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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Is Ryan Hart a Ramona Quimby for the 2020’s? WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE enters the Mock Newbery discussion

Portland 4th grader Ryan Hart navigates family, friends, and school with irrepressible spirit in Renee Watson’s middle grade novel. Guest blogger Abbie Digel introduces WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE:

It’s easy to read over the basic terms for the Newbery and dive into the detailed criteria for the award. It’s fun to get into the nitty gritty. But WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE got me thinking about that very first sentence, the one that says “the medal shall be awarded to the most distinguished contribution to American literature.” I can’t think of anything more important for all young readers in America today than to give them stories that include diverse perspectives and children of color going about their daily lives, facing universal problems experienced by every child in America. Renee Watson has written a warm, approachable book starring a black protagonist that delves into some tough stuff while also gracing us with poignant and authentic themes. She shares wonderful small moments that are significant for protagonist Ryan Hart and also provide both windows and mirrors for young readers.

While I don’t feel as though Watson has presented us with a storyline or plot that is anything particularly new, it’s Ryan Hart and her bond with her family, friends, school, and city that I fell in love with. The publisher’s description and the many reviews of the book were accurate in their comparison to Beverly Cleary’s RAMONA books. I also immediately thought of FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON when we learn that Ryan loves to cook. But what makes WAYS truly stand out is how Watson gently and thoughtfully weaves Ryan’s struggles with identity, race, and class differences among her friends throughout the arc of Ryan’s 4th grade year. 

The strongest example of this for me was when Ryan’s Grandmother spends hours one Saturday straightening Ryan’s hair in preparation for her big Easter speech. All week following the Easter service and a heartwarming gathering at Ryan’s family’s new and smaller rental home, Ryan tries her best to keep her hair out of the Portland rain and ties it up when she showers. When she attends a pool party at her best friend’s house, which is “wider and taller and everything looks better than what I have at my house,” she wonders if she “will be the only brown girl” and if the other girls “will think I am weird for not getting in the pool.” (p 79)  I could feel the tension during this chapter as Ryan sat on the edge of the pool, watching the other girls play games until she finally jumped in to prove her loyalty to the birthday girl, at the expense of ruining her straight, silky hair. It’s a beautiful moment, where we really get a sense of the confident and sunny character Ryan is. 

Ryan is constantly grappling with the meaning of her name, a point her parents stress to her almost daily. How can she be a “king” or a “leader” when she’s teased for the choices she must make, choices that some of her friends don’t have empathy for or don’t understand? The pool party chapter ends with Ryan coming to terms with the way her natural hair looks:

I don’t know what kind of trouble I’ll be in when Mom finds out what happened and I feel bad that Grandma wasted her time… I walk out of the bathroom with my best friend and my natural hair and I try to be the beautiful person Grandma says I am. (p 89) 

I cannot talk about this book without also mentioning how Watson writes with a strong sense of nostalgia and setting; while never having been to Portland myself, I could smell the smells of fried dough at the Saturday Marketplace, feel the insistent rain on my skin, sense the excitement for Rose Festival Month. Watson’s detailed descriptions of Portland helps ground Ryan and gives her a strong sense of place, both within her family and the world that surrounds her. 

Through Ryan Hart, Watson has created a world for young readers that feels both fresh and familiar. Whether it’s learning that failure is okay sometimes, living up to your parent’s expectations, or being true to your identity, Watson’s writing is on target with the Newbery criteria of “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.”  While this book probably won’t appeal to older readers, I am confident that we can all see parts of ourselves in Ryan as she navigates through her world. 

Abbie Digel is the Lower School Librarian at an independent school in Denver, CO. When she is not reading or adding books to her TBR list, she is hiking, skiing, or camping with her partner and dog. Abbie graduated with MLIS in School Media from the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Previously, she worked as a publicist for two independent book publishers in Chicago. You can follow what she’s reading on Instagram @ms_d_reads. 

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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. Thank you for this post about a book which deserves a wide readership. It’s more difficult to comment about a possible Newbery for this book, because it doesn’t have many flaws. The subjective question is whether it achieves an unusual level of distinction. Even though it isn’t relevant for purposes of the award, to compare it to previous books, I found Watson’s SOME PLACES MORE THAN OTHERS to be much more distinctive and sophisticated as a novel. But that book seemed to be aimed at an older readership than this one, which is more of a transition between chapter books and middle grade. I liked it very much. I agree that the specific descriptions of Portland are a strength. (In SOME PLACES MORE THAN OTHERS, the NYC location was not only vivid, but formed a core element of the plot.) The characters were appealing and credible, but perhaps not so clearly delineated as people. Similarly, the writing style was certainly suited to the characters and their situation, but it’s difficult to point to a clear distinction between this books and others with a similar focus. I find the Ramona comparisons to be somewhat superficial, and also a little unfair. How many authors are like Beverly Cleary? When I look at the Ramona books, part of what makes them classics is the way in which Cleary succeeds in creating a character who is both universal and unique. Every one of Ramona’s family conflicts, near-disasters, or triumphs comes through with specific impact. Only Ramona, or Beezus, or their parents, would speak and act in exactly that way, but at the same time readers identify with their problems and their family dynamic. The way that Cleary allows her characters to speak is completely unaffected and totally consistent with each one’s personality, age, and life situation. I am sure that, for other readers, Watson has achieved the same level of literary distinction in this lovely book. For me, WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE doesn’t reach that level, but nor does it suffer from significant flaws of inauthenticity.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      I heard a tidbit of this read aloud the other day, the part where Ryan’s classmate tells her she has a boy’s name. The dialogue could not have sounder more convincing.

  2. Julie, yes, I can see that. Do you think that the book, as a whole, is distinctive enough to win the Newbery? As I wrote, it’s not that the dialogue or descriptions seem awkward or unconvincing. It’s a good book! I think that it is particularly challenging for middle grade books aimed at younger readers to stand out. Challenging, but not impossible. The format demands greater simplicity than books for the older range of readers. That doesn’t mean they can’t be great books, just that accessibility for younger children makes it harder, perhaps especially on the level of style, to stand out.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      Good question, Emily (and I meant “sounded” in the post above). My answer is that I’m not sure. I read this a while ago and gave it away to a family with young children in my neighborhood (sadly, I didn’t take notes). They loved it, but, I digress, I know. I appreciate you saying that it is hard for this kind of early chapter book to compete with books for older, even slightly older, readers. I mentioned earlier in this HM season that my children’s literature professor said that it was much harder for a book for younger readers to be distinguished than for older readers because of limitations in the audience’s understandings, interests, abilities and so on. While that was almost forty years ago (!!!), it is something that has always stuck with me. On the other hand, it can be hard to achieve the kind of artful simplicity the best books in this transitional genre require. I think Ryan as Black Ramona is, in part, a marketing device, although the book is set in Portland, is episodic in structure, revolves around family and friendship, and has a primary grade protagonist. So, there are similarities. In addition, Ryan’s father’s work situation couldn’t help but make me think of Ramona and Her Father. I also found a certain appealing frankness in him saying that he wouldn’t want to live in Lake Oswego, like Ryan’s friend, because there are too many white people there, racial messaging we don’t often see in a transitional chapter book. Furthermore, a children’s literature friend did say that Ramona is “naughtier” than Ryan. I think I hear what you are saying about the book not having any discernible issues, which doesn’t necessarily make it distinguished. Nothing is perfect, but there may be books, like many we’ve been discussing here, that are more ambitious, more distinctive, even with a flaw or two, sometimes even big ones, that rise to the head of the class. It really is a balancing act as the committee has to compare books that can differ, sometimes quite dramatically, in writing style, genre, subject matter, audience and so on. The committee is also a fellowship. Its composition makes a huge difference, as does the leadership provided by the chair (you know Steven was a great one, right?). WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE has been hovering in my eighth spot, largely because of genre, battling it out with LEAVING LYMON. I would certainly re-read it if I were on the actual committee to see how it fares on the artful simplicity scale. I’m sorry not to be definitive. I also appreciate you indulging my thinking out loud.

  3. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Three sections from the Newbery Criteria come to mind with a book like this (and also something like SKUNK AND BADGER or OUR FRIEND HEDGEHOG): “consider excellence of presentation for a child audience” + “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations” + “books for [the] entire age range are to be considered.” I feel like these direct us to adjust our expectations of what excellence in style, or any other literary element, looks like, based on the understandings of the children for whom the book is written. If Watson’s language were more eloquent or her plot points more dramatic, she could miss the mark on connecting with the readers she’s targeting most.

    The pool scene that Abbie described is a great example of how an author can explore subtle, complex issues at a level that’s just right for readers. It works in part because readers have come to know Ryan by then as an engaging, believable, unique character, so we experience her concerns and decisions right along with her. That scene isn’t as explosive as key moments from FIGHTING WORDS or KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES [which just won the National Book Award!] or other books for older readers. But in terms of “interpretation of a theme or concept,” you could argue that this is a truly distinguished example for the intended audience of this book.

  4. I guess in the end it’s subjective. The language definitely has to suit the intended audience, but it still has to stand out as excellent. I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that language, or plot situations, have to be explosive or profound. There is absolutely a place for “smaller” stories where characters undergo growth within quieter or more broadly shared situations. MERCI SUAREZ CHANGES GEARS is an example, to me, of such a book. I liked WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE very much; I’m just not sure that Watson’s novel succeeds at that level. Language can be very unadorned and honest but still unusual in its power, poetry, or effectiveness.

  5. Abbie Digel says:

    Thank you all for your responses! I spent a long time thinking about the comparison to Ramona. I appreciate your comments elaborating on this for me. I realize it is a marketing tactic (that I’ve used before when I worked in publishing) to pique interest in a book, but there is just so much that differentiates Ryan Hart. They both have legs to stand on, and it’s exciting there are more books targeted for this age group that we can recommend for students.

  6. Yes, it is a marketing tactic; publicists have to be creative and I can certainly understand the appeal of this comparison. It has nothing to do with the book itself. The only significance, for me, was that it prompted me to think about what makes an outstanding middle-grade book, particularly for younger readers.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Well put, Abbie and Emily. I Ramona reference in the title of this post, but really meant it as a measure of excellence rather than a direct comparison to WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE. Different, I think, then the PRAIRIE LOTUS/LITTLE HOUSE thing, where there is a direct relationship between the two. In both cases, though, the two books from this year stand on their own and can be fully evaluated without bringing in Cleary or Wilder…

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