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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Fourmile and What Came from the Stars

Anything by Gary Schmidt is subject to high expectations…so good for him for trying something a little daring, even if WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS ultimately fumbles.  Sixth-grader Tommy’s grief over the death of his mother is compounded by the evil advances of a realtor on his family’s beachfront home.   Schmidt takes his metaphor-laden melodramatic style to its logical extreme, by overlaying a science fiction plot, so that Tommy is also consumed by a parallel battle that moves from a distance in time and space to land in his backyard.  Not being a sci fi or fantasy writer, Schmidt gives this his own twang…breaking or ignoring pretty much all the rules of sci fi, but still coming up with something that feels intensley real.  Completely successful? I’m not sure about that…but certainly worth the ride.

Anyone remember Watt Key’s ALABAMA MOON?  It was one of my favorites of 2006, that year we were totally off the mark in predicting the awards, maybe because there were so many fine books to choose from.  So I eagerly dug into his FOURMILE, and was not disappointed, reading it straight through a nice long Friday evening in my armchair. Some similar themes to the Schmidt here: twelve-year-old Foster is grieving over his dead father and the impending loss of their farm as his mother searches for a more sustainable home.  Her menacing boyfriend isn’t helping; and then: stranger walks into town. The young hobo, with a wonderful dog of a similar ilk to Foster’s, offers some repairs for shelter, and begins to draw Foster out of his anger.   Key’s style is very different than Schmidt’s, but gets to a similar place: this is totally realistic, vivid prose that expresses Foster’s coming of age through his delight in work, in learning and fixing things, in understanding and being with his dog.  A dramatic and violent climax is the final catalyst for his transformation.

Though neither of these hit the “genre” or “spunky” button I was getting at in my Girls vs. Boys post, these are  both examples of high-quality prose for a male audience that…whether or not they rise to the top this year…should be used as standards for comparison of distinguished writing.

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. Quibble: what makes Schmidt “not…a fantasy writer”, when he writes fantasy–if not exclusively?

    The only way I managed to get through this book was, basically, skipping everything that takes place in the other world. I put that down to it being VERY MUCH “not my thing”, but maybe it isn’t that at all.

    “High-quality prose for a male audience”? I’m still uncomfortable with that dichotomy… especially as regards books like this one. (I’m not so intent on being PC that I will deny there are SOME books that are clearly written with boys in mind or girls in mind, no matter who else might enjoy them.) I think this is one of those books that Roger Sutton might say was actually a girl’s book in disguise. I didn’t really think it was one or the other.

  2. Wendy, I used “male” again as a crutch, so fair to catch me on that.

    I say “not a fantasy writer” because I don’t think this book reaches any of the elements of fantasy or sci-fi that readers of those genres expect. The story really reads like a “realistic” novel with an otherwordly overlay. I actually like the effect…but I wouldn’t call this book fantasy or sci-fi.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says

    I haven’t read FOURMILE yet (or ALABAMA MOON for that matter) although I did like DIRT ROAD HOME. FOURMILE is in the pile.

    While I can appreciate what Scmidt was trying to do here, the Tolkienese just didn’t work for me. It did make me want to pull THE SILMARILLON out and retread it, though.

  4. I LOVE Alabama Moon, so thanks for letting me know about Fourmile!

    I liked What Came from the Stars for most of the book, alien language and all. However, I’m pretty irked with Schmidt for his ending. I think it’s a huge betrayal of a sci-fi/fantasy book to rip the rug out from under the main character in the final pages like that. I’ve only seen it done once before, and I hated it then, too. There’s something terribly condescending about ending that way. It’s robbery, really. Only a tad less awful for a reader than “It was all only a dream.”

  5. I struggled with the alien chapters because the scenes in Plymouth were so rich. Tommy’s day-to-day life, including his grief (and the grief of his family), the scenes in the school cafeteria, the real estate battle for his family’s property, even the intrusion of the “aliens” as substitute teacher and “friend” of Tommy, were completely engaging. The overlay of the other world, with it’s foreign language, seemed superficial by comparison. I didn’t feel motivated to really concentrate and try to understand the chapters set in the other world because I felt as though I got what I needed to get from reading about Tommy, his family and his friends. There were too many words that didn’t make sense and I simply felt frustrated. I think I would have understood what I needed to understand about the value of the necklace and the struggle to bring it back to the other world if the alien chapters were simply removed.

    I was also frustrated that Tommy forgot everything at the end … I agree with Kate.

  6. Somehow I missed Nina’s post with the excitement of listing more books and fighting over age appropriateness.

    I’m so relieved to find that I was not the only one to flounder though the alien stuff. I hate leaning new terminology. It really is a dyslixic’s nightmare. I was so attached to Tommy’s story I stayed with him to the end. I had the chance to meet Mr. Schmidt this summer at SCBWI and he said he didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of writing Sci Fi and wouldn’t return to it.

    Looking forward to FOURMILE – lot’s of dogs showing up on books this year.

  7. To me, the Tolkienesque language was a cliche — even an apostrophe thrown in with the O’Mondim! Reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, where she describes all the cliches that come up in fantasy novels. On top of that, with the strange words thrown in, there were definitely obstacles to figuring out what was going on.

    But more than that, the logic of the other world problem just didn’t work for me. Okay, they send their Art across the galaxy. Then they hide out for a little while and then try to get it back before the bad guys can find it? Say what? If they all died or the whole planet exploded and this was the only way to preserve it, I could have believed it. But if they’re just hiding it for a little while, I do think the other side of their own planet would have worked fine. The only reason to send it to Earth was so the book would have something to be about.

  8. I have to chime in again to say that I was a little confused about the power of the necklace. It was Art, and allowed its wearer to be amazingly creative and intuitive, but also seemed to have the ability to bring creatures to life and generate images of people who have died (Tommy’s mom appearing briefly to him). The motivation to recover the necklace, and possibly die in pursuit, was unclear. I was wondering if I was just missing the crucial powers of the necklace because there was so much terminology to wade through in the alien chapters. There was talk about Tommy not understanding the true power he had while wearing the necklace, but he seemed to be able to get what he needed from it while he wore it; also, his mother and father are both artists. Maybe that is its power?

    Then, I was also wondering if Gary Schmidt was saying something about the value of art/culture to society. I think this was muddied by the other powers (or hinted powers) of the necklace. The evil leader (I forget his name) didn’t seem to have a clear motivation for wanting Art…just the power.

    I’m still thinking about this one.

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