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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Batty, Jane, Skye–and May Amelia

While I was sad to see the absence of Rosalind from most of this book, it certainly changed the family dynamic among the remaining sisters, and especially allowed for Batty to come into her own.  Each sister grew and changed over the course of the story, and the revelation about Jeffrey’s father, if a bit over-the-top, was at least foreshadowed earlier.  Plot and character dovetail with the idyllic summer setting of a Maine coastal village for a pitch-perfect story.  Birdsall has a wonderful way of paying homage to old-fashioned classics of children’s literature, while updating them with a modern sensibility, and her writing is funny and wise.  If the Newbery Medal were given for how much I enjoyed a book, or how I much loved the characters, then this could probably top my list.

Jennifer Holm has the uncanny ability to not only channel the essence of childhood (i.e.  how children talk, feel, and think), but to effortlessly and efficiently paint a historical setting without making it feel like a history lesson.  Indeed, Publishers Weekly said it best: “Anyone interested in learning to write crowd-pleasing historical fiction for elementary school readers would be wise to study Holm’s work. Since Our Only May Amelia, Holm has collected three Newbery Honors, and this sequel demonstrates her mastery of writing a complete, exciting story in a trim novel.”  OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA is my favorite of Holm’s Newbery Honor books and she returns to this wonderful character with a sequel that is shorter than the original (there’s a novel idea–I almost want to give her another Newbery Honor for that alone).  Here, too, I really love the portrayal of the family dynamic, the complications of the plot, and the depiction of Finnish immigrants in turn-of-the-century Washington state.

So, what do you make of THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE and THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA?  And, more importantly, how do they compare with the likes of OKAY FOR NOW, WONDERSTRUCK, and DEAD END IN NORVELT?

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I thought this was the best Penderwicks book yet. I like the Penderwicks; I don’t love them. Even this one still reads to me (though much less so) like high-quality fanfic and pales in comparison to the originals. But, of course, we aren’t comparing Point Mouette to books from the forties and fifties, not for Newbery purposes. Or to the other books in the series. But still, let me say that I thought there were two things in particular this book does better than its sisters: 1, the plot is simpler; the other two felt crowded to me, but this one feels complete and straightforward; the writing and plotting are smooth and clean. 2, by taking her characters to a simple and semi-primitive cabin, Birdsall mostly removed the weirdness of her characters never interacting with modern technology. In this setting, it makes sense.

    The characterization in this book is great–as I read more of the offerings from this year (I always start out the year with my expectations too high), I notice it even more. Several secondary characters are well-sketched without a lot of fuss. (The little neighbor girl Mercedes is a gem; Turron, the aunt, etc.) The setting is good, the style acceptable, but I don’t think either of those is distinguished; and the plotting, while I thought it was better than the first two, still has some holes and eyebrow-raisers.

    I do think it is easy to ignore the Penderwicks because there isn’t anything risky or innovative about this book, and that’s what we’re accustomed to seeing in Newbery discussion. Point Mouette is probably as distinguished as many of the other titles people are discussing; I think there’s less to quibble with. But it would have to be a perfect jewel of a book for me to champion it for the Newbery. Maybe when a book is more risky, it seems like more of an accomplishment… and more of a “contribution to children’s literature”.

    And there some of that with May Amelia, too. I actually find distinction in every aspect of that book. The setting is beautifully described, but done so as part of the story–there aren’t long paragraphs of description. Every character was written with just enough detail to make him/her live on the page; this society feels so real to me. And the plotting is probably the best I’ve read this year. Holm doesn’t make mistakes in her plotting, doesn’t leave loose ends; the guns she hangs on the wall always go off. (I did think too many bad/sad things happened to one family in one year to feel realistic, though.)

    I’m a nurse, and while I always remind myself that none of these books are written with nurses in mind and the effect of verisimilitude is good enough, I still notice the accuracy/truth of medical situations. The brother’s hand accident is pitch-perfect from start to lack-of-finish. I didn’t feel this way about the brother in Okay For Now.

    Overall, I think May Amelia would be a perfectly appropriate Newbery winner or honor. I haven’t said “you need to read this” to anyone because most people I know have already read lots of excellent pioneer-type stories. But “innovative” isn’t a criterion. Much as I might like that.

  2. My take on the third Penderwicks is that it cannot truly stand alone, because of what you mentioned – Rosalind’s absence. The “whole family” feel of the first two books wasn’t really there because of Rosalind’s absence, and that’s what made the first book so special for me. Although I enjoyed this Penderwicks novel just as I enjoyed the first two, I don’t think it will make it that far in the Newbery discussion. Because of the absence of those characters it just doesn’t capture the Penderwickian family essence.

    Although, if we’re going to talk about believable plot, Okay for Now and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette could be close contenders for the honorary award of “Really Pushing It.” I struggled with the believability of the plot surrounding Jeffrey’s parentage.

  3. Nina Lindsay says

    Brianna, I actually felt that what you’re describing DOES make this PENDERWICKS stand alone… that is, you don’t need to have read the others to enjoy it fully in it’s own right. I actually enjoyed this one much more than the first…I feel like Birdsall has dropped some of the baggage she brought in creating characters and mood in the first, and this story now feels to me like her own, rather than homage. I also think the coincidence of the ending was perfectly pitched to the audience, and just enough clues were dropped. If a child reader guesses….they’ll get a kick out it. If a reader doesn’t guess….they’ll still get a kick out of it. Compare this to the coincidences in the Schmidt, where his slightly older audience is of the age of natural skepticism….

    I haven’t read the Holm yet but am so looking forward to it. TURTLE was my favorite personal upset last year….never been so pleased to have been caught out overlooking something.

  4. Hmm … Some of us were championing Turtle all season last year. Some people just weren’t listening!!! Ha!

  5. Elle Librarian says

    I love May Amelia’s development as a character throughout the book. She is continually creating “trouble,” but it is she who saves her family in the end by coming up with the idea for a logging business. I also appreciate how her father reconciles with her in a simple way, saying, “I’m with My Daughter.” If it were anything more than that, it wouldn’t have rang true with me as a reader. At the same time, the ending isn’t too neatly tied up – she’s still as irritating as a grain of sand. She’s stayed true to who she is; she’s just grown up.

  6. I think if there’s an author today writing for children, that people should begin forming a coalition for and fighting for a Newbery MEDAL, it’s Jennifer Holm. Three times she’s honored! Three times! Although I feel every season, her novels are underscored. Sure, now we’re going to pay attention to her because of her track record, but I would like to see MAY AMELIA garner serious consideration here! It’s the only novel I’ve read this year that I feel rivals OKAY FOR NOW.

    I do realize though, when looking at her novels, that maybe they are the types of books that are easy to build a consensus around, just not taken to the next level . . . if that makes any sense.

  7. Elle Librarian says

    Mr. H – Ms. Holm did win a Newbery Medal for Pennies from Heaven.

  8. Elle Librarian says

    Sorry – Penny from Heaven. I’m more than a little tired today!

  9. No she didn’t. She “honored” that year. She should have medaled though!!! Instead THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY prevailed. And who knows why?!?

  10. Unless like me, you’ve blocked that year from your memory and deemed PENNY FROM HEAVEN the winner! Then, kudos!

  11. Elle Librarian says

    Oops – must have been more tired than I thought! I do very much appreciate Ms. Holm’s writing and do think that perhaps, in certain years, her honor-winning book should have prevailed as the medal winner. As beautiful as Ms. Holm’s writing is, I can’t automatically champion her to win every time she comes out with a new book. We have to go into each book measuring it against the Newbery criteria and we also have to judge it against other books of its year. While I enjoyed Turtle in Paradise, I wasn’t championing it to be THE winner last year. With that being said, I do have much love for The Trouble with May Amelia, but haven’t yet ranked it in my mind against other favorites from this year. Is it better than Okay for Now? Jefferson’s Sons? Wonderstruck? Inside Out and Back Again? Perhaps it is better than the rest – but I need more time to hash it out.

  12. I would be thrilled if The Trouble With May Amelia won. I think she winningly and skillfully balanced the darker and tragic parts of the novel with the lighter and “heartwarming” moments. I have to admit that Holm is one of my top favorite authors and I’ve never read anything by her that I don’t adore, so a second and more critical reading is in order for me. Looking forward to reading criticism from those with a more objective eye on this one.

  13. Contrasting these two books is in some ways natural–both sequels to well-loved stories; both strong contenders probably in any year; both with a “classic” feel to them. But Holm and Birdsall have done completely different things: Holm creates her world from May Amelia’s single strong viewpoint, while Birdsall, again, constructs her world by choosing which elements of the story to represent from which of several points of view. May Amelia’s voice is more distinct than any of the Penderwick sisters, but I think that Birdsall’s ability to maintain the subtle differences in the voices of Jane and Skye, for example, is definitely distinguished.

    On another topic (and I know it doesn’t petain to the official discussion) I felt that Holm used plots points in May Amelia that she also used in Penny from Heaven (broken hand/missing hand) and Turtle in Paradise (shyster takes everyone for a ride), and while those elements do fit with the story, and were based on historical events, I guess I just wanted something different.

  14. Jonathan Hunt says

    I disagree that May Amelia’s voice is more distinct that any of the Penderwick sisters. MAY AMELIA is written in first person, while THE PENDERWICKS is written in third person. Hence, none of the sisters have a voice, but rather the narrator has a voice.

  15. I love it when authors use recurring themes in unrelated books. Madeleine L’Engle and Eva Ibbotson (just to name two) did this constantly–exploring and re-exploring themes and incidents that obviously had great personal meaning for them.

  16. Jonathan–I see what you mean. What I was trying to get at is the difference in reading a book with one strong first-person POV versus one with multiple third-person POVs. Sometimes a first person narrator will seem like a stronger character because they get to tell the story, but I wanted to make the case that I think it must be more difficult to create multiple strong characters through 3rd person.

    Wendy–I agree about exploring themes over several books, but these didn’t feel like themes to me, just plot elements. (But I do love all of Eva Ibbotson’s aunts!)

  17. Okay for Now was just as the title suggests, “okay for now” surely there is something out there that is more complete. I love this novel going into it, but was disappointed by the concluding chapters and how characters stepped out of character without anything significant to change them. I would have rather seen father remain himself, a tyrant, then change in this loosely written fashion.
    I loved May Amelia and would like to see Jennifer Holm finally get the medal itself.

  18. Was I the only one who thought that when Jeffrey’s mom almost didn’t let him go to Point Mouette, it was because she knew that his father’s family had a place near there and there might be some sort of encounter? That made it not feel as far-fetched that he found his father…

  19. I am currently rereading Point Mouette because I am reading all the books to my daughter. I have been really struck again by how distinctive the characters are and how they stand out. I also love the way the characters interact within the story and how those distinctive personalities meld and clash. Not all authors can do this but Birdsall has done it and done it well. Both Sky and Batty have major transformations in this story and yet still maintain their distinctive personality traits. They simply grew in them.

    I haven’t read The Trouble with May Amelia and honestly don’t really want to. I’m sorry, it feels almost blasphemous to say this here, but I just don’t get the Jennifer Holm love. It must be a fault in me as I seem to be in the minority, but I was never able to make it through the first third of Our Only may Amelia. I made it all the way through Turtle in Paradise, but it was a struggle and I didn’t enjoy the experience.

  20. Looking at the criteria and comparing Trouble with OfN…

    Plot: The plot of OfN is so problematic (for me, anyway) that May Amelia easily takes this one. I didn’t think it was too much heartbreak for one year, as another commenter pointed out. I just finished reading My Wilder Life, and it reminded me how incredibly dicey the whole pioneer experience really was. Hardship and tragedy were the norm, with many families living right on the edge.

    Voice: May Amelia has a strong voice, very well done, but Doug’s voice in OfN is amazingly perfect. Doug wins this one.

    Setting: I give this one to May Amelia. The setting is clearly evoked without info-dumping, and the story, characters, and setting are completely intertwined, whereas I felt that OfN could have been told (more or less…) in another time and place. (Maybe the brother wouldn’t have been spit on, but otherwise it *could* be modern day, with the PTSD-like aspects from the current war in Iraq, and the library desperately selling its paintings because of budget cuts during the recession.)

    Characters: I give the edge here to May Amelia once again. Doug as a character is incredibly strong, but his voice is also so strong that I never saw the other characters as real people, only as Doug’s perceptions of them. That’s good writing when it comes to Doug’s voice, but weakens the other characters. The brothers change a little too quickly (that or Doug is a little too resentful of them at first, when they’re portrayed as pure evil), the mother is loved but it’s rarely shown why, the teachers and mentors are fairly standard.) Not all of the characters in May Amelia are as well drawn as she is, but I was able to distinguish easily between each of her many brothers, and that was a feat in itself.

    Theme: I’ll give this one to OfN.

    Style: I throw up my hands and declare it a tie. The style of both books was very distinct, and, in my opinion, equally interesting and distinguished.

  21. Jonathan Hunt says

    When I think about OKAY FOR NOW in relationship to both of these books (and other books from this year), I think its setting which is good doesn’t really stand out from the pack the way the voice and character do. Thus, I think OKAY FOR NOW is in the most distinguished category in terms of style and character, the distinguished category for setting and theme, but merely the notable category for plot.

  22. Jonathan Hunt says

    Another thing I really appreciate about both PENDERWICKS and MAY AMELIA are the depictions of large families. Too often, I think families with one or two kids are overrepresented in children’s novels simply because it’s less complicated to write. MAY AMELIA does have all those brothers, but the focus of the book remains more squarely on her (as it should–she being the first person narrator). On the other hand, I also really appreciated the way each sister in THE PENDERWICKS got equal weight–there is no main character here–there are three. Last year, we praised ONE CRAZY SUMMER for the complicated portrayal of the family dynamic, and I think THE PENDERWICKS approaches a similar level of sophistication.

  23. Veddy interesting discussion. Having just finished writing a biography of Jenni Holm for Marshall Cavendish, I can add that her father and mother were both medical professionals and dinner table talk was often nitty-gritty about when they had seen “in the office” that day. (No names, of course) I believe it was one of Jenni’s editors who told me, “She doesn’t have a prissy bone in her body.” (Growing up with four brothers might de-prissify a princess) So I think when violent things happen to the human anatomy in Jenni’s books, she knows how to get it right.

    I think Jeanne Birdsall’s command of her material gets better with every book. I love all the Penderwicks books, but I will that each is a tad unwieldy in its own way. Too much plot in the first book, too many coincidences in this one …

    I think the plotting in Okay for Now is … incredible, in the strictest sense of that word. I also think Doug sounds exactly like Holling Hoodhood! I’m not buying the award for voice.

    Are we voting? On this ballot, I go for May Amelia.


  24. Oh, and not just the anatomy, Sue–anyone can get that right with research or a few questions to a friend in the medical field. What I really meant was the brother’s and family’s emotional response to the accident. Exquisite.

    While I’d agree with pioneer life being difficult/challenging, Alys, I noted that even in real life, all those things didn’t happen to one family in one year (per the author’s note). I thought it strained credulity a little, but maybe more importantly, does it distract from the theme?

  25. Mark Flowers says

    Wendy said: “The brother’s hand accident is pitch-perfect from start to lack-of-finish” Really? I thought that that was by far the worst part of the book – it took him maybe a couple hundred words of text to go from nearly crazy to completely okay with one hand. In fact, I thought that was a huge problem with the book in general – everything happened so quickly. You barely had time to realize something bad had happened before we were on to the next tragedy.

    I’ll agree with those who say May Amelia’s voice is strong (thought I’d contend both Doug in Okay for Now and the narrator of Point Moutte have much more thoroughly delienated voices), but I think that’s the only area I’d say this one was “most distinguished.” The plotting was rushed (as I mentioned above), the characterization (except May) was good-not-great because it was also quite rushed (I haven’t read the first one, and I had substantial difficulty keeping track of the brothers), and the style too inconsistent, see-sawing between tragedy and comedy too easily.

    Sorry to rain on the Jennifer Holm parade, but I just didn’t think much of May Amelia.

  26. I believe that the fathers change of heart in OKAY FOR NOW is believable and falls in line with the powerful impact that a mother’s/wife’s unflinching and unconditional love can have on her husband and family. The mother stands up for her children while at the same time standing with strength behind her man. She is the hero of this book—- and the father and family changes because of her. And there are still issues to be resolved in this family. I do not believe the ending is cleaned up as neatly as some have suggested.
    OFN is not a perfect book……but, having read all the Newbery winners, only one or two even come close to perfection and most have flaws.
    Okay for now is still at the top of my list, though very narrowly ahead of JEFFERSON’S SONS and SPARROW ROAD.

    On the other hand if WONDERSTRUCK was under Newbery consideration then Mr.Schmidt’s gold may tun to silver.
    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.


  27. Yes, Mark. I’m going to bring out my credentials–I work regularly with amputees and people with other disfiguring injuries. (Not that it isn’t possible another plastics nurse would disagree…) Holm only HAD a few words to sketch the brother’s accident, since that isn’t the focus of the book; I think she uses them well and I never felt that she was saying everything happened as quickly in life as it does on the page.

  28. I’m a Penderwicks fan. I’d love to see a book like that win the Newbery. Sometimes it feels like Newberys (at least in recent years) tend toward problem novels or lost/abandoned child seeks out absent parent. What makes this same plot line so different in the Penderwicks is that Jeffrey isn’t really seeking and it sort of happens by accident and that is not the central point of the book. I like that it’s not all happy happy joy joy–feels sort of authentic– and yet, still, Birdsall doesn’t give us a depressing book. Each character is so essential and so well developed. I think the book can stand alone–your appreciation is richer for having read the others, but it’s not essential.

    I love how Birdsall can describe something like Hoover and let all of us who’ve ever known a Boston Terrier recognize the type of dog immediately–but those who haven’t don’t need to even know that he’s that kind of dog. She tells you just enough to enjoy the story and doesn’t bother the reader with details he or she won’t really care about. That’s why this book can stand alone.

  29. Betsy, will you expand on what you mean when you say you’d like to see “a book like that” win the Newbery? Granted, dead/missing parents are a prevalent theme in Newbery winners–just as they are in children’s literature as a whole, and fairy tales, and adult literature. Missing parents free up the characters and give them quests to go on. (The Penderwicks, of course, are missing their mother, and that has a large role in shaping these characters and sometimes their plots.) If you look at the list of Newbery winners, including the most recent winners, I think that you’ll see a lot of them are fairly serious, but I don’t see that much in the way of “problem novels”.

    Are you interested in a novel that’s shorter, aimed at younger kids, less serious in theme?…

  30. I agree with Betsy. It would be nice to have a Newbery winner that is not a “problem novel”, something that feels wholesome. Penderwicks seem refreshingly innocent in most ways. Yes, Wendy, their mom died, but now they have a nice stepmother and young stepbrother. It seems realistic and modern without having to be edgy. The kiss was handled so innocently. The kids can still play unsupervised, not need constant playdates and activities, or be connected digitally. It’s like a breath of fresh air to today’s accepted norms. I see this secondhand as an elementary school librarian with my students. I’m blown away with just how much structure they seem to need and how many kids have not just their own phones, but smartphones. (I have a phone that barely texts.) I also hate the fact that some of my 3rd grade girls are reading their mom’s copy of Twilight. Can’t we let kids be kids anymore? We had school pictures yesterday and there were multiple second grade girls with eye makeup. At least one with mascara. With a parent note saying it’s picture day, so it’s okay. Funny thing is, at least in my part of Vermont, there’s tons of adults who don’t bother with makeup for themselves…Just to be clear, I loved Hunger Games so edge is okay. Just not for my young charges. On to another day!

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