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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Show Me a…Newbery Medal? A unique #ownvoices historical novel might have a chance to win

After finishing most of the Newbery contenders on this list, SHOW ME A SIGN quickly stood out as a top contender and clear front runner. This historical fiction novel offers a beautiful #ownvoice examination of the Deaf community, discussion over the controversy of Native American land disputes, and a touching picture of a young girl finding her place in the world.

Deaf librarian Ann Clare LeZotte does an amazing job of portraying Mary, a young Deaf girl living in Chilmark (Martha’s Vineyard area) in the 1800s. The area is unique in that it is settlers are overwhelmingly Deaf and most of the residents communicate in sign language. The author’s note at the back of the book indicates that this area had approximately one in twenty-five residents who were born deaf.

Mary’s character development is clearly shown through her acceptance of her brother’s death. She feels responsible and must come to terms with the accident that caused his death. The book clearly shows her growth as she learns to forgive herself and let go of the guilt that she has been carrying around with her.

After a scientist studying the island kidnaps Mary, she is thrust into a much larger world. This opens her eyes beyond her sheltered life. This is another example where LeZotte does a fantastic job with the character development of Mary. She is down and broken. She loses her only source of communication and feels completely isolated and even starts to question her entire life. She begins to wonder about her island and the people living on it. Wondering if she is, in fact, a lower being for being deaf and mute. When she finally returns to the island, she appreciates all that she has. She becomes hopeful for the future.

Another important aspect of the book dealt with the treatment of the Wampanoag. The tribe of the Wampanoag people lived on Martha’s Vineyard for “at least ten thousand years” according to the author’s notes at the end of the book. The book discusses the prejudice against the Wampanoag – she mentions she envies their comfortable moccasins and deerskins, but her mother forbids wearing such clothing. There are disputes about the land and who it belongs to, with Mary feeling torn about what the right answer truly is. She tends to side with the Wampanoag. She says that Reverend Lee told them about Wampanoag men who were captured and sold as slaves in Spain. She says she “feel[s] less impressed by our forefathers, even as I cherish our island” (pg. 105).

There are other instances of prejudices and racism. Thomas works on Mary’s land. He is a freedman, or former slave. Mary says that her mother is nice to him, but he is not allowed inside their home. Thomas, in addition to many freedmen, often become part of the Wampanoag tribe. Thomas married a Wampanoag woman named Sally and they have a daughter. There are even instances of prejudice amongst different settlers. She says in the town the Irish are “inferior to the English but superior to the freedmen.”

In addition to all of the engaging discussion and subject matter, the writing itself is excellent. LeZotte does a great job of creating a tight plot line with realistic dialogue and beautiful imagery. The dialogue of the “signing” of the conversations was perfect. Even though my sign language knowledge is limited to the alphabet and basic signs, and the book is clearly written in sign language that isn’t even ASL, I could still find myself picturing a full conversation between the characters with beautiful flowing movements and signs.

The descriptions of Mary’s time in captivity were especially powerful. The language used to describe her feelings of helplessness was heart wrenching. LeZotte described the feelings of isolation and desperation with perfection. The simple, “He took my voice when he tied my hands” packed such a punch in a seemingly simple sentence (pg. 151).

SHOW ME A SIGN deserves all of the high praise it has already received and should certainly be a top contender for the Newbery award this year. The book was a delightful, yet powerful, #ownvoices look at the Deaf community that encourages rich discussion on important topics and issues.  

Alissa Tudor currently works in a public library as a Youth Services Librarian. She lives in Texas with her husband, two daughters, and a dog she loves like a son.

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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. Julie Corsaro says:

    I agree with, Alissa, that this first-person novel excels when it comes to writing style. LeZotte’s expression of gestured Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language in written English is a marvel, both on its own and in relationship with the spoken word:

    “I’m sorry about your brother,” [Thomas] signs back. “The loss of loved one is the hardest thing to bear.”
    He closes his fist on top of his heart, to demonstrate the pain I feel daily.

    The clipped cadence, strong sensory imagery, and lively similes make for a rich reading experience (“I go downstairs, yawning like a lion”). In addition, the dialogue evokes the early nineteenth-century, without being weighed down by it. There are even touches of kid-appealing humor, as when brother and sister examine owl pellets. ” When [George] made the sign for ‘vomit,’ I pulled my hand away. ‘Vile,’ I signed.”

  2. I learned so much from this book and appreciate the author’s portrayal of a little-known place and time in history. How wonderful that this community really existed! It gives hope to all disabled individuals. We all long to be treated equally, and unfortunately, that does not always happen. It’s refreshing to find a book where the disability is not the entire focus of the story. These characters simply coexist, speaking and signing interchangeably, and they are a family. I love how authentic the setting is and the way the author illustrates how evil influence can seek to poison an entire place. Thankfully, this story offers hope that the evil intentions of one individual can be thwarted by united resistance. We sorely need this message right now.

    I read this book super early in the year and need to read it again, but I do remember loving the way LaZott effortlessly blended spoken and signed dialogue. We need more disabled representation in literature, and this is truly a well-written and strong contribution.
    I did feel that the scientist character was one-dimensional, but he did fulfill his role in the story. His attitude of superiority and use of the deaf protagonist as a mere specimen was truly terrifying.
    One of my favorite scenes is in the church service where the man signs for the pastor’s sermon about Noah. LaZott has a gift for bringing vivid scenes to life.

    I do not know if I would nominate this title for a Newbery, but I cannot adequately explain why. I do think the book will win the Schneider Family Book Award.

  3. Julie Corsaro says:

    I appreciate much of what you said, Meredith, particularly that the ironically named Andrew Noble is a one-dimensional, Snidely Whiplash type character. It also begs for me the question of the story’s two part structure. Given the stark differences in tone between life on the island and in Boston, the book almost reads like two different stories to me. That said, LeZotte does foreshadow the conflict between Mary and Andrew early on when he turns away from the deaf diners at her house. “That is considered rude in our society.” Of course, what happens to Mary in Boston is a lot worse than poor manners.

  4. ESE Librarian Bob says:

    Thanks for the blog, Alissa. I’ve been an ESE librarian and teacher for decades. I’ll use words from Kathy MacMillan’s review to express how I feel: “As an ASL interpreter, librarian, and book reviewer, I have reviewed A LOT of books about ASL and Deaf Culture over the years. There have been a lot of “well, at least now there’s a book on the topic….better than nothing, I guess.” So to have this book to recommend, that’s THIS good, AND by a Deaf author…this is a very good day. :)” If the author feels depressed that her book released in 2020, it’s actually perfect timing. My Deaf students who were sent home to predominantly hearing families who don’t sign needed this now.

    I keep finding more layers in this book. The scene where Mary, Nancy and Sally are spying while precariously balanced in the tree (a student favorite) also demonstrates the shaky relationship between the three girls of different backgrounds and beliefs. LeZotte juggles the actions and emotions masterfully without dropping any of the balls. I let out a deep breath at the end of the chapter. Likewise, when Mary and Ezra Brewer are on their daring sea voyage, he shares a story of local lore about privateers. That’s carefully overlapped.

    The Meeting House scene shows there’s nothing new under the sun and the dinner table conversation is brutally revealing at every turn. As a biracial man, I can totally relate with being a pinned butterfly at what’s meant to be a polite gathering. Maybe there’s a pre-echo of eugenics? Deaf education and ASL are just around the corner in 1805–and other things too.

    Foreshadowing about the second half of the story comes on page 30 when Mary wonders: “What would it be like if the world were suddenly turned around, and everyone spoke but didn’t sign?” About this so-called story flip in the middle which seems disconnected to some, I hope readers will consider what it’s like for Deaf kids who navigate what they call Deaf and hearing “worlds.” This isn’t simply a disability population, but a cultural and linguistic minority who’ve had their own college since the time of Lincoln.

    A few more points. I’d direct anyone to Martha Parravano’s Horn Book review. Andrew Noble is seen suspiciously by Mary from the first while others like her mother and Reverend are taken in. If he’s written one dimensional and cartoony perhaps it’s because Deaf kids need to vanquish a bad guy. I accept this as a weakness in the book. The hard truth is that he and Dr. Minot could not honestly represent the ideas and treatment of deaf children at the time. It would be too horrible.

    Mary completely lacks the sentimentality that’s laid on thick with so many other disabled MG protagonists but is uncommon in real life. She’s glad Ezra Brewer doesn’t see her cry and her common sense attitude is appealing: “What notions they have about our deafness! I face him [Minot] and point to my ears to indicate *that* is my only peculiarly.”

    I can’t wait to read more books from this author who doesn’t “come to English from the same direction” as most, but interprets signs on to the page. And who has won respect from BIPOC for not hiding from her “ancestors’ misdeeds.” My school is cheering for at least a Newbery Honor.

  5. Susan Northsea says:

    Thanks for two terrific blogs, really, from Alissa and Bob. Appreciate insights and criticisms from Julie and Meredith. I also read this book early in the year (would reread if Scholastic finds a clever way to do an audiobook). I didn’t know what to expect, but I found it touching and fascinating. I’ve since read people say they saw it as two books and preferred the beginning or the end, which is their prerogative. I don’t recall feeling that way. Drinking wine and watching MSNBC for days, I don’t mind that the bigoted idiot doesn’t have more dimensions. His following them in his boat seems like crazy spite which makes sense at the moment.

    I hope Meredith is prophetic about the Schneider Family Book Award. Wonderful that ESE kids are cheering it on for a Newbery Honor. And here I’m going to digress… I can see a number of innovative, fresh voices, like Lezotte, Nayeri, Cisneros, Jenn Reese and others. But I view them all as Honor books. The Medal has to have wide cross appeal. It’ll be THE ONE; the book all kids are reading next year. Is it really Callender’s KING OF THE DRAGONFLIES? I don’t feel it. Not because of content; my grandson is bisexual. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe the committee will change the sort of formula from the past five years and throw up a pack of wild cards. Apologies if I went off topic.

  6. Julie Corsaro says:

    I am wondering what you think the formula has been in recent years, Susan. Current committee members should not refer to past winners; they weren’t in the room when a previous committee made its decision nor do they know what the committee was thinking. Instead, committee members should rely on their interpretation of the terms, definitions and criteria, including the expanded definitions in the award manual. Newbery chairs usually lead a discussion of these elements with members during the first committee meeting, which can be attended by anyone who is registered for the related conference. After that, the proceedings are closed and confidential.

    The committee has to “keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children” and ” is not for didactic content or popularity,” a real balancing act. Add to the mix the diversity statement in the manual, which states, “Committee members are strongly encouraged to be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.” It’s a tall order.

    Regarding LGBTQ literature, in particular: there simply haven’t been that many children’s books to consider until very recently. Steven had a related post earlier in the fall.

  7. Susan Northsea says:

    Hello Julie, I’ve sobered up and I appreciate the points you make. Formula was the wrong word. I should have said trend. I’m an old schoolteacher–trends do exist, whether intentional or not. Based on current tastes, what’s being published, etc. I observe the recent one to be realistic fiction with marginalized protagonists and diverse cultures, centered around conflicts at home and school. Even with serious issues addressed there is a somewhat light tone. I admire them, but I often find myself drawn to the Honor books–they’re a bit more off the beaten path.

    There’s a lot we haven’t seen yet–like BIPOC and other marginalized genre fiction. For example, an rare Deaf historical, to bring the conversation back to the subject of this blog. I hate digressing when there’s more to say about SHOW ME A SIGN. The scene where Mary finally has an opportunity to write for help and the wretched hostel owner throws her note in the fire is heartbreaking. I congratulate the author on making Cicely Lewis’ “Read Woke” list.

    I believe the new queer books are so important .But I know there’s always been LGBTQIAP+ content in children’s literature that doesn’t make it explicit. Take this book. A young person can read whatever they want or need into Mary and Nancy’s relationship. They’re said to be “unusual girls” and there aren’t many boys around!

    I wouldn’t mind at all if the committee threw up a pack of wild cards. I wish they would.. But history has shown that daring divergence, whether Medieval dialogues or the word “scrotum,” often receives a backlash. (I respect award committees and I’m not implying they chose based on possible objections.)

    There are many terrific books this year, I think it will be a strong Newbery crop.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      Thanks Susan. I appreciate your identification of patterns (and I’ve no problem when wine is called for!). As Steven says, the chair (who sets the tone) should lead a committee discussion on how to deal with backlash, as well as people who want you to give them the skinny, even when they agree with your choices! Social media has certainly intensified all of this. For its part, the committee will have to go back and forth between the criteria and the books as they apply the former to the latter during its discussions.

      On a positive note and like a number of strong novels this year (THE LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE comes charging to mind), the body of the narrative in SHOW ME A SIGN moves smoothly between past and present, a technique that brings George to life but also reveals his death: “We should not have been playing in the high road.”

      So, yes, let’s raise a glass to a strong line-up!

  8. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Susan mentions the “backlash” that can come after a Newbery announcement, and that certainly happens. That’s also something that would likely addressed by the Chair and the Committee early on. Talking about past winners (and non-winners that people thought should have won), how to deal with “buzz,” and always, throughout the year, reminders to apply the Newbery Criteria. I can’t speak for others, but for me it always seemed like as the year progressed with nominations, a narrower list of titles, and finally the actual in-person discussions, the focus narrows more and more towards the books themselves, just the words on that page, and the other external stuff sort of fades into the background.

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