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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

A Mountain in Maine, a City of Light and the USSR: Distinguished Settings

The Newbery Terms and Criteria state that Committee members must consider “delineation of setting” as they try to identify “distinguished writing.” “Setting” can be kind of a tricky concept. It’s usually fairly easy to describe what the setting is, especially the time and place in which a book is set. But we also need to look at how the setting serves the overall impact of the book: does it support and enhance themes, characters, and plots? Also, it’s more than just time and place; setting can also include the mood or feel of the world the author creates; that’s more elusive and harder (for me at least) to articulate, but highly important. Here are a few of this year’s titles in which evocative settings contribute a great deal to the books’ success:

BLACKBIRD GIRLS by Anna Blankman

This book takes place in two time periods. A large part of the story follows Valentina and Oksana in the USSR, beginning with the Chernobyl disaster, during 1986. Several chapters jump back to 1941 and follow Rifka, Valentina’s grandmother, as she tries to survive during the German invasion of the Ukraine. The author jumps right into the story as Valentina sees the “strange, unearthly blue” of the sky above the nuclear power plant (1). In that first chapter, readers learn a bit about the power plant and the “model city” of Pripyat, and the background information comes through fairly naturally through Valentina’s point of view. In the Oksana chapter that follows, a classroom discussion fills in some more bits of Soviet history that will impact the story (18-19)…that part seems a little bit forced, but it’s quick and necessary. 

Along with the history, though, we get a strong sense of the ethos of the characters and their country, and the different perspectives that exist among the characters. Our sense of 1980’s USSR widens as the girls arrive at their new residence in Leningrad, which is so different from their previous homes:

Here there were no pastel houses, no ice cream cars or shiny automobiles. The roads were rutted, the curbs lined with mud. A couple of passersby waved at Valentina’s grandmother, but no one stopped to chat. Oksana shivered in her thin spring coat. Leningrad felt colder than Pripyat. (119)

In both plot threads, there’s also a tangible aura of fear and distrust that all three young women have to maneuver around. That works as a plot element too, creating much of the suspense in their stories, but at the same time, that apprehension is almost palpable, and it plays an essential part in bringing the world of the novel to life.

ECHO MOUNTAIN by Lauren Wolk

The natural world of the mountain is an inextricable part of the story of Ellie and her family in 1930’s Maine. Descriptions come from Ellie’s first person narration; they tell us a lot about her as a character while also putting the reader right alongside her experiences and emotional responses:

There were many things that tempted me as we went down the mountain: a fresh-green meadow where fire from lighting strike had cleared a few screws of trees before rain had put it out; a vernal pool where peepers sang so loudly at twilight that we could hear them even far up-mountain; a granite ledge big enough for me to sit on, like a turtle in the sun. But I decided to keep those things for another day. (73)

Small, distinct details of places and things are woven seamlessly into the narrative. LIke when Ellie enters Cate’s cabin for the first time:

In another corner, there was a cold fireplace. Alongside it sat a big copper bucket full of logs, and another smaller one with kindling.

And there were candles on every flat surface. One, on the floor, had melted into a puddle, its wick burned away.

I was amazed that it hadn’t burned the whole place to the ground.

But I knew that if I were a flame, I would rather fizzle out than ruin a place like this one. (96) 

We get a good sense of the historical time period as well, but it’s the essence of the physical places that is most striking to me.

A WISH IN THE DARK by Christina Soontornvat

In this fascinating novel, the setting isn’t historical, though it feels almost like it could be. And it’s not a completely fantastical world, though magic does play a part. The author deftly conveys what this world is like without ever explaining it directly. The three main settings are vividly described, but it’s the moods that permeate them that are especially powerful: The oppressive unfairness of Namwon Prison; the tolerance and generosity of the village of Tamburi and its temple; and the chaotic lighted city of Chattana, which can be seen as beautiful or extremely harsh, depending on who you are and how closely you look.

Within these settings, the author does a wonderful job of introducing the magical elements, while keeping some details hidden. The Governor seems like a sorcerer at first; but Somkits’ growing knowledge indicates that what seems like pure magic could be mostly science. The religious faith of Father Chan also has elements of surprising fantastical powers. In many fantasies, the rules of magic get established fairly clearly and directly; in this book, though, the uncertainty around the Governor’s light creates an aura of mystery. This is an effective plot element, but it also contributes greatly to the distinct atmosphere of the world of the novel.   

I also give high marks to the historical settings of A CEILING MADE OF GLASS, KENT STATE, PRAIRIE LOTUS,, and A VILLAGE OF SCOUNDRELS. Books set in modern times that jump to mind include EFREN RISING, KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES, and HERE IN THE REAL WORLD. Please chime in with your thoughts about “delineation of setting” in any of this year’s books, along with discussion of any or all elements in BLACKBIRD GIRLS, ECHO MOUNTAIN, and A WISH IN THE DARK.

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. Alexis Redhorse says:

    Great observations on these books!

    To me, the most remarkable “deliniation of setting” is Ann Clare LeZotte’s SHOW ME A SIGN. It portrays something unfamiliar to almost everybody: a town where being deaf isn’t unusual and deaf and hearing people use a unique sign language. (It also authentically portrays the land struggles of the Aquinnah Wampanoag.) The author talked to this Martha’s Vineyard newspaper– including the attempt to keep that elusive feeling of place when she wasn’t there.

    I would love to know if local communities have written about the other books! I’m very picky about Seminole or even Florida books. XP

  2. Echo Mountain for me has a great character in Ellie. I am a city girl who does not get along with nature at all. I found the connections the author made with Ellie and the life around her fascinating. This felt very much like a window into a world that was not mine.

    A Wish in the Dark is my favorite book of the year. I am the ideal reader. I love fantasy, I enjoy stories of a journey, and when I started catching what she had done with Les Miserable it just made it better. The characters and setting seemed vivid, the plot was exciting, and I truly enjoyed the world building that was done. I read for a different reason than Newbery so I admit I am not as sure about being able to talk about the criteria like I should.

  3. Alexis Redhorse says:

    I think any observations are good!

    Steven has me thinking. Maybe because I’m Indigenous, I’m cautious that what seems like an accurate sense of place may be a perpetuated stereotype. I can think of some books like that.

    I’ll admit, when I first picked up Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s excellent FIGHTING WORDS, I was a little wary of the girls’ dialect. I felt much better when I read an interview with with author that says: “The new one is set in my hometown, and that was actually kind of fun for me to be able to do. It was the first book where I really think that I got the feel of Appalachia in it.”

    * Sorry for misspelling delineation. Now I’ll get back to work at the library. 😉

  4. I also thought the setting in Mananaland, by Pam Munoz Ryan was vivid and effective.

    A Wish in the Dark was excellent in its depiction of setting. I especially loved how Soontornvat began the book by describing the mango trees that grew in the prison yard, thus putting us firmly in Pong’s predicament. The delination of class setting with the different colored orbs and the enthralling culture was fascinating.

    My favorite description of setting in Echo Mountain occurred when honey was being collected. Wolk makes you feel empathy toward the bees, and the entire book pulsates with authenticity.

    The Blackbird Girls setting stood out most vividly of all for me. I loved the ominous description of the smoke, which contrasted with the snowy descriptions in the flashback chapters. Blankman makes individual settings in vivid ways.

  5. I have just started reading THE BLACKBIRD GIRLS so my opinion isn’t totally formed, but it seems promising. I was puzzled by the review on Kirkus,which claims that the World War II Jewish plot, or subplot, “deflects focus from the story somewhat.” I think the connections between the two eras is one of the book’s central points, an early chapter includes Ukrainian characters expressing their antisemitism. Whether the author succeeds in relating the two plots to one another is a different issue. Now I am going to digress a bit: Kirkus, as is their policy, also identifies the Ukrainian characters as “assumed white; Valentina’s family is Jewish.” I think some historical perspective is needed here. What else would the Ukrainian characters be? A bigger question is raised by the second clause in that sentence. Where do Jewish characters fall on the Kirkus identity spectrum? I apologize if this seems extrinsic to the discussion, but we are all concerned about diverse representation in children’s books, as well as historical accuracy and literary excellence. Sometimes it seems as if these considerations are difficult to separate from one another. Maybe that is inevitable, but it is helpful to be aware of that background when critically evaluating books.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I didn’t feel that the two plot threads device was totally successful in BLACKBIRD GIRLS. The connection exists, for sure, and I think readers will see that. And as readers get to know Rifka as an adult, the connection is stronger. It’s just that I found that story less compelling. It’s certainly filled with suspenseful situations, but we get to know Rifka mostly through the danger she faces. Clearly the author wasn’t attempting to give the two eras equal weight or space; it seemed to me that Rifka’s story is included solely to enlarge the scope of the Katerina/Oksana thread, not as a fully realized parallel narrative. That choice makes sense, and it works in most ways, but I felt the shift from one to the other disrupted the flow in some ways too…

    • Steven, This is also a reply to Katrina about the Rifka plot being somehow not as fully realized as the Chernobyl narrative. I have tried to pay very careful attention to this book because I think it is important. To me, the two plots were inextricably connected and equally important. The author could easily have written a dramatic and compelling story about Chernobyl, the lies of an autocratic state, child abuse, and the support of friendship. She chose to emphasize a parallel Holocaust story, and to include many references to ongoing antisemitism in Russia and Ukraine. When I read the first couple of Rifka chapters, I did have a sense that the character was not as fully developed. But by the end, I found her to be as credible as Valentina and Oksana. So that was my personal response. I have a different question about the timeline: Rifka would have been born in 1929. I was expecting her,not her daughter Galina, to be Valentina’s previously estranged grandmother. Galina would have been born in the post-war period, in 1950, if my math is correct. (maybe it’s not.) She would have been 36 at the time of the main narrative. Did anyone else notice this? Again, it’s possible that my timeline is mistaken.

  7. I agree all three had well-developed settings. Blackbird girls, especially the first section in Chernobyl, really brought the time and place to life for me in an organic way. It wasn’t the story I was expecting since Chernobyl was more the inciting incident than the focus, but I thought it did a good job exploring antisemitism and ultimately was a strong story about friendship. I think the second plot line was effective in what it was trying to do, but also that does always disrupt the flow of the main narrative.

  8. This was the source of my confusion: Rita Goldman, Babulya, is indeed Rifka. She changed her name to avoid being identified as Jewish. She is Valentina’s grandmother. At one point, Valentina tells Oksana that her mother, Galina, had wanted to name her Rifka, but chose instead a Russian name, for the same reason. This would be inconsistent with Ashkenazic practice, in which one would not name a child after a living person, in this case, her mother. So now the timeline makes sense.
    Again, both plots worked for me. I didn’t see the Rifka plot as unequal in any way.

  9. A couple of points – by design, the WWII plotline progresses for quite some time before it is confirmed that Rifka is Rita, and it is an effective revelation coming when Valentina says her mother wanted to name her Rifka. This connects the two plots while at the same time develops the characters and their relationships and their attitudes towards Jewish identity. I would be more critical of the WWII plotline had it run only in parallel or existed only to flesh out Rita’s character. But of course, Rifka’s story is also absolutely necessary to the resolution of Oksana’s otherwise hopeless situation. And I thought that was very satisfying Development of Plot as well as Interpretation of Theme. If I am allowed, thematically I was actually reminded of I Had a Little Overcoat — nothing past is wasted. All that said, perhaps BLACKBIRD GIRLS wasn’t perfect — I too am not sure about the balancing.

  10. Leonard, from my perspective, it was exactly that point at which I became confused, because it would have been quite unusual, especially at that time, for an Ashkenazic Jew to name her child after a living parent. This custom, even today, is quite strong, even among not traditionally observant Jews. Prior to that point, I had assumed, from early on, that Babulya was Rifka. No, the book is not perfect. The discussions between Valentina and her grandmother, which were based more on spirituality than ethnicity, seemed slightly off, especially since antisemitism as racism is so strongly emphasized throughout the novel. I Had a Little Overcoat, in all its various iterations, is not tragic in tone, but it is about creating stories. (Green Bean Books, in England, is coming out with a new version, BENJY’S BLANKET) Finally, we all bring personal backgrounds to our reading and this discussion is an interesting example of that truth! Thanks for your insights.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Emily, that point is directly addressed on page 275. “‘Mama wanted to name me after *you*.’ / ‘That can’t be right. Jews don’t name our children after living relatives.’ / ‘Maybe Mama didn’t know. Did you teach her about Judaism when she was growing up?’ / Babulya’s mouth opened and closed twice. ‘No,’ she said at last. ‘I worshipped on my own. I didn’t want to put her in danger. Maybe you’re right. Maybe she didn’t know. Which means she did want to name her daughter after me.’ She brought her hands to her cheeks. ‘Oh my stars,’ she said , and smiled.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      You are right, of course, about what I Had a Little Overcoat is about. For the sake of citation, I looked into where I had gotten my impression from, and it is specifically Aylesworth’s version My Grandfather’s Coat which has the line, “nothing has been wasted.” That line made such an impression on me (it’s the only directly spoken line in the book) that it’s what I remembered most, even more than the creation of the story. Do you really think BLACKBIRD GIRLS is tragic in tone?

  11. Yes, that’s true. Again, this goes back to the complicated idea of what seems credible about Jewish practice, tradition, culture, etc. After a certain point, Soviet Jews were completely deprived of any opportunity for a Jewish education. Rifka would have been well-aware of Jewish norms, but her daughter much less so. Still, Galina did grow up in a home with parents who had knowledge. The response that Rifka “worshipped on her own” is certainly possible, but the idea that she did so while cutting off her daughter from even the most basic cultural practices doesn’t seem likely. Even the idea of “worship on one’s own,” is radically not Jewish. It would certainly apply to Soviet Jews of the generation after Rifka’s, but less plausibly for hers. There’s always an issue in literature of something that is possible, vs. something that is plausible. Individuals make individual choices, but they need to make sense for particular characters in a particular setting.

  12. Julie Corsaro Corsaro says:

    Since setting is paramount in both historical fiction and fantasy, I think it has to be “distinguished” in both of these genres to merit Newbery recognition. As a result, I appreciate Steven saying that setting is not only time and place, but mood and feel, a tougher assignment, indeed. I concur that Lauren Wolk evokes “the essence of the physical places” in ECHO MOUNTAIN through richly rendered details, as well as Ellie’s thoughts and deeds. Furthermore, Wolk captures what life feels like for this one girl living on a mountain in Depression-era Maine through gorgeous prose. P.S. One criticism I’ve heard of the book is that it may be a too slow or too long. In contrast, I found it to be expertly paced with a successful use of foreshadowing that keeps the pages turning.

  13. I just finished A Ceiling Made of Eggshells and it also has a really immersive setting. (Apparently it’s the year for historical Jewish stories!)

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I was impressed by A CEILING MADE OF EGGSHELLS too. It’s a time and place that most kids (and most adults I think) have no idea about, and Levine really brought it to life. Lots of information conveyed, all through Loma’s narration…

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