Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Summer Camp, Sharks, and a School Bus Road Trip

Today we’ll look at three books that are among the top 10 leaders in Suggestions from Heavy Medal readers. I see strengths in all and agree that Committee members should read and consider them. Would they hold up through re-reading and rigorous discussion based on Newbery Criteria?


There’s a lot packed into this novel, and a lot of it works. Coyote is an instantly engaging character, with a narrative voices that’s distinct and likable. Her language isn’t fancy, but it’s evocative and insightful:

There was quiet then. Between Salvador and the road and Ivan and the night and me.

Salvador broke the quiet, but broke it gently, with a voice that was low, like a warm mug in cold hands. (120)

The plot moves quickly with one adventure after another, while Coyote’s secret quest and the deep emotion behind it always present in the reader’s mind. Some of the big scenes felt overly contrived to me. Shouting secrets from the bus (166) provides a emotional, cinematic kind of moment, but seemed a little forced. And there was never any doubt in my mind that at some point, Coyote would be driving this bus…and doing it while being chased by police made it just that more over-the-top. Both of those scenes, though, and several others, could be just right for the intended child audience. Filling a novel with drama, broad humor, and relatable characters that can grab readers and make them think is no small accomplishment, and I think this book achieves that.


In a year of middle-grade fiction filled with grieving and death, this one stands out. Partly because it has both grieving, as Lucy continues to mourn her mother’s long-ago passing, and a surprising death: Fred drowns in the quarry. There’s more to Lucy’s story than death, though. She’s a fascinating character,  trying to work through the sadness, but also figuring out who she is and what she’s capable of, the way twelve-year-olds do. The supporting characters, several of whom are adult, are particularly strong. They all seem to be struggling with their own stuff, and don’t exist just to impact the main characters growth (though they do). I read this book just after I read SONG FOR A WHALE by Kelly, another book that uses a big marine animal (a whale this time) as both a central plot element and a symbol, and in both cases the protagonists wind up helping scientists study them. Just a coincidence, and I liked both books, but think that LINE TENDER has a bit more depth and complexity.

TO NIGHT OWL FROM DOGFISH  by Meg Wolitzer and Holly Goldberg Sloan

Here’s a more lighthearted choice, written by two authors alternating chapters in the two protagonists’ voices. Telling a story through emails and texts can be gimmicky, but here the format works well. Readers quickly get a feel for the girls’ personalities and the story elements come through in a fairly natural way. We’ve talked in broad terms about diversity on earlier posts. In this case, the relationship between two dads and the backgrounds of the girls are presented as just part of the story, rather than themes or issues to deal with. This makes perfect sense, since that’s how the girls view them.  The story recalls LOTTE AND LISA and the “Parent Trap” movies that book inspired, and there’s a similarly playful tone to it all that makes the mild plot contrivances easy to enjoy; and they’re not always predictable. Serious themes around family and friendship come through clearly…sometimes maybe too clearly, as when one of the girls (I don’t have the book here to cite name or page number) writes a bullet-point list that pretty much states all of the themes directly, just in case we missed them. It can be tempting to dismiss “lighthearted” books in awards discussions, and I’m glad this one got enough Suggestions, encouraging us to take this one seriously.  

Later this month we’ll move from Suggestions to Nominations, eventually asking Heavy Medal readers to choose the seven books they think are the strongest Newbery contenders. Do any of these three rise to that top seven level? 

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Mary Lou White says

    The Line Tender did it for me. The character development, the sensitive exploration of love and marriage and death and grieving, plus the science and the art – so many elements that created a complex novel that never felt overloaded or contrived. The theme of death often feels overplayed and ridiculously redundant in middle grade fiction, but this book still felt fresh and unique. This is one of the best I have read this year. I liked The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, but it seemed to wobble under the weight of so many characters that were added to further the plot. Coyote’s voice is this novel’s strength.

    • Line Tender: I am still “in shock” that the author put in the death of a young person, a good friend, a potential young romantic interest… in the book, and quite early on. It’s a good kind of shock: the remaining chapters take on such tenderness, such strength, such humanity after the night swim event. I also really appreciate how he continues to be a fully-fleshed out character.

      Mary Lou, your description of “wobble under the weight” of so many characters is so well-put. Some of them are almost too stereotypically drawn for my taste: a gay kid has to be the runaway from home, and a hispanic family have to hide from law enforcement. Coyote’s voice is so nice and fresh — for the first 1/5 of the book, and then, it becomes less charming and more annoying. The strongest part of this book is the very very end when the pacing of the writing slows down and we get to truly delve into the characters’ grief and catharsis.

  2. Of the three novels mentioned here, I believe The Line Tender is the most distinguished. The characters are well-drawn, and the theme of the protagonist finding and tagging the shark brings closure and provides the story with well-rounded plot structure.

    I adored Coyote Sunrise, particularly her narration, but the prevalence of so many characters of diverse backgrounds seemed a bit forced. I loved diversity, but the author seemed to be trying a bit too hard. I loved the scene where the boy gets to play the violin solo for his mother, but the whole business with the security guard dragged and seemed contrived. Also, the police chase and Coyote driving the bus was a bit implausible to me. I couldn’t picture an adult allowing that to happen. Mind you, that scenario would appaeal more to children than adults.

    I love the epistolary novel and look forward to reading From Night Owl to Dogfish.

  3. Despite my past “dystopic” comment about COYOTE, I think it is very good at putting readers through the emotional wringer. But I feel it does so in a Pixar-ish pushing your buttons way. Want to make your reader cry? Bring out the memory box. Make your father say your name. It works, and it’s sincere but perhaps a bit too dependable. (I had a similar response to WHITE BIRD — also effective, but of course Julian was going to die when and how he did.) I think a book that seems intent on making you cry, even if it succeeds, is probably missing something on characterization, style, and thematic Criteria. Steven cites the shouting secrets scene in COYOTE and thinks it cinematic and emotional but also contrived and forced. Exactly. You can easily picture this in a familiar-feeling movie with familiar-feeling stock movie characters and you will feel familiar feelings. Whereas there is a similar shouting scene in BEVERLY RIGHT HERE, and what Beverly comes up with, “I miss everyone!” is both unexpected and perfect and could only have come from Beverly in the moment.

    There is another credulity-straining, cross-country trip on a school bus novel this year, ANTHEM, and though it is no less emotional than COYOTE, it has the genuine strangeness, the inimitability that I want from a Newbery (“eminence” “significant achievement” “individually distinct”). Given the drubbing Revolution took here back when, I don’t have high hopes for it, but I stand by my Goodreads opinion that this is as close to the Great American Novel as we’ll get for its readership.

    I liked much of THE LINE TENDER and I agree with Steven in preferring it to SONG FOR A WHALE. I do have an issue with the characterization of Fred, the dead, perfect almost-boyfriend, who hardly seemed real, and wasn’t really all that appealing. More a manic pixie dream boy than a real person, and that’s a problem for such a crucial character.

    NIGHT OWL comes the closest to Newbery nomination territory for me. I would point to its continuing ability to surprise and grow. It could have easily stayed with its initial odd couple, break up the dads premise and been perfectly fine and amusing, but as DaNae says on Goodreads it “winds up as an expansive view of family.” And it’s so funny. This may sound odd, but the stretch of e-mails where the girls get distracted by the ins and outs of pressing flowers when they are supposed to be scheming about their dads is a perfect encapsulation of what makes this book so appealing. My one quibble is the very end where the authorial hand is too heavy in withholding who is getting married. As an adult reader, I had long figured it out, but if I hadn’t, I don’t see the point in trying to make the reader think that it’s the dads.

  4. I thought all three of these books had moments where I could feel the heavy hand of author trying to wring emotion out of the reader.

    Though LINE TENDER seemed to me the best of the three books at engaging emotions organically, there were spots and details that seemed drawn out for the sake of their emotional resonance rather than actual practical reasons (every single thing with Vern, for instance, while an important part of Lucy’s journey, could have been discovered if they’d actually read her mother’s proposal. I never understood why her father was willing to drive for hours and impose upon a sick old man, but wasn’t willing to just read his wife’s proposal. Or why Sookie on p 234 is confused and ready to call for the nurse when Vern starts talking about planes, but on the literal next page is ready to explain what a spotter plane is and how that was part of the original plan.) The last bits of the book, where Lucy is making miraculous harpoon throws to tag a shark just made me roll my eyes, especially after most of the rest of the book was scrupulously realistic. The grief that pervades the book was certainly striking and effective and distinguished. I’m looking forward to when we focus on individual books and can really dive deeply into discussing THE LINE TENDER.

    COYOTE SUNRISE, as many others have already commented, was clearly pulling emotional strings in several places. They were effective strings, but they were still felt.

    NIGHT OWL had so many coincidences and sequences of events that had to happen in exactly the right way that I’m still trying to parse out whether that was distinguished writing in terms of a plot and theme that happily embraced coincidence and happenstance and therefore it was a strength, or if it was herding the characters into specific scenarios.

  5. I’m team NIGHT OWL all the way. What a funny and joyful book. With rounded and yes, quirky characters who really know who they are. I like that it wasn’t trying to be ‘important’ but it still managed depth, without needing a shovel to get back to the surface.

    I may have thrown up a wall of resentment for LINE TENDER that I will need to reevaluate at some point. I just feel buried in the sad and tragic this year and I demand a reprieve, dammit. This book didn’t resonate with me at all. It just felt like tragedy porn. Clearly, I have a bad attitude and will need to reread.

    COYOTE felt heavy-handed all the way through with the author telling us all along the way how we should feel. That being said, it is a favorite of my students.

  6. I haven’t yet read COYOTE or NIGHT OWL, but I did just finished LINE TENDER, and I must say I was disappointed. I found the author’s use of descriptive language to be wildly uneven. She gives us perfect snapshots marine life whenever possible, but then fails to mention basic details about the setting of the story and its characters. For example, did anyone else notice that she revealed that the story takes place, for some reason, in 1996 about a third of the way through the book? Or that we meet Fiona several chapters before we learn that she’s Fred’s sister? Those were such odd choices. Shouldn’t we, as readers, have known important details like those earlier? Also, why set a novel in “the past” if that time period does nothing to serve the story? I’m getting caught in the weeds a bit here. Big picture, I think many of the choices the author made (language, setting, etc.) read as clumsy rather than intentional and that greatly diminished my appreciation for the book. It’s currently at the bottom of my Newbery list. Also, and I know I’m in the minority here, but I tend not to champion books that hug the very end of the Newbery age band. I’m always going to root for a book that most kids can read, and the content in this one is going to greatly limit its potential audience.

    • I didn’t see the slow reveal of information as clumsy, but purposefully done. I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Today, October 15, 2019, I am going to see John, my son, and Harry, who is my nephew.” It’d be like having having the character look into the mirror and carefully comment on what they looked like in order to give the reader that information. Instead we get that information organically. The complete lack of cell phones told me right away that the book wasn’t contemporary, and while I was mildly frustrated that I didn’t know the date right away, it wasn’t very important to the emotional center of the book, so it didn’t bother me.

      Whether or not a choice of time period HAS to “serve the story” is a separate conversation, but in this particular case, it does have an important impact: Present day Cape Cod is a hotbed of shark research activity, and has been for several years. Hundreds of sharks have been tagged or otherwise identified, and there is a very clear and well-publicized connection between sharks and seals. Add in the internet, and it would have taken approximately fifteen minutes for Lucy to find access to every bit of information she could have wanted to learn about sharks and her mother’s research.

Speak Your Mind