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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Three Times Lucky

Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.  Almost before the dust had settled, Mr. Jesse turned up dead and life in Tupelo Landing turned upside down.

As far as I know, nobody expected it.

As for me—Miss Moses LoBeau, rising sixth grader—trouble was the last thing on my mind as I crept across Dale’s front porch at six o’ clock that morning.  “Hey Dale,” I whispered, pressing my face against his sagging window screen.  “Wake up.”

While this is one of the better novels I’ve read this year, I still have mixed feelings about its Newberyness, and I’m hoping our discussion will help me sort things out.

On the one hand, we have a charming heroine with a delightful voice, a vividly evoked small town setting peopled by a colorful cast of characters, and mysteries both large and small that further invite readers into the story.  There is abundant evidence of distinction in all of these elements.

On the other hand, the Spunky/Feisty/Charming Heroine with a Southern/Country/Folksy Voice with a Dead/Missing/Absent Mother is such a tired cliche in children’s fiction.  I do think this rises above most of them, but I’m not sure that it elevates itself to the point where it needs to be inducted into the canon with India Opal Buloni and company.

Another question is whether the mystery works properly, whether the clues really add up or whether the story just employs the trappings of the mystery genre.  This issue is further muddled for me by the tone of the book which stretches credibility in quite a few places.  I’m willing to buy into some of the more fantastic tall tale elements just as long as the logic of the mystery is preserved intact.

And yet another concern for me is pacing.  Contrary to what Mo says on the opening page, it takes almost a third of the book for the death to occur.  Most mystery novels wouldn’t let the first chapter end without the crime happening.  While the beginning is awfully slow, the story does pick up steam, but . . . too little, too late?

This is the kind of book where I really need some discussion and rereading to help me decide whether this one climbs higher in my estimation.



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’m with you on the pacing issues. I enjoyed the book, but it took an awful long time to get going.

    My #1 issue though, had to do with the fact that this book, set in rural east-central North Carolina, had exactly one nonwhite character – the Asian martial arts instructor, who’s really just a bit character. I could have missed something, but I read through the book twice just to satisfy myself that there wasn’t a single African-American character so much as mentioned. That seemed to me at the very least a serious fault in setting.

    Now, that said, I liked this book, gave it a positive review, and it’s ended up on our semifinal list. But that was something that kept bothering me while I was reading the novel.

  2. @Sam – I don’t know NC at all. Would you expect even very small communities like the one in TTL to have a heavy Black population? Or is it at least possible to have a small town still segregated?

  3. I guess to be sure you’d have to ask someone who lives there, but Tupelo Landing is either in Forsyth or Guilford county, and both of those have a higher percentage of African-American residents than the state as a whole. A fully segregated town would really surprise me in the present day, based on those numbers and my few visits to the state.

    I don’t want to sidetrack the conversation – I love a lot of things about this book, such as its pure giddy, soap-opera style over-the-top-ness. This was just something that knocked me totally out of the book a couple times as I was reading it.

    • Forsyth/Guilford County (I grew up in Forsyth and sill live there) is hardly “rural east-central North Carolina.” Most of the areas in these counties outside Winston-Salem/Greensboro and High Point, are suburban communities and do not strike me as qualifying as “rural” by any stretch of the imagination.

      There are definitely communities in Davidson/Randolph Counties that would fall into the rural/predominantly white category.

  4. I don’t want to sidetrack the discussion either, but the lack of African Americans in the community bothered me too. I don’t think the town is supposed to be in Guilford/Forsyth county as that is where the big city man from Winston-Salem was from. (Though I could be wrong.) I had the impression it was more east-kind of between Greenville and Wilmington. Still. In eastern NC the African American population is high, accounting for about 30%-40% of the people depending on the county-unless you are in a wealthy resort type area, which this was clearly not.

    The lack of cell phone service was also bothered me everytime it was mentioned.

    Part of this reaction comes from me being so sick of quirky southern novels that make the entire region look 20 years-at least-behind the rest of the country. I have yet to actually find a place in this region populated by that amount of quirky and I have lived in the NC/TN area for 15 years of my life. And cell phone service is not a problem.

    The racing fixation? That was spot on.

    I did like this one more than I like most books of this type. The voice was perfect and I loved how it had the feel of a tall tale to it. The mystery was good and I loved how the kids were in the way more than they were helpful (and yet they thought they were helping so much-so realistic). I think it has more strengths than weaknesses, but I would need some convincing to move it into the top of list.

  5. Jonathan, I nodded my head to all of your thoughts. This is a really good book but I don’t think it’s quite there for the Newbery; but then, I have higher standards for a mystery than I might for other kinds of books. Or maybe that’s not true–maybe I just want different things from them. But with a mystery, I want everything to click into place exactly, the way it does in THE WESTING GAME. (Talk about big shoes to fill.)

    I started this with a lot of skepticism because based on the cover and the description, I expected an unbearably quirky precocious over-the-top “southern” voice. I’m not going to claim that I know the south or southerners well, but I felt immediately that here was something different. This voice feels so authentic to me. The book itself is over-the-top (which is why, I would say, there’s “that amount of quirky”), but the voice seemed real. I know I have southern friends who roll their eyes at the other southern stereotypes put forth in books like BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA and WINTER’S BONE, but this felt very much to me like it could live in the same world, even though this is a funny book. All three are perhaps exaggerated in their own ways.

    I did a little bit of poking around when I read the book (I was interested in the setting) and think the book may be set in Wayne County or Harnett County. It seems to me like there are some towns in the area with a large African American population and others with a small one; is that true? Also, I haven’t looked at the book since reading Sam’s comment on goodreads, but are all the characters specified as being white? Could some of them be African American without specifying?

  6. The author came to our school and said that Tupelo Landing is based on where she lives. Among other things she mentioned that the lack of cell service is true there. As for the lack of racial diversity I assume there are tiny rural communities all over the place like hers and like Tupolo Landing that simply don’t have it since they didn’t historically. There might be other small places around, some of them largely white and others largely black. Certainly that continues to be the case here in NYC for all our diversity. Some neighborhoods are simply more diverse than others in my experience. I guess I’d be cautious about assuming everywhere is integrated racially these days.

    I’m generally also not a big fan of a certain sort of Southern novel I call “Fried Green Tomatoish”, but this didn’t feel like that to me at all. I especially like the Mon’s voice as she was stalwart rather than simply spunky, if that makes any sense.

    My class and I are listening to the audio book which is a first time experience for me. I tried it one day to see what they thought and the reader’s voice and accent is so spot on we kept going with it. Always when I do a read aloud I can really see/hear the sentences and see how well they work. These do. Great cliffhanging end-of-chapters, red herrings, and the like. We are now half-way through and the kids think just about everyone (other than Mo) could have killed Mr. Jesse. Most are nailing the Colonel though since he has been mostly absent and thus mighty suspicious.

    There is just so much to like here. Dale is a wonderful character and Turnage handles his family situation with such subtly, I think. The slow start seems a way for those who stick with it to grow with Mo and Dale and the others in the community. There are many tropes that are often tired, but work here — Mo’s notebooks, her mysterious birth, quirky guardians, the cafe, the folks in the community, etc. Somehow it all works without being maudlin. That said, I do see the flaws and while I put it on my Newbery longlist realize it is probably a longshot next to the other great books this year. But you never know!

  7. That is “Mo’s voice” not “the Mon’s voice”:)

  8. I’ve been thinking about this further and might see it as more of a “contribution to children’s literature” than I expressed above. I thought TURTLE IN PARADISE, while a sort of ordinary book overall, was exceptional enough in terms of setting to earn a place on the podium, and I have similar feelings about THREE TIMES LUCKY for voice, and to some extent for setting. We aren’t looking for a “unique” book, and yet, too… what is a “contribution” if not adding something we don’t already have? Definitely not saying there aren’t other good, literary mysteries for kids out there, or even that this is one of the best on a “mystery” level, but I do think this book adds something.

    The official, or anyway prevailing, idea is that we aren’t supposed to say things like “I can see this being an Honor book” because all the honor books are supposed to be just as distinguished as the winner, or something of the sort, which never really sits right with me. I do think this could be a worthy honor book, but I don’t think it should be the winner.

  9. @Wendy-That is an excellent point about the race if community members just not being mentioned. Why would a child narrator mention that when it just is a part of the life they have always known? Just out of curiosity why did you think Wayne or Harnett County? I’m wondering because I was thinking Beaufort, Washington, or Hyde county based on how she came from “up river” during a hurricane.

    @Monica-If the author says there is no cell service there I will accept that and let that objection to the setting go. As I was reading the book it was so foreign to my actual experience that it felt like a contrivance for the plot that I just couldn’t believe. (Now I’m interested to know why and how. The only place in NC I’ve ever lost my cell service is in the unpopulated part of the Cherokee reservation and that’s because the mountains are interfering. Even in the mountain county I did my student teaching in some areas had no electricity or running water, but they had cell service and that was 12 years ago. The eastern part of the state is as flat as a pancake and less rural. Hmmm…will have to do some research on this now.) She didn’t happen to say what county she was in did she?

    I know that this stuff is minor in the whole scheme of the discussion and don’t want us to get fixated on the little things like where in NC it actually is. I’m just fascinated that three of us put it in completely different parts of the state.

    The voice is what distinguishes this one the most for me. For the most part I just find it to be a fun book that is better than most of its genre, but not a Newbery book. I’m most certainly going to be reading the next one when it comes out.

  10. There’s a bit about where the author grew up and where she lives now here:

  11. Looking at my goodreads review, it appears that I had similar problems to Wendy re: the plotting of the mystery. To be honest, I can’t right now even remember how the mystery was resolved, but I definitely did not have that sense of everything “clicking into place” as Wendy puts it. But perhaps that’s an unfair standard bred of reading too many Agatha Christie novels? I dunno. This is one I would definitely reread if it gets shortlisted.

  12. Brandy–I did some snooping about the author’s background, I confess. Sheila Turnage, if you read this I’m not creepy, I was just interested in finding some pictures of the area and had to figure out what area it was first. I’m curious, Brandy, what county is it that you know that didn’t have electricity or running water, at least twelve years ago? I don’t know about here in the US, but in the Amazon rainforest and other developing/remote places, cell phone service can come before electricity. Many people in remote places around the world never had landlines but had cell service long before parts of the US. I’ve definitely been in some areas of the California mountains that didn’t get service.

    I plan to reread, too, if I get time–I knew I needed to as soon as I finished it. The first time I was too interested in what was going to happen to really pay attention to whether the book was distinguished in its various elements.

  13. Wendy, thanks for the TURTLE IN PARADISE copmarison (which of course the real committee can’t do), as that makes me see why this one doesn’t cut it for me. TURTLE was “ordinary” but with a very distinguished voice and set of characters. THREE TIMES is solid, but pretty “stock” to me. A fun read but nothing that distinguishes it.

  14. Wendy: It was Watauga County. I went to Appalachian State University (famous outside of NC for beating Michigan five years ago in the most surprising football game ever). Since the college was there so was the cell service. That point about many developing nations having cell phone service but not other mordern conveniences played a part in my disbelief. I have friends living in the middle of nowhere Guatemala and they have cell phone service AND Internet. I couldn’t figure out from Turnage’s pics and stuff on her site which part of the coastal plain she was from. I can see it being those counties you mentioned too.

  15. Barb Gogan says:

    I have no cell service in a suburb of Boston (Weston) near me and MANY parts of Cape Cod. That aspect did not seem unlikely to me at all.

  16. I hearing something here from Nina, Wendy, and even Johnathan that I had never taken into consideration in conjunction with the definition of distinguished. That it is connected with uniqueness. That a book’s Newberyness needs to be related to it originality. I’d never looked at it that way before. Couldn’t a book that felt familiar still be distinguished in all its criteria? I’m thinking off the top of my head about MOON OVER MANIFEST.

  17. It doesn’t “need” to be related to its originality–if I’ve given the impression that I think of it that way, either for the broad Newbery criteria or my own private Newbery criteria, I didn’t mean to. There are lots of books in the canon, as you know, that have some striking similarities. And technically we can’t compare books this year to any other year, so even if someone might say that WE’VE GOT A JOB is too similar to MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, it would still be fine to say that WE’VE GOT A JOB is the most distinguished non-fiction book about children involved in the civil rights movement THIS year. And (I am nothing if not inconsistent) sometimes I get annoyed when people gush about something being “new” or “untold” when, perhaps, it’s just that those people haven’t read the right books in the past. Yet I do (as I mention above) get interested when I feel like a book is doing something I haven’t seen before, whether in style or setting or plot or theme or subject. (Obviously, maybe *I* just haven’t been reading the right books.) Surely an author should get credit for pulling off something that hasn’t been pulled off? But who gets to decide when that has happened? And how much should it matter?

    When I look back at past winners, sometimes hindsight makes it clear that a certain book was ushering in something new, and that seems like at least part of why it was recognized. I don’t know whether the committee looked at it that way at the time.

  18. Nina Lindsay says:

    Danae…it’s more that it’s got to have something to distinguish it from other contenders that year. It doesn’t have to be unique in theme or content. I don’t see the setting, plotting, or characters transcending those in stronger books this year.

  19. Okay, I see your point. I put THREE TIMES LUCKY on my short list mainly because I am its audience. Give me a setting of a small town full of quirky characters and it’s the first book I’ll pick off the pile. Throw in a moose wandering down the street and I’ll be there for every episode. But I do see how too much of a “good” thing can dampen enthusiasm. This past weekend I simultaneously listened to THE GREAT UNEXPECTED and read ONE YEAR IN COAL HARBOR over the same two days. Loved both of them, but I will admit to having a fair bit of confusion. Then the talk for TTL began and I couldn’t remember what happened in which book. I think the strongest contender among small towns with quirky characters may be LIAR & SPY. I know New York isn’t your typical small town, but Stead does such a masterful job constructing Georges neighborhood, it feels like a place where everyone is connected, and the quirky do make themselves at home.

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:

    African Americans: This reminds me somewhat of CALPURNIA TATE where the African Americans were conveniently inconspicuous. I’m willing to entertain a brief discussion on this point, but it strikes me as a peccadillo more than a fatal flaw. And Turnage may yet do something with this in subsequent books.

    Cell Phones: It’s really hard for me to swallow the idea of no cell phone coverage . . . but, then, when I found sections of Modesto which didn’t have sidewalks but rather this no man’s land of dirt between the yard and the street–well, I thought I had stumbled into a third world country the first time I saw it . . . so, okay, I’ll buy it. However, it definitely does give it a so-backwards-it’s-historical-fiction vibe. And that would add a *fourth* Newbery cliche to the pile.

    Contribution: I’d been thinking about this issue before Wendy brought it up because I do think in order to say something is a contribution to children’s literature you have to have a fairly good idea of children’s literature to recognize whether something is a contribution to it or not. I’m not sure that I can say THREE TIMES LUCKY is a contribution in this sense. I mean there are an awful lot of Newbery books with those cliches (not to mention the small handful every year that people insist are contenders).

    I think we’re always taken with things that are “new” and “different” (even if they are only new and different to us). I do think that gives them an edge (not that any committee would necessarily acknowledge that in discussion), but they also have to be excellent. I’m thinking GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! New and different? Yes. Excellent? Yes.

    Mystery: What Mark and Wendy said. Does everything click into place? In other words, can the reader logically figure out the mystery from the clues? Or does she have to bide her time passively until the author sees fit to dispense the information at the conclusion? It struck me as more of the latter, but I could be wrong. Like I said, I’d need to reread.

    • The cell phone thing is definitely probable whereas there is a pocket in surburbian North Davidson County (near Winston-Salem) where there is no cell phone service (at least for my carrier). You can send a text there if you stand on one foot in a specific spot. If the town were small enough (population: 148 indicates that is probably is), it is possible there is no cell phone reception, but if you go 5-10 miles up the road there probably will be.

  21. But I really think that in the hands of this book (to mix metaphors), those aspects are NOT cliches, and that’s what struck me here. All of that strikes me as genuine, growing naturally from the setting and the plot and with that authentic voice, as opposed to the standard quirky-girl-in-small-Southern-town book that gets mentioned in mock Newberys. The only thing I think is really cliche is the idea that this kind of book is what wins Newberys. (Not very often, really. Though plenty of honors in the last ten years or so.) A Year Down Yonder has familiar themes and characters and setting, yet it isn’t cliche-ridden. Although, once again, that brings it into focus. This book is no Year Down Yonder, is it.

  22. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, the book has an authentic feel to me, and I get what you are saying about these elements organically emerging from the story, but I’m not sure that stops it from being a cliche no matter how well done. Can a dead dog feel organic? Sure. A gay person dying in a car crash? Sure. It just means that when these cliches do appear they have to be so awesome that we can’t help ourselves. On the 90% thread last year, I quoted this passage from Deborah Stevenson . . .

    That’s also why it’s more challenging to judge books of genuine originality or books in a scarcely populated genre (is a biography in a poetry sequence form that’s less good than Marilyn Nelson’s superb Carver lackluster or merely excellent?); why books in densely populated genres need to achieve more demonstrable excellence to stand out (yet another metatextual fiction based on fairy tales has to work hard to be more than simply more of the same); why read-alikes are some of the most popular and useful forms of reader’s advisory.

    THREE TIMES LUCKY does fall in a densely populated genre and therefore does need to achieve more demonstrable excellence. I think it’s almost there, but not quite. I probably sound more negative about this book on the other thread than I really am.


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