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Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist #5: The Line Tender

As our Mock Newbery discussions continue here on Heavy Medal, readers should also be aware that ALSC compiles the results of mock award elections from all over. Some results are already in and the list will grow in coming weeks. Today’s featured book was named an Honor book in the first two mock Newberys to report.

Introduced by Heavy Medal Committee Member Amanda Bishop

What an outstanding debut novel by Kate Allen. The Line Tender is by no means a light middle grade read. It’s lengthy in terms of page numbers and is written at a leisurely pace, allowing for Allen to construct her setting and characters. Readers will quickly fall into the story of this book because of Kate Allen’s masterful storytelling. You are given a door into Lucy’s mind and are taken on a journey with her, noticing the things she notices, smelling the smells of the sea, feeling her genuine grief and pain. 

Lucy’s character is written with such tenderness and honesty. The emotions and feelings she has feel natural for the early-teen that she is and makes her come that much more alive. She is written with empathy and many readers will find a way to connect with her. Lucy is a young girl who is desperately seeking meaning in the chaos and tragedy of her young life. 

What Kate Allen does best to construct this story is writing with exquisite detail of every aspect of this novel. She describes everything with a respect that transforms the mundane into a thing of beauty. She has a way of writing that makes emotions tangible in a very poetic way. For example 

“But my grief for her was like a circle. I always came around to missing her again”

And

“There were three things on my mind, tangled up like necklaces in a jewelry box”

The reader can immediately understand what her mind must look like at that moment and perhaps connect and understand how Lucy must be feeling. 

It is not only with emotions that Allen is able to bring Lucy to life, it is also in the describing of Lucy’s physical world.

“The smell was strong- not Gloucester Harbor strong, but fishy. It wasn’t just the herring for the traps or the catch itself. There was an earthy smell that came from the algae-green wood and the water that stood still inside the breakwall.”

“I took a seat at my desk and surveyed the landscape- a small village of nail polish bottles, colored pencils, a rubber finger-puppet beast, and a hill of assorted notepads.”

While much of the nature of this book is on loss and grief, Allen doesn’t weigh the reader down without picking them back up again. The moments of humor and fond reflections do much to bring a smile on the reader’s face and a warmth to their hearts. It is a testament to Allen’s writing and storytelling that readers will walk away from this book with it still on their minds. 

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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. Cherylynn says:

    This is one of the few fiction books where I felt that a lot of good nonfiction information was passed on. I was interested enough to look for information on sharks, sea stars, and moon snails. All of the information matched the further searching that I did.
    The grief in this book matched my own experience with grief much more closely than the way that it is portrayed in The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise. There are scenes where she talks about sights or smells that would trigger memories. Some of the discussions around grief in this book were healthy ways to deal with it. Writing to a deceased loved one is something that was suggested by a counselor after my father passed away, just like Lucy wrote postcards to Fred.
    I am a lover of sensory language that helps you imagine the sights, sounds, and smells. In this book that was one thing that I thought she did particularly well. Smells of fish, furniture polish, and even urine helped me imagine the setting. Sounds of the police scanner mixed with the Red Sox game were things I could almost hear.
    This is definitely a book in my top 5.

  2. Rachel Wadham says:

    This book reaches me on a very personal level for both the positive and negative aspects. First the positive personal connections, for me one of the unique things about this book was the juxtaposition of science and art. As a huge advocate for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engendering, ARTS, and Math) I see how these are all connected, and I love in this book they really were. Especially in the end as they were trying to tag the sharks it was clear that Lucy’s artistic study helped the scientific aspect of know all the anatomy. This combination makes the book very endearing to me and I think that it will stand out for children too, especially those who see art as one of their strengths, I love that this allows them to see ways to make their art an integral part of the world around them.

  3. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    As Amanda said, the details with regard to setting and plot really brought the book to life. The descriptions of food stand out in my memory as particularly rich in detail.

    I enjoyed the large cast of memorable characters, but I thought their introduction could have been more clear. For example, I found the identities/relationship of Fred’s family members confusing when each was first introduced.

    • Alissa Tudor says:

      I found that aspect confusing as well. I had to backtrack a few pages to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I like Amanda’s phrase about “a door into Lucy’s mind.” This book is especially effective at sticking to the main character’s point of view. The informational pieces that Cherylynn and Rachel notes come through the first person narration, but they never seem like author insertions. We get to know how Lucy’s mind works and yes, those are exactly the things she would notice and be wondering about. And even though the themes and character development are pretty weighty, they feel personal and specific to Lucy’s experiences…

  5. samuel leopold says:

    I love Steven’s intro. and the comments that follow are all on point.
    Two days in a row where one of my fab five gets discussed!

    There is so much to like about this book and I will focus on one quality that impressed me most—how the author created certain moments in the story where a line or phrase gave a glimpse into events and/or feelings the characters had or would be going through. This is more than just simple foreshadowing. It is opening up a door into the minds and hearts of characters just enough for us to want a bigger glimpse….and when that glimpse is granted, those certain lines help us connect the dots in this story. I circled many examples of this throughout the 371 pages. I will give a couple examples here……

    1. “Dad spent more time underwater than he did on land.” p.26. As the plot develops and you get to see a clearer picture of what is happening inside the Father’s heart, this line takes on a double meaning.

    2. ” I was at the day camp listening to the counselor read Julie of The Wolves.” p.90
    For me, having read JULIE OF THE WOLVES a couple times, Lucy has many feelings and qualities similar to Julie. I can’t imagine the author alluding to this book without wanting the reader to somehow make that connection.

    3. ” I stood on the ledge, wondering if I had really just kissed Fred.” p. 108
    One of my writing students one time did a writing activity where she found several examples in classic and modern literature where the phrase ” standing on the ledge” was symbolic of a tragic event that would soon occur in someone’s life. Once again, I think this word selection was purposeful by the author.

    4. And the whole symbol of “the shark” throughout the pages and the story of this book as something beautiful and scary at the same time, for me, is a reflection of the beautiful and scary life that Lucy lives.

    A fantastic debut that is a long and wonderful journey I am glad I was able to take.

    • Thanks for these examples, Samuel. There are so many reasons this book is a very strong contender!

    • Alissa Tudor says:

      Yes, these are all fantastic examples of why this book has such depth. I feel as if I could reread this book and still discover new layers of meaning. This was a great debut and is on my list of contenders for sure.

    • Just a reminder — this is introduced by Amanda Bishop, not Steven. We help post the intros but it’s thanks to the Heavy Medal Award Committee members that we have these excellent introductions!

  6. Rachel Wadham says:

    As far as the negative personal aspects go, I had a really hard time with how grief was portrayed in this book. In connection and somewhat in contrast to what Cherylynn notes having faced real and present grief in much the same way and at about the same age as this character I do acknowledge that what she felt was raw and real. I do appreciate that there was some honesty here and I appreciated how the character was drawn in trying to reach out through postcards as a coping mechanism. But also, some of her “coping” felt unnatural for me one part stood out when she notices the school psychologist and just walks up to him and get helps. A good school psychologist would have reached out and having worked with kids in trauma I’ve seen very rarely that they just reach out like this. It just seemed to “perfect” that he was there, that she knew him and he her, and that he seemed to “fix” or answer all her questions in one session. In my mind the trauma of what happened was just too much to process in just one go and in the end, Lucy seemed to “fix” herself and come to terms with what happened very quickly. This kind of experience is complex and I’m not a fan of what appears to be easy fixes or quick fixes for grief like this. I also think the grief over losing her friend and the past grief of loosing her mother was tied up together and it was hard to see her work though either of those emotional arcs in a convincing way. So overall the emotional aspect of this book was very disappointing and unrealistic for me for this really to be a contender.

    • Cherylynn says:

      What made you feel that Lucy was “fixed”? She talks at the end of the book about seeing the counselor and having a safe place at school to go and talk about feeling bad. The counselor did not really know her or Fred, and it was summer so she was not going to school. I understood why he did not reach out to her when the accident happened. I thought that Lucy was portrayed as very willing to talk about her feelings to someone she did not know well, but are all kids unwilling to talk to their school counselor? Lucy was pretty open about her grief with a lot of people.

      • Rachel Wadham says:

        I guess my experience is different, I’ve worked with school counselor’s who have reached out to kids even in the summer after trauma like this. So I don’t think it’s unprecedented to think the school could have been involved. Also if the counselor did not know Lucy or Fred how did she know him? This whole scene was just so awkward for me. Yes lots of kids are resistant, and I know a lot of kids who would not just go up to the counselor. Why would Lucy walk up to a man she did not know and ask him for help? With no prior relationship there I just could not understand it. I do think a school would have provided counseling after her mothers passing so maybe she knew that she could talk to him? But I’m not sure that is enough reason to just walk up to him. This all just strained the bounds of realism for me and took me out of the story in a jarring way that made it difficult to really believe again. As far as the “fixing” goes it really was just the way the emotional arc was handled especially at the end. It seemed that after the shark then things were okay again and she had come to terms with everything immediately. It all comes a little to neatly and suddenly for an emotional conclusion for me.

      • Thank you for explaining how you see it. I had a father who was very ill in elementary school, but he did not actually die until I left for college. I am old enough that we did not have a counselor assigned to our school, so I did not have too much experience with counselors. I value your insight. To me Lucy reminds me of my niece who opens up about how she is feeling to everyone and anyone who will listen. But I understand better your point of view. Part of the issue is at what point do you as a writer end a story arc. Where in the grief process? I felt this way of showing grief and dealing with it seemed so much healthier than several other books that I read this year. I think part of it is how much more did the author have to say.

      • Rachel Wadham says:

        Some great points Cherylynn. I’ve worked a lot with kids in trauma and children with disabilities so my view is very specific. A lot of these kinds of kids have been so beaten down by the system that asking for help from it would be the last thing they could do. I also agree that yes there was a lot of healthy grief processes here, so much so that this is one of the best representations, but at the same time I still see several flaws that again brought me out of the realism of the story. Another example was the fact she could not eat for so much of the book and then a solution is offered and she tries it and it works, again this is an immediate “fix” for me, you don’t see the solution to a psychological psychical problem like this and it works the first time every time. This really is more of a process and I guess I wanted to see so much more nuance in that process represented.

  7. Melisa Bailey says:

    I thought Allen did an amazing job with this book. Allen had a great use of similes such as when the backpack was “peeled like a banana” and the imagery she created was very good. I liked how Allen described Lucy’s physical reactions to hunger, someone else’s touch and the 6th sense frisson she got when she felt something was important. It allows the reader to feel those sensations along with Lucy. I also agree with Mary, the descriptions of food were especially good and the her experience of no food available, not being able to eat food and then enjoying it again was interesting when comparing it to her losses and coping. This is one of my top 5.

    • Lucy’s reactions to touch–getting make up applied and other examples– really drove home that this is a child who lost her mother and is hungry for human contact. Really effective writing!

  8. Molly Karene Sloan says:

    Thank you for the excellent introduction, Amanda and for everyone’s thoughtful comments. I enjoyed this book. I was all in from the beginning. I loved the moments of humor juxtaposed with the underlying grief that was with Lucy all the time. The zany neighbor and his radio. Her dad and his naked runs to clothesline. I loved the science themes and even texted our science teacher as I was reading that the idea of a field guide would make a fabulous summer extra credit project. Lucy’s friendship with Fred seemed like the thread that was going to bring her back to the land of the living. So when that rug was yanked out from under her too, the book started to unravel a bit for me. I think Allen was using the post cards to Fred as a vehicle for Lucy to process her grief and work her way through two devastating losses. However I confess to be disappointed in the way the postcard plot line ended. I don’t know what I was hoping for (as a realistic adult reader) but I felt like it led me and surely young readers into the hope that there was some way that she was still reaching Fred. I did like this book for many reasons. It just didn’t hold together in the plot department as well as I would have liked.

  9. Alissa Tudor says:

    As many of the committee members have pointed out, Allen created a rich character with Lucy. 13 is an age of constant change and internal struggles even without the difficulties Lucy encounters. Her emotions are palpable- from the nervous excited “tingles” she gets when kisses or touches Fred to the panic-inducing grief she feels after his death to the acceptance and resolution she achieves at the end. I enjoyed reading as she grew up on the pages. I feel as if Lucy is a character that will resonate with many readers, even those who do not share the same struggles or know the same feelings of grief. She is relatable, resilient, and root-worthy, and the story unfolds beautifully through her.

    This book just seemed to pack a punch. It was complex and deep, but not heavy. I devoured it in one afternoon. Allen’s use of sensory language and imagery perfectly capture the setting- which is an important aspect for this book. This one is a strong contender for me.

  10. Courtney Hague says:

    Thank you, Steven, for this fantastic introduction. I think all of the positive points outlined already are definitely true. I was especially impressed by the way in which the author was able to bring in all of the senses in her descriptions. The vivid descriptions of scents and sounds really stood out to me. And as Rachel pointed out above the theme of the connection between art and science really worked well in this novel especially with the inclusion of the very detailed artwork included at the beginning of each chapter.

    I will say though that, as far as weaknesses go, the point which Rachel delineated about the grief process being oversimplified seems to ring true. While the postcards do seem like a healthy way for her to process her grief, I think that just running into the school counselor and opening up to him that quickly seems unlikely.

    • Annisha Jeffries Annisha Jeffries says:

      This book is an excellent debut novel. I cherished just about everything in this book. The book is gentle, straightforward and was a pleassure to read.

  11. I never got anywhere near crying reading this (and I’m not hard to make cry), which seems like a problem for a book about grief. It didn’t even really make me feel sad—I felt like I was watching someone grieve, not experiencing it with her. Most of the big emotional moments didn’t land for me.

    The first third especially seemed to cycle through several types of books. First it was another girl in a small New England seaside town with a missing mother, which was fine (although weird that there were so many of them this year). Then it seemed completely out of the blue that she started having all of these physical feelings for Fred, which seemed like an older book. And then the drinking intensified that. (And that’s fine, but it does seem like it would be helpful to be clearly upper middle grade from the beginning so you get the right target audience.) And then when Fred suddenly died, rather than being sad, my main reaction was: ”What am I reading??” Once it settled in, it grew on me and I liked the characters, but as others have said, the plot could have been more focused.

    Also, I thought her figurative language tended to get away from her, the most cringeworthy being: “I had the urge to run over and kiss him, but I quickly stuffed it back in like a tampon flying out of my backpack.” That just seems like a really weird comparison.

    Also, it took me forever to figure out when it was set, which was driving me crazy!

    • Oh, I did like that it was a different portrayal of grief—more an everyday one, sort of? And the not being able to swallow was an interesting touch and different.

  12. I went in to reading THE LINE TENDER knowing it was on a lot of Newbery lists but it didn’t grab me. I did love the nonfiction content, and the connections to the sharks and global warming was interesting and on point. But I never was able to invest in Lucy as a character, and I agree with Katrina that my emotions didn’t come into play.

    Instead, I got distracted by the pacing and timing of events. For example, Fred is clearly her best friend but then she suddenly starts having conflicting feelings about, he decides to kiss her, and the next minute, he’s dead. Then after she steals his backpack and brings it home she finds the necklace (pencil) hidden inside that he’d just happened to pick out for her – and to have explained to someone else who can conveniently explain its meaning to her later.

    Even with the post cards, while I liked them as her way of process grief, I was immediately drawn out of the story again when his mother revealed she’d received them. I could see how local post cards might get delivered – since she seemed to only be putting his name – not an address on them, but what about the ones she sent from Maine and other places?

    Even the ending seemed so formulaic and expected that it frustrated me. She has this sudden, improbable, heroic moment tagging a shark and then reveals that there are two of them out there (even though they don’t typically do that), and she has this symbolic moment of closure for her mother and Fred.

    Also, this is just a question to throw out there, but why is the book set in 1996? There’s no mention in the author’s note of 1996 being a particularly important year for sharks in New England (though a quick Google search says maybe it was). It didn’t seem to add anything to the story from the perspective of “historical fiction” (that’s weird to think).

    So, in the end, I was felt with the feeling that this was a book that ticked a lot of Newbery boxes (dead mother, dead best friend/boyfriend, lyrical descriptions, sensory details) without the hole thing holding together as a story that readers would want to come back to.

    • It’s also weird that there’s no author’s note or anything explaining what’s happened with the sharks in the 20 years since.

    • Cathy Townsend says:

      I think many authors are placing their books in the mid 90’s before cell phones and social media became a part of young peoples’ lives. I would expect that is the case in this book.

      This was the only book I read this year, that when I finished, I said “Newbery”. I think it is beautifully written and we feel all the emotions. I loved it.

  13. This is a book that I like to say that one shouldn’t read in public because it’ll give you all the feelings. The grief process rung so true. There were a couple of clunky bits in the beginning that took me out of the story. A part of me is still debating whether some emotional moments were well-earned or if they manipulated me the way I felt watching the movie My Girl. Even if that was the case, I’m not totally mad. Readers are definitely in for a rollercoaster of emotions with this one.

  14. 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.