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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Can Newbery Winners Do It Again?

The Newbery Terms and Criteria state that “the committee is not to consider the entire body of the work by an author or whether the author has previously won the award.” So if an author has won before, the Committee can’t say: “she doesn’t need another one.” And if someone has won Honors but no Medal, they can’t think: “it’s time he finally wins the big one.” They also can’t compare this year’s eligible titles to previous books by the author.

On the other hand, when you’re reading like crazy to find the best books of the year, looking for rave reviews, starred titles, and word of mouth, it only makes sense that you also keep an eye out for books by past Newbery honorees. And silver and gold seals aside, I’ll always read almost any new book by Gary Schmidt, Cynthia Kadohota, or Kevin Henkes. So I’ll start my first book post of the year with those three, keeping in mind that their works don’t have to be better than their past works, just distinguished among 2019 titles:

A PLACE TO BELONG by Cynthia Kadohata

The historical setting is a new one to most readers: after World War II Hanako and her family move from a “segregation center” in the US to the village in Japan where her grandparents live, just outside of Hiroshima. Kadohata captures the fear and uncertainty of the situation through Hanako’s point of view. She manages to distill the huge issues of war and prejudice into the specific, personal experiences of the girl: Hanako’s agonizing choices about sharing with Kiyoshi and his sister; her efforts to fit in at school; the way she tries to assure Akira that everything will be fine when she’s so unsure herself. Other characters are distinct and sometimes surprising. I especially appreciate the adults, who are struggling with events as much as the kids are.

It’s interesting to compare this novel to Andrea Warren’s ENEMY CHILD, a strong biography of Norman Mineta’s experiences as a child in an internment camp during the war.

PAY ATTENTION, CARTER JONES by Gary D. Schmidt

The premise of a butler/cricket coach showing up to save a family sounds pretty wild, but Schmidt makes it work. Carter’s funny first person narration, filled with run-on sentences and deadpan humor, carries the book. He drops hints about the deeper problems his family is facing along the way. The balance between humorous moments and serious issues is impressive and the gradual unveiling of the truths that Carter has kept unspoken works very well. The ending, with the extended drama of the cricket match, felt a little too drawn out to me, though. And the Butler’s return seemed a bit gratuitous and maybe even lessened the impact of Carter’s growth. Those may work fine for other readers, and there’s a lot to admire in the writing. 

In some ways CARTER JONES reminds me of SPY RUNNER by Eugene Yelchin. Both have missing fathers, mysterious visitors, and highly engaging protagonists who are trying to figure out the confusing adult world.

SWEEPING UP THE HEART by Kevin Henkes

Henkes’ novel about a thoughtful, anxious girl is a bit of a quiet gem. No cricket matches or police chases or anything like that. Instead, it’s powerful moments conveyed in more subtle ways. The simple act of Hannah tying Amelia’s hair into a bun, for example, is moving and meaningful because we come to know Amelia so well. I’m not sure that plot, characterizations, or themes in SWEEPING UP THE HEART stand out on their own, but it’s the way that they’re so effectively and effortlessly  intertwined that makes the novel stand out for me.

I’m wondering how this book will fare among 2019’s sizable crop of grief-themed novels. Books like LINE TENDER, CARTER JONES, COYOTE SUNRISE, and EVENTOWN are longer and just feel…bigger. But subtlety and artfulness can count for a lot too, and that’s where the Henkes shines. 

More books by past winners are coming this fall. I’m especially looking forward to new books by Steve Sheinkin, Kate DiCamillo, and Jason Reynolds. For now, though, if you’ve read any of the Kadohata/Schmidt/Henkes trio, please chime in with comments below.

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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. Steven, I like this approach to early posting. It helps organize the mass of books people are talking about and helps us see what truly stands out from the others.

    In this case, I liked all three, but your grouping them together made me realize none of them really outshines the other two. So either they’re all potentially “most distinguished” or none are. I’m apt to lean towards the latter.

    In the cases of A PLACE TO BELONG and CARTER JONES, my Goodreads reviews had elements of “despite xyz … still a good writer….” One could say that I was holding them to past standards (a no-no) but one could also argue that I was giving extra benefit-of-doubt to flaws (e.g., piling-on of detail by Kadohata, forced absurdity by Schmidt) because of their past excellence.

    I also like that you looked for comparables among this year’s crop. When I try that, it does help these books’ cases, since there aren’t a lot like them. I would put forth ALL THE GREYS ON GREENE STREET as a possible point-of-comparison for SWEEPING UP THE HEART (focus on art, observation, quiet, with a there/not there parent), and I did like Henkes’ book better in this case. A comparable for CARTER JONES might be FINDING ORION — a lot of madcap with a deep, underlying seriousness about fathers. I think that’s a tossup. It might help to consider A PLACE TO BELONG alongside HOW HIGH THE MOON (race in America, girl going to live in a new place) and also I actually found OTHER WORDS FOR HOME read quite similarly to A PLACE TO BELONG — I felt both took too long to get to the new place, but once they did, I enjoyed the family life there. And thinking about that made me realize that I think THE BRIDGE HOME might have done those things better…

  2. I have read two out of the three.

    Pay Attention Carter Jones is Gary Schmidt doing characters that are fun and with which it is easy to feel at home. I loved the butler as something different and fresh. My problem is actually with the cricket playing. I have never played cricket. I have never seen a match. It seemed important to the characters, but I lost interest when these scenes were described. I picture what is going on in my head and felt like I did not know what was going on during those scenes. Is this a failure in the reader or the author? If a child feels the same way I know many kids who would not continue with the book.

    Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes was a beautiful story about dealing with grief. It is much more quiet and subtle than so many other stories this year. I have to admit that I loved the language he uses. His way of letting us know the character of Amelia’s dad through what other people think of him. I was a little confused by the time setting. Why put the time near 2000? Wouldn’t a modern story be just as good? The place part of setting was vivid, but not the time.

    I still have not read the Cynthia Kadohata.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Good question about the time setting in SWEEPING UP THE HEART. I wonder if it has to do with technology? Amelia was waiting to hear from her friend, then finally got an email (or was it a letter? I don’t have the book in front of me). If it had been set in 2019, maybe we’d assume they’d ealiy stay in touch with texts, and it was important that Amelia was more isolated than usual. That’s just a guess though….

      • I definitely think the timing is about the slower pace in communication and that adds to the general sensibility and suspense of the tale. I am not bothered by this at all. In fact, I think Henkes’ is the strongest prose of all the books I have read this year so far. I just noticed how each sentence has gripping cadence that propels you to keep reading — and he varies the tempo according to the mood of the characters seamlessly.

      • I just finished SWEEPING UP THE HEART and while I agree it’s quiet and slow, I was blown away by how exquisite the prose was.

        Question though, why does an author need to justify their setting? If Henkes wants to set this in 1999, why can’t he? Why would that be a knock against him? Why does there have to be a reason? I agree with both of you, with the potential reasons why he did, but why should it matter?

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Good point, Mr. H, and I agree. When an author writes historical fiction, the events of the time are often central. But he also has to develop characters that are of that time. Henkes’ book doesn’t bring in broader historical details, but he’s still writing about a different world. His choice does mean that today’s readers might not identify as quickly with the characters the way they might in say, TO NIGHT OWL FROM DOGFISH or THE NEXT GREAT PAULIE FINK, but clearly that’s not the kind of reader connection he’s looking for.

  3. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    A PLACE TO BELONG is one of ten titles on the just-announced National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature. Along with two other books by authors who have won Newbery recognition: Kwame Alexander (THE UNDEFEATED) and Jason Reynolds (LOOK BOTH WAYS).

  4. Meredith Burton says:

    I have yet to read A Place to Belong, but I have finally obtained a Braille copy so hope to read it as soon as possible.

    While I enjoyed Sweeping Up the Heart, I felt the story dragged a bit, and I had difficulty relating to the main character. I do not know if this was related to the audio narration or not. I do love how Henkes is able to make seemingly uneventful happenings so profound. The third person point of view was also well done. This book did not resonate as strongly with me as The Year of Billy Miller did, but I know we’re not supposed to compare. That’s just hard not to do.

    Carter Jones resonated with me very strongly. While the story deals with some difficult issues, humor is wonderfully interspersed throughout, so I felt the overall tone was light and would appeal to children. In this year of heavy-themed books, Schmidt’s story was refreshingly fun while still poignant. I loved how Schmidt used the metaphor of cricket for Carter’s life, and I think the heavy reliance on the description of the sport, (while admittedly drawn out and confusing at times), was done deliberately. I am not a sports fan, and the finer points of the game were lost on me, but the main point, not to let the bales come down, came through. While countless trials beset Carter and his family, the main point was resilience, and the novel portrays this theme beautifully. Also, the symbolism of the “Australian tropical thunderstorm” was poignant.
    Pay Attention, Carter Jones is a terrific coming-of-age story, and I liked that the father is not reconciled with the family. That makes the story profound as well. I liked how aspects of the family’s situation were gradually revealed and how some of the happenings were unexpected. The book definitely deserves consideration. It’s been one of my favorite reads this year so far. Outstanding audiobook, too. Perhaps that made it even better? I don’t know. It did help to hear about cricket as I think if I’d simply read the book I’d have been very confused.

    • My biggest question re Carter Jones is: which young readers would appreciate the book? I’d love to know if anyone has young reader feedback already — and what is the feedback? This is part of gauging the appropriateness of style for the intended audience.

      • I read Carter Jones allowed to my fifth grade class, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We watched some highlights of cricket matches, to help clarify some of the text, but once that was out of the way, it has easily become an early class favorite.

      • Chris, thank you for that feedback. This indicates the need for additional contextual explanation – in the hands of an experienced educator such as yourself. Does that make the book in itself less effective if not introduced as a class read aloud or does that mean the book has the added value of expanding young readers’ experiences?

  5. I find it odd that there is worry that young readers might have trouble connecting to CARTER JONES, in a conversation which includes SWEEPING UP THE HEART and A PLACE TO CALL HOME HOME. Granted there may have been too much cricket, but the book overall was a blast. I knew and understood those characters in way that had me rooting for them.

    I love Henkes picture books, but I may not be the reader for his longer fiction. And I’ve tried one as a read aloud and it bombed big time.

    I find myself drawn to Kadhada’s more contemporary fiction. THE THING ABOUT LUCK was my book the year it came out. I just didn’t feel much but sorrow for the family in A PLACE TO CALL HOME, I felt at a distance the whole time.

  6. CARTER JONES was THE book I was most excited about in 2019. Gary Schmidt is one of my absolute favorites and OKAY FOR NOW is probably a Top 3 all time favorite of mine. When I discovered that CARTER JONES takes place in Marysville and that Carter’s principal was a certain Mrs. Sweiteck, I held off on reading this immediately because I wanted to savor it. I wanted something to look forward to later in the year as Newbery reading picked up.

    Now granted, I’m not finished with it. I have 25 pages remaining. But I have to say, I may have hyped this a bit too much to myself. I’ve been a little underwhelmed. I was probably imagining OKAY FOR NOW part 2 in my head and that this is not. If I take a step back from it, there are aspects of it that are VERY strong.

    Now enough about my personal reaction to it and on to a question I have about it regarding previous works. I found that I kept confusing Carter for Doug (OKAY FOR NOW). The voice is so similar. He hides things from the reader. He asks the reader repetitive questions. (“How would you feel?”) Is this a weakness of the book overall? A knock on style? I don’t have the criteria handy but isn’t there something stating that previous works can be considered when it makes the current work less distinguished, or does that only apply to images used in the text?

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Good point about Carter and Doug, Mr. H. We actually wouldn’t be able to bring that up in a Newbery discussion, though. The factors that “may be considered when they make the book less effective” only applies to “other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc.” So a character that seems too closely similar to one that the author created in an earlier book could be faulted for that reason. Repeated plot elements, or a setting that’s exactly the same as in an earlier book, would also be out of bounds. If those traits were rendered ineffectively in CARTER, like if they were overstated, or unrealistically rendered, or something like that, that could be an issue. Part of the reasoning behind that is that some of the 15 members won’t have read the previous book (or, like me, read it, but not remember it as well as you do). But it’s tricky, and it could mean that you as a Committee member might not support the book as strongly as you might have…you just wouldn’t be able to state that as your reason.

      • That’s kind of what I figured, after I typed all that. I wanted to love the book as much as I love OKAY FOR NOW, and I have really liked it. It just didn’t blow me away like it’s predecessor did.

        Does “overall design” of the book refer to physical design and layout?

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Yes, I’ve always read “overall design” as that physical design and layout. For me that sometimes comes into play with nonfiction and how insets and text boxes and all that stuff are done. I can’t think of an example from this year, but that can really have an impact on how the information in a nonfiction book comes through.

  8. Molly Sloan says:

    I agree with DaNae’s comments about the books in this discussion. Gary Schmidt’s writing almost always resonates with my students. And I think Carter Jones will be no different. I found the book delightful and poignant. I have never understood or even watched much cricket but I enjoyed the cricket scenes as a metaphor, as Meredith described. I didn’t mind the work of reading my way into unfamiliar territory. Like Mr. H, I am a huge fan of Okay for Now. This didn’t rise to that level for me (though that comparison is irrelevant to the Newbery conversation), but there are layers of depth in this story too, and I know it will be just the book some of our readers need. Do I think it is the most distinguished book of the year? Not yet–I have far too much left to read! But I’m not dismissing it just yet. I wouldn’t mind re-reading it for more careful consideration.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I’m glad you brought up re-reading, Molly. It’s such an important part of the Newbery process. With the second read you can step back a bit and read more critically and less like a reader. And by the time we re-read, we’ve read more books so we can make direct comparison. When I was on the committee, I’d usually do a bit of re-reading in the fall, preparing to write my seven nominations. Then once all nominations were in (in December), I’d re-read as much as I could from that compiled list. And it was always surprising how some books would rise or fall in my estimation during that process….

  9. I had a heard time with Carter Jones. On the one hand, I enjoyed reading it (which I hadn’t expected – unlike many Heavy Medal participants, I’m not partciularly a Schmidt fan). On the other hand, I didn’t find it very realistic. The real committee wouldn’t be able to bring it up, obviously, but I kept thinking about Louisiana’s Way Home, and the way that was another book that I struggled with largely because of the mix of realistic fiction with sort of fable/fairy tales like elements. So much of what resonated with me with Carter Jones was the realistic parts, the emotional journey. But that emotional journey is being facilitated by an over-the-top butler who read like a stereotype of what an American thought a British person might act like, having never met anyone from the UK and only seen cultural touchpoints from 1940. This was a clear authorial choice, but it kept pulling me out of the book.

  10. I agree with all of your comments about A Place to Belong. There are also some other things that I thought Kadohata really did well. First of all, a big shout-out to Cynthia Kadohata for making the grandparents speak English like Japanese speaking older people — that is, with an authentic speech patter — instead of the usual fake accent that comes from Hollywood scriptwriters and that you find in so many books, including children’s books. You can tell the author put some work into this. I also was amazed at how, in a situation that really is pretty depressing (nuclear annihilation, for one), the characters managed to find hope through the power of their love for each other. There are several great character arcs in this book.
    I see that I am the only person so far commenting on this book, and for this reason decided to post my thoughts about it. It raises another thought: how much of our opinion about a book comes from our own ability to relate to the book? In other words, if we can relate to a book, do we tend to think more highly of it because of that? I know it’s not a factor that can simply be teased out, but I thought it worth saying. In the case of A Place to Belong, the situation is pretty unusual (although, let me say that a lot of Japanese Americans at that time actually were from the Hiroshima area) and perhaps, in that way, even a little off-putting. If what I am saying has some validity, then I think this supports the idea of the need for diversity in the Newbery Award committee itself.

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