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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist #15: Torpedoed by Deborah Heiligman

Introduced by Heavy Medal Committee member Samuel Leopold 

This has been a great year for non-fiction! Books like FREE LUNCH and A THOUSAND SISTERS are phenomenal contributions to children’s literature this year. But the one title that, in my opinion,  stands head and shoulders above all non-fiction stories is TORPEDOED by Deborah Heiligman.

The year was 1940. Hitler was invading Europe and bombing England without mercy. Parents wanted to send their children to a safe place away from the bombs. The CORB program {Children’s Overseas Reception Board} helped poorer families have a way to send their children to countries like Canada so they could be safe from the bombs of Hitler. This meant having them sail on ships to those places of safety. Little did some parents realize how that would be a decision they would regret for the rest of their lives.

When I first gave this book to a student to read, he said “Spoiler alert….I already know what is going to happen by looking at the cover.”

He did not think the book would be suspenseful enough for his particular taste. And I thought the same thing when I began my first reading journey through this book. But, Heiligman proved us both wrong. She is able to craft her wording so precisely that the suspense keeps building throughout the story. I could barely finish one chapter without wanting to know what would happen next. Here are just a few examples of some sentences used by the author to keep the reader engaged.

” Even if all did not go as expected, there was no way to undo the decision Hannah and Eddie had made.” p.13

“Their parents were confident  that their children would be safe {though neither would survive this journey}.” p.24

” But disaster was still a couple of days away. For now, there was fun.” p.55

” As she made her way upstairs, Mary Cornish kept repeating, as if in prayer, it’s only a torpedo.” p.93

Those are just a few examples of how the author creates such complex suspense with such simple sentences. 

And that suspense is what keeps the pacing of the plot perfect throughout the book. 

As far as delineation of characters, the first reaction is that “there are an awful lot of different characters the author introduces us to throughout the story.” Steven brings this up in an earlier post in December. And, my initial thought was this would be an issue.

 But, I was wrong. Heiligman takes what, for most authors could be a problem, and makes it a strength of the story. It was necessary for the author to spend the first part of the novel introducing us to many of the children who would become part of this tragic event. Getting to know just a little bit about them { and how the parents like the Grimmond parents were doing what they thought would save their five children } and how they ended up on this ship is what creates the empathy and sadness we feel as we read the details of that terrible night. The author does give us deeper character development with several main characters such as Colin, Bess and Mary Cornish. I felt like I knew them as well as a very close friend and found myself completely enveloped emotionally in their fight for survival. It takes a skilled wordsmith to weave this character development this way and pull it off successfully. Heiligman does just that. 

The criteria of setting is another that Heiligman shows distinguished work in TORPEDOED. She uses so many primary sources to paint a vivid picture of exactly what is happening leading up to the departure of The SS City Of Benares on Friday the 13th of September. Then, she uses precise wording  and subtle detailed moments of letting us into the character’s thoughts { see pages 108, 142, 182 and 185} to paint the shifting setting of the tragic details taking place in the waters where the ship sank as 77 of the 100 children sadly died. 

Some might say that this story is too much for some young adults to handle so maybe it is not distinguished in appropriateness of style for an audience of younger children. And I too thought this, until I finished the book and then re-read it again. What I saw as I read it both times was a story that, though it did not shy away from the horrible tragedy of the many deaths, in its essence it is a story focused on the survivors and how they somehow made it through. This is a story children can relate to. They understand the tragedies that happen around them each day. They also need examples in their lives like Colin and Mary Cornish and Bess to give them hope.

And the word HOPE brings us to what I feel is the strongest part of the writing in this story—development of THEME.

In no way can anyone undo the sadness of so many lives lost that night. But, in the midst of that tragedy, the reader finds hope. Hope as seen in the stories of the heroes of that night. People were willing to sacrifice their lives to help others even if they did not know them. Two girls kept each other alive by holding onto each other through the night as they clung to an overturned lifeboat. And then there is Mary Cornish, who was on a lifeboat that was not found for 8 days. The six boys on that boat with her would have given up if not for the continuous story she had told to them during those days to keep their minds off of their dire situation. 

Heiligman includes on pages 230-231 the poem by Emily Dickinson which begins with the beautiful lines 

” Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul- and sings the tune without the words- and never stops- at all- .”

After I read this book, I put it down and cried…thinking of the tragic losses of the children and their families. And then I felt a sigh of HOPE thinking of the heroes and the sacrifices they made to save others. 

This is the one book this year that has turned my heart inside-out. 

This book, more than any other, has found a permanent resting place within my thoughts and feelings. 

This book is by far the most distinguished book I have read this year.

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


  1. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    I agree that the introductions of characters and making them memorable was well done at the beginning, and that created the tension and emotion throughout the book. The strong character development is what makes this book about a tragedy feel alive and engaging.

  2. Cherylynn says:

    Setting was really well delineated. The destruction of the ship with holes the size of a bus that you could look through at the sea. The time period was made obvious by talking not only about the sinking of the ship, but many of the historical events that were happening at the same time.

  3. Molly Sloan says:

    I agree, with you, Samuel. I came to this book last. It was not on my radar until it made the Heavy Medal list. I am chagrined to say that I didn’t even get it ordered in time for my Newbery Club kids to read it. However this book is now in my top three. I haven’t decided yet which place it holds, but I feel it is a very distinguished book for all the reasons you outlined in your excellent introduction. It is a gripping tragedy. And like you said, some may say it is too macabre for the zero to fourteen age range. However as I was reading it, I thought of several of my students who would love this book for precisely the reasons you mentioned. At the end of the day this is a book about heroes and the hope that in a moment of crisis, people will step forward and do the noble thing. In spite of heartbreaking tragedy, life does go on. We continue. We persevere and behave “British” (even if we aren’t). So yes, the development of theme is distinguished in the most beautiful way. The setting is viscerally presented–you can feel the icy water, the lashing winds. You love the characters and feel such utter sadness as they succumb to the elements. You rejoice with Beth when the captain reunites her with Louis. The presentation of information appears to be a skillful presentation of excellent research with as many reproductions of archival materials as could be gathered. Heiligman transforms research into art by highlighting just the right anecdotes such as the closing when she quotes from Elspeth’s letter, “Yu will have to think of the whole sea as little Beryl’s grave. She belongs to a very gallant company of people whose grave is the sea.” (p. 258)

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I love the student’s “spoiler alert” that Samuel mentions. But this really is such a suspenseful book. Something the author heightens by her pacing and language. It’s in my top three of books-I-could-not-put-down, along with “Scary Stories for Young Foxes” and “The Toll.” Sometimes nonfiction that’s especially absorbing is described as “reads like fiction,” which is kind of a backhanded compliment. In this case, though, the book reads very much like nonfiction. We’re always aware that this is a true story, with real people, and it gets the reader involved in a very different way than fiction does. You finish the book with a connection to the characters and events, but also with knowledge and insight about the historical period, the technology, the complexity of war. Everything you could look for in a nonfiction book for young readers.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I don’t have a sense yet of kid reaction, though I’ve had some adults say: “I know it will be good, but I’m afraid it will be too sad…” But I think that may be more of the grown-up’s perspective. It seems like a natural choice for readers who are ready to go a step beyond the “I Survived…” series, and ocean disasters, especially the Titanic, always do pretty well. And with that audience in mind, the book’s strengths are evident. It’s not sensationalized, but the moments of crisis and the grueling survival stories are gripping. And Heiligman works in the history and themes without interfering with the action.

  6. Great introduction to this terrific book, Samuel. After I read it, I realized that Heiligman also wrote VINCENT AND THEO, which I also loved. She has a deft hand at writing compelling nonfiction. Although I found myself rereading and referring to the appendix in order to keep all of the people straight, I did it because it was so interesting. Like Molly, I read this book too late to introduce it to my Mock Newbery students. I wish I had read it sooner.

  7. Courtney Hague says:

    This book is very well done. It really shines as a nonfiction book without trying to be too much like a fiction title. I really appreciated how the author pointed out where her research fell short especially in regards to the sailors from India who comprised most of the crew. She does a great job of building suspense around a story where you already mostly know the outcome and the inclusion of primary source documents really helped to ground the story.

  8. samuel leopold says:

    I have been part of many mock Newbery groups over the years and ,for some reason, non-fiction stories are like the flavor of ice cream that looks great but no one wants to be the first to try it.

    Well, hopefully the real committee will see all the distinguished qualities of this book and not be afraid to take a literary taste of this wonderful book.

    And….yes I did make the “ice cream” metaphor with the book in mind……..

  9. Rachel Wadham says:

    Like many have said about our graphic novels, I think its time a work of nonfiction won the Newbery I think sometimes people have a hard time comparing to to fiction and in doing so as a genre it comes up as lacking, but personally when I read nonfiction I just think of it as a story with all the same elements of storytelling fiction uses, just with the real facts. And WOW does this book hit that mark. This is such great storytelling. As has been noted the way she structures the story, the way she introduces the children, and the way she uses words to convey the setting is so powerful, as good (or might I say better) than many writers of fiction. This is a powerful story and while drawing on a time in history that has been covered in children’s books for decades, this book brings a fresh new context and situation to light. I do hope we can start to see more nonfiction in the winners circle and if any book deserves to be there this one does.

  10. I am not a big nonfiction reader, but I found this impressively distinguished. Beautifully written, a marvel of perfect tone, wonderfully paced, sensitively portrayed, incredibly compelling.

  11. Tamara DePasquale says:

    Heligman presents a well-organized, thoroughly researched chronological telling of this lesser known tragedy of World War II. Her keen attention to detail combines with historical documents and photographs to provide an engaging narrative that feels quite like riding the waves of a storm at sea.

    The reader is immediately drawn into the story with vivid accounts of the wartime dangers that prompted families to send their children across the sea to safety. The challenges and stresses of acceptance and preparation for the voyage bring the reader to the crest of the first wave.

    The tension ebbs as the reader meets the passengers and settles in. The descriptions of elaborate meals and carefree activities allow the reader to momentarily enjoy the luxury and security aboard the SS City of Benares.

    And then the next wave of tension rises with the author’s deliberate references to lifeboats, preservers, and U-boat activities. With the strike of the torpedo, the reader is at the peak of the tension.

    As the passengers struggle to escape the sinking ship, chaos ensues, and the storm is in full force. Once the SS City of Benares is swallowed by the sea, the weight of the tragedy silences the storm. The pacing of the narrative slows and the long wait for rescue begins. What a ride!

    Torpedoed is an exemplary title of nonfiction for middle grade readers. The information is accessible and well-documented, and the writing is straightforward and attention-grabbing. No doubt this title will be recognized as an important, notable addition to World War II history, however, I do not feel that it is remarkable or meets Newbery expectations.

  12. samuel leopold says:

    Tamara, I love your thorough analysis in your posts and appreciate your insights. I would never want to go against you in a debate.

    That being said, I respectfully disagree with your last line in your post in that I do see TORPEDOED as meeting the distinguished level when looked at in the light of the Newbery Criteria.

    I do see this story as a truly remarkable contribution to the world of Children’s literature and agree with Rachel’s comment that “I do hope we can start to see more non-fiction in the winner’s circle and if any book deserves to be there, this one does.”

    • Tamara DePasquale says:

      I appreciate all the voices in these threads. I have learned so much from each of you! And Samuel, it’s okay that we disagree…How great is it that we are so passionate about our books! Have you read 1919? I would love to hear your thoughts on that one…another time!

  13. 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.