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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Seneca Village Redux


Am I the only person that dreams my dreams?

Does anybody else on this planet think my thoughts?

Are my ideas like darting lights I’ve caught?

Is my mind a net sieving through thought-filled streams?

I know when we first posted about this book it was a bit under the radar.  It had a couple starred reviews back then; now it has four and counting.  When I read it the first time, it immediately jumped into my top five.  Then I read it a second time and it jumped into my top three.  I’m afraid that if I read it a third time, it will be my top pick!  Good poetry is like that.  It takes awhile to grow on you.

I find that the more time I spend with this community, the more real they seem to me, the more I remember their connections to each other, the more I can visualize them in my head.  Of course, part of that is the stage directions that Nelson provides.  I find that the language stays with me, lingers in my memory long afterward.

We have lots of books that are epic in scope.  ECHO and GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA which we’ve recently discussed would certainly fit that bill, and MY SENECA VILLAGE is epic, too, covering over a dozen characters in a thirty year span, touching on both the general and the specific, the personal and the political, the mundane and the profound.  And yet she does it all with these amazing little vignettes.

Some people have expressed surprise (and dismay) over some explicit imagery, but that didn’t stop CARVER from being named by that committee, and I’m hoping the same will be true for this one as well.  If I have my way, this will be wearing Newbery, Printz, and Coretta Scott King stickers come January!




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 agree with everything you’ve written here, Jonathan, and have very little to offer in addition to your observations. Nelson’s poetry has always resonated with me (A Wreath for Emmett Till tops my list as the most powerful book of poetry I’ve ever read). My Seneca Village is not far behind it. Nelson’s characters leap off the page.

    And though I know “popularity” is never taken into consideration (and shouldn’t be taken into consideration)… unfortunately, my students have show *no* interest in the book whatsoever. Since introducing it and booktalking it for our Mock Newbery, it hasn’t circulated once. I don’t know if it’s the drab cover or the fact that it’s poetry, but I’m a bit bummed. I hope if the awards committees shower it with some love. Maybe that will raise its profile.

  2. Thank you for this post, Jonathan. I share a lot of your love for this extraordinary book — I felt transported to another place in time and into real people’s lives, which is what good historical fiction should do. My one concern is whether MY SENECA VILLAGE is, in fact, a book for children. The poems seemed to me to be mainly from an adult/young adult perspective and many things that are obvious to an adult reader are left unexplained. I don’t have the book in front of me (sorry!) but I recall one poem written from the point of view of the African American hairdresser that perpetuates many of the worst of Irish American stereotypes — that they were lazy, that the women walked the streets, that the children ran wild. A note underneath explains that the Irish were demonized by the newspapers of the day and, as an adult, I understand the tendency of marginalized people to often look down upon other marginalized people, but what would the child reader, most especially a child of Irish descent, make of these words? In another poem, the German immigrant makes a reference to “Schweinhund Catholics”. There is no note this time but, as an adult, I can infer that the man in question is most likely Jewish and has probably suffered at the hands of his Catholic countrymen back in Germany and that his feelings are justified. But what is the child reader to infer here? That Catholics are pig-dogs? I looked to see if there was any suggested age range on the book and couldn’t find any. I also went to the Namelos website and found no information as to whether this book was published for children. Amazon doesn’t give any age guidance, and it usually does if a book is for young readers.
    I’ve been reading Heavy Medal for years and usually feel that other people express my own feelings about the books discussed far more articulately than I ever could, so I’ve never commented before. But as a (part) Irish Catholic myself, I felt like I had a perspective worth considering here since I know that my child self might have been confused and offended by certain passages in MY SENECA VILLAGE that my adult self found understandable and powerfully written.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      The poems that Kathy references above are “Professor Hesser, Music Lessons” (p. 65) and “Sisters of Charity” (p. 67).

      In “Professor Hesser, Music Lessons,” the use of the word Schweinhund is definitely an unprovoked microagression against Catholics with no context provided for understanding it. I think Professor Hesser could just as likely be Protestant as Jewish, though.

      In “Sisters of Charity,” those stereotypes in the first stanza jump out, but I do think Nelson provides ample context in the footnote at the bottom. Moreover, by the final stanza she has drawn a parallel between the Irish and black experiences (making this relevant to Rosanne’s recent comments on the Echo thread). However, I agree that since the stereotypes are not explicitly named as such and since many child readers may not read the footnotes, it remains a valid point of discussion in relation to presentation for a child audience.

      Not surprisingly, these concerns ultimately do not diminish this book enough to keep it out of my top three, but then I also like HIRED GIRL, potential problems notwithstanding. I know we’ve seemingly dinged most of our shortlist for cultural insensitivity, micro aggressions, cultural appropriation, and accuracy of presentation. While my mind naturally searches for a unified field theory, a way to be fair and balanced to all books, I know that each case is unique and different. However, I do think that because both THE HIRED GIRL and MY SENECA VILLAGE play to the older end of the spectrum, and because they both include historically accurate attitudes that are offensive by contemporary standards with little or no context to guide the child reader, I think they are probably the most apt for comparison.

  3. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Great questions, Kathy! Nelson does make lots of demands on her readers, and they will not all be up for the challenge, so I think this is a book for ages 12-14 and perhaps one that is ages 14 and up. I don’t think you are the only one wrestling with the age issue, and I’m sure members of the real committee are soliciting child feedback to help them inform their opinions. I know that I would be trying to do that. I was on the committee when A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL came out and I had enthusiastic readers as young as fifth grade.

    I’d like to look at those passages again–I left the book back in my office on my desk–but I’ll think about it over the weekend, listen to what others have to say, reread those passages on Monday, and then come back with some more thoughts.

  4. My hold for this book came in today! *dances off to the library*

    I’ll be looking at what you saw in regards to Irish and Catholic references Kathy, as both are my heritage.

    I read plenty of things I found offensive to my heritage as a child and they worked greatly to my benefit. They inspired me to ask harder questions of my catechists, to search for more historical and political context to issues that had been only framed in a spiritual context, to discuss issues with a wide variety of believers and non-believers, and to make up my own mind about teachings of my faith rather than just take what was presented without reflection. I suspect if someone had carefully shielded me from negative depictions of my ethnicity or religion I would not choose to identify with either as an adult. Did I find them upsetting as a kid? Yes, absolutely. Did kids tease me about my faith and ethnicity. Yes. And I would not trade those experiences for a more comfortable and sheltered childhood. They were formative and useful. Righteous indignation is a powerful force for good and I would not shield my own children or other readers from the opportunity to experience it.

  5. Safranit Molly says:

    Adult appreciation for this book is wide and sweeping. Like Jonathan, the teachers in my school who have read this one are nearly speechless in admiration of it. I admire it too, though I think my appreciation will increase with repeated readings. I will read it again with notebook beside me to map the characters because I did get mixed up as characters were mentioned and then returned in later poems. I love the form of the book and find it distinguished indeed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book with stage directions setting up each poem. I found that really helped me create the setting in my mind which makes the setting a particularly distinguished aspect of the book.
    Given our Humanities teachers’ response to this book I know it will become a favorite of theirs and will be used in our middle school curriculum in various ways. As a librarian, I love Nelson’s use of primary source material as a springboard for creative writing. It is an inspiring model for our kids who are just beginning to pick their way through primary sources. However, like Kathy, my main concern about this book is that it does not feel like it is written with a child audience in mind. Perhaps some of you astute readers can point out where young people are the intended audience? I found the characters to be mainly young adults and adults; the situations the characters face are not very familiar or meaningful to young readers (the death of an infant, the neighborhood gossip. . . I’m sorry I don’t have my copy at hand to locate more specific examples).
    The Newbery criteria tells us that it should be a book for which children are the intended potential audience. The book must display respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Usually our discussions about the age range question pertains to whether the book is too mature for a 14 year old. I didn’t find anything in this remarkable book that makes it inappropriate for a young teen. I just didn’t find it especially written for them either.
    And I also agree with Joe–the cover doesn’t do it any favors. None of my kids have chosen to read this one from our Newbery box yet.

  6. Sheila Welch says:

    I found this information about the book on this page of the namelos site:

    Scroll down to see this designation: Ages 12 and up/ Grades 6-12.
    The cover may not attract all children, but I think the ones who will love the poetry will also love the cover. Also, it has the same look and emotional depth as the cover for her book CARVER, A LIFE IN POEMS.

  7. I have just begun reading this – I mentioned in another post that my library system catalogued this adult. So glad to see from comments above that Newbery-aged readers are appropriate! So far I am loving MY SENECA VILLAGE – more later!!

  8. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I think that Nelson’s poems are rare in that their audience can be of almost any age. I do think they require an astute, interested reader, of likely ages 12 and up, but this is within the Newbery criteria. And I think there is much here that shows, in a distinguished way, an appreciation for a child audience… if nothing else in the varied use of poetic form and flashes of moments to tell a narrative. It’s a narrative you can take just one piece of to think about for a while… or you can puzzle together the influences from one to the next over time.

    There is SO much to puzzle out here, so much left unsaid, that the book really demands the reader fill in the rest of the context outside of the text at hand. I don’t think this is too much to ask of 12-14 year olds, though it’s a lot to ask of some of them. Because of this, and because there is so much presented to think about in terms of discrimination and historical influence within the text, my memory is that I thought the language Kathy spoke of felt justified within the book. I have to re-read it, and can’t remember the details well enough, so I will certainly give it another look. If others find page numbers that you think bear consideration, please share.

    A word about a different kind of eligibility, here. Someone asked me if this would be considered eligible, because some of the poems appeared previously in online journals. I certainly hope this isn’t knocked out of consideration for that, as it seems to me pretty clear it remains eligible. The definition in question is whether the book is “original work,” and in the manual the following interpretations are given (I’m selecting sections from this interpretation in the appendix):

    “The intent is to insure that a book is a NEW creation, and not a re-creation from some other work. This does not mean that some minor portion of the work cannot have appeared elsewhere. It does mean, however, that no significant part of the book under consideration was originally part of another work.
    “2. If a portion of a book was previously published elsewhere – for instance, in a magazine, a collection of short stories or in electronic format – then the amount of previously published material must be a minor portion of the entire work. The substantial majority of the book must be wholly new, original and previously unpublished.
    “Example: A chapter in A Long Way from Chicago, by Richard Peck (Newbery Honor, 1999) had previously been published as a short story. However, this chapter was a minor part of the book, which was much longer. The book was ruled eligible.”

    Having served on these committees several times, I can attest there are many cases in which this is not clear cut, and, in years before these interpretations were published, I did sense some rulings unfairly rendered a book in-eligible. Long time readers of this blog will recall that I made that faulty assumption about The Graveyard Book, in which one full chapter had previously appeared in a short story anthology. I was never more glad to be wrong.

    In this case, the t.p. verso indicates that “some poems” previously appeared in several online journals, which are literary journals pitched to adults. I counted eleven poems total, across four publications. However, even if this was considered not a “minor” portion (it is approximately a quarter of the work), it seems to me that the book as collected and presented is a fully new work for children, not previously marketed to a children’s audience, or as a single narrative sequence.

    Since I recall that Marilyn Nelson’s other award-winning books had similar previous publication history, I can’t really imagine this would be an issue.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I know there’s really no such thing as precedent–meaning that the 2015 committee doesn’t necessarily need to take the lead of the 2002 committee in regard to this issue–but to my mind, this book is a new creation for a new audience. Reading a poem here or a poem there in an adult poetry journal does not even begin to convey the full experience of this book.

  9. Let’s split the baby here and agree that Marilyn Nelson writes primarily for a sophisticated student audience. Her elegant verse is assigned and taught, rather than read for recreation*. Her work can certainly be understood and appreciated by young (teen) readers, but those readers are unlikely to tackle her books on their own (says a public librarian who buys, displays and promotes all of Nelson’s work – and despairs at how little it circulates).

    Does the expectation that her work will be read with “scholarly” attention make her books more or less Newbery-appropriate? (Or, sorry to mention it, Jonathan, Printz-appropriate?)

    *except for Snook!

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Mary, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with anything you’ve written here. Probably more than any other book on our shortlist, it’s one that needs discussion on these points–

      In some instances, award-winning books have been criticized for exceeding the upper age limit of fourteen.
      If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible. Questions for committees to consider include these:
      * Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?
      * If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?
      * If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?
      A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee feels that
      * it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book;
      * it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership;
      * it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.

    • Thanks, Jonathan (and I meant let’s not split the baby, of course)

  10. Brenda Martin says:

    I found what I believe to be a typo in the introduction that confused me in terms of the timeline. Nelson refers to a NY state 1885 census that found that 264 residents lived in Seneca Village at the time of the demolition of the area for the construction of Central Park. I think 1855 is what was intended. If it is a typo it’s particularly unfortunate, as many readers may already find themselves a bit at sea about the content of the book.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Brenda, thanks for this catch. I’m going to make sure the publisher knows. You’re right that it’s particularly unfortunate…but it is also, hopefully, easy to fix, especially as this book is print on demand.

    • Thanks for catching that typo, Brenda. Of course it was the 1855 census.

      As to the Irish and Catholic references, I was trying to illustrate contemporaneous prejudices: in the US against the Irish (and Catholic), and in Germany between Protestant and Catholic. If I had thought of it, I would have included a note making that clear.

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