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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: SWEEP by Jonathan Auxier

sweepThe curtain rises on SWEEP: THE STORY OF A GIRL AND HER MONSTER, and we are presented with a visual, immediately investing us in the two introductory characters – and the world they care for.

Look! Here they are now, approaching through the early fog: a thin man with a long broom over one shoulder, the end bobbing up and down with every step. And trailing behind him, pail in hand, a little girl, who loves that man more than anything in the world.

. . . But when they sing, the most unusual thing happens. Instead of people snapping their windows shut to block out the sound, they rise from their beds, one by one, throw back the curtains, and decide to love the world just a little bit more. Parents suddenly feel the urge to hug their children. Children suddenly feel the urge to let them. (3-4)

Jonathan Auxier deftly builds instant empathy. He exposes just enough vulnerability to open an itch of dread, yet overlies it with a wisp of hope, assuring us that our hearts are in good hands.

SWEEP explores the theme of sacrifice through a multitude of elements. We see it paralleled as the Sweep mends the rents in his girl’s coat, leaving holes in his own. Charlie loses parts of his body, as he fulfills his destiny as a protector. Nan sidesteps the opportunities Miss Bloom offers in order to keep Charlie safe and concealed. Culminating in the cemetery, as Nan lies suspended in Charlie’s hardening arms. Where love and purpose change the destiny of not just one broken and battered girl but furthers a movement to rescue the overlooked climbing children of London. Various themes are layered throughout this book: What is a monster? Charlie asks:

“Am I a monster?”

Nan hesitated a long moment before answering. She thought about Crudd and Trundle and the cruel indifference of every person in the city who didn’t care if she lived or died. “I’ve met monsters before,” she said, resting her head atop his. “And you are not one of them.” (99)

And of course, Toby’s discovery: We are saved by saving others. (180). A man on a bridge is saved by the needs of a baby. A boy sleeping under a bridge protects his own young life in order to care for that same child. A truth so universal it will continue to resonate for another hundred years.

Auxier creates an atmosphere seeped in the grimy haze of Victorian London. A place where unspeakable cruelty against forgotten children, sleeping half-starved in coal bins, thrives under the oblivious noses of those whom benefit from their exploitation. But even as this underbelly is exposed, he overlays the grimness with a serenity that comes from hearts looking out for each other and embracing the world they are given. As shown in the New Year’s Eve scene where Nan muses that she was content with her life: Sitting on a rooftop. Charlie on one side. Toby on the other. A clear sky above. The whole world below. (181).

The plotting of the story is driven in starts of pure dread, Nan’s seeming abandonment by the Sweep, the Devil’s Nudge, Crudd’s capture of Nan, and ultimately Newt’s fall.  These overwhelming moments are mixed with enough lulls to give the reader a chance to relax and enjoy the connective tissue of Charlie and Nan’s friendship. I store the joyful visual of Nan’s first encounter with a bed, where she and Charlie jump “for probably an hour.”

Nothing about the action of this story felt contrived, it all grew organically from the groundwork laid through character development and setting. Once the battle cry, Brooms up! is heralded we are propelled into a most glorious act of civil disobedience. The unfolding of the final scenes is flat-out cinematic: the signs are turned – Nan stands on the Sweep’s hat and sings her truth – the race up the Candlestick – Charlie scoops up Nan’s broken body and returns to the Sweep’s resting place. Each scene is brilliant and vivid.

This year, we have many books on our list that are timely – this is the one title that feels timeless.

Introduction by DaNae

Discussion of SWEEP begins now.  This is the last title to be discussed and Heavy Medal Committee members begin submitting ballots tonight….so try to add comments about this book as soon as you can.  As usual, start with positive comments below, and feel free to expand the discussion to include potential flaws and weaknesses any time after 12:00 noon (EST).

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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. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    I really appreciated all the back matter in this book with the historical context. Is back matter considered by the committee?

    Nan’s emotions were written so strongly. I could really feel her deep sadness, her fear looking up the chimneys after her incident, her fear and sadness at the idea that Charlie wouldn’t be with her forever, her joy watching Charlie play in the snow. And I loved her mood swings — they kept me on my toes and played a large role in the plot, but they didn’t feel forced.

    • I think back matter, when relevant to the content, could be taken into consideration. Much like the illustrations and designs, it probably won’t propel a book from not winning to winning the Newbery, but it is important that it does not detract from the overall quality of the book.

  2. Like Mary, I enjoyed the back matter immensely. In fact, it’s the back matter that bumped this book from 4 stars to 5 stars in my Goodreads Ranking System. The back matter helped contextualize much of the narrative arc and it filled in historical gaps that couldn’t have effectively been squooshed into the story.

    Nan’s voice was sharp, joining the Louisianas and Mias and Lil’ Charlies and Masons in this year’s veritable chorus of strong voices. Auxier’s sure hand in crafting Nan’s awakening to the world around her (Jewish theology, imbalances of power, poverty) kept this book from being too didactic. Charlie himself was an absolute marvel of a character, and though I initially struggled with picturing what he looked like, I never felt that he was anything less than a solid vehicle for the book’s theme. Generally I find “magical” additions to otherwise realistic books quite irritating – a kind of weak plot device to deliver a message – but Charlie As Golem worked for me, mostly because of his characterization and his “Charlie way” of protecting Nan.

    SWEEP maintains a folktale-like tone throughout, and I believe this is why the book feels, to use DaNae’s phrasing, timeless in addition to being timely. And like folktales, the universal truths sprinkled throughout resonate pretty deeply. I failed to record the page numbers in my book journal, but here are two of my favorite quotes (among a sea of others):

    “Just because a book makes you feel bad doesn’t mean it is bad.”
    “That’s what it is to care for a person. If you’re not afraid, you’re not doing it right.”

    I wouldn’t have read SWEEP had it not been for the HMAC, but I’m sure glad I did. It’s marvelous.

  3. SWEEP is a great book. I think it will win the newbery, as it is my favorite.

  4. I’ve debated whether to comment here at all, and I realize that I haven’t been part of the previous conversations about books this year. But, I did want to share my own thoughts on this book, as one Jewish reader. (I realize that other Jewish readers have had different responses to the story.) Apologies that these thoughts are quite long.

    A couple of years ago, I was in Paris visiting my 90 year-old aunt — a Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor. On that trip I was also lucky enough to visit the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme for their exhibition titled Golem! Avatars of a Legend of Clay https://www.mahj.org/en/programme/golem-avatars-of-a-legend-of-clay-48450 The exhibit explored the origins of the Golem in Jewish traditions, and its different expressions and manifestations throughout different periods in Jewish histories. It also included imaginings of golem figures from non-Jewish creators… but still grounded the Golem firmly in living and evolving Jewish cultures. Walking through the exhibit was a deeply moving and resonate experience. I had this in mind when I heard Auxier speak about Sweep at the Boston Book Festival, where he articulated his own impetus for writing about a Golem as a non-Jewish person. I have to admit that some of his comments there made me uncomfortable, but I tried to go into reading the book with an open mind.

    Having finished the book, though, I have to say that I have a lot of problems with it. While there are things about the story overall that I appreciate, it’s the elements related to Judaism that give me pause. Most of these concern the ways the story continually appropriates and positions Judaism and Jewish culture within Christian contexts — including most notably with the character of the Golem. To start with, there are only two Jewish characters in the story — Miss Bloom and Toby Schaal. Both of them are literally and figuratively removed from any connection to other Jewish people or communities. Toby’s Judaism is stated, but hardly explored. In the case of Miss Bloom, she has rejected her Jewish family and the Judaism she grew up with, which she found restrictive. It’s certainly true that there are Jewish people who’ve had this experience — but these dynamics are ones I’ve noticed in a lot of writing from non-Jewish authors about Jewish characters… in particular, dynamics that position Jewish observance negatively, in contrast with more assimilated, non-observant Jewish experiences. (There’s also a parallel in the fact that Nan, a girl imagined by a male author, has no other connections to girls or women besides her relationship with Miss Bloom.)

    Actually, while I say there are two Jewish characters, the book implies that the Sweep is also Jewish. Yet, the Sweep doesn’t seem to have practiced Judaism or shared this background with the child he was raising at all. Though he is devoted to teaching Nan about the world and guiding her through it, none of his teachings, or reflections, or stories seem to have related specifically to Judaism in any way, beyond the ultimate creation of the Golem. (At least, Nan never shares any such memories, and she seems to identify strongly with Christianity, and relate to Judaism as something outside of her experience and other.)

    Through Nan’s questions, Miss Bloom does begin to reconnect more with her Jewish identity… but even in this reconnection, I had reservations. For example, the Passover chapter. This chapter (which begins with the frame of hot cross buns and Easter chicks) includes a make-shift Seder that Miss Bloom has set out for her and Nan. There are little things, like the fact that it’s daytime, and Miss Bloom says, “This day is different from all other days.” Pesach begins at sundown, and it’s “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Miss Bloom doesn’t care about observance, and it might be in her character to make this change — but it still seems worth noting for the reader that it isn’t accurate. Then, in discussing the death of the firstborn, Miss Bloom and Nan have this exchange: “‘That’s horrible,’ Nan said… ‘Children seldom deserve what befalls them. But there was grace in the slaughter. It was in the wake of this horror that the Jews were able to escape to freedom.” Miss Bloom shook her head. ‘I despised that story as a girl. It haunts me still.’” (p. 251) Again, it might be in keeping with Miss Bloom’s character to have despised the Passover story — but there is a larger issue with how Jewish stories, particularly religious ones, are being presented here. As the only character with any connection to Judaism at all, Miss Bloom’s “I despised that story as a girl” troubles me. As do all of the parts of the Passover story and Seder that are being omitted here, including the ethical questions discussed within the Seder itself — especially in thinking about violence in the context of resisting oppression and slavery. (This theme continues in thinking about the Golem as a figure coming out of Jewish religious traditions and resistance, vs. Christian models of “saving” and Christ-like self-sacrifice.) The Passover scene ends when, “Nan tried a bit of something Miss Bloom had called maror but quickly spat it back on her spoon.” (p. 252) Again, this felt disrespectful to me. The story doesn’t clarify that maror —bitter herbs — symbolize the bitterness of slavery. Often, maror is then mixed with the sweet charoset, symbolizing the ways that bitterness was mixed with hope. Nan tasting the maror and then spitting it out, without explanation, didn’t sit well with me. The description also comes in contrast to warm depictions of Easter food that come right before it with the hot buns, and again a few pages later when, “Most people were home, celebrating Easter with family. Nan could smell roast lamb and steamed oysters somewhere close by.” (p. 255)

    The only other reference to Jewish observance comes with Nan’s Christmas Eve gift of the candelabras, which she — along with Charlie the Golem dressed up as Father Christmas—deliver to Miss Bloom (in a chapter titled “The Great Christmas Caper.”) “Miss Bloom was the first stop. Nan remembered the woman saying something about a ‘Festival of Lights.’ She found a book in the captain’s study called Into the Holy Land that said Jewish people celebrated the festival by lighting a magic candlestick that had nine arms. She decided to give her a pair of candelabra from the captain’s dining hall. Each candelabrum only had four arms, so she had Charlie fuse them together to make eight, which seemed like plenty.” (p.169) I realize this scene is meant to be humorous, and to show Nan’s care for others, however imperfect. Here, too, Miss Bloom’s subsequent bemusement is in keeping with her character. But *why* are the only two examples of Jewish observance ones where the details are treated laughingly, and as something that doesn’t matter? (The shamash is, literally and figuratively, central to the Hanukkiah.) Within the context of the story as a whole, the effect to me is one of dismissing and trivializing Jewish observance.

    It’s in the figure of Charlie, though, that the problems with the story felt most egregious to me. While the book references the Jewish roots of the Golem, the story itself felt like an appropriation of the Golem figure into a Christian context. There are the most blatant examples of this like, uh, the aforementioned fact that Charlie dresses up as Father Christmas, or that *the last surviving piece of him at the end is a Christmas present.* But there is also the deeper thematic storyline. I appreciate the story’s theme of healing oneself through caring for others, but in the figure of Charlie this felt to me like something more. Charlie literally sacrifices his body to save others— first giving pieces, and then all of himself in a final act of salvation. This idea of selfless bodily sacrifice and “saving” is an implicitly Christian one. This is not a Jewish golem, representing complex Jewish ideas about creation, the power of the Word, a relationship with G-d, or the double-edged sword of creativity and the effort to find Jewish communal protection (which can be both sacred and monstrous, both powerful and ultimately impotent.) This is a Christian golem.

    There are other things, like the way both Miss Bloom and the author’s note discuss antisemitism (without any mention of antisemitism as a system, rooted in European Christianity) or the fact that the quotes in the epigraph are both from non-Jews, or the framing device of Blake’s Innocence/Experience, or the fact that Golems are discussed in relation to anti-Jewish oppression but not living Jewish cultures… but I’ll just end with this quote from the introduction to the Golem! exhibition: “The term ‘golem’ is first mentioned in the Bible, in Psalm 139, when Adam, talking to G-d, refers to himself as an ‘unformed substance.’ Adam, the first man, fashioned from clay and animated by divine inspiration, was therefore the very first golem. In the Talmud, there are several instances of artificial beings (men and calves) created by sages… The Kabbalist who wished to bring a golem to life referred to the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), which describes God’s creation of the world with the aid of alphabetic formulae and insists on the power of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus the will to create a golem was regarded as a desire to enter into a privileged relationship with G-d…”

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      Thank you so much for this reflection!
      Several of the parts you mentioned made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. As a member of the Christian culture, I did not have enough perspective and knowledge to make these observations. I’m glad that you explained them so well so we can discuss them.

      I did find it very odd that there were random references to Judaism that didn’t really fit in with the rest of the story, but I assumed it was just to give the author an excuse for why the golem existed and provide a vehicle for tossing in some explanation. It seems odd that with the meticulous historical research that was obviously done to create an authentic London, the same care wasn’t taken with this religious context.

      • This is a bit troubling to me as well… It’s obvious that Auxier went to such pains to incorporate his research as accurately as possible, but after reading through some of Sarah’s concerns, it does appear that he’s perhaps been a bit lazy with Charlie. I read a Q&A of Auxier where he discusses the golem. He says this:

        “The golem is not just a generic protector, but it’s protecting people who are in serious need, people who are being persecuted. I thought there was beauty to the idea that it was a story and a character born out of the fact that the city of Prague was persecuting its Jewish citizens, and then hundreds of years later it had become a celebrated image for the whole city. There’s something beautiful about that, and a little bit sad, especially in light of the fact that in almost all the golem stories you find, even when the golem does its job and manages to protect the person who creates it, the golem’s ending is not always happy. So you have this beautiful heroic creature who is also destined to be a little bit tragic. That really drew me in.”

        It seems to me two things: 1) Auxier was fascinated with the golem and wanted it to be central to his story and 2) Auxier learned that the golem’s origin was based in Judaism so he needed to include Judaism in some way shape or form in his book to give credence. It seems as if that inclusion has been a bit sloppy, which does take away some of the “distinguished” feel of this book. This book was a 5-star rating for me on Goodreads, but like Joe acknowledged, after reading the backstory and how much work Auxier put into the research, I only appreciated it more. So learning that his research should have included Jewish faith since one of the central figures is grounded in it, is a bit disheartening.

        In a Newbery conversation, I would think this would fall under the criteria of showing respect for child readers (not being thoughtful in the inclusion of the Jewish faith, which is where the golem, one of Auxier’s central figures, comes from) and accurate presentation of information. Was Auxier inaccurate in the way he portrayed the Jewish characters?

      • That’s an interesting quote because it gives a different interpretation to the idea of Charlie sacrificing himself—that that’s something Auxier sees as coming out of the traditional golem stories. Although I suppose there’s still a difference between sacrificing yourself and being destroyed by your creator.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful analysis.

    • Thank you for your important insights, Sarah. I too was a bit flummoxed with how the book treated Judaism. This is another example of the need for ‘sensitivity readers’ for authors who create characters from oppressed groups of which they are not a member. (Other examples this year: Jamaican American Brian in “Small Spaces”, the gay dad in “The Parker Inheritance,” Jackie and her Grandpa in “Just Like Jackie”) “Own Voices” is such a rallying cry right now– authors need to work harder to get it right-er.

      • What’s the objection about Brian in Small Spaces? I don’t think we’ve talked about that.

      • How do you know that those authors didn’t use sensitivity readers though? Or that they don’t have people in their own personal lives that inspired those characters? The thing about sensitivity readers, is that there’s no way that one or two sensitivity readers could accurately represent all members of the group they’re representing. Because people and their situations are all so wildly different.

        I guess, I agree with you that it’s important to put thought into the characters that you’re creating as an author, but I don’t like that you’re assuming these authors didn’t use sensitivity readers or that they need to work “harder.” Just because you found flaws in these characters doesn’t mean they didn’t come from some place thoughtful or were inspired or strengthened on the page after a sensitivity reader may have given feedback.

    • Thank you very much for sharing your reservations over the book and for carefully documenting the examples to support your concerns. Now it’s up to the HMAC members:

      How much of these background/religious/heritage concerns should come into the conversation about the books based on the criteria? Is it, like Mr. H said, an example of the author not “showing respect” to young readers? How so?

      • We don’t know if sensitivity readers were employed to read through SWEEP. If there were, I can only hope that Jewish readers were enlisted. I thank Sarah for pointing out what she sees as problematic issues with the book, and am also thankful that Sarah pointed out, in her own words, that she is “one Jewish reader. (I realize that other Jewish readers have had different responses to the story”.

        A sensitivity reader cannot speak for everyone in a community or culture as both are not monolithic, but Sarah’s comments give me some things to mull over.

      • Point taken. Mr. H. I don’t know about the authors’ experience or process. And you’re right, one person can never represent an entire race or group. And I meant authors in general need to step it up. Readers won’t (and should not) accept the sorts of mistakes and un-intentional slights that were so common in children’s books in the past.
        As for Brian, I’ll need to look at the book again to find specific examples. But one reader I talked to said after reading it “Brian was Black?” So maybe he was not as well-developed as he could have been? I found it interesting that both books set in Vermont had Black main characters when the population of African Americans there is a mere 1.2%.
        This is such a side conversation– so I’ll just wrap this up by saying that the We Need Diverse Books movement and better representation in children’s books is a much-needed and wonderful thing, and there will be some clunky attempts by authors to bring it about. I don’t mean to be sitting around huffily expecting perfection.

      • I would be interested most particularly how Jewish children feel about this representation. Would they feel misrepresented or included? One of my students was very disturbed about an angel showing up in THE BOOK OF BOY. For her, angels are serous spiritual beings, and shouldn’t be walking around in the muck of children’s stories. We talked about how fictional fantasy characters can exist within the world they are born in, without drawing disrespect to those who have other attachments. She understood, but would really rather he had turned out to be something else.

        Charlie as a character may stray from orthodoxy, but does he diminish those of that belief?

      • I can’t even pretend to be an expert at Jewish culture, tradition or orthodoxy. I assume that a Faith with thousands of years of history would be complex and might not look the same everywhere. I appreciate that Sarah prefaced her remarks as speaking for herself, she is clearly well-founded in her documentation and understanding.

        But I do wonder if Miss Bloom as a character can’t be authentic in getting her religious observance wrong. She herself told Nan that she left her home and turned her back on religion when she was about Nan’s age. I’ve know a few people who’ve identified as Jewish but never observe more than put up and Menorah next to their Christmas tree.

        Also, is a Golem a being of folklore or believed to be an actual spiritual reality? If it is believed that Auxiar is making light of a religious taboo and not creating his own version of a mythical creature, then should we not give the same consideration to my student what was appalled when the Angel showed up in THE BOOK OF BOY?

        Religious sensitivity is important, but we also have books on our list, most particularly SNOW LANE, that paint forms of Christianity in a less than perfect light. Young readers of the Catholic faith may feel a bit tender about that representation. Did Auxier go out of his way to do the research? I think he’s shown he did, but how can you know if you’ve asked the right questions? Someone on the inside of a depiction is rarely impressed when an outsider tries to sketch. This is why Own Voices is important, but there is room for many story-tellers and in the end, SWEEP is a story worth telling.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sarah.

      To address Roxanne’s question of how these concerns come into play, I’d draw everyone’s attention to a 2015 addition to the Newbery manual titled “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation.” This section reminds committee members to deeply consider inclusiveness when evaluating books. Here’s a quote worth reading again and again:

      “Everyone benefits, children most of all, when the titles recognized within and across ALSC awards and best-of-the-year lists authentically reflect the diversity found in our nation and the wider world.”

      After reading Sarah’s comments, I wonder if SWEEP is *authentically* inclusive of Jewish culture or if it is appropriating and to some extent “othering” Jewish culture (whether or not that was the author’s intention). I would ask committee members to consider how a child who identifies as Jewish might feel reading this story. We know from Sarah that the text can feel like it is (perhaps subtly) favoring the dominant Christian culture of the setting.

      The question I find the most intriguing is about Nan’s identity. I assumed the Sweep was Jewish. But I didn’t consider why then Nan doesn’t consider herself Jewish. Why didn’t the Sweep share that part of his identity with her? This is hard for me to wrap my mind around. If I were on the committee, I would be re-reading the book with all of this in mind.

      • I don’t know if this is an answer Destinee, but I too have been thinking about this tonight.

        Nan is still young when the Sweep leaves her. I don’t have the book on hand any longer but I seem to remember some considerable amount of time passing between her flashbacks (dreams) of him and her time with Crudd. The life she would have grown up in with Crudd and the other boys was not one of religion, so to me, it’s possible that she doesn’t identify with the Sweep’s Jewish faith because she was too young to remember it. Her upbringing inside of Crudd’s crew probably crushed any bit of faith inside her. Remember, when the Sweep found her he was in pretty bad shape himself. I think it’s totally possible that he knew his time with her was limited and the wisdom he wanted to impart on her was more about survival as a sweep than anything.

  5. I also would not have read this book if it hadn’t been assigned. I had the wrong impression about it from the cover and also don’t generally read a lot of fantasy so I had passed on it. It ended up being one of my favorites of the year (and another title that I gifted for the holidays).

    I particularly liked how this book handled the actual danger of being a child in these conditions and that it even had Nan address the idea of sentimentalizing their conditions. It did feel really timeless and inspiring.

  6. In reading over Sarah H’s many excellent points, I started to wonder how much Charlie’s final self-sacrifice (a sacrifice we knew was coming for much of the book) undermines one of the themes of the book, that you save yourself when you save others. Charlie doesn’t save himself by saving others, he dies.

    • Good point, Alys!

    • Did he not have a rebirth?

      • I’m frustrated because my copy is checked out so I can’t check. My impression had been less that Charlie himself was reborn and more that it was a small piece of him that had been saved. But now I’m doubting my memory, despite it having been only a few weeks. I’ll have to wait for someone who actually has a copy of the book (or a better memory).

      • I definitely took it as a rebirth, although I suppose he is also still dead. But the epilogue is Nan bringing the last little piece of him to him in the graveyard, which brings the graveyard to life with blooms. So he lives on in a different way.

      • SAMUEL LEOPOLD says:

        I also took it as a rebirth…and my second time reading it did not alter that perspective.

      • Rebirth, Spring in the garden, Easter… Hmm…. very Christian!
        I took it as Charlie living on in another way.
        I liked all along how he helped things grow– like the soot the sweeps collect and sell to farmers.

      • Okay, I’m not completely imagining things when I thought he hadn’t been reborn. I didn’t see it as a true rebirth, because Charlie is still gone.

    • Perhaps if you rephrase it as you become your true self by helping others, it works better, since Charlie fulfills his true purpose by giving himself away, as people fulfill their true purpose by helping others.

      • Katrina, I saw Charlie’s sacrifice as fulfilling his purpose. The reason for his existence. In his ‘death’ scene, I felt he was at peace with the knowledge he’d done what he’d come to do.

      • I agree that Charlie was at peace, and that sacrifice is both important and meaningful. But I do hesitate to subscribe to an idea that finding your “true self” also means erasing yourself, that Charlie could only become himself by dying. It’s Nan’s sacrifice and care that allow him to be uniquely Charlie. His purpose may be to die saving Nan, but his “true self” is realized through Nan’s care.

  7. There were so many things I liked about this book. It’s my type of book and I think I would have definitely liked it as a kid. I like his writing and the characters and the fairy tale style with a Dickensian spin. It’s clear he did a ton of historical research, but he uses a light hand with it and doesn’t stuff it all in. All of the stuff about the chimney sweeps was fascinating and upsetting–I’m still haunted by the 9 inch chimneys. I like that they wind up helping all of the sweeps, even though it feels a little abrupt when they manage to organize them. The ending was exciting and then Charlie’s sacrifice and rebirth were moving.

    The middle was a little slow for me. Charlie is adorable, but there’s not that much going on in the part where they’re living in the house and he’s growing up. They wind up sitting around talking about the meaning of life too much and stating straight out the themes. The idea that taking care of someone saves you was already coming through by the story, the characters didn’t need to keep saying it.

    It’s an interesting theme for a kid’s book. In the author’s note, he says he couldn’t write the book until he was a parent. And it’s very much a book about parenting. Which seems a little odd for a kid’s book. I mean, kids do have caretaker roles as siblings, etc., so maybe it all shakes out, but I’m curious what actual kids make of that.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Sarah H, if you’ve read it, what was your reaction to The Inquisitor’s Tale? That’s the book that kept coming to my mind when I consider SWEEP’s Newbery chances, and that was even before I read your perspective. I was happy when Gidwitz won an Honor since I felt his book offered real entertainment and appeal for children, but also showed ambition and desire to provide “meat” for younger readers to chew on, and also had real emotional high points of, dare I say, almost (Christian) religious quality. There’s an argument that sort of combination makes for a perfect Newbery.

    However, I also had the reservation that I felt Gidwitz is not quite a Great Writer and that showed in spots. For a “literary” award (and as an adult who might have to defend his taste in books), Gidwitz is not what I would hand the “why are you reading kiddie books” skeptic. Anyway, that is basically my same reaction to Auxier and SWEEP. I think it would be a fine Newbery winner, maybe the best one, but as an adult, I think at least BOOK OF BOY, LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME, and SNOW LANE are “better” in purely literary terms. On another thread, someone said they could see SWEEP as a movie. I agree, but my imagined movie isn’t a very good one, because it would seem to include things that are just there because of someone’s idea of what kids want (perhaps correctly) but are actually a bit tired and not that exciting. I sort of felt that through all the big, action-filled climax of SWEEP: the chase, the fall, the temporary sad hero’s death and CPR-like revival — rather similar to today’s formulaic movies of a certain kind with their obligatory big climaxes nobody really seems to enjoy (or maybe they do.) Whereas the most memorable part of SWEEP was, for me, Roger’s quietly chilling, Dickensian monologue where he fantasizes about revenge on his family, showing how irredeemably twisted he has become. He, not Crudd, is a true literary villain.

    • Leonard, Yes on it feeling formulaic and Book of Boy, Louisiana and Snow Lane being better in literary terms!

  9. SAMUEL LEOPOLD says:

    DaNae does an excellent job of outlining the strengths of this title!

    I value all of the comments stated above. Excellent, valid points I will seriously consider when casting my ballot.
    Here is my very brief synopsis of the book’s strengths.
    The development of setting was strong with wonderful imagery and sensory language. I felt like I could close my eyes and touch the world I was reading about.

    The character development was also masterful in the way the author took us deep into the heart and soul of the main characters. His beautiful use of strong vocabulary allows the reader to take this journey into the feelings and thoughts of the characters.

    The plot pacing was perfect and seamless. Nothing seemed forced or misplaced.

    The theme is well-developed and authentic–“we are saved by saving others.” I see this theme as a “unifying theme” that all people from all walks of life can embrace and practice. A theme of selflessness that ,as a society, may be our only hope of growing and surviving peacefully together.

    Another strong contender for this year’s prize.

  10. Courtney Hague says:

    I really enjoyed this book and feel like DaNae did a great job laying out its strengths in her write up. I think the setting and characters really shone.

    However there are definitely some points that have been brought up in this thread that I would really like to mull over. I wish this hadn’t been our last title to discuss so I’d have a little more time to get my thoughts in order before voting.

  11. Deborah Ford says:

    Really some great ideas here. Being in this group certainly helps you broaden your thought process. First, thank you DaNae for a wonderful intro. If I hadn’t read it, I certainly would.

    Sarah H- thank you also for your documented objections. I think that there is merit to considering the religious content, considering its huge importance to the plot. I checked with the Sydney Taylor Award (usually announced this month) to see where they landed. No announcements. Without having my own experiences with Judaism, Sarah H presents a pretty clear case. Though inclusion is important, do our questions about authenticity, plot convenience, and characterization override our love of a great story with a “happyish” ending?

  12. Jessica Lee says:

    There is so much that is lovable and enjoyable about SWEEP. I can definitely see child readers loving it, as well as many adults. But Sarah’s concerns give me pause. Additionally, the character of Charlie is primarily a lovable oaf, big and not very bright, overly childish but remarkably strong, loving yet dangerous. Was Auxier playing on the tropes of those with intellectual disabilities? Another librarian (also named Sarah) pointed out that Auxier mentions his daughter with Down’s Syndrome in the back matter and compares her to Charlie. This, for me, makes all of Charlie’s fumblings less humorous and more problematic. It is enough to give me pause in voting for this sweet tale.

  13. Jessica, I am sure what I read in the back matter about his daughter was not a connecection between is daughter and Charlie but that he never could have written about this deapth of love and fear of loss before experiencing his own after his daughter was born and her subsequent surgery.

    • Jessica Lee says:

      Thank you. I will make sure to look again at that passage.

      • My favorite part of the back matter was the list of books he read while writing this. I so hear Lobel’s Frog and Toad in Charlie’s voice.

    • All the literary references were great– including passages from Blake and mentioning Water Babies gave it a nice historical touch.

  14. In reply to Deborah Ford, the Sydney Taylor Book Awards will be announced with all the other awards on Monday. But, it should be noted that the other main Jewish children’s book award, from the Jewish Book Council in NY, was recently announced, and SWEEP was not the winner (ALL THREE STOOGES, by Erica Perl, was the winner) but it was one of the three finalists for the Children’s Literature Award. It should be noted that the judges were aware of these the issues related here by Sarah H. and they still considered it as a finalist from a long list of entries.

  15. samuel leopold says:

    I still consider it one of my top three.

  16. Thank you Sarah H. for the time and thought that had to go into your detailed response to SWEEP. I’m sorry (due to the alphabetical nature of book discussion) that SWEEP was the final book discussed because time is running out before Monday. Remembering the days of THE HIRED GIRL discussion, Sarah is quite right to remind us that, regardless of merits of the Jewish references, there will be a wide range of reaction among Jewish readers. I am not a fan of fantasy and put off ordering this book. However, the starred reviews from so many publications and blog reviewers cause me to wonder if I am passing up a terrific reading experience. I am Jewish but know nothing about golems.
    I’m very disappointed by what Sarah has reported, but in no way wish to blame the messenger! She may very well be alerting us to serious issues and I’m pleased that so many of you are also taking her remarks seriously. The Jewish Book Council did choose SWEEP as a finalist. About the winner, ALL THREE STOOGES. I have read nothing. As a Jew, I now feel compelled to read SWEEP based on Sarah H’s evaluation and I hope this discussion will continue to respond to the issues Sarah has raised regardless of how this book is regarded by the Heavy Medal and Newbery committees.
    Thank you for allowing a non-committee reader to express her views!

  17. Carla Ryan says:

    Sweep was touching and tender yet showed the realistic hardships of life. The Sweep’s ability to turn negatives into positive was heartwarming and admirable. The message of we save ourselves by saving others resonates with me and I hope stays with all who read it.

  18. I’m German Jewish, but not of the religion. That is, I was raised by German Jews (Holocaust survivors) who did not practice the religion in any way. And so I grew up feeling I never saw myself in children’s books featuring the more familiar representation of the ethnicity and/or religions. That Sweep chose not to let Nan know of that aspect of him, that Miss Bloom does not wish to practice the religion, these all fit for me. As Sarah and others noted there are many different sorts of Jewish readers. Similarly, there are many different ways to represent Judaism in literature. I think SWEEP is one. That it might make certain Jewish readers uncomfortable doesn’t mean it might not make others, like me, feel quite okay. (For me a golem is a folkloric figure, not a religious one.) I hadn’t thought about her when I read the book, but now she has been discussed, I feel a kinship with Miss Bloom. I’ve all too often had attributes of what many think a Jewish person should be attributed to me and it has often frustrated me. I’m still waiting for a book that represents me as a child (and considering writing it myself:).

    • Mary Ann Scheuer says:

      Monica, thank you for sharing your perspective. I share your cultural identity, being culturally Jewish but not religiously so. I am in the process of rereading Sweep, and I appreciated the aspects of Jewish culture in Sweep. I also am closely connected to British culture (my husband grew up in London, and his father is also a German Jewish refugee). I am most struck by the way Auxier portrays the terrible working conditions of the chimney sweeps, especially the children, in a way that respects today’s child audience–informing and connecting readers emotionally to the problem. Toby seemed a central, important character and I appreciated how his Jewish identity was specifically addressed. He reminds me of my family: culturally Jewish and linguistically German, but not religious. I also feel a kinship with Miss Bloom, especially as she tries to advocate for the children. She portrays the social justice values that I associate with Judaism.

      I am curious how children who identify as Jewish respond to Sweep. I can appreciate Sarah H’s wishes that there were characters who were part of a larger Jewish community (and there is a long history of Jewish communities in London), but I wonder if that is for another book. Our task is to evaluate the book we have here. Are the Jewish characters portrayed with depth? Or are they placeholders and stereotyped? I am not finished with my 2nd read yet, but I would have to say that I find them sensitively developed.

      • I don’t have a copy of SWEEP here but one question I had from this discussion was that I felt as if it sounded from Miss Bloom like the Jewish community that her family was part of was an insular or isolated community. Would that be an accurate representation of the Jewish communities in London at this time?

      • Just wanted to say, in response to the idea that it’s not the story this particular book is telling: all stories exist in a larger context. To use the parallel of Nan’s lack of relationships with girls and women aside from Miss Bloom: one can argue that this isn’t the story Sweep is telling. In this book, Nan is in a male-dominated profession, and thus has had little contact with anyone of another gender. There are many explanations for why her experience is realistic in the story at hand, and why there are girls in the world who would share that experience. And, it’s *also* true that there is a larger context, in which cis men writing female characters tend to imagine them primarily in relation to cis men (single father figure, male friend, male protector, developing male romantic love interest…) The lack of female friendships with peers can be true to the story one book is telling *and* part of that larger context.

        More than that, from my perspective the larger context for this book — where a non-Jewish author imagines an ostensibly Jewish Golem figure — is the fact that the Golem is a protector of Jewish *community*. Whether secular or religious, mythological or sacred, cautionary or heroic, in Jewish stories the Golem’s purpose is in preserving Jewish community. Thus, a non-Jewish author representing a golem in a story where in all respects there is a discontinuation of, and alienation from Jewish community has larger meaning, even if that distance is realistic to individual Jewish people’s experiences, or within one story.

  19. I just want to clarify that I wasn’t speaking of the Golem as being a necessarily religious figure, but one rooted in Jewish cultures. Orthodoxy, observance, and thoughts about Christian appropriations of Jewish stories are all separate things. (Not that it should matter, but I am neither Orthodox nor observant!) As I mentioned, there are stories involving Golem figures by non-Jewish authors (Frankenstein being a famous example.) And, as I noted, there are certainly Jewish people who might share Miss Bloom’s experiences of her family and faith.

    My concerns in Sweep have to do with these representations of Judaism in the context of the story as a whole. Why are there *no* Jewish characters with active connections to Judaism, or any connections to other Jewish people at all? Why reference Jewish observance *only* in a dismissive, inaccurate, or negative way? Given how much is included in the authors’ note, why not also include some broader context on Jewish holidays if there are going to be divergences in the text? Etc.

    And, as I said, my own questions about the Golem have to do with the way he is ostensibly recognized as a Jewish figure, but ultimately framed within a Christian context (like him dressing up as Father Christmas!) Again, I see a connection between this and the story’s distant treatment of Jewish religion and cultures taken as a whole. For me, all of these dynamics occur within a broader context that includes Christian hegemony, a publishing industry that from my perspective strongly favors narratives of assimilation, and ways that Christian authors have responded to and used Jewish stories in the past.

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