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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Survival Stories: from a Middle School Playground to the Streets of India

The plot of THE USUAL SUSPECTS revolves around the discovery of a gun near the grounds of a middle school. It all comes to life through the perceptive narration of Thelonius, who is one of the most distinct characters and narrators of the year. T. is smart and knows it; he’s a trouble maker, and he’s proud of it. But there’s much more to him than that. His observations about the world and the people he encounters are sometimes funny, often cynical, and usually right on target. He knows how the world sees him: “going through life accused all the time” (44). He’s almost over-pleased with himself at the beginning, but as the gun mystery unfolds he has to question himself and make harder choices than he’s used to making. When kids move out of his way at one point as he walks down the hall, he says: “I don’t enjoy it. Suspicion is one thing; fear of us is another” (96).

He has concerned adults who try to help him, but T. mostly dismisses their efforts at guidance and identifies their weaknesses and their own self-perceptions. One my favorite moments is when Mr. Blackman and Moms are trying to share wisdom with him, including a nearly page-long speech by Mr. B. T’s response:

“With the two main adults in my life batting life lessons at me for each other’s benefit, it’s time to derail this nonsense. ‘Are you hitting on my mom?’” (224).

Though he jokes a lot, T. really works to see things clearly and get things right. While Moms warns him against “hood nonsense,” and T. sees her point, he also can see that “it’s just folks doing their best in a rigid system” (211). There’s lots more I like about this book and I’m curious to see if others rate it as highly as I do.

THE BRIDGE HOME is miles away from THE USUAL SUSPECTS in many ways (and 7,000+ miles geographically). Thelonius does struggle to survive and thrive in a challenging world, but Viji and Rukku have a different kind of survival story, where food, shelter, and personal safety are constantly at risk. Their flight to the city is tense and suspenseful. Viji’s narration works well, vividly conveying the setting while she also shares her thoughts and worries about doing the right thing. Though she doubts and sometimes reproaches herself, readers can appreciate that she’s taken on way more than an eleven-year-old should ever have to deal with, and coping amazingly well.

The use of the second person works well…it’s not overdone or distracting, and keeps the reader aware that Viji is looking back at the dangers of their story from what seems like a place of safety. I first read this a while ago and can’t remember when I became sure that Rukku didn’t make it, but it’s still a hammer blow when we learn for sure:

Arul had brought with him the new doll I’d bought you. The one you’d been too sick to play with.

When we visited you that night, I took the doll with us, hoping your eyes would light up when you saw her.

But by the time we stood by your bed, your own body was as stiff as a wooden doll’s and it was too late (153).

I was pleased to see that THE BRIDGE HOME received three Nominations in our first round. I think it might do very well in a discussion around Newbery Criteria.

Please share comments on either or both of these excellent (in my opinion anyway) books 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. Leonard Kim says:

    If it weren’t such a strong year, I’d probably be stumping for THE BRIDGE HOME. In a previous comment I lumped it with A PLACE TO BELONG, OTHER WORDS FOR HOME, and HOW HIGH THE MOON as books about adjusting to life in a new place as an outsider, with race and/or economic factors, and family relationships. I think THE BRIDGE HOME is the strongest of the bunch—the most focused (the others have sidebars or secondary plots that I felt made them less effective) and the most consistently lyrical writing.

  2. THE BRIDGE HOME is one of the most individually distinct and memorable books I’ve read this year. I appreciated the way the author handled the theme of religion/belief. Viji runs away from home in part because she doesn’t believe she’ll be rewarded for being an obedient daughter in the next life. Later when she is helped by a Christian charity, Viji doesn’t want to be coerced into believing in God. Celina Aunty tells her she can substitute “good” for “God” in her prayers. She doesn’t have to have faith in religion, just faith in the goodness within herself. I rarely see atheism/agnosticism portrayed in children’s literature and I think it’s done very well here, with respect for a child’s understanding of the world.

    Now onto a concern… I read a review on Goodreads that asked if it’s problematic for the disabled child to become a martyr in service to her sister’s journey. Does this concern strike a chord for any other readers? I’m sensitive to the trope known as “Bury Your Gays” where LGBTQ+ characters are treated as expendable in service to a straight/cis character’s journey. But I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say this book instrumentalizes a disabled person’s death in order for the main character to grow.

    • I think your concern about THE BRIDGE HOME is spot-on. Rukku gets a change to develop as a character, is able to develop her skills and contribute to the family with her bead-making skills…but her death is an unsatisfying end to her personal arc, the purpose of which seems only to advance Viji’s characterization. We ended up dropping this one from our Mocks because of that issue.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    Steven, have you read TORPEDOED yet? Just finished it and it is the ultimate “survival story” except so many didn’t survive (for a parent it’s just a brutal reading experience.) It’s a little like 2017’s BOUND BY ICE (which you wrote about at that time here) except, being written by Heiligman, it is constructed in a superior way. I’ve always held the opinion that children’s non-fiction overall is not as effective as fiction, but Heiligman may have proved me wrong in this book, which may set a new standard in outdoing fiction at its own game (since this kind of story is often fictionalized—Heiligman’s bibliography includes Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s War books and the movie Titanic, both of which my 5th-grade daughter recently experienced.) We always focus on the Information Newbery Criterion in non-fiction, but TORPEDOED also crushes the Criteria of plot and setting. Discussion could be had about whether this book truly excels in character (since it’s a tale told by survivors, not everyone can be distinctive and memorable) and theme/style (because there’s always uneasiness about tragedy/survival—is it exploitative? Is the fact Heiligman makes it so gripping appropriate?) But I actually don’t see how Heiligman or anyone else could have done better. We gave Heiligman’s last book a pretty hard look here, and this one may have an even better Newbery argument.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Just started TORPEDOED. Through the first 70 pages I was really hoping that the torpedo wouldn’t really hit after all, but no It did. Very involving so far…Will do a post on this one for sure.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    I just read THE USUAL SUSPECTS. I think the Newbery Committee could usefully compare this to SAL AND GABI BREAK THE UNIVERSE. Some of the character types and relationships map pretty well: Thelonius to Sal, Marcel to Gabi, Kutter to Yasmany. Both are fresh takes on otherwise standard school tales. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a children’s book with a “hard boiled” worldview like THE USUAL SUSPECTS that was still age appropriate, and that felt fresh.
    But for my taste, I’m not sure Broaddus’ writing is as consistent and efficient as I’d like in terms of character, dialogue, setting, etc. For example, our initial introduction to Thelonius and Nehemiah, the A/V prank, actually felt out-of-character with the Thelonius we eventually get to know–too attention-grabbing for a spider “relaxing and minding their own business” (277) even if he needs amusement every now and then. And though the book does develop an interesting overall aesthetic, I am not sure Thelonius really has a clear voice. Sometimes he sounds like a well-developed character, sometimes he doesn’t. For example, on page 130, I think he sounds too much like a cheesy TV crime procedural, talking for the audience’s benefit, and not like himself, “That’s a lot of money for product and cash to go through. How do you keep everyone honest? You have to have a way of making sure all of what’s due you gets into your pocket.” In terms of efficiency, on page 206, the description of Nehemiah’s house starts evocatively “anger has seeped into the walls” but then goes on several sentences too long about scuff marks, paint, holes, the ceiling, the doorframe, the bathroom, and the carpets. In the end, I think SAL AND GABI was more successful and more than successful.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Thanks for the perceptive analysis, Leonard. I did have a sense that I was missing something in THE USUAL SUSPECTS and was too engaged as a reader to identify it. I think it may have been the consistency in T’s narrative voice that you highlight. And the plot elements connected to it. I’ll want to re-read it myself, but really appreciate the insights and specific examples provided. I still think T’s voice was highly effective, and even distinguished, but I’m wanting to take another look. And part of that will be comparing to other narrators, which means I better move SAL AND GABI to to the top of my you-really-need-to-read-this pile.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Leonard’s response to THE USUAL SUSPECTS reminds me of one of the challenges of being on the real Committee. You’ve got 14 people reading the same books as you with the same critical lens, but you don’t get to have back and forth conversations with them until the final meetings that lead to the balloting. You learn through Nominations what other Committee members are liking, but not what they didn’t like. You try to get feedback from kids and adult readers, but to some degree you have to hold back your own strongest opinions (or at least I always did) and be more of a listener than an advocate for any book. Which means you can walk into the Midwinter discussions ready to convince everyone that this is THE book….and one or two people point out some things you hadn’t seen and you look around and see a bunch of nodding heads and that’s the end of that. I’m not saying that ever happened to me….but I’m not saying it didn’t.

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