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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

A Snicker of Magic

I haven’t read this one yet, so I’m going to quote its three starred reviews below and let you weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses in the comments below.  Maybe you’ll convince me to read it sooner rather than later.

KIRKUS: The protagonist of this debut joins a growing list of endearing young girls from the South, and it’s an extra bonus that her new best friend and mentor is a boy whose method of transportation, without fanfare, just happens to be a wheelchair.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: Working in the folksy vein of Ingrid Law’s Savvy, Lloyd offers a reassuring, homespun story about self-expression and the magic that resides in one’s mind and heart.

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: It’s the characters that make this story shine: gruff Aunt Cleo and her tongue-tied swain; Oliver and Ponder, purveyors of unusual ice cream and baked goods, respectively; Jewell Pickett, hair-stylist and auto-mechanic extraordinaire; and her son Jonah, who has the amazing ability to make things better for anybody, despite his own difficulties. And Felicity, who sees words everywhere and uses them in remarkable ways.

THE GHOSTS OF TUPELO LANDING, REVOLUTION, and A SNICKER OF MAGIC all join that growing list of “endearing young girls from the South.”  Actually, I think a book qualifies for this little subgenre if it has two of these three qualities:

  • Southern/Country/Folksy Voice
  • Spunky/Feisty/Charming Heroine
  • Dead/Missing/Absent Mother (or other significant family member)
So, here’s how these books have fared recently with the Newbery committee.
  • 2014 ONE CAME HOME
  • 2009 SAVVY
In the previous 7 years there were less than half that number–
And only three in the 90s.
  • 1993 MISSING MAY
I’m apt to fall for this genre myself every now and then (KEEPER, anyone), but I’ve otherwise developed ennui about the whole niche.  We can all name numerous examples, both recent and not-so-recent.  It’s not like anybody is discovering a new element of the periodic table when they write one of these.  As with any genre, the more I read, the higher the bar is set for one of them to truly elevate itself from the rest.  But, generally speaking, isn’t the Newbery committee’s bar getting lower?  They seem to be recognizing more and more and I’m not sure that all of them are nearly as good as, say, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE or WALK TWO MOONS or BELLE PRATER’S BOY.  What do you think?





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 enjoyed reading SNICKER OF MAGIC, but I just don’t understand why it’s getting so much Newbery buzz from some corners.

    Distinction categories:
    Development of a plot: I don’t think it was distinguished. Being “tricky” is not a requirement, but at the same time if the entire plot hinges on a single riddle that was immediately obvious to me the moment I saw it, and without the spelling change should have been even easier to spot when relayed orally…that takes some points off for me. The subplot about resolving Felicity’s feelings surrounding her absentee dad felt more like they were trying to be deep and meaningful, rather than organically so.

    Setting: This was good, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I can think of other books that were more distinguished this year, such as Night Gardener.

    Style: This well done. The language was interesting and fun, but also sometimes uneven, though it’s been too long since I read it to put my finger on that, so it might be faulty memory. It was a bit twee for my tastes, but that is a highly subjective opinion.

    Characters: I didn’t find the characters particularly well drawn or compelling. They seemed defined by their relationship to the plot.

    Additionally, I was a little uneasy about Jonah. He was a little too perfect. Part of that is because we’re seeing him through her infatuated eyes, of course, but other than Jonah telling us that he’s not perfect, we never ever see him be anything other than kind, thoughtful, compassionate, and perfect at doing just about everything from tossing something into a can to finding the right thing to say. The trope of the magical person with handicaps who is brave and bold and perfect is one that I see far too often. And then, despite not wanting someone to be defined by their differences, I also came away with the feeling that Jonah’s wheelchair should have been mentioned more often. Jonah manages to bend down and pick something up off the floor without any problem, and do several other minor things I can’t think of offhand that gave me a bit of a pause. They’re all more or less plausible things, but difficult enough from a seated position that I noticed it.

  2. Sheila Welch says:

    In looking over Jonathan’s list, I realize that this type of book is not my cup of tea. Of those he included, only one has that special quality that makes me love a book. Therefore, I am not going to say much about A SNICKER OF MAGIC. I agree with the points Alys mentioned. In addition, the characters were too numerous and too quirky. And Jonah ‘s being wheelchair- bound but otherwise perfectly normal seemed even less convincing than the other characters’ unusual traits.

  3. I’m about to start reading this book today, so I’ll try not to be biased by this review. I would add Tracy Holczer’s The Secret Hum of Daisy to this sub-genre, which I enjoyed very much, especially because of its sentence level writing. I do wonder how it will hold up against other titles published this year, though.

  4. This is generally not my favorite genre, but I actually liked this one quite a bit. My full review of it can be found here:

  5. I myself am a sucker for the vernacular voice, both as a reader and a writer, though when it goes wrong, I grit my teeth along with you, Jonathan. A few things that came to mind reading your post:

    1. Many of the books you list are neither southern in setting or narrative voice. In fact, only half of them are, and in the list of the most recent winners, only two of them are. So you’re not really discussing the southern voice here as much as a vernacular or regional voice.

    2. I’m curious as to how you react to boys’ vernacular voices. How do you feel about Homer P. Figg? Or one of my favorites, Jerome Foxworthy in THE MOVES MAKE THE MAN? He’s southern, too, after all.

    3. The feisty-spunky thing. Well, as far as I can tell, children’s literature is one long litany of feisty-spunky girls, from Jo March to Laura Ingalls, Ramona to Clementine, so yeah, it’s not a new invention, and I don’t think anybody is pretending that it is, but the feisty-spunky girl is pretty irresistible to readers and writers alike. Another question: what’s the male counterpart to the feisty-spunky girl? The troubled-driven boy? Are there feisty-spunky boys?

    4. As to your last question, “As with any genre, the more I read, the higher the bar is set for one of them to truly elevate itself from the rest. But, generally speaking, isn’t the Newbery committee’s bar getting lower?” First of all, what exactly is the genre of which you speak? I see a list with ghost stories, historical fiction, realistic problem stories, and fantasy. It seems to me that you’re discussing style more than genre here, and it’s a style you’re not overly-fond of but will make exceptions for when it’s done well. You don’t name the books you feel would not have made it over a higher bar, although it’s implied that the more recent titles didn’t have to jump as high as, say, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE or WALK TWO MOONS. My question for you is, how do Newbery committees go about lowering the bar? What’s the process for that?

    To me, the more interesting question, though not as Newbery-centered, is what’s going on in the culture that is attracting writers to these kind of stories and makes them want to create these kind of voices? One thing about the most recent list of books is that only one of them is contemporary realistic fiction—THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY. The others are mostly historical fiction, with the exception of SAVVY, which is fantasy, and THREE TIMES LUCKY, which is a ghost story/mystery. Why are those the stories many of us (but clearly not all) seem most interested in reading and writing?

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Frances, thanks for your reply, and as the author of DOVEY COE you are very familiar with what I’m talking about here. In response, to your points.

      1. Yes, I agree that I’m not just talking about the Southern voice–as the Kirkus review does–but rather expanding it to include those regional vernaculars which have a country/folk aesthetic.

      2. Unfortunately, I haven’t read either of the books you cite with a Southern boy voice. I missed HOMER P. FIGG, although contributing to this blog, and I never made time to catch up. Would Wilson Rawls count? WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS and THE SUMMER OF THE MONKEYS. I don’t have an immediate reaction either way, but I also don’t feel inundated with them either. When I look at the evolution of young adult literature, one of the factors that influenced the prevalence of the first person narrator was THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, and I wonder if Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD hasn’t cast a similarly long shadow over this “genre.” What do you think?

      3. Agreed that Feisty Girl has a long history in children’s literature, but when she shows up with a Southern voice (or a vernacular voice) with a Dead/Missing/Absent Parent as Scout does, for example, well, it can be a tour de force. But it can also be a cliche, too. I do think that Feisty Boy (or some variation thereof) also has a long history in children’s literature, but for some reason I can’t really think of too many that have that tearjerker/Southern voice. Maybe the dead dog books? OLD YELLER, WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, SOUNDER?

      4. I think I variously described these books as a genre, a sub genre, and a niche in my post. You propose style, but, clearly, none of them is entirely satisfactory. They share some remarkable similarities, namely the three that I mentioned, but also have some striking differences, too. Since, the Newbery committee is not a single entity, either then or now, it’s wrong of me to personify it as such. They don’t keep lowering the bar because they are not the same group of people from year to year. Thus, the more appropriate question is the one you pose in your fifth point.

      5. And it’s really the one I would like to discuss. There are lots of kinds of books that get preferential treatment in the Newbery canon (e.g. novels, historical fiction, middle school audience), but why this one and why now? More thoughts?

      • I’ve been thinking about your Scout question, and while I think you could make an argument that Scout Finch is a kind of prototype for the feisty southern girl, if you recall, she tells her story as an adult, in an adult’s voice (unlike Holden Caulfield, who is telling his story, if I’m remembering correctly, fairly soon after it takes place).

        For me, far more influential characters have been Ellen from ELLEN FOSTER, Mattie Ross from TRUE GRIT, and Ivy Rowe from Lee Smith’s FAIR AND TENDER LADIES. These aren’t children’s books, of course, but their narrators are children (well, Ivy Rowe grows up over the course of her story, but when it begins, she’s a child). While they speak in the vernacular of their place and time, each of their voices is searingly original.

  6. Wow, Frances — you ask good questions! I had been afraid to share my opinion today because I loved this book when I read it, and have recommended it to many feisty Southern girls in the library. So far, no complaints. Went to the shelf to grab it for a quick reread – but it is checked out.
    One thought that occured to me – maybe feisty/spunky Southern-voiced girls may just be in fashion right now. I remember a recent spate of books about voiceless children…and there have been other trends in MG/YA fiction.
    Having read REVOLUTION this week, with BROWN GIRL DREAMING on its way to me, I admit
    SNICKER OF MAGIC has dropped down on my list. I will reread and reevaluate soon. I still love it!

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      You should never be afraid to share your opinion here, Elaine. I haven’t been critical of the book. I’m trying to figure out (a) why this kind of book seems to be so popular with readers and writers in the general world and specifically with the Newbery committee and (b) whence my listless response to many, if not most, of them. I’ve implied that these books are unoriginal, but you can make the same claim against just about any book. There’s a fine line between paying homage and being derivative, and it’s a pretty subjective one, too.

  7. Thanks, Jonathan – I am getting better about commenting! Some of you (Frances for example) are so on target with your comments that sometimes all I could say is “but I liked that book” and that is just not helpful….
    Love this forum, love the reading it inspires me to do!!

  8. A Snicker of Magic is not a terrible book and I’ve had success giving it to several children who have really enjoyed it. It is a book I feel I’ve read about 10 times in the past five years, and that it doesn’t do much to stand out from the pack of those never mind the host of truly excellent books that have been released this year.

    If I were breaking it up category by category, I would say essentially the same thing Alys did in her comment above. I agree with her 100%. Is A Snicker of Magic an entertaining and decent book? Yes. Is it the most distinguished book of the year? I say most definitely not. I don’t think it can compete in even one of the categories we are looking at.

  9. I disliked this book pretty intensely. Like most of us, I eye books with quirky main characters with suspicion, but I did really like Three Times Lucky (though found I couldn’t take another volume of it, with the sequel). This one came highly recommended and I was prepared to like it, but I didn’t, separate from this genre not being a favorite. (I would draw the lines of the genre somewhat differently, though, Jonathan–so it’s good that you list particular books, because sometimes we all think we’re talking about the same thing and it turns out we’re not. I wouldn’t put Calpurnia Tate in this sub-genre at all.) I could have written a long, long essay about all the reasons I disliked this book, but instead decided to say nothing at all,really, on Goodreads–but that doesn’t fly over here. I’ll say: characters that didn’t seem real or fully developed, forced dialogue, and plot threads that were all over the place. Perhaps the low point for me is when a sermon is quoted–at some length, as I remember (could be faulty, or maybe it just seemed that way). I generally try to be open-minded about religious content in books, but this wasn’t about the religion–it’s about the sermonizing. Usually it’s done with a lighter touch.

  10. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated this book.

  11. But then, I hated Keeper too. I get goosebumps just thinking about that book, and not the good kind.

  12. Leonard Kim says:

    It seems to me the “voice” aspect in this book that divides readers is not the vernacular element, but the “language play.” I feel like there have been a lot of recent books with characters who are portrayed as loving language (for Felicity, it’s synaesthetic.) To me, this often feels superficial: a predilection for old-timey SAT vocabulary and questionable similes (to say nothing of making up words, something that DaNae and Rachael have already hilariously responded to.) Yet I imagine the readers who love this book (it’s #1 on the Goodreads poll by a mile) would characterize the use of language as imaginative and whimsical.

    For discussion purposes, I think the most comparable book from last year is COUNTING BY 7s. There are identifiable flaws, but it’s a “feel-good” (I think someone compared COUNTING BY 7s to a Hallmark movie). A feel-good is almost certainly going to have problems with narrative tension and character depth, and I think these are huge things to sacrifice for the sake of getting the feel-good effect. But if it works, and if you succumb, then you love it, and if you don’t, it’s teeth-gritting. (For the word-loving protagonists, that’s “saccharine” to you.)

    Among the books Jonathan offers, I do agree some are more apples-to-apples than others and would say SNICKER OF MAGIC is trying most to be like BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE. Kate DiCamillo’s writing is supernal, but if you take that away, like in the movie version of WINN-DIXIE (which is a bit Hallmark-y), then I think the kind of response would be comparable.

  13. Here’s an interesting thing: looking over the last several years of Newbery history, the honor books may be going to spunky-feisty-folksy-and often historical girls, but with the exceptions of MOON OVER MANIFEST and THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, the Newbery medal itself has not. Consider the following titles:


    Not a spunky-feisty-folksy (and let’s not forget plucky) girl in the lot.

    But having said this, clearly our spunky-feisty vernacular-spewing heroines do seem to get their fair share of love from Newbery committees. And they’re popular in general. My theories as to why they’re generally popular:

    1. The Luddite Theory of Children’s Literature, Part I: In an age of texting and sexting and neighborhoods where we don’t know our neighbors, we want stories where children are safe, where the girls are spunky, and a little homespun wisdom from Mama or Aunt Murleen will set things to rights.

    2. The Luddite Theory of Children’s Literature, Part II: I’m an army brat and not from anywhere. My husband’s from somewhere, but he left where he’s from, and his parents are from somewhere, but they left where they were from. I think a lot of us miss being from somewhere, and we romanticize the idea of the small town and the tight-knit community.

    3. We love the spunky-feisty-folksy girl right now because we are scared to death about our daughters going to middle school, and we hope if they read enough spunky-feisty-folksy girl books, they will kick butt and decline to take names.

    4. You’re a teacher or librarian and you need a good real-aloud, one that will keep your students’ attention as well as your own. You want a book that both boys and girls will like. From the letters I’ve gotten over the years about DOVEY COE, I’ve learned two things: teachers have fun reading it to their students, and boys like it, even if it’s about a girl. Spunky-feisty-folksy often means a good time is had by all.

    Ultimately, I think there are a lot of books in this genre/style/mode currently getting Newbery love because there are a lot of fine writers who are interested in telling stories in the vernacular of their place or a place that intrigues them. That there are lesser writers with similar interests is a given, but that’s always the case in any genre.

    As I said in my previous comment, I don’t always find the vernacular voice compelling; in fact, sometimes it sets my teeth on edge. I love a good southern accent and a good turn of phrase. I love good talk, period, but yeah, okay, folksy and whimsical can be hard to take sometimes. I live in the south and know a lot of kids who still speak in a distinct dialect, but they’re not all that folksy. I would like to hear more of their voices in children’s literature. I would like to see more contemporary fiction about rural southern kids (which includes black, white, native, and Hispanic kids), period. So when someone like you, someone who readers and writers pay attention to, comes out with a flat “tired of the southern, folksy thing,” it worries me.

    Shameless self-promotion here: I have a book coming out at the end of the month, ANYBODY SHINING, set in the mountains of North Carolina. Some will read the first page and think, “Oh, it’s that southern, folksy thing that Jonathan’s been talking about,” to which I would counter, no, it’s an accurate rendering of a regional dialect, to wit, early 20th century southern Appalachian, and, sugar, there’s a difference.

    • I really like a lot of things you have to say here.

      I think your theories about why they are so popular are spot on, and I would add that the choice of these books as read alouds and class reads is also relatively safe. Parents tend to not freak out so much about these type of books because they nostalgically remind them of their own youth. When you are dealing with a diverse group of kids, many of whom have randomly strange things they are forbidden from being exposed to via literature, these books can become the go to.

      You also said this: “That there are lesser writers with similar interests is a given, but that’s always the case in any genre.”
      I think this is important for all of us to remember no matter what category we are discussing. ALL genres, sub genres, niches, etc. are going to have excellent examples, mediocre examples, and really bad examples. I know I tend to have far more tolerance for reading the mediocre in genres I personally love. I can read many more average, run of the mill fantasy novels than I can average examples in other genres. At the same time, if I love a book with talking animals or that’s been written in verse, you know there was something special going on with the writing there because I have a low tolerance even for the best of those genres. While I try hard not to dismiss those categories completely, I am always reluctant and it takes a lot of convincing to get me there. (I mean do we really need more talking animal books? How have we not exhausted that? But then I know there are people who would say the same thing about magic and dragons, and I consider those fighting words.)

      As far as this niche category goes, I’m somewhere in the middle. I like many books I think people would put in this category, but I have very low tolerance for those that veer too far into the whimsical/quirky side of things. Part of that is because I too have spent a lot of years in the south and there’s not that much whimsical and quirky happening. (As you said.) I keep reading these even though so many of them disappoint me because, like you, I want to have more books with authentic rural voices of all types. Part of that is why this book didn’t do much for me. I didn’t find it authentic at all, but that it rather perpetuates the myth that the rural south is populated by quirky whimsical.

      Your shameless self-promotion worked on me by the way. 🙂 I graduated from App State (my last year was spent focusing on the rural areas of Watauga County) and taught 5th grade in Asheville so I’m very interested in this book you have coming out.

      • Brandy–Yes! The whimsical quirky South is a myth, and you have to wonder about the kids you meet from working class and rural communities, what they make of this mythical South, if they think it really exists and wonder why they’ve been left out of it.

        Also agree that we’ll tolerate mediocre books from the genres we love and raise the bar high for genres we find less appealing. Unless that mystery you’re offering me was written by Louise Penny, no thanks. A school story or a friendship gone bad, well, sure, why not?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I just finished ANYBODY SHINING. I think anybody stumping for A SNICKER OF MAGIC or GHOSTS OF TUPELO LANDING now has a tougher road to travel with this book out for comparison.

  14. Julie Corsaro says:

    Along the lines of what Leonard Kim says, I had problems with the writing style. There was a little too much sibilance and storytelling, not enough forward momentum. The plot bogged down for me and, like a good many first novels, probably needed more pruning. In contrast and because Alys already brought it up, Jonathan Auxier in THE NIGHT GARDNER manages to be both muscular and literary. His is a fast moving and engaging tale starring a female protagonist who tells a lot of fibs, but for understandable reasons. THE NIGHT GARDNER’S Molly was much less challenging for me than Astri in Margi Preus’ haunting and, admittedly weightier, WEST OF THE MOON, about another mid nineteenth-century teenage girl who also lies and steals in order to survive. Perhaps, not addressing Jonathan’s question, but one thought led to another …

  15. You all have such fantastic things to say–THIS is why I love this blog! That’s really all I have to add because I picked up A Snicker of Magic when it first came out and everyone was raving about it and couldn’t get past the first chapter or so (this is not necessarily the book’s fault—I was at work and was supposed to be selling the book, not reading it). I still need to go back and try again.

    • I’m with you Cecilia! I haven’t read SNICKER yet, but love the conversation about it! I’ve gotten on some major Facebook discussions lately — and I keep wanting to hit “Like” for people’s comments! 🙂

  16. I enjoyed this book (certainly more than her first book, A TANGLE OF KNOTS), and I would have liked it a lot in elementary school. But it doesn’t rise above that for me. I don’t see it as most distinguished in any of the Newbery categories.

  17. Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

    I read it prepared to dislike it and found that it was perfectly enjoyable if injected at odd moments by a bit too much twee. I was, admittedly, a bit baffled by the spy pie mention of the Civil War. Do you remember that part? There’s a moment when they’re discussing the spy pies and how they were used to carry messages from soldiers. It then says, and I’m paraphrasing because I do not have the book open before me, that if it had not been for the spy pies the war might have turned out differently. Which is a bit odd when you consider that this book is set in the South so . . . weren’t the pies for Southern soldiers? Or was this town on the North’s side? Anyone who can clarify this point for me wins a cookie.

    • Northern spies in the South, listening to info about Southern troop movements and then passing that info in a pie? did it definitely say messages “from soldiers”? I guess they could be from Northern soldiers who were disguised and were spying, perhaps disguised as Southern soldiers who’d been invalided out.

    • Well, both eastern TN and western NC were mostly full of Union sympathizers. (Like the citizens of West Virginia who were, “Nope, we are having none of this.”) They had nothing to gain and a lot to lose through the succession and war. There was a lot of undermining of the southern cause going on in the region so this town could have been all on the North’s side.

  18. I will admit up front that I am completely biased in favor of this book because I watched it transform my 6th grade daughter from a struggling reader to an avid reading fan. She declared this her favorite book – EVER – and has shared it with every person that she meets in much the same way that Harry Potter fans share. And her friends have responded in kind. This Saturday I am taking a carload of Tweens 4 hours away to Houston with the single purpose of letting them meet the author of this book that transformed them into readers. I think sometimes it is easy for us librarians and experienced readers to become jaded, to see trends, etc. – but it is important that we evaluate books not only on a scholarly level, but also through the eyes of the intended audience. I have seen this book speak to the heart of readers and open them up, that is a transformative power that I can’t easily dismiss. Will it win the Newbery this year? I can’t say, but I hope the title – and all titles – can be discussed based upon their individual merit and with the intended audience in mind instead of comparing it to a laundry list of similar titles or books with similar themes.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Karen, maybe you didn’t read the entire post with all of its comments, but we are both discussing the individual merits of this book and comparing it to various ways against the other books published this year. That’s an inherent function of the Newbery committee, but I’m sure there are many other blogs that reviewed A SNICKER OF MAGIC in a vacuum, as it were.

  19. And yet Karen is right. the Newbery committee cannot look at what previously won, what the author has written in previous years, or even what other books in that ‘style, subgenre, whatev’ exist— unless they were published in the year under consideration. I like to think of each book and how well it succeeds in doing what ti sets out to do– and try hard to ignore my own preferences, biases and prejudiced ideas. I can be a lot less successful at this on some books than others.

    What this book did not do that I wanted it to do– is change my world, and I think it was trying to do that. In the epilogue it mentions that other towns could have a snicker of magic, and I felt very disrespected that such a summary statement was tagged on. Which brings me to another aspect that makes me hesitate. It seemed a bit patronizing. I think that is the part that Leonard calls saccharine, and which makes me think the author couldn’t trust the reader to figure anything out on our own. It’s a kind of overkill.


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