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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Speaking Up, Choosing Lanes, and World War II Reflections: Distinguished Themes

Continuing with the plan to group books around the elements identified in the Newbery Terms and Criteria, we’ll jump to “theme or concept” this time (no, I’m not going in order). The Criteria state: “In identifying ‘Distinguished Writing’ in a book for children, Committee members need to consider…interpretation of the theme or concept.”

I seem to need the simplest possible definition of “theme,” so I just think of it as: “what the book makes us think about.” And really, that’s an essential question; it’s pretty hard to evaluate just about any book without thinking about themes and concepts. For this post, though, I picked three books where the central themes are skillfully presented, but in very different ways:

CHIRP by Kate Messner

There’s a lot going on in this book, and a lot of it’s fairly light-hearted. Mia makes new friends, solves a mystery, and saves her grandma’s cricket farm. All of those threads are fun and engaging. But also: Mia was abused before all of that, and as the other events unfold, she gradually figures out what to do about this. Her new friendships and experiences are catalysts that lead Mia to tell others what she’s been through. She develops insights that go beyond her own struggles, even learning things about her mother without being told directly:

She’d told Mia a little about what happened at her first law firm, but this made Mia wonder if there was more. If Mom had her own pin hidden away in a box somewhere. (177)

Abuse is a central topic of other books this year, including FIGHTING WORDS, A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS, and BLACKBIRD GIRLS. I’m impressed by the way Messner works the topic into a novel that seems just a bit less weighty than those three. Not that she treats the subject lightly, but it takes very careful writing to tackle this theme head on without losing the broadly accessible qualities of a more standard friendship story. 

ON THE HORIZON by Lois Lowry

Lowry writes about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the atomic bomb. Those events can be almost too big to deal with for a child reader, and the way she approaches them is highly original and masterfully executed. First she brings us into the mind of a child watching a ship from the shore, not knowing that it will be destroyed by a bomb:

We played and giggled: calm, serene.

And there behind us – slow, unseen –

Arizona, great grey tomb,

Moved, majestic, toward her doom. (7) 

Separate poems introduce some of the sailors aboard the Arizona with delicate, poignant detail. 

Part 2 switches to poems about the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. In “Japanese Morning” she writes about a child who “felt a shudder in the earth /and saw the sky change.” The last stanza reads:

Is this how it ends? The world? This way?

On August sixth? A summer day?

Morning light? A boy at play?

It could. It might. It may. (35)

Very powerful, but the book isn’t about horror or death; it’s hopeful. In Part 3, the girl rides her bike through her new home in post-war Japan, wondering about the war and friendship and common ground. The Author’s note is also a key part of the book, as Lowry provide some background and perspective on the poems. It’s also where she articulates one of the key themes: “to try to find some meanings in the way lives intersect – or how they fail to.” (72). I might return to this one when I look at “style”: her poems and the overall structure are highly effective. But I couldn’t leave it out of a discussion of “theme and concept.”

WHAT LANE? By Torrey Maldonado

Usually I particularly admire authors who weave their themes seamlessly into stories. WHAT LANE? takes a different approach. The “theme and concept” are announced right there in the title. Stephen even has a bracelet with that phrase on it. And throughout the book he’s consciously trying to figure out how he can choose the right lane without giving into peer pressure. Using my Newbery Criteria lens, I started the book with the phrase “the award is not for didactic intent” at the front of my mind. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be strong lessons, conveyed directly. It’s just that the writer has to do this in a distinguished manner. 

In WHAT LANE?, the clear message comes through in a very engaging story. Stephen is an interesting character that most readers will instantly empathize with. His first person narration is loose and fun and we can follow right along as he gradually begins to question his choices with more seriousness. He doesn’t trust Chad, but isn’t brave enough to defy him at first.  He learns that his friend Dan shares some of those doubts:

I feel better knowing Dan gets it about Chad.

I want to tell him you know. So what now? But the nine-year-old shy me pulls me back.
We’ll see. (64)

I think kids will respond to Stephen and his story and I’m glad to have this book on this topic in our collection. But I don’t quite  see it as a Newbery contender.” I wonder, though, if I’m being too dismissive of a book that delivers its theme so clearly, and in a way that’s very accessible to younger readers who maybe haven’t thought deeply yet about the issues introduced here.

Themes also shine in A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS, DRAGON HOOPS, EFREN DIVIDED…and many others. Of the three titles featured above, ON THE HORIZON stands out especially; and in my mind it’s one of the strongest early Newbery contenders. Feel free to share thoughts and opinions about the three featured books; or introduce other titles in which the author excelled in presentation of themes and concepts. 

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


  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful post. The issues you raise are important, including the inevitable intersection of style and content, and the reminder that the Award is not based on a book’s didactic value. Having said that, it’s striking how easily children’s books can mislead young readers about history, even if unintentionally. Lois Lowry’s newest book artfully suggests questions of moral equivalence. As World War II recedes into the past, it seems more urgent to present children, and adults, with serious historical interpretations. I was grossly disappointed to find this comment about ON THE HORIZON on PW:
    “The book’s structure makes the events feel like equivalent tragedies, which may trouble some readers, since both were acts of war, but the U.S. bombed noncombatants.” The sailors at Pearl Harbor were noncombatants, because the bombing of Pearl Harbor was the act of aggression which started hostilities between the U.S. and Japan! The real issue of moral equivalence is whether the use of atomic weapons is ever justified. That does not change the fact that Japan was completely responsible for starting the war. I’m glad that an author of Lowry’s stature has contributed this beautiful book of verse to the discussion.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Interesting ideas about “moral equivalence” in ON THE HORIZON. As I read the book I was struck by the personal nature of it all. I feel like Lowry was highly focused on unique individual experiences; her own and those of the people in her poems. That “reflections” in the subtitle suggest that this not a broad history lesson, but a more acute examination of the ways these events impacted the experiences of particular people. I’m not sure that after reading this, readers would be led to weigh one act of war against the other, but rather would ponder the tragedy of war, and maybe in different ways than they did before reading the book. An examination of comparative levels of morality between the two events is a worthwhile subject…I just don’t think Lowry is attempting that in this book.

      • I agree that it’s not the primary focus of the book, which is quite personal. Yet I still think the question is implicit, particularly since so much has been written about the atrocity of the atom bomb. To me, it seems impossible to avoid when reading a book which explores both tragedies. I definitely don’t think that Lowry is implying that one or the other is worse, but an author’s work takes on a life of its own. In fact, the PW quote stands out as an example of a revisionist view of Japanese culpability. A very different children’s book, THIRTY MINUTES OVER OREGON, is an example of this trend. The literary style and the illustrations are beautiful, but the core of the book’s message, to me, is historically insensitive. Children’s books with historical themes always face a special challenge.

  2. I haven’t had a chance to read the other two books yet, but I have read CHIRP. I really appreciated how the abuse/harassment theme was worked into the overall plot. Mia and her family and friends would be doing their own thing, living their lives, and then someone would recount a story of something – a totally plausible something – had happened to them or someone else at the hands of a jerk. How Anna left Eli’s team because he wouldn’t stop nagging her about getting ice cream, for example, was just casually included as an explanation of why Anna was working by herself. How Clover brought up what happened to her at the beach is another good example: the girls’ current situation and conversation reminded her of what happened, so she shared it with her friends. I thought this technique – plot going along, then there’s a story about harassment or worse plopped down in the middle of the plot where you don’t expect it – mimics how these events occur in real life: women and girls are going about, living their lives, doing their own thing and suddenly, there’s a jarring bit of unpleasantness at the hands of someone male. I think it effectively emphasized how pervasive this sort of behavior is in our culture, and how strongly it can and does effect those who have to deal with it. Clover’s explanation of how her beach experiences have changed, and how she pushed back against that change, since her encounter with that creep is a great window into how a person’s world can be tainted by the perverse behavior of others. I also appreciate how Clover’s story is reflected in Mia’s story later, when we finally read about the circumstances surrounding Mia’s accident and why she quit gymnastics. Because we understand Clover’s situation, it helps us empathized even more with Mia’s. For readers who might be encountering some of these ideas/situations for the first time, I think that’s very valuable. All of this, and the book still doesn’t feel too bogged down: it’s a fun, generally upbeat read that’s quite accessible to a wide range of readers. I think it was extremely well done, though I still feel that there are other, better contenders for the Newbery over all.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I really like Aud’s description of Messner’s writing: “I thought this technique – plot going along, then there’s a story about harassment or worse plopped down in the middle of the plot where you don’t expect it – mimics how these events occur in real life.”
      And what a creative way for the author to address this theme with the intended readers. The Criteria note that a “distinguished” book “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations,” and I think Messner demonstrates that at a very high level…

  3. I particularly loved how Chirp handled the abuse theme in such an inclusive way; showing how every female character experienced prejudice. Mia draws strength from her grandmother, mother and friend Chloe. I loved how the theme was addressed so effectively but in an approachable manner. Children will enjoy the mystery as they root for Mia. I found the story to be very effective.

    I loved how Lois Lowry created a cohesive whole with her poems, exploring two tragedies and point out the impartiality of war and the havoc it wreaks on every country. The inclusion of her own childhood memories and those of the Japanese boy, (whom she later meets), is very profound, illustrating the innocence of children and the effect war has upon everyone.

    I did feel What Lane? was a bit too hard-hitting at times, but I enjoyed Stephen’s voice.

    Overall, I think Chirp will have the most appeal for children as it is a fun story despite some heavy themes. Lowry’s book is the most literary in quality, and the poems are accessible and engaging. It would be hard for me to choose between those two, especially, but if pressured, I would probably vote for Beyond the Horizon.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I agree, Meredith, that the prevalence of abuse was deftly managed by Messner in CHIRP. It was powerful, and a little surprising tome, to see that reality come through in this kind of book. And I liked that the sobering reality is balanced not just by Kate speaking up, but by the power and confidence she develops through her relationships with the other girls and the women in her life.

  4. Lowry’s life experiences in On the Horizon are very interesting, but I felt like it was one of those things that is amazing because it’s true (the coincidences) and a great anecdote to tell people, but it didn’t really come together as a story. (Which is always hard in memoir.) And I felt like it was an adult book—not that there’s anything inappropriate in it, but it just felt like it was from an adult perspective, not a kid one. I think because it’s firmly rooted in her, as an adult, looking back on her life (and the war).

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I agree. I liked the symmetry of the first two sections and thought the book might have been stronger without the third—so for me a ding in the Plot criterion.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I also have some hesitation about the child/adult appeal of ON THE HORIZON. The Criteria states that: “Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.” The book definitely has strong potential appeal for adults. At the same time, I think Lowry was successful in most ways at creating a literary experience for children. The poems themselves are accessible: language, structure, and meaning come through at a level that seems just right for upper elementary/middle school readers. The prose “Horizon” pieces that open each chapter seem particularly aimed at readers who might struggle with seeing the broader themes that connect all of the poems. The third part has a more tenuous connection, and the emotions are less tangible than in the first two parts. This made the Author’s Note especially important. That section provides the overview and perspective that might be needed for younger readers to get the full impact of the poems. For me, the Author’s Note worked very well. I loved learning about watching the video and the Allen Say connection…but I fear that might be me as an adult reader, not as an evaluator of books for children. I do wonder if that might have been accomplished more seamlessly…maybe in a more succinct way, similar to the “Horizon” pieces.

      • Steven, Katrina’s comment, as well as your response, gave me more to think about regarding ON THE HORIZON. I find it accessible to middle grade and YA readers, although I would agree that some aspects of her perspective are uniquely adult. There is definitely a sense of adult pain looking back at the tragedies which have had a personal impact on her. It also brings me back to my concerns about history. Granted that many adults have incomplete knowledge of World War II history, for young readers this is an even more significant problem. Maybe to Lowry, as an adult who lived through it, the historical background is implicit. For children, beginning the story with Pearl Harbor and ending with Hiroshima, knowing nothing of what happened before or in between, the book may be misleading. Incomplete information is still information.

  5. I thought Chirp was too heavy handed with the theme, giving every single person an experience on the subject to share. Also, it falls into one of my pet peeves where it pretends it’s going to be a fun mystery but then is actually about “important topics.” I like serious books too, I just like to know which I’m getting and not get tricked into it! Which I guess in a way is a comment on theme…

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Mixing a mystery with important topics is tricky, as Katrina notes. Another book that did something similar is THE ONLY BLACK GIRLS IN TOWN. In that one, Alberta and Edie unravel the mystery behind the journals, and there are parallels between the struggles of the journal writer and those of the girls. The two threads both serve the theme well, and I didn’t think the two threads felt too forced…but maybe just a little bit.

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