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Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist #4: Lalani of the Distant Sea

Introduced by Heavy Medal Committee Member Melisa Bailey

Former Newbery winner Erin Entrada Kelly created a unique and beautifully written story of good conquering evil under an umbrella of Filipino folklore in Lalani of the Distance Sea. Within the story, Kelly developes rich, complicated characters, a distinct sense of place, and explores morality, personal responsibility, revenge, bullying, and death all while drawing the reader into an incredible coming of age story.

The depth of Kelly’s writing is shown as she creates a physical world that mirrors Lalani’s social world. To the west is Mount Kahna that, besides housing the local monster, “casts a shadow of vengeance, impatience and fear.” To the north is the Veiled Sea, a physical entity that sits over the water “where ships disappear into the Mist never to be seen again.” Her village is run by the Menyoro who demands obedience but does little to improve the villagers’ lives. Within Lalani’s home is Drum who “cast the darkest shadow in the house.” As Lalani moves through the story she eventually becomes covered in mud (or darkness), symbolically turning into her own shadow and mirroring her world. Not until she was crossing the Veiled Sea did her skin become clean, cleansed by her courage and fortitude.

Layered on the atmosphere of darkness is the constant moral struggle of the villagers, including Lalani. Lalani feels guilt when Maddox “said it-twice-that she was kind. But she wished harm on her uncle moments ago. If Maddox knew this would he still thinks she was a kind girl?” Other characters struggle too: such as the mender who confessed the theft of her sick sister’s rations. These are examples of Kelly’s skill in bleeding the atmosphere of the story into her characters’ personalities.

Kelly injects multiple points of view into this novel with great effect. There is excellent foreshadowing and the magical creatures add an otherworldly depth. In my opinion Lalani of the Distance Sea meets and surpasses what it means to be a “distinguished contribution to American literature” according to the criteria for the Newbery Award.

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Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. samuel leopold says:

    Thank you Melisa for an excellent introduction.
    So….here is one of my 5 favorite Newbery contenders for this year.
    The author continues the kind of writing that won her the award for Hello Universe.

    The character development is deep and complex for the main characters. Kelly opens up the minds and hearts of her characters and allows us to look inside and see what is going on and how that affects the feelings and actions that take place. She does it in a way that is seamless and not forced upon the reader.
    This look inside the characters tied me emotionally to Lalani as I read the book.

    I am eager to hear , later on, what flaws others see because I have become such a cheerleader for this story that I may have put blinders on as to its shortcomings.

    I feel like I can check each area of the criteria with confidence concerning this novel.
    One of the best contributions to Children’s literature this year.

  2. Rachel Wadham says:

    If I had to use one word to describe Lalani of the Distant Sea it would be: ethereal. The tone and style used is so reminiscent of folktales and how they are told that it really engages the power of how those stories are told in this modern story. The dropping into and out of an even more folk style stories that build into the main story is a masterful element that not only brings other views and characters in but gives more depth to the over all style of the work. The fact that Kelly can take so many different elements and different stories and weave them together into one whole that is stunning is miraculous, and truly distinguished. The other thing that stands out for me with this story is the setting. The setting itself becomes a character and as you look at the rain, the mountains, and even the creatures that inhabit the land and how they move and contribute to the overall plot. This makes a very holistic presentation where characters, plot and setting are so interwoven that you really can’t break them apart. This is a magical tale and certainly shows that Kelly is very skilled as an author.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      I agree that the setting itself was a character. One part of this that I thought was especially distinguished is that the reader never knows for sure if the mountain is a sentient character actively participating in the plot or merely a physical location. Did the mudslide occur because the mountain was angry or simply because there had been days on end of heavy rain? Either is plausible, and the reader is left in the same unknowing position as the other characters. This was a delicate balance struck with careful writing in plot, dialogue, and description.

      • Annisha Jeffries Annisha Jeffries says:

        I agree Mary.This is another novel that resonates as a memorable coming-of-age story about loyalty, friendship, individuality, beauty, and heroism.

  3. Molly Sloan says:

    Rachel has hit upon the perfect single word description of Lalani of the Distant Sea: ethereal. There are layers of mist and magic. It reads like folklore yet is is a wholly new story. I love the way she weaves elements of Filipino lore into her story. Now I know I have a bias toward stories that weave an author’s cultural folklore into a new story (Grace Lin’s novels are some of my all time favorites) but I feel that Kelly has taken that mantle with the deft hand of a master storyteller. I felt the complex and shifting magic of the story really worked. As Rachel mentioned, the setting is richly drawn and is a distinguished trait of this book. It does become almost a character in the story. Here is a passage from when Lalani strays up the shoulder of the forbidden Mt. Kahna in pursuit of the runaway shek. She encounters this weeping Loset tree: “Imagine you are a weeping loset. You are tall and beautiful, but sorrowful. Your curved branches look like the shoulders of a crying woman, and your moss is gray and coarse. You are unhappy but can’t remember why. Perhaps you suffered a great loss hundreds of years ago, and only a lingering heartache remains” (p. 79). Kelly creates this wistful longing in many ways throughout the story. Her language and word choice evoked such emotion in me that I teared up several times. So yes, the setting is evocative and distinguished. As are the characters. And the themes. In this book Kelly tackles difficult themes such as bullying, oppression and gender stereotypes while managing to maintain a tone and voice appropriate for the intended audience. I agree with Melisa, Rachel and Samuel that this book is high on my list of the most distinguished books of the year.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      Ethereal and wistful are both such apt words to describe this novel. I definitely think that Kelly does an excellent job of weaving folklore into this story in a way which is both natural and new. As many have noted above the setting really is a character in this story.

  4. Rachel Wadham says:

    Samuel noted he wanted to discuss flaws, and this is an interesting topic for me, because as far as literary merit goes when we talk about analyzing plot, character, theme, setting, style, etc., I’m not sure I can really find any, so at least any major ones that take this book down a few notches like some of the other books we have discussed. However, one flaw might come forward for me with audience. There are some books where the presentation of the literary elements seems to push the book away from a child audience, and I wonder if this is one of those books. The book is highly figurative, introspective, and complex. It lingers on emotions and style. I wonder if its focus on the style and complexity of the writing really puts it more in the realm of an adult book than a children’s one. I will say this book was a stop and starter for me, it took me five tries of starting it and abandoning it before I really was able to have the focus and attention, I needed to see it through. Even now I’m pretty sure I missed a lot of nuance that went unobserved in my reading. So, when we consider “excellence of presentation for a child audience” I’m not sure this book is the best fit in that the intense literary presentation may not be the best match for a range of children, because I know a lot of kids who will not have the patience for this kind of literary structure. I’m not underestimating children here, I know they are amazingly sophisticated readers, but I think the complex way the book is structured and presented certainly won’t appeal to a wide audience of readers. I also guess some of this goes back to that age-old question of literary merit balanced with kid appeal and how the award does not always do a great job of finding books that fit both. While I can’t seem to fault on the literary merit, I’m personally not sure this book really represents a great fit for the “child audience” section as I’m not sure how a broad range of kids will engage with it. I have yet to have any in my area really read it and I’m not sure I could even identify what type of child reader I would give it to. So, I guess for me one of the flaws I’m seeing is “presentation for a child audience” and does the excellent way this book is constructed really meet that need.

    • I’m not sure that the book is overly introspective — because there are obstacles and challenges every step of the way and new magical elements introduced, naturally and with just the right pacing. Tomorrow I will have a chance to listen to some 6th graders who read this title for book club over winter break and hopefully will be able to offer some insights regarding the question of audience.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I agree with Roxanne here. I don’t think this book is overly introspective. I do think this leans more towards the “high fantasy” genre which does tend to be a little more meandering. But I also think that it is very similar to other quest and fairy tale novels in structure in that Lalani starts off in a quiet life, goes on a perilous journey, almost dies, and then comes home having grown.

    • Steph Gibson says:

      I work in a school with a very small upper elementary population, but I can say that this book is a huge hit with every student who has read it so far. Judging from my (admittedly small) sample size, there is no doubt about excellent “presentation for a child audience.”

  5. There were a lot of cool things about this book, but ultimately it didn’t really work for me. I found all of the little chapters with the extra POVs kind of confusing. And particularly when combined with *so* many new, made-up creatures, I just got worn out!

    I also thought the plot had some problems. It’s really two almost separate stories—the heroine’s quest and the oppression in the village. I feel like she set out to write the first and then got more interested in the second and it kind of took over. It’s been awhile and I have to find my notes, but as I recall, the village part was resolved by a different character. And that seemed like a problem—not having your heroine solving (or even there for, I think?) such a big plot point.

    The writing on a prose level seemed less polished than her usual work. Maybe I’d find that was a stylistic choice for this different type of story if I reread it, but I remember being surprised that it felt a bit clunky to me.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I read the two separate stories as being in parallel with one another. I guess I saw Lalani’s journey across the sea in her friend’s poorly made boat was meant to be a mirror to his journey back on the island. While she was growing on her literal journey he was also having a figurative journey back on the island. They both had to stay true to themselves and be brave.

      I apologize that I can’t be more specific,I forgot my copy of the book at work otherwise I would try to provide at least one citation.

      • Courtney, I was about to talk about these two tandem stories and how they are intentionally presented to echo each other: Lalani battles the magical monsters while Hetsbi battles his own inner monster (cowardice) and stands up against Drum’s cruelty and hunger for power which make him a monster in human form. Both sets of monsters have to be dealt with and defeated to bring about the prosperity and peace for the future of their people and the island. The two halves make for a true whole story, more powerful than if it’s just a monster slaying tale.

      • I can see that. Although they weren’t intertwined throughout, were they? Wasn’t the village stuff centered on Lalani until she left? As I say, it’s been awhile, so I should probably just shut up! It may just be that I found the village story more compelling. So personally, it’s the “monster slaying” I would have cut or moved to a different book and let Lalani stay home and fix the village. Or at least have her voyage be necessary for solving that part too—because Hetsbi does it all without her, doesn’t he? The village and all the relationships there were really alive and well-developed and that’s the part I connected too a lot more than the other.

    • The book didn’t work for me either, Katrina. I stopped and started a couple of times and finally just stopped. I think Kelly’s other titles are much stronger (I know, not a factor to consider when evaluating for the Newbery.)

  6. I am a huge Erin Entrada Kelly fan, and I wanted to love this book so much, but it just didn’t work for me. The fantasy elements and world-building often seemed like distractions. I found myself getting really hung up on similar/not similar words and elements – shek are just sheep, the loset is a willow, the menyoro is a mayor. Giving them different names didn’t give them different characteristics. Like Katrina, I also felt worn out!

    Others have mentioned the structural similarities to Grace Lin’s WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, but whereas the folktales in those books encompassed a whole realm of knowledge and history that only becomes clear later, I felt like Kelly’s interspersed stories were too direct and less subtle. You meet a loset, here’s an insight into a loset. You learn about a goyuk, you immediately are bitten by a goyuk. Especially when Lailani reaches the other island, every fantasy element seems to have been invented right in that chapter with no cohesion or foreshadowing.

    My final criticism is also one that always annoyed me as a kid-reader: giving away what happens in the book before you’ve even started. The title is LALANI OF THE DISTANT SEA. You see her on a boat with the turtle/pahaalusk on the cover. She reaches the water on page 212. The pahaalusk rescues her on page 372. She is celebrated as Lalani of the distant sea as the last sentence of the last page of the book. As a kid reader, especially, that would have killed me. What was the point of reading the whole book when I already knew she’d cross the sea and return?

    There are some lovely bits to the book, but for me it just didn’t hang together well and the style and structure were most distracting than helpful.

  7. Contrary to Katie and Katrina’s reaction, my perception of those super short chapters that start with “Imagine you are…” is that they are highly effective and absolutely fitting for the overall style and storytelling pattern of the book. They are intentionally set up so readers could understand not just the exterior of the beings to be encountered in the upcoming chapter, but also their origins, their feelings, sorrows & joys. I find these inserts give the readers opportunities to be compassionate, not just toward the main characters, but those who we might original deem as simple monsters. I definitely did not feel confused or discouraged by the introduction to these unfamiliar names and folklorish creatures — indeed, I found it mind-expanding and enriching to be exposed to characters based on an unfamiliar mythology rooted in a true heritage.

    • I did wonder while I was reading it if I just didn’t know enough about filipino mythology (although I haven’t had the same problem with other books involving unfamiliar mythologies and especially for a kid audience, it should be accessible without any background knowledge). But then I read her message on goodreads that most of the creatures are her own invention. So although they’re inspired by Filipino culture, my lack of knowledge can’t be the reason I was overwhelmed. And it’s a bit of a bummer to miss out on learning about the real thing like in other myth-based books. (Although i think that’s a totally valid choice and gives you more scope for world-building.)

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      I agree that these short interspersed chapters were an effective way of laying out exposition. Through these timely bits, the reader learns the pertinent information needed to understand the next part of the narrative.
      Typically in fantasy novels, we might see this exposition either as foreshadowing earlier in the story, which can slow the narrative, or as description in the moment, which can slow the action.
      In this case, because these were often beings with which Lalani was unfamiliar, I think these short bursts to inform the reader kept the story moving at an appropriate pace while still allowing the reader to understand the narrative.

      • Mary, I’m in agreement with your assessment — when young readers encounter mythological beings for the first time, they are often thrilled with all the magic and special powers each character possesses. (Think how many Greek/Roman gods/goddesses are introduced in the Percy Jackson stories. Not all young readers were familiar with Greek Mythology before reading the series.) The dozen or so different creatures/gods from this tale are not overwhelming: whether they are directly from Filipino culture or an invention of a Filipino American author whose experiences differ from those of her native counterparts.

      • Was it really only a dozen? It felt like a lot more. But obviously we had different experiences, which is fine. But Percy Jackson was actually my point—I don’t get overwhelmed by it or the various spin offs, I think because the main gods/creatures are characters with personalities and roles in the story. Whereas here it seemed like more here’s a creature, here’s a different creature, here’s another creature. More of an encyclopedia of them. But as I said, I read it awhile ago, so I could be wrong, and I’m not even voting, so it doesn’t really matter what I think. 🙂

      • Oh, I forgot I was going to say, I do think this is a totally different type of book than Percy Jackson and it’s not trying to do the same educational things with mythology, but instead create a unique high fantasy world. So it’s not exactly a fair comparison, although that probably puts more responsibility on it to use world-building effectively.

      • One last disclaimer—in general, I get overwhelmed by high fantasy with a lot of made up names. (In recent books, The Endling drove me nuts because of that.) lt always makes me feel like I’m wasting a lot of cognitive energy just keeping track of the people and places. So I wonder if people who read a lot of high fantasy have a different experience of it. The names weren’t a problem here (and I assume mainly not made up), but I had that same feeling, for example, with Katie’s example of the shek just being sheep. I spent so much mental energy trying to figure out what they were—ok, they’re like sheep, are they just sheep or a sheep like creature?, etc. It totally makes sense from a world building perspective because it’s a different world, so it should have different words. But as a reader, it took a lot of energy without a lot of pay off. But, as I say, maybe that’s a specific to me issue.

    • samuel leopold says:

      I really enjoyed the IMAGINE YOU ARE chapters. Maybe my favorite parts of the book.

      • Steph Gibson says:

        I loved the IMAGINE YOU ARE chapters. I thought they were a new and exciting way to introduce unfamiliar magical creatures.

  8. I loved the magical world-building and fantastical elements throughout the book. However, I do agree with some of the others that this book was difficult to get through. It could quite possibly be due to the fact that I listened to the audiobook instead of reading a physical copy that I may have missed a few things. It was very difficult for me to become invested in the characters as much as I had wanted to. This is probably a book that I will go back to and reread. I felt that this book, while written beautifully, might be difficult for young readers to be attracted too.

  9. Cherylynn says:

    For me this started with the idea of storytelling. So many parts of the story seemed to be elements that might be used by an oral storyteller who is entertaining a crowd. Repetition and re-explaining where we are in the story. Taking a momentary break in the story to check with the audience with questions like “What does the binty sound like to you?”(p.36). This is fiction and has many elements but she introduced them and the change in vocabulary very well. I have read fantasy books where made up words are thrown at you with no context. I thought the author was very careful to give you context.

  10. Rachel Wadham says:

    I was talking to a colleague about this book this morning and they noted that one of the flaws for them was that as a protagonist Lalani seems to be more acted upon than acting herself. She felt other than the choice to take the boat everyone was “done” to her and so she did not feel like a very dynamic character. I had not noticed this as this kind of acing upon feels very much like a folktale element to me and thus fit right in, but for her it was a negative in literary quality.

  11. Rebecca B Nelson says:

    I NEVER give up on reading a positively reviewed, multi-starred Newbery candidate, but I stopped midway with this one. So it will probably win the Newbery!! If so, I’ll try it again in print. Maybe my problem was that I was reading it on Audible, and when I began dreading to enter my car because I didn’t want to have to listen, I knew it was time to quit. The narrator read it in that “precious” tone that I hate to hear in adults reading down to children. I just didn’t care about Lalani and couldn’t get into the mythology.

    • Since we’re simulating the Newbery Committee experience here, I have to point out that, reaction to audiobooks and the narrations will not be viewed as valid evaluation of the book’s literary quality. All committee members are supposed to have read by themselves the print version of the books. Audiobooks might be useful at the beginning of the process when trying to get through the large volume of the eligible titles — and special attention would have to be paid by the members themselves to see if their views are swayed by the audio production of the book.

  12. Heavy Medal readers who are not on the “official” Heavy Medal Award Committee, we thank you for continuing to comment and share your reactions to the books. Please keep them coming: your views would still serve to inform the committee members: think of them as friends’ and colleagues’ responses to a real committee member.

  13. Katrina, your reaction to the many invented creatures mirrors one of my students in the 6th grade book club. They read this book over the winter break and the majority of them truly enjoyed it. The one student who had some difficulty appreciating the book fully is one who almost never reads anything with magical elements. Her preferences are first-person, realistic, contemporary fiction.

    The general consensus of the group (including the above mentioned student) is that they love the writing and the structure — they ALL adore the “Imagine you are…” insert chapters. They think it allows them to understand what’s to come in the next chapter really clearly. Another positive aspect that they brought up is how it is never stated outright what Lalani’s character trait(s) allows her to succeed. Some felt it was persistence, and others felt it was the desire to help others and never to gain for herself (compassion.)

    Finally — I would remind the committee members that Lalani is not “high fantasy” so should not be evaluated as such. Besides the battle between good and evil, a heroic protagonist with magical abilities or with magical helpers, and a journey, a high fantasy needs to be set “within an expansive or broad, panoramic” world. (Lynne Vallone). Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, The Broken Earth trilogy, the Earth Sea cycle, etc. are High Fantasy. It is important for Newbery and other award committees to measure each book against a set of expectations appropriate for the title under discussion. So genre definitions do come into play during the discourse.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I think that it is difficult to apply adult RA categories to children’s literature. I will concede that my use of “high fantasy” as a descriptor is not accurate. However, I think that for readers who struggled with this particular title the distinction between a “Landscape” novel where the setting is a focus and say an “Adrenaline” novel where the pace is more of the focus is a helpful way to look at it (all of this from Joyce Saricks’s Genre Group idea of Readers’ Advisory).

    • That’s interesting—I didn’t know high fantasy had so many requirements! So what is this type of book with a complete fantasy world called (as compared to fantasy set in our world, like Percy Jackson)?

      • Rachel Wadham says:

        I’d put this book in the fables for fairy tale sub-genre category (although some people don’t consider “modern” contexts like this to fit these they only want “traditional” forms, but I personally don’t make that distinction). For things like Percy Jackson we can categorize it as low fantasy although I’ve seen some say magical realism. Both are set in this world but have magic as part of it, some identify magical realism with a very specific style that Percy is not so if they apply that then low would be it. There is also epic, dark, sword and sorcery, light, superhero, futuristic, medieval, historical etc.!

  14. Meredith Burton says:

    I would like to point out that Lalani is an active, not passive, character. The author’s emphasis on women’s oppression is meant to provide appropriate context for Lalani’s actions. She is quiet and has endured horrific treatment from Drum and Kul. If you reread the horrifying punishment scene in the chapter entitled “The Lesson,” you will understand the author’s intentions. Here is a girl who literally buckles under the weight of the verbal abuse she has endured over the years, fully symbolized by how she must hold aloft the basin as it gradually becomes heavier and heavier. The fact that she is able to rise again and set forth on her quest proves she is not passive. She is not your average snarky, take-charge heroine, but that’s what I love about her. There are too many books with female characters who feel they have to be loud in order to achieve a goal. Lalani reminds me of my favorite female heroine in fiction; Roza from Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap. I appreciate Kelly’s decision to make her heroine relatable while simultaneously fully set within a patriarchal society. Lalani is believable and authentic.
    As Kelly emphasizes so often in the book with the use of the pahaalusk and other creatures, the smallest is often the mightiest.
    Lalani is not passive in the village, either. She helps Veyda with Toppi’s care and sets out to rescue the sheks on the mountain. She makes a wish for rain in order to help her village, and she is determined to help her mother. Lalani, Veyda and Hetsbi are dynamic characters as are the other individuals in the story.

    A quick note about the audiobook: The narration is not good, and I was unable to read the audio version as well. I read a Braille copy and was utterly immersed in the story. So, perhaps reading this particular book is the best option.

    • Meredith, I really like your points here about Lalani’s character and how its being outside the dominant trend of “snarky, take charge” heroines is a strength of the book. Refreshing perspective!

    • Meredith, I think you and Rachel may be using active/passive in different ways. I think Rachel’s friend was talking about whether the character is driving the action of the story/plot, but you’re talking about who she is as a person. I mean, there’s overlap there, as your examples show, but I think you can have a dynamic character who’s not driving the plot.

      • Rachel Wadham says:

        Yes Katrina, that is exactly what I was expressing. My friend indicated that while dynamic (and she noted the strong feminist overtones) that she does not drive the plot, the plot elements work on her to make a difference, she does not actively make a lot of the choices that move the plot forward.

      • Rachel, Lalani’s actions are the building blocks of the plot progression: it’s because of her following My-shek (in hope to rescue it) that she encounters the horned being that grants her ill-informed wish of rain that the village gets devastated — which leads her second outing to the mountain, which is her own choice, that leads to the earthquake which kills the menyoro — and that leads to the progression of Hetsbi’s character development. Her choice of finding the yellow flowers to heal her friends/mother and to bring good fortune to the village does not just “happen” to her. So I am puzzled as to how you read it as her being passive.

  15. This is one of the few titles I had time to read all the way through this year. What I found striking about this story is how true it felt to indigenous story telling techniques. The use of repetition, the introduction of the mythical characters, the “imagine you are” bits felt so warm and familiar. Lots of Pacific Islanders including folks from the Philippines in my neighborhood. I can see how some would find that unfamiliar and off putting but just as many, I think, would find it culture-affirming. I also loved how it took a different view of the girl hero, many of whom feel a little stale, a little too in the Marvel Comics mold. Lalani was her own person with a fresh and generous notion of the heroic. I do agree that the younger or more naive reader might find it too dense, but I think it’s great for 6th to 8th graders or for that younger strong reader who wants a meaty read but not a teen read.

  16. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    We’re now closing comments on our HM discussions, as balloting by the HM Committee is underway. Look for new discussions in the January 23rd post as members re-discuss contending titles.