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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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First Time a Charm?: A debut novel that could be a Newbery contender

Debut authors don’t often win Newbery Medals (though it did happen last year). Guest blogger Sara Beth makes a convincing argument that Lisa Gerlits’ first novel deserves a close look in this year’s deliberations:

To be considered for the Newbery, a title must be distinguished in those now-familiar categories. Not included in the list is the fame of the author or the publisher’s advertising budget, but these are contributing factors. A book is only considered if it finds an advocate on the committee. Undoubtedly, there are worthy titles, from debut authors at small presses, that simply get missed.

I’m delighted to advocate for Lisa Gerlits’ debut novel A MANY FEATHERED THING. This book is a spot-on depiction of the utter middle-ness of adolescence. As a theme, the emotional realities of being 11 might seem too obvious, but here it feels more than enough. In Clarity (aka Clara), we feel the full weight of being a middle child in a too-small house with busy parents and no money for extras. She is fiercely protective of her best friend Orion and she takes him for granted. She hates that everything has to change and she embraces the ways she is changing. She shrinks, thinking everyone is looking at her and she wants everyone to see her and her art. She contains multitudes, full of uncertainty when she tries to unravel the knot of her feelings. For instance, when Orion asks if she ‘likes’ anyone, she reflects,

It seemed like everybody my age had a crush on somebody, but I wasn’t ready for this world of liking people and holding hands and kissing. It felt like another language I didn’t understand.

And this is true. Even as she struggles with jealousy over Orion’s new friend and ponders, “Birdman had said it was love, but that word felt too big and foolish and dagger-sharp.”

Birdman is Mr. Vogelman, an artist who teaches Clara how to see. Art and the making of it are everywhere in this gorgeous book. Rather than a separate theme, art is the vehicle for “interpretation of theme,” a perfect representation of adolescence. Here are just a few examples:

Clara loves Mr. Vogelman’s painting, a swirling mass of color and texture. She explains,

It made me feel small, like when I looked at the stars, but also powerful, like stardust was swirling down to me.

And then when she sees it again,

I still felt small, but it also made me feel like I was being drawn in, pulled through a doorway to another world, a world that wanted me. All I had to do was lean in.

Clara’s reaction to the painting tracks perfectly with her shifting feelings about herself.

Or when Mr. Vogelman takes Clara to a field, urging her to see the horses there, to draw their essence. Clara tries, each effort getting less “perfect” but becoming something more. Mr. Vogelman urges, “You must not be reminded of the old horse. That horse is from one minute ago, he is dead. Draw the now-horse.” And she does, acknowledging that,

If it had been anyone else, I would have balked at such commands. But Mr. Vogelman was different. I got the feeling he didn’t expect me to be good or perfect or correct. He only expected me.

Lesson by lesson, Clara is learning how to see the world around her, to see the hope even in tragedy, and to trust the person she is becoming.

There is much more in this rich and lovely book. Delineation of character is worth its own discussion, whether considering the beautiful and complicated Orion, the stony but hilarious Frouke, or the everything that is Birdman. But to do that, we have to pick up the debut novel from an unknown author. Won’t you?

Bio:

Sara Beth West is a reader, a writer, a reviewer, a bird-watcher. A teacher for many years, she’s now studying Information Sciences, which might or might not land her in library work. She lives in Chattanooga, TN, with her family and a mid-sized domestic menagerie. You can find her online at sarabethwest.com.

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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. I enjoyed this very thorough post and look forward to reading the book. Excellent work.

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I’m glad you brought this book into the discussion, Sarah Beth. You mention that “Clara is learning to see the world around her,” and that really captures the essence of the novel. That learning flows through the book in many ways. Most clearly, probably, in the way Birdman challenges her to go beyond her “safe drawings,” but also in the way her friendships with Orion and Elise evolve…and not necessarily in the ways Clara expects or wishes. The role of art in developing themes and characters worked well too, without feeling forced. Birman’s final portrait of Clara captures her growth and self-awareness (“Birdman had seen me – really seen me”) in a very satisfying way. And the scene where she shows Fouke the portrait of her is also just right.

  3. Thank you for this interesting post. A phrase that stands out is “A book is only considered if it finds an advocate on the committee.” On the one hand, that must obviously be true. On the other hand, the degree to which it matters should make us somewhat uncomfortable. As in the court system, someone who has a competent, or a highly skilled, lawyer has a better chance of winning than someone represented by a poor practitioner. Do you think that a book by a new author needs an unusually committed advocate to stand a chance?
    Given the increased presence of self-published books on Amazon, social media, and elsewhere, do you envision the possibility that one could win?

    • These are really good questions, Emily! Like Steven said, there are some natural barriers to the advocate having an outsized influence, but I think the best chance for a “smaller” title comes from the members of the committee themselves feeling a little uncomfortable with the status quo. I am not suggesting – at all – that the committee should somehow be super-human and read everything that is published through any avenue, but maybe just that they consider their options more broadly than they might be inclined to? And to be clear, when I refer to advocacy here, I’m mostly concerned with just getting a book to the table.

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    The Nomination process is one way that any under-the-radar books can get full consideration. Committee members each submit 7 nominations, and members “will need to re-read” (or read if they haven’t yet) and give those books “their closest scrutiny.” Also, members write written justifications for the books they nominate, which is a chance to highlight the books’ strengths in terms of the Newbery Criteria. So once a member has found that book, she does have opportunities to advocate strongly with the Committee. All of the nominated books will be on the table at the start of the award deliberations in Midwinter, and should be on an equal footing.

    The harder part may be making sure that among the 15 Committee members, the year of reading is broad enough to identify those books that might have a lower profile for whatever reason.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Emily asks if a book needs “an unusually committed advocate to stand a chance?” A committee member who’s especially articulate in writing (for the nominations) or speaking (for the discussions) might help a book’s chances to some degree, but only to the extent in which she can point out strengths (or weaknesses) of the book that other’s might not have seen yet. In the end, it’s all about the words of the page. Even the most eloquent speaker extolling the virtues of her favorite book ever will not be able to convince others without convincing arguments that relate to the criteria. At least that’s been my experience as far as I’ve observed…

  6. Julie Corsaro says:

    My best guess is that some debut novels have won the Newbery or have been honor books. Was Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo her first book? Wasn’t From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Jennifer, Hecate, etc., a Newbery winner and honor book, respectively, debut novels by E.L. Konigsburg? Everyone is a beginner sometime. As Steven notes, nominations insure that everyone on the committee reads certain books. Earlier in the committee’s service year, however, members also make monthly suggestions for reading that can put a book on the map.

  7. Julie, Thanks for reminding readers of E.L. Konigsburg, one of our greatest American authors for young people. She is a great example of how a book by a new author could be recognized by the committee. Many things have changed since the 1960s; I don’t know if this event would be more or less likely now.
    I have two related questions. Is a book by an extremely popular author ever looked at somewhat skeptically, even if the nominated book is not one of the author’s biggest commercial and popular successes? And does the author’s age and number of books make a difference? This is an award for a book, not a lifetime achievement, but do judges ever, even subconsciously, look at the author’s stage of life when deciding between two excellent choices?

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Good question about “popular authors,” Emily. The Criteria direct members “to consider only the books eligible for the award.” In the Definitions section, it gets even more direct: “the committee is not to consider the entire body of the work by an author or whether the author has previously won the award.” So we wouldn’t be able to say: CLASS ACT is good, but not as good as NEW KID….or: CLASS ACT is great, but Jerry Craft just won the medal so let’s not give him another. Those considerations could not come up in discussion; if they did, the Chair and/or other members would step in with a reminder. But you also add “even subconsciously,” and that’s the big question. A subconscious bias could affect a member’s vote, but it should not be coming up as a factor in the discussion…

  8. Oh! Excellent questions! I am definitely going to do a deep dive into the lists and see how many were debuts. I’m also really interested in the aspect of the smaller press. A MANY FEATHERED THING is not published by a Big Five house, and I suspect that is the bigger variable than it being a debut. It being both a debut and from a small press was what prompted the framing of my post.

    • Here are a few findings from my dive:
      The first decade of the award had 4 debut authors – a high percentage!
      Between 1934 and 1963: none
      1964 – Emily Neville’s IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT was a debut! And then nothing again until Clare Vanderpool with MOON OVER MANIFEST in 2011 (pubd by Delacorte).
      And then Jerry Craft last year. Though he was a published writer, NEW KID was his first book (that he didn’t publish himself), so I suppose it counts as a debut though not in the category of unknown.

      By my count, that is 7 (4 of which were in the 20s-30s).

      There are a few – like Konigsburg, Hunt, Cushman, CPC – where their debut was an honor selection, but I didn’t do an exhaustive search of the honor designations (even though it would definitely be relevant!) as I was trying to work fast.

      DiCamillo is a great example because Candlewick is a small press, and I’m sure she has brought them so much joy!

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        I understand that Capstone, the publisher of A Many Splendid Thing, is a smaller press, though it is a relative term. However, Capstone recently had a Caldecott Honor with A Different Pond, and its Meet Yasmine made a number of best books of the year lists. As a result, I assume that they are submitting books to award committees. For me, the interesting thing about Capstone is its transition from a press that was focused almost exclusively on series nonfiction to one that now has distinguished fiction and picture books.

  9. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Thanks for the facts, Sara Beth! I knew it wasn’t common that a first book won the Medal, but had no idea it was THAT rare! Honor book numbers would be interesting too. There was about a decade (1993-2004) where we 6 of the first-time winners had won an Honor before getting a Medal, but I don’t think that’s happened since. We did have a first book as an Honor last year: GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN.

  10. Leonard Kim says:

    It’s funny, because my gut feeling was that debut books are actually somewhat favored, but that’s clearly wrong. I did have in mind Honor books like Genesis Begins Again, Wolf Hollow, and Paperboy as well as several books I thought “felt” like debuts, because it was the author’s first Newbery buzzy book, or first middle grade book, but not their actual first book. My gut was probably also colored by the discussions here on Heavy Medal, where it feels subjectively to me that we’re more likely to read and discuss books like ZOE than the latest novels by authors like Creech, Voigt, Avi, Sachar, Choldenko, et al., all of whom are past winners who have written truly enduring classics and still publishing regularly in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. I was actually pleasantly surprised we’ve discussed ON THE HORIZON, because I would’ve included Lowry in that list, and we’ve at least mentioned a couple times Gail Carson Levine and Mildred Taylor. To be fair, I myself don’t plan to read all of the books by the listed authors, but I did read ORPHAN ELEVEN (Choldenko) and WAYSIDE SCHOOL BENEATH THE CLOUD OF DOOM (Sachar) and though I wouldn’t advocate either for the Newbery, I do think they are better than a lot of books we do discuss here, and it is because the writing feels so experienced and assured and flaws I associate with debut-ish books just aren’t there.

  11. I liked the art parts and I think the book would have been much stronger if it had focused on just that and Mr. Vogelman and the cranky lady. They were clearly the most interesting characters. The wide array of other plots diluted it (her hearing/speaking, school project, Anne frank, the new girl, Orion problems *and* home problems).

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