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Jefferson’s Sons, Part 2

I know the comments are going strong at Jefferson’s Sons, Part 1 while I type, but I’m going to attempt to flesh out my concerns with the characterization in this story, since this is what in particular gives me the most pause with it in a Newbery discussion.

Looking through passages I’d marked that seemed “off,” the characters through which Bradley tries to tell her story seem truly too naive of their situation to be believable. Her characters ask questions that her readers might ask, and the character of Sally, Uncle John, or the adult Beverly answers them as the author might. This is a telling-rather-than-showing narrative. I don’t believe these characters are true. Some of you in comments have said that you don’t have a problem with the naiveté because it rings true to you for children of that age. But while in a general fiction we only have to be convinced that a character could exist, in an historical fiction based on real people we have to be convinced that this is how these people did exist.

p.11 Beverly smiled. He touched the side of Master Jefferson’s face. “Your eyes are gray,” he said. “Just like my baby brother’s. Maddy has eyes just like yours.”

Would Beverly never earlier have been cautioned not to touch Master Jefferson, or make family comparisons?

p.22 “Won’t he marry you?” asked Beverly. “He can’t,” Mama said, after a second silence. “Why not?” Mama sighed again. “A black person can’t marry a white person. A slave can’t marry at all.” This was news to Beverly. “Are you a slave, Mama?” “Yes.” “Am I?” “We’ll talk about that later.”

The fact that all this is news to him at age seven is hard to believe, but the way the conversation unrolls is also very unlikely. Wouldn’t Beverly by this age have picked up on SOME signals that his mother’s affair with Jefferson is “different”? That black and white people do not marry?

p.52-3 “I forget how much you people like your sweet potatoes.” That comment stuck in Beverly’s head. He couldn’t puzzle it out. He couldn’t imagine anyone not liking a sweet potato. “Which people was she talking about?” he asked Mama at night. “Enslaved people,” Mama said. “That’s what she meant. Don’t worry about it.” “But I’m the same people she is,” Beverly said. “I’m her brother.” Mama sighed and rubbed her hand through his hair. “Don’t say that,” she said. “It’s true,” Beverly said. “A lot of things are true,” said mama, “but that doesn’t mean we say them out loud.”

She’s never told him before not to say these things out loud? He’s never heard of himself referred to as a slave or “you people”? Did he learn nothing on p.22?

p.87 “I know you need a job,” Mama was saying. “More than that, you need a trade. A way to earn a respectable living, once you’re free and on your own. It’s time we started thinking about it. What do you like to do?” Beverly blinked. He’d never thought about what he wanted to do…. “What do you like?” Mama persisted. “What feels good under your hands?”

They’ve never thought or talked about what trade he’ll learn before age 10? He’s never thought about it? And his choice in the matter is paramount? I don’t believe any of it. Isn’t Sally’s whole situation predicated on her son’s success in the white world? Wouldn’t she have been thinking about this all along?

p.188 “Maddy never paid much attention to give-out time. He didn’t care what he wore.”

I have a hard time believing that he didn’t care what he wore. In a place where everything depended on status, wouldn’t everyone?

When we switch to Maddy, Bradley tries to make him out as a more skeptical and angry character, yet I find his voice the same, and have a hard time remembering whose POV we’re in. For instance, he expresses the same kind of naïveté when James is sold:

p.222 “I thought he liked Miss Edith and Joe Fossett. I thought he’d be fair to people he liked.”

… And a few pages later repeats himself: p.227 “I thought Master Jefferson cared about Miss Edith and Joe,” he said….”I thought he wouldn’t sell people he liked, not if they worked hard.”

And much later, Peter, who really should have a different perspective, seems to have the exact same problem, though clearly as the child of a slave he should understand this better:

p.331-2 “If we have to, we can sell some of the extra Negroes.” Peter frowned. He must have misheard. Negroes meant black people. Surely Miss Martha hadn’t said that. Extra people? Who did she think was extra? She could sell some extra furniture…”

I felt that Sally’s motivations and position were never made clear to the reader. She came off, frankly, as either a little dense, or shallow, or both, the way that she prepared (or didn’t prepare) Beverly for his situation. On p. 48 she says that she’s so much happier here than in France because now she’s had all her beautiful children, which is something a mother today might say to her child, but an enslaved mother who passed up her own freedom in exchange for that of her children? Wouldn’t she have a slightly different take? And on p.263, when she’s cautioning Harriet not to stand for a man hitting her, she says:

p.263 “If a man ever hits you, even once, I want you to leave his house! That instant! You come back here if you have to, you hear me!”

This is completely out of place with what the reader’s been given to understand about the danger of Beverly and Harriet’s return to Monticello. Would Sally really advise her daughter to risk her ultimate freedom in order to escape a physically abusive man?

Rereading comments on the last post, I see adults readers who are willing to accept this naivete as expressed in the text on the assumption that Sally was sheltering her children. But is Sally’s motivation ever made clear in a convincing way? Is it convincing that Beverly would really be this naive at age seven, have never picked up on clues? Is this, overall, a convincing depiction of what it might have REALLY been like to be these real people? To be convincing, it must be in the text–not in what we want the story to be, and not in what the author tells us she intended. I do not see it, and I believe that the lack of effective characterization undermines the effectiveness of the “interpretation of theme or concept” for a child audience.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Nina I agree completely with your analysis. The book , in some parts, felt more like propaganda than historical fiction.

  2. There’s plenty here that I agree with or can see your point on, but as usual, I’m sort of bemused… I mean, I look forward to reading similar analyses regarding, say, Sir Gawain the True.

  3. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I’m not quite following your bemusement. We’ll certainly get to Sir Gawain, though that is of course a book with a very different intention and toolkit. If you want to start the comparison, that’d be great. Or take issue with my points here, which are pretty much in direct opposition to yours?

  4. Actually, they aren’t. As I said, I agree with some of your points. I think we really see the same things in the book, for the most part; you just didn’t have the feeling I did of it not mattering much in the end, of a high that might make up for the lows. I don’t think there’s really much one can argue there, and at any rate I feel like I’ve said my piece on the book. I do want to add that–I suspect we all do this–my focus has been on the positive things about the book because other people are saying plenty about the negatives. I might speak very differently about the same book in a crowd of people who are praising the book.

    Anyway, I confess that I didn’t finish my thoughts because I wanted to think about it more. It often seems that the books you and Jonathan are unenthusiastic about get put through the wringer much more thoroughly (I think someone brings this up every year). We probably have the best discussions when you and Jonathan diametrically disagree, because then we really get balance. The discussions about Jonathan’s When You Reach Me thoughts got pretty heated and he said any number of things that I disagreed with vehemently, but thinking back, now it seems refreshing. Of course, in a way this is natural–what person isn’t going to praise the books they like and criticize the books they like less?–but more balance on a blog like this one would be welcome, at least from me. Even if it means having my favorites ripped to shreds, as long as I feel like the people discussing really know the book, as above.

    Peter Sieruta brought up on his blog last year that we never really got a full critiquing of Moon Over Manifest last year. There was a post about it at the beginning of this year (the slight reformatting on the right side of the blog makes this difficult to find easily), but reading the last two posts about Jefferson’s Sons, I wish we had such an in-depth critique of Moon Over Manifest from before it won the Newbery; I have a feeling you both might have had a lot to say.

    As for why I brought up Sir Gawain: I think there are some similarities one could draw about intention, and I thought it suffered from the same faults, but of course manifested differently. (Basically, while I was reading it I felt MESSAGE, MESSAGE, MESSAGE.) You probably try to do this already, but I hope this year you’ll work even harder to comment on any possible faults, lacks, or questionable points in the shortlisted books.

    Now my next project, the next time I have several hours of free time, ought to be to look back through the last few years and see how very wrong I am about my impression of a less-critical attitude toward the shortlisted books…

  5. My impression was that there were a number of fans of JEFFERSON’S SONS who were very eager for it to be discussed here. And so Nina and Jonathan responded by reading the book and giving their separate opinions (that turned out to be similar, but you know that is not always the case with them — I think, whatever you feel about their posts — they are pretty darn honest and trustworthy and not necessarily in agreement often). That they did not end up feeling the way those who urged them to read the book felt….well, that can happen:)

    I’m actually appreciating these posts and comments tremendously because before this discussion started I had only seen rave reviews and I wondered if I was alone in my different opinion about the book. It is a relief to know there are others feelings as I do.

    I do hope we can continue to debate this book without too much tension, but that can be hard when folks are in such extremely different positions and the topic is such an emotional and complex one. Still I think it is great to try.

  6. It is just a book and even with my very young students we practice disagreeing before going out to play together at recess. I see Nina’s and Jonathan’s (and your) points about this book. I understand that there is much that you all admire about this book, but that there are elements that you all agree impede the character development or get in the way of the story or are not in agreement with the historical period. That’s fine. As with Wendy, I don’t think they are as important as the other elements in this book. The degree of difficulty with this book is at the top of the books published this year. Sometimes I think that books that risk much and fail in some areas are more distinguished than those that make safer choices. The author has different narrators, a large sweep of time, a significant topic, a distinctly different take on history, … When I finished this book, I felt like I know something more and something new about Jefferson, about Sadie, about the sons, and about this history. I felt like I had a refined way to think about not only these three black people (and about slaves in general). The book diversified the topic of slavery in a way that I haven’t read before. I think this achievement is a significant contribution to children’s literature and maybe, after reading your comments, I can be talked out of it as a winner, but I am not convinced that there is no place at the table for Jefferson’s Sons. Sorry, first graders are beckoning!

  7. I agree in general about how naive the characters appear to be, and the many times when I felt that they should have had a better finger on the pulse of their environment. I haven’t quite decided whether that’s entirely a game-changer for me in terms of whether I will champion the book in general, though I generally don’t predict it to win the Newbery.

    However, I did want to argue with one criticism that I think has been made in a few places, including here: “On p. 48 she says that she’s so much happier here than in France because now she’s had all her beautiful children, which is something a mother today might say to her child, but an enslaved mother who passed up her own freedom in exchange for that of her children? Wouldn’t she have a slightly different take?”

    I think it’s exactly the point that it’s something a mother would say. It’s quite possible that Sally did, indeed, have a different take on it, but I doubt that a loving mother is going to tell their child that she wishes he’d never been born or say outright that getting pregnant (even if that particular child did not survive) ruined her life.

  8. I can’t comment on the book, unfortunately, I’ve only read an excerpt and it is possible that the writing in the excerpt was an anomaly. I get the sense, however, from those that defend the book, that it is the “idea” of it that is so valuable, and the execution is less important than the Very Important subject matter. This makes me think that this book is The Secret of the Andes of our time.

  9. I think the problem is something along these lines: Jonathan’s and Nina’s voices (necessarily) carry more weight here than in a typical book discussion, and because they are aligned in their opinion of this book, its flaws have been dwelt upon far more than its strengths. And as any proponent of good book discussion (I’m looking at you, CCBC!) knows, starting a discussion by hammering the group with negative comments tends to skew the discussion and make it harder for positive comments to emerge. Obviously, however, this is a blog, not an actual book discussion; not only that, it is THEIR blog, and they are free to run it as they see fit.

    Having said that, I am in complete agreement with Ed that those of us who buy the characterizations in Jefferson’s Sons (and I do) are treated to a work that goes far beyond any other book for this age group in its examination of slavery, race, and American society. I appreciate the book a great deal and I too think that it deserves a places at the (Newbery) table.

  10. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I have been working on a post about how we choose our shortlist, which will be next, and might address some of your questions. As far as your desire goes for a more balanced voice… well, sure that’s a valid desire. But one, I think, destined to disappointment. I have an opinion. This blog is intended to get people to understand the Newbery, and form opinions. I’ve mostly tended to avoid posting at l length about books I feel are weak, for exactly the points Martha points out above. But I’ve broken that rule a couple of times already this year, in response exactly to the desire from commenters to have a forum to discuss titles that are getting a lot of press. It will always be unbalanced here, b/c Jonathan and I are posting, and the comments fall, visually, under that. For whatever it’s worth, I consider the comments as important as the posts. And all I can say in the end, really, is that this forum will never substitute for the experience of a live discussion. I know you know that, and am glad you’re going to be hosting one.

  11. No, Anon, I think the author of Jefferson’s Sons succeeded in exploring some very important ideas through the story of a one specific family, whom I felt I came to know very well. Is that a negative in a book? Would you say the same thing about, say, Octavian Nothing? For me a book that manages to make me reexamine assumptions while still engrossing me in the story is a laudable achievement, and not to be snarked at, particularly if one hasn’t even read it.

  12. Anon, I genuinely think the book is well-executed. I think if you look back at the praise for the book, you will find it is based in literary aspects. Actually, much as I dislike Secret of the Andes (on both a Meaning level and an artistic one), the people I know who like that book find literary distinction in it as well.

    Nina (and Jonathan too, actually), I always feel like you know what I’m getting at and take my comments less personally, which makes things easy. I’m happy to have a lively discussion of the book here; I suppose the second post, and the number of comments, just starts to feel like a pile-on. On the other hand, I was ready to move on from the Elephant and Piggie books long before THAT discussion was over, so it goes both ways. (And, of course, I know no one is making me read this blog.)

    But I do feel cognitive dissonance regarding criticism of this book and [what I assume will be] praise for Sir Gawain, for the reasons stated above, and look forward to that discussion.

  13. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I realize it does look like a pile on. But you’re supposed to pile on back! 🙂

    Regarding Sir Gawain, don’t make any assumptions until we get there. But I do see a stark difference in the way these two books are presenting themselves, and what they’re trying to achieve, even though–as you say–both are very message-driven. Sir Gawain is even more in-your-face; but to me, the point is it’s intended to be in-your-face, and tongue in cheek.

    Back to just Jefferson’s Sons; let me say that I think this book is well done, and should be read, and should be in every library collection. I differ in putting it at the top of the list for literary achievement. But I’ve been wrong there before, so I’m really really looking for someone to persuade me. Wendy, you say that praise for this book is rooted in literary aspects, and I do see plenty of praise for the way the message is executed. But I don’t see a lot of praise for other elements…except the SLJ review that cites “fine characterization and cinematic prose.” Can anyone identify for me the passages that illustrate this?

    Being willing to set aside a small weakness for a bigger strength is fine, and in terms of evaluating this book on it’s own, as an imporatant book for today’s readers is fine (and I assume we’ll see this book on some “best of” lists). But in comparing it to other books from this year for literary achievement, I’m not there yet in seeing the weaknesses as being small enough. I understand that all of us adult readers are willing to set aside the characterization for the message. But I contend that we bring an adult understanding to that. For me it boils down to this: Is a child reader given enough in the first hundred some odd pages (Beverly’s naive POV lasts well past p.100) to understand the context of these characters in their time? For me, that understanding is crucial for the message to have the intended impact.

  14. Wendy, Martha, I was hasty and inarticulate and I apologize if that was snarky. I was quite serious (though unfair to Secret of the Andes). Wendy, I have not seen the literary praise you mention in the Heavy Medal blog. Instead, I have gotten the impression that people were privileging the social importance of this book over the actual writing. When Nina and Monica pointed out passages that they thought were flawed, no one commented with an example they thought was particularly distinguished. Instead they said that the good points of the book outweighed it’s weaknesses. I took that to mean that people accepted that the writing was its weakness. I wanted to ask if that was really okay when we are talking about the Newbery? Nina has been far more articulate than I am. Martha, I won’t be able to read the whole book in time for this discussion, but I did read an excerpt and my sense of the prose at this time is that it doesn’t hold a candle to Tobin Anderson’s.

  15. Just to say re the “pile-on” that this has been the only place I’ve seen any negative commentary about the book. The professional reviews, the goodread reviews, blog reviews, all are absolutely glowing. Which is why I appreciated Jonathan and Nina’s different viewpoint, the first I’d seen that dovetailed with my own clearly minority view.

  16. Nina:

    To me, one of your main objections is that you don’t believe Sally’s children could have been so naive. I feel that it is certainly a possibility and in all likelihood, a probability that these children would have been incredibly sheltered. The Hemmings boys were slaves AND children of the President of the United States. They would have been mainly hidden, protected and sheltered. Their world would have been incredibly small. The book makes it clear that these children shared physical attributes with Jefferson that would have made it possible to link them to Jefferson. When the children were young and Jefferson was active in politics and very worried about public perception, one would think that they barely saw the light of day.

    I will agree with some of the others that your initial comments were entirely focused on what you found lacking in the book. In my opinion, there is too much to admire about this effort to treat it so cavalierly.

  17. Nina Lindsay says:

    Michael, I addressed my concerns expressly to avoid being cavalier about this book. My comments are one part of an ongoing discussion.

    Your suggestion that the children might have been so sheltered that their “world would have been incredibly small” would certainly account for some of the naivete I found problematic: for instance, the passages I quote on pages 22 and 52. But the scene where he touches Jefferson on the face: if he was that sheltered, wouldn’t he have been cautioned about drawing too much attention to their similarities, or all least to being too forward with him? And what about the scene where they discuss Beverly’s need to take up a trade…I’m not an expert on those times, but it just seems to me that Sally would have been planning his trade all along…

  18. Dean Schneider says:

    I reviewed Jefferson’s Sons and think very highly of it. But the problem with being a reviewer is that you read the ARCs so far ahead of time; I would have to reread this, and I just don’t have the time, with a dozen books to review in the next month or so. But I’m with Martha P. on this one. I think it’s one of the strongest books of the year, and one of the best historical novels I’ve read in a long time. And I like Martha’s allusion to Octavian Nothing, too, another of my all-time favorites. The characterization worked for me in JEFFERSON’S SONS, and I found the story utterly believable. I attended the University of Virginia–“Mr. Jefferson’s University–for grad school (in history) and was awash in the aura of Jefferson. And Dumas Malone, the famous historian of Jefferson and his times, was still around to talk about Jefferson, as if they were old buds. Books like JEFFERSON’S SONS and Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello do much to correct the biases and false assumptions of earlier works. I’ll try to come back to this discussion with more specifics, but I wanted to add my two cents for a book I think is one of the outstanding works of the year, working for most every one of the six basic Newbery criteria. Maybe I’ll muster a point-by-point, criterion-by-criterion analysis to match Jonathan’s!!

  19. Nina:

    Beverly may have never seen Jefferson up close. It seems to me that it would be reasonable to think he may have not been cautioned as a young child about how to behave around Jefferson because Jefferson was away from Monticello (in Washington) for much of his early childhood and Beverly would have been hidden when Jefferson came back. If the two were never together, no such warnings would be given or needed.

    On the other account, I believe that nearly all the folks on Mulberry Row were related to Sally and her children (uncles, cousins, etc.) Like any good parent, Sally wanted her son to grow up and be successful. Of course she would have planned for Beverly to have a trade. But, Beverly could apprentice with a number of his relatives to learn the all important skill that would allow him to function in the white world. He could have learned to be a blacksmith with Joe Fossett, gardener with Wormley, wood worker with John, cook or brewer with Peter Hemmings (all of those men were related to Beverly). “What do you like?, Mama persisted”. I interpret this scene to mean that Sally has always anticipated that Beverly would need a trade, but the time had come for her to find out which would best suit Beverly.

  20. Nina:

    Thinking hard about these questions, I decided to look at

    I found the most amazing quote from Peter Fossett himself. “I knew nothing of the horrors of slavery till our good master died, on July 4, 1826,” Fossett related at the end of his life. “Born and reared as free, not knowing that I was a slave, then suddenly, at the death of Jefferson, put upon an auction block and sold to strangers. I then commenced an eventful life.”

    I think this speaks volumes toward your feeling that these characters were naive. Their situation and perspective were different from the general slave population. There is clear evidence that they were treated differently and felt differently than other groups of slaves. This speaks directly to your concerns regarding Peter’s dialogue on page 331-332.

  21. Nina Lindsay says:

    Michael: that is an amazing quote. Here I go back to

  22. Mark Flowers says:

    Michael – very interesting find!

    I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve been following the discussion with great interest, and I think that the most interesting contrast to this discussion is not (contra Wendy) SIR GAWAIN, but our discussion of OKAY FOR NOW. There, as here, the discussion centered around the basic question of where the events and characters fell on some scale of reality/possibility/plausibility, and it did not seem to change many people’s minds when actual evidence was brought up (the fact that Joe Pepitone wasn’t in NY that day didn’t matter to me; the fact that real libraries cut out pages of Audobons didn’t seem to faze some of the anti-OFN commenters). The issue, of course, is that our impressions of what *feels* plausible as we’re reading color so much of how we think about it.

    I think it was Mr. H who proposed using the entirely different genre of “Romance” to describe OFN to excuse some of the plausibility issues. Can we do something similar with JEFFERSON’S SONS? So many of Nina’s comments above about “character” seem really not to have to do with character at all, but with her (perhaps correct) assessment of what the historical characters might plausibly have been like. But what if that’s not the question at all. What if we simply grant the naivete as the starting point of a historical romance and move on – does that change how we view the novel?

  23. I think Fossett quote can be interpreted many ways. Especially if one goes back and revisits Fossett page at Monticello. org. Prior to the quote Micheal mentions – “When he recalled his childhood at the age of eighty-three, Peter Fossett was conscious of the privileged atmosphere of his first ten years. He had “little to do,” he said.

    In order for Fossett to be aware of is privileged status, he had to be familir with slavery, When Fossett saying he knows nothing of the horrors of slavery, I believe he is refering to his free status or his assumed freedom, he was aware of hardships of slavery but simply did not have to experience it first hand until Jefferson died.

    Anderson’s Octavian Nothing is an amazing piece of historical fiction, to be comparable to it other historical fiction novels would have to contain the same amount of layers and depth and I just do see that in Jefferson’s Sons to be fair to Bradley, Anderson set the quality bar high with Octavian Nothing and not many authors can reach it.

    I am really starting to enjoy this discussion now that people who are firmly behind Jefferson’s Sons are speaking up. I say if you believe in a story always stand by it and claim its goodness and worth no matter what anyone else thinks.

  24. Perhaps it was missed that previously Kimberly Brubaker Bradley stated she used the above quote from Peter to inform her writing of the boys’ naivete.

    Mark, it might have been me that suggested the thing about Okay For Now being a “romance”, or maybe Mr. H mentioned it also; I suggested that it was purposefully Dickensian or Victorian. That’s the context in which the book works best for me. But I don’t think I can make a similar case for Jefferson’s Sons; I don’t think it purposefully plays with any conventions, and I hesitate to suggest that anything in the book is romanticized.

    As for why I haven’t pulled out good literary passages: it’s simply not something I’m good at. I don’t read that way. But when a quote from a book especially strikes me, very rarely I’ll add it to my quotes page on Goodreads. While Jefferson’s Sons isn’t my TOP pick of the year, it’s the one that I pulled a quote from. “I kept traveling down the road. And everywhere it was the same. What was my name, who were my people? What was I supposed to say? That my father is the president, and my mother is his slave?”

    This is certainly a compelling quote to me because of the message, but what really stands out to me about this quote is something that exemplifies the whole book to me. The book is not compelling because of its subject matter or message; it’s the way in which that is written and presented. It’s a simple and direct style that I responded to and that I think is particularly well-written for children’s sensibilities; as I said, the book doesn’t tell the reader what to think, but rather makes one think. This is [one of the things] that distinguishes the book from fiction that is primarily didactic.

  25. Mark Flowers says:

    @Wendy – just to be clear, I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that JEFFERSON’S SONS is a “romance” in the same way that OFN is. Again, I haven’t read it – so I can’t comment much on what genre and style it uses. It just occurs to me that similar issues are coming up, and that I think when we get too bogged down in the minutiae of “realism” (whatever that is) we can miss the real values of a piece of art (I think this is a problem that plagues film criticism as well, but that’s neither here nor there) – which I think at least partially jibes with what you have been saying on these threads.

  26. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, no one reads naturally that way. But when I read with my Newbery/ Mock Newbery hat on, I have a horde of little yellow post it flags, and they go on anything and everything that stands out to me, positive or negative. At the end, I review them, and if I can remember what the issue was and it still seems valid, it goes in my notes. In the committe discussion, you’re better armed for argument with passages to quote from.

    And see what a difference a quote can make? I read, but forgot, Kim’s paraphrase of Peter Fosset’s words… but the quote from Michael stands out. I’m still considering whether it’s set up in the fiction well enough for the reader. Ok, Peter DID think this way. But the reader needs to be convinced in the story, not in the research.

    The quote you give from Beverly is moving. I missed being moved in the reading because I found his set up peculiar (and this from memory, my book’s across town): “I repeat, white people are different.” When he got round to his experiences in the white world I found them intriguing, but he opened the subject as if no one in their family ever noticed that white people did, in fact, act differently the they did. Hadn’t he spent years serving at dinner? Over and over, while I find the ideas that come out of Bradley’s characters’ mouths powerful, I feel those characters are still a little cardboardy.

    I’ll echo Doret in thanking you all for keeping the discussion going. It’s a give and take that requires both conviction and an open mind on both sides. When everyone at the Newbery table can be convinced that everyone has truly considered all points put forth… that’s how you get a consensus, so that all fifteen members can feel satisfied to stand behind the winner, even if some of those fifteen didn’t actually cast their vote for the winner.

  27. Sorry, all, I never meant to directly equate Jefferson’s Sons with Octavian Nothing. I could list all their differences here but surely they are obvious (audience, scope, language, etc.). What they do have in common is that they tell a story centering on specific individuals and in so doing explore some huge and, yes, important questions. They’re both crucibles, just on a different scale. My reason for bringing ON into the discussion was just to try to counter the arguments that JS is some kind of tract/one long unrelenting message, which it isn’t, just as ON isn’t.

  28. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Would anyone care to speculate on this book winning the Scott O’Dell Award? What else could beat it? CITY OF ORPHANS by Avi? FIVE 4THS OF JULY by Pat Hughes? Is it a foregone conclusion?

    While my response to the book has been mixed, one thing that I really did appreciate was the man–blanking on his name–who freed his slave and lived in an open relationship with her and their children, showing that for all the disapproval of society, this was a viable option for Jefferson. Yes, the pressures on him because of his fame and accomplishments and wealth would have been greater, but it was still not outside the realm of possibility. It was only a fleeting part of the book, perhaps only a paragraph or two, but for me it spokes volumes more than than the Mommy-why-can’t-daddy-marry-you? discussion that I found so problematic.

  29. It especially wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility from a child’s viewpoint.

    I love the Scott O’Dell Award. I love that twice they didn’t give it because nothing was good enough. I love that once he won it himself. Other eligible books I’ve read: Dead End in Norvelt, Okay For Now, Lunch-Box Dream, The Trouble With May Amelia, Wonderstruck, The Romeo and Juliet Code, maybe Inside Out and Back Again, and maybe The Queen of Water (it is published as fiction, and it falls under my historical fiction classification, though not everyone else’s; maybe Roger Sutton can draw a line for me there). I would have said Queen of the Falls, but I think that’s probably classified as biography?

    A few I haven’t read yet: The Friendship Doll, With a Name Like Love, The Money We’ll Save, Bird in a Box, and is The Aviary enough of a historical fiction?

    Of what I’ve read, I think May Amelia might have the best chance. Okay For Now doesn’t strike me as the kind of book they usually choose. Lunch-Box Dream would seem like a contender if I didn’t dislike it. The Romeo and Juliet Code is a maybe–I didn’t think it was right for the Newbery, so I’ve put it out of my mind. Bird in a Box at least SOUNDS like an O’Dell to me, and The Money We’ll Save sounds like it would be a fun choice.

  30. Oh, and I also haven’t been able to read My Name Is Not Easy yet–they’re sure to be looking at that. I’m mostly ignorant about YA in general this year.

  31. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think the Scott O’Dell tends to stay juvenile. How else can you explain the absence of OCTAVIAN NOTHING? I also think they tend to prefer books where the history is front and center, rather than a backdrop. So I’d be inclined to think that because OKAY FOR NOW, DEAD END IN NORVELT, and THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA don’t have those easy taglines–WWII, Civil Rights, etc–they might not contend as strongly as some of the other stuff.

  32. Oh, I think May Amelia has an easy “Western frontier” tag, even if it’s quite a bit later than most Western frontier books. I do agree it isn’t the kind of thing they usually choose, but I think it has a better shot than the others, and anyway after The Storm in the Barn, all bets are off, right? I don’t think it’s all that different from something like The Game of Silence.

    But if we start playing the “how else can you explain the absence of” game, the Newbery will have a LOT to answer for. Who knows why no Octavian Nothing? (Well, Roger Sutton knows, but I assume he won’t tell.)

  33. Well, just as these blog posts came out, I finally got my copy of “Jefferson’s Sons”. So I read it with all your criticisms in mind, which is quite different from how I usually read kid’s books. I think I was harder on it because of this, because the criticisms are valid. I don’t know if I would have come up with all the same points on my own, but I think I would have felt that there was *something* not quite accurate about the characters.

    And yet – it’s a compelling story. It presents a wonderful historic perspective. It left me wanting more. All the things I want in a good book, in other words.

    It may not be the Newbery winner this year, but I’m happy to recommend it (flaws and all!), to both adults and kids.

  34. Elle Librarian says:

    I could easily go through this book and pull out just as many examples or more of distinguished elements, but there is just not enough time in the day! I’m happy that there are others who champion this book. I hope it receives some love at the award table this winter.

  35. Nina:

    The more I think about your criticisms, the more I see a contradiction. If the historical evidence indicates that Peter Fossett was truly naive to his status of slavery, wouldn’t the Hemings boys most likely be even more naive? They, after all, received even more preferential treatment.

    And then you express concerns that the text, not the research needs to develop this idea. Wouldn’t your litany of examples of naivete support the notion that the author did develop that theme quite extensively? Shouldn’t the reader be “convinced in the story” as you suggest is so important? I wonder if you came to the story with preconceptions that these slave children should have had a more “typical”, less naive view and then found the depiction of naivete to be troubling? If so, would child readers come to the book with the same preconceptions?

  36. Nina Lindsay says:

    Interesting Michael, as my mind was going along the same track to a totally different conclusion: if they really were this naive, couldn’t Bradley have set it up more convincingly, so that we wouldn’t be second-guessing it? Kids are pretty smart, and there’s something stilted in the way the characters express themselves above. I’ve yet to have someone point out to me any passages of superb characterization to contradict my impressions.

    You know, if I haven’t made it clear, I think this is a great book. I recommend it. It’s not, however, among the most distinguished contributions to the literature this year to my mind, when compared to the field. It’s an important book, well done, and very decently written. Its message overtakes it’s effectiveness as a story. Which is nothing tone ashamed of, since it gets the message across.

    And I’m still hope to being convinced otherwise…but to be convinced I need to be shown, textually, why it’s stronger in the Newbery criteria than others on our shortlist. I can tell there are fans for this book out there, but I’m not sure that all the fans are taking the field into account.

  37. First of all, it occurred to me that something else that definitely affected my reading of the book was the fact that the characters were all real people. In my post about this ( I acknowledge some reasons why I find this especially challenging.

    Secondly, curious about Peter Fossett I went and read his comments and would agree with Doret that there is a lot of context to consider when unpacking his statement. And from there I came across a terrific interview with Annette Gordon-Reed that I encourage you all to read as she covers a lot of what we’ve been grappling with.

  38. >>Its message overtakes its effectiveness as a story

    All right, Nina, I present this almost-but-not-quite for discussion’s sake. Does it really say in the criteria that the book can’t be primarily about the message? I don’t know that it does. After all, we wouldn’t criticize a non-fiction book for having a message that overpowers its story; quite the contrary, I think. I’d be more likely to criticize a work of non-fiction for privileging story or plot over facts and/or message. Let’s suppose one takes the purpose (or rather the strength, since I’m not interested in the author’s intent and I don’t think the criteria are either) of Jefferson’s Sons to be presenting the facts, theories, and philosophical quandaries surrounding the children of Jefferson and Hemings, in story form. The book does this–pretty well, I think almost all of us would say.

    I know the criteria say that the award isn’t given for didactic content, but I take that to mean that a book can’t win just because it has such an important message. It also has to be distinguished from a literary standpoint. We apply the criteria differently to non-fiction, to picture books, even to (this gets a raised eyebrow from me) “easy reader” vs “chapter” books, so we already know that every criterion isn’t applicable in the same way to every kind of book.

    I’m not going to argue that Jefferson’s Sons has the most distinguished characterizations of the year. I think it easily holds its own in setting. I continue to think that its presentation of its theme is distinguished enough (and is, maybe, even most distinguished) to put it on the table.

  39. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    This has been a really interesting discussion. I agree that one of the challenges of writing historical fiction of this type–in which you are taking real characters, using everything that you know about them, and then putting them into fictional framework–is that you may become stuck with facts that run counter to your preconcieved notions, or to what you’d prefer to have happen, or to what would work best in straight fiction. I may write a post for my blog about this, and if I do I’ll add a link here.

    I found the above-linked interview with Annette Gordon-Reed to be interesting, but would like to note that it seems to date from 2000, before the extensive research she did for her Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello. The details of Thomas Jefferson’s and Sally Hemming’s years in Paris, and of the Hemings boys’ experiences in Poplar Forest, in particular, are much more fully realized in her later work, and I highly recommend it to anyone curious about this unique family.

  40. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I never said a Newbery winning book can’t be primarily about message. I’d expect, for instance, certain nonfiction to be. This is a work of fiction..the author purposefully using the structure of a fiction in order to tell a story, so we should expect “all elements pertinent to it” to be distinguished to consider it for the award.

    I have to adit a little Jefferson exhaustion here…Kimberly, glad you are finding it interesting!

  41. Wendy, I enjoyed Lunch Box Dream, especially the ending, I will admit that the beginning is a slow build, but I truly enjoyed the characters. I really liked that the Bobby the main character was flawed, the author could’ve easily choosen the older brother, Ricky to be the main voice since he would’ve been a more sympathetic lead.

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