelinini handled it deftly. It aids so much in painting the picture of Annie’s rough home life, her desire to be good and the importance of religion/ repentance in her family.
    I can’t think of another book that so quickly, clearly and concisely introduces such a massive number of siblings– along with their ages and traits and roles in the dysfunctional family. Their personalities were so distinctive and rang very true. I am so glad members of the committee fought to have this book on the finalist list– for otherwise I would not have read this sweet gem.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I agree wholeheartedly. I would not have picked up this book if it hadn’t been added to our list. I also agree that the concise and distinctive introductions of Annie’s siblings were really well done.

  2. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    I agree with Kari about how masterfully the author introduced us to a chaotic house in a way that, in the beginning, made it seem as normal as it is to the protagonist.
    This added to the authenticity of the story, as we who work with children know that abusive, neglectful, hoarding, and high poverty situations can feel absolutely normal to the children experiencing them.
    The masterful storytelling came in the slow reveal to the readers of the true situation, much like a child in the situation might slowly be realizing that it is not “normal” or healthy.

    • Yes, Mary. I concur. This was what made this book’s voice and style distinctive to me. It’s authenticity.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      Yes, I agree. The authenticity of Annie’s voice really stands out. The fact that we can infer more about her life just from what she’s telling us inadvertently really shows how carefully this was plotted. The slow reveal of her true situation was a nice touch as well.

  3. This book was very good at showing over telling, sometimes frustratingly so. We see what Annie sees — and we see more.

    I have a few issues but till wait for that portion of the discussion.

    (Under the heading, not really criteria) As a dyslexic, I mostly appreciated that Annie was seen by her school as smart. This took place a decade after I was Annie’s age. I struggled to read at anything close to a respectable pace and couldn’t spell my way out of a paper bag, couldn’t even spell paper bag, The overriding message I received from my teachers, and report card was that I was either quite stupid or if I only applied myself I would be able do the work. I’m happy today’s struggling readers have this book to show them otherwise, That is if they feel up to taking it on.

    • Thank you for sharing this DaNae. It’s a very powerful personal experience, and it makes me reconsider how dyslexia could be portrayed in literature.

      • I loved how she describes her coping mechanism of counting and that we get to see how her scattered trains of thought flow inside her head. She’s got so much going on as a result of the trauma she experiences day to day. So many people (children and adults) with highly traumatic childhoods exhibit these neurological differences. I like that labels like “OCD and ADHD” aren’t used . Being inside her mind illustrated powerfully how all the traumatic childhood events affect her.

  4. Great write-up, Kari! I really liked this, which I wasn’t expecting. The writing is great–such a good voice, sounds like a real kid. A lot of good funny lines (“I’m also thinking it’s so unfair that I’m not allowed to hate Fay when she really deserves it. God must have been an only child.”).

    The characters are well-developed. I did have some trouble keeping track of all of the siblings, but I got such a good sense of the Dad from just one little scene and thought Jordan was well-drawn. And I loved Annie herself.

    I thought the abuse was really well and subtly portrayed. The sort of impressionistic portrayals of the violence was really effective and also I think makes it so kids can fill in whatever amount of detail they can handle. It felt very lived in, which makes sense since it was inspired by her own life. Reminded me of The War That Saved My Life in that regard. I like that it shows her complicated feelings about her family, how she thinks her mom would have been a good mom given the chance, etc. And that at the end she finds a third option between the two the system is offering and basically forces the system to work.

  5. This book was like being punched in the stomach, and it was so overwhelmingly sad. At one point, I will admit to texting a person on this committee and asking if there was going to be any hope. I was just so, so sad. I have to say, though, that persistent tone is a strength of the book. As DaNae pointed out, we see exactly what Annie sees – but it’s our inferences from what she sees that really inform the impact of the story. The clues about the horrific homelife are there the entire time in the subtle way that Annie communicates the chaos.

    Annie’s voice was sharp and strong and believable. I know some people on Goodreads took great umbrage with the fact that Annie cussed – but really, it’s only a handful of times and it is so authentic to her character. Plus, I imagine a lot of children try cussing on for size at a young age (even younger than Annie).

    Another strength of the book is how cleanly delineated the characters are. Even though there’s a menagerie of siblings, I feel like I knew just enough about each of them to distinguish among them. And they weren’t trope-y, either. It wasn’t like “This is the sister who preens in front of the mirror!” “This is the sister who plays volleyball!”. The delineation was far more nuanced. Two sisters were nasty and mean-spirited, but one, Fay, was more brutal, and Angelini makes the interactions with that character just slightly more menacing. And when it’s revealed *why* Fay behaves that way, it only makes the characterization that much sharper.

    • When my husband (a 4th grade teacher) read it, he looked at me about 1/3 of the way in as if I had betrayed him and said, “What kind of book IS this?” But he also said he could think of so many of his students who reminded him of Annie.

  6. Cherylynn5791 says:

    I think this is an important book. There are kid’s who are living out this story that need to know they are not alone. I thought the main character, the mother, and Fay were well portrayed. I had more trouble telling the other sisters apart. I am not sure about a good setting when I missed so many details that hinted at hoarding. I did not like the ending. The child being removed from the house would be better for her. Even the sisters were cruel to each other.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      It took me a long time to keep the siblings’ names straight. I wish they would have had either just names or just nicknames, because both for each was too many for my brain to remember, especially for the first few chapters before they were really developed.

      I agree that I did not like the ending. I don’t think it was healthy for her to stay in the house. A child should not be expected to fix a family that broken, even with support from social workers.

      • But sadly, there aren’t placements for everyone who needs them… I don’t know how things were in the 80s, but I know of examples today (real life) where social services have had to do their best to improve the environment kids are in already in because there is nowhere else to put them.

  7. Over the years I have taught many students who have lived in less than ideal homes. These kids don’t always realize this because their home is their home, as good or bad as it is. They know what they know. At age 10 or 11 or 12, they may start recognizing more about classmates and friends’ homes or conversations about their home lives and start to question their own situation but no matter how bad it is, home is home.

    This is what I thought SNOW LANE captured so well. Annie knew what she was living in, but she didn’t at the same time and this felt really authentic to me. I thought the reveal of her mother’s abuse was rather brilliant. I didn’t really see THAT coming. I thought the reveal of the clutter and true state of the home in the end was also impressive but I had picked up clues along the way to that one. Still, it rang very true to me having taught many kids like Annie through the years. Her reaction in the end to the social worker’s offer of help felt very genuine as well.

    I was super impressed by this one. It was dark, but boy was it well written.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    A small point perhaps, but typical of how true this book feels, is the quietly presented but very real differences in the siblings’ experience growing up. The oldest siblings are all very accomplished in academics or arts, and one gleans that, whatever issues the parents had then, those children did receive positive attention when the family was small. Katrina mentions that Annie “thinks her mom would have been a good mom” and one can see how this belief could be based on her observation of her family, not just wishful thinking, and that Annie is correct that the unmanageably growing family was the simple root of their problems. I think many other books establish a family dynamic that might as well be frozen in time. A family history and development that seems realistically organic as this one feels distinct to me.

    So the issues of Miriam and Aurora, real as they are, are not quite the issues of the younger children, because in a sense, their mother was not Annie’s and the younger siblings’ mother. And even though they are “secondary”, these older characters’ issues are effectively, sharply, and movingly delineated in their brief one-on-one scenes with Annie.

    Like FRONT DESK or HEY KIDDO, one wonders what was “real” and what wasn’t. The tone of the author’s note almost suggests Angelini and her siblings fondly remember their crazy childhood, which naively one wouldn’t think the case if SNOW LANE were really true to her life.

    • Yes. I got the impression that the mom had post-partum depression with the later children and was never able to bounce back from it.

    • That’s a good point about showing how it was different for the different kids. Particularly that scene between Annie and her sister-mom explaining why she has to leave.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      This difference in the two “generations” of siblings rang true for me. My mom came from a large family (thankfully not abusive!), and there are definite differences in the older half and the younger half, like they lived two different childhoods.

  9. samuel leopold says:

    I agree with most of the points discussed above. The voice of Annie is one of the most memorable ones this year in children’s literature. The realism and well-paced authentic themes are exceptional.

    Though some may not like the ending….many times, young children in these situations have to live with options that do not always provide perfect endings. In 30 years of teaching, I have seen a few “Annies” and those are the moments that have broken my heart the most during my career.

    The author of Snow Lane does an excellent job of making this a “real” story without a forced fairy tale ending.

    Even if it does not win a medal, it is still one of the most relevant books of the year.

  10. I was reading this book on my kindle, so I was not paying attention to how close to the ending I was and, I have to say, I was so disappointed when it ended! I haven’t decided yet if the ending made me enjoy it less or if it’s a sign of a good book that I didn’t want it to end.

  11. Here are a few things that felt off to me.

    Sometime’s Annie voice felt a little too old and wise and other times obliviously naive.

    I am having a hard time remembering her age, was she ten or eleven. How many schools have boy ask girl dances for kids this young? Was this a thing in the eighties? I was in elementary in the seventies and it wasn’t, nor the nineties and later when my children were of the age.

    Also, can anyone explain the reasoning for setting the book in the eighties? Challenger was such a small blip in the plot. It didn’t seem essential enough to warrant the decade. Also, the whole Cabbage Patch craze would not be known by most child readers to glean what that doll meant, and the effort it must have taken for the mother to get it.

    When it comes to respecting a child’s understanding, would some of the concerns her older brother and sister had about her friendship with Jordan be understood? I barely understood it, or perhaps I didn’t, I’m not really sure. The relationship with the dancing sister and her boyfriend felt truly angsty and awkward in a middle-grade novel. Although being sent on dates with her older siblings was fantastic.

    And finally, I’m a little uncomfortable that the family’s dysfunction seems to be blamed mostly on its size. I don’t think that is inaccurate, but it is also not true that all large families are petri dish for poverty and abuse. I live in the land of double digit families. And for sure there are some with troubles, but by and large they are full of support and love.

    On the ‘positive’ side, this book showed one of the most genuine examples of sibling fighting and hatred I’ve seen in real life but can’t remember in books.

    • I assume the 80s setting was just because it was semi-autobiographical, much like Front Desk. I thought it was weird they had dances too, but in their town 5th grade is the first year of middle school. So I just kept thinking of it as 6th/7th grade and then it makes sense. I agree that sometimes she sounds older. Or rather, I don’t think it’s that she actually sounds older, I think it sometimes has a looking back quality to it. It sometimes feels like an adult book with a child protagonist who’s an unreliable narrator. I think it’s really effective but also I’m not entirely sure how it translates to a child audience. She doesn’t pick up on a lot of things that we do as readers. But I think it still works even if you just discover things along with her. And a lot of it is about her not understanding normal kid things at school (with the boy liking her, etc.), so the whole point there is that other kids do understand, so presumably real kids will also understand.

  12. Jessica Lee says:

    So much of what I loved about SNOW LANE has already been discussed. I just have to say that I loved her voice. That scene where she is vomiting and wondering what she ate that made her puke blue and then shifting back to the narrative then back to still vomiting sounded so much like a child who is very inquisitive and distractible and somehow cheerful through it all. I was so impressed that Annie never described her house as anything other than where she lived, a few mentions of clutter. But she noticed how wide open her friends’ houses were. It wasn’t until strangers entered her house and she recognized how they saw it; then she admitted how severe the problem was.

    I hate books for children that are “important” in that After School Special way, that feel a need to tell kids about an issue. This book didn’t feel like that at all. I never thought that the book was trying to teach a lesson but rather to tell a story and show a child’s life. It felt real and complex and messy thanks to Angelini’s writing.

  13. Thanks for the review and comments. I need to read this book! I am currently tutoring a child whose mother is a hoarder, and there are things she drops casually in conversation or I hear through relatives: her mother shops at Walmart every day to buy new clothes because they don’t do laundry and her older sisters showered at their grandmother’s while their father slept in his car because he was allergic to his wife’s many cats. It’s an unsettling thing to know about a family.

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