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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Three Voices, One Story…and a Newbery Medal?: Character, narrative, and style in THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY

Two motherless girls spending the summer on Long Island during World War II find a baby on the steps of the local library. Amy Hest’s THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY presents this unlikely event in alternating chapters through the perspectives of eleven-year old Julie, her six-year-old sister, Martha, and their friend, twelve-year-old Bruno Ben-Eli. In the hands of a less gifted author, this narrative technique can become an engaging but disjointed exercise, an easy way out of weaving together different voices into one cohesive story. Hest’s novel, however, is an accomplished interpretation of childhood under difficult personal circumstances and a trying historical time. By allowing the unmediated thoughts of children to come through strongly and clearly, without the intrusion of an adult consciousness, the author creates characters free of obvious artifice. A perfect match of style and character make this deceptively simple novel a success.

The book is divided into sections, each one given a title taken directly from the narrators’ experience. “Leaving the Scene,” “Binoculars,” and Things You Don’t Necessarily Tell,” all offer clues to a plot which unfolds, in Bruno’s words, “like some mystery you see in the movies” (p. 14). The reappearing binoculars of the chapter title tie together the three perspectives, even as they also highlight their differences. For Bruno, they are an emblem of his older brother, while Julie, watching Bruno “with those big binoculars kind of plastered to his eyes,” (p. 66) sees him transformed into a young soldier. For Martha, they are “magical,” a way to conjure the woman who one day will say, “YES, MARTHA, I WILL BE YOUR NEW MOTHER” (p. 67).  Of the three narrators, Bruno is the most conscious of time and of ordering the events of the story into something which makes sense. His older brother, Ben, is serving in the army and the painful fact of his absence is a daily reality. Bruno’s stream-of-consciousness is natural and understated, but also dramatic, because children do not necessarily understand those two ways of seeing as contradictory. Describing his wristwatch, his words go on to conjure the absent Ben, even including a brief bit of his brother’s speech.

I knew I had plenty of time because I kept checking my watch. Which is not in actual fact my watch, but I wear it every day because Ben said I could. Ben. That’s my brother, Private Benjamin Ben-Eli, bravest soldier in the war. BRUNO, CATCH! That’s what he called from the train that day – his leaving day – and the train whistle blew and his watch came sailing out the window, and the train pulled out, and then he was gone. Gone to war. (pp. 6-7)

Eleanor Roosevelt is a presence in the novel, a link between the child and adult characters, and the outside world of the war. When Julie watches Mrs. Ben-Eli writing to Mrs. Roosevelt, Hest emphasizes how different the mental worlds of adults are from those of children. Julie is in awe of the letter’s language, which is utterly sincere, but follows the codes in which adults express their feelings. Mrs. Ben-Eli is “THE MOTHER OF A BRAVE YOUNG MAN STATIONED OVERSEAS.” She wants to “PERSONALLY THANK YOU FOR YOUR SELFLESS TRIPS…IN THE PACIFIC” (p. 87). In contrast, Roosevelt appears to the children as a tall woman in clunky brown shoes, an old lady getting out of a big car, a “baby expert” (p. 158) so rich in maternal skills that she feeds, burps, and sings to the baby of the book’s title. 

THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY is not a merely a nostalgic look back at the past, but an authentic expression of children’s inner lives set in a specific time and place.      

Emily Schneider lives in New York City and reviews books for the Jewish Book Council. Her articles about children’s literature and other cultural topics have appeared on the JBC website and on The Horn Book, Tablet, The Forward, and other publications. She blogs about children’s books at https://imaginaryelevators.blog/ Emily holds a doctorate in Romance Languages and Literatures.

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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 sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. I enjoyed your analysis of this intriguing-sounding book. Hope it comes out on audio or in Braille soon so that I can read it. Books with alternating voices are always favorites, particularly if they are from childrens’ perspectives.

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    Thanks for bringing this one into the discussion, Emily. It’s easy to overlook a book that’s a little quieter, without the heavy drama of some of the other titles from this year. But there is drama, and an effective story arc, partly because of the way the story is revealed by the three alternating narrators. We don’t really get to know too much about each of the kids, but what we do learn contributes directly to the plot and themes. I like Emily’s observation that their stories are told “without the intrusion of an adult consciousness.” We get there immediate thoughts and feelings as they are spurred by the baby on that particular day. In terms of “children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations,” this book is told in a style that younger readers may not have encountered before, and presents it in ways that will stretch them a bit, but still be fully accessible.

  3. Meredith, I don’t know what percentage of books are available in Braille or as audiobooks; I hope that you will be able to access this one. When I was growing up, my grandmother actually translated books into Braille, using a typewriter as well as a stylus. She didn’t do this professionally; it was a volunteer activity, but she was certified by the LOC. Sometimes she translated children’s books; I remember specifically Andrew Lang’s GREEN FAIRY BOOK. It made a very great impression on me about how essential it is for everyone to have access to books, now matter what effort is necessary to provide that. So I should know more about this important issue and I will try to learn.
    Steven, thank you for your comments. Looking over the books this year, as well as in the recent past, there are middle-grade books focused on “big” issues. This year there are several on child abuse.There are also always “smaller” books about the inevitable problems, as well as joys, of just being a child. THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY seems to me to successfully combine both, with considerations of war and grief, as well as sibling rivalry, friendship, and community. I would guess that most Heavy Medal participants have not read this one, but I really hope that, if they can find it, they do so.

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    I do think that “smaller” books should be looked at and appreciated. A couple from past years that might fit in that group are THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER and TURTLE IN PARADISE. Very different books from SUMMER…they’re both more episodic, while SUMMER is specifically built around one event. But they all touch on serious issues, without the intensity that other books might bring to them. Not that there’s anything wrong with intensity…but there is always room for different approaches and different styles.

  5. I liked THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY very much. The voices of the narrators are each distinctive. The story unfolds in a way that reflects a childhood perspective. I only wondered whether a child reader would know this book is not a contemporary story. The facts of the World War II setting are not prominent. Few present day children would know that Eleanor Roosevelt was a real person in another era. Does it matter if they interpret the book as happening now?

    • Kate, you’re right that background knowledge always makes some difference in how children respond to a book. But if such knowledge were necessary, we would probably have to avoid any book not set in the present time. I think that Hest deliberately does not include a great deal of detailed information about the war because that is not the purpose of her novel. She presents the story through the eyes of children. They are well aware of who Eleanor Roosevelt is, so to have them insert explanations, such as references to her as the First Lady or other information, would render the text very artificial. I have read children’s books where authors do that and they aren’t good. There are clues in the book, but the specifics are not crucial to understanding the book. The reference, for example, to ER visiting troops in the Pacific means it must take place in 1943 or later. If fact, if you look up that visit, you will immediately find many photos of Eleanor Roosevelt at the bedside of a severely wounded soldier on that trip, which was a controversial one because of the risk involved. In my opinion, this just presents a great opportunity to extend the meaning of he book by offering children additional sources of information. These conversations should always be part of sharing books with middle-grade readers.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

        Great point Kate about the lack of historical context and dates. I did a quick skim and unless I missed it I don’t think there’s any clear identifier before the mention of “President Roosevelt” on page 104 (in a 181 page book). Other references that place it in the past, like “Life Magazine” (53) or “I Want You” posters (34) may well be lost on young readers.

        I’m trying to remember what I thought as a reader, since I usually skip the book flap intro. I’m pretty sure I assumed at first that Bruno’s brother was in the Middle East in modern times for a while, and that seems okay. Either way, Bruno is a kid who worships his older brother and is worried about him, which is the most important piece.

        I think it’s a fascinating choice by the author. It shows how completely Hest wants to immerse us in the points of view of her child narrators. Bruno could have said, “It was August 31, 1944” instead of “It was August 31” to open his section, but even that addition of the year could feel “artificial” as Emily describes. It’s more important to get Bruno’s voice just right.

        A simpler method could have been to just state the date at the beginning of the book, but she opts not to do that. If you read the book jacket intro, you would know it’s World War II, but that’s outside the actual book content. To withhold that date information seems like a brave choice by the author and shows she’s trying to connect with readers in a kind of innovative way.

      • Leonard Kim says

        I just started this and obviously the historical period has been spoiled for me. But in Bruno’s very first chapter has him writing a letter a week to Ben and getting them in return. Is that enough to place it at least a couple decades in the past?

  6. I just saw your comment, Ms. Emily. How wonderful that your grandmother did volunteer Braille transcribing! Yes, I remember using a stylus. It’s amazing how technology has come such a long way. Braille transcribers often use Braille embossers, or they have equipment that can translate regular print into Braille code. So, having books transcribed is much easier, although it is still quite costly. There is a website called bookshare.org which partners with several publishers to have electronic Braille books available on the same day as print books are released. It’s a wonderful tool. Unfortunately, Candlewick is not in partnership with them, but I plan to submit Summer We Found the Baby to them so that will hopefully be transcribed. Thanks again for your analysis.

    And, I would think that children would understand if a book was set in a different time period. One I always think about is Kirby Larson’s The Friendship Doll, which spanned several decades from 1939 to present-day. Larson did an effective job of making each era come to life.

    • Meredith, if you liked THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL, there is a trilogy, also about Japanese and American girls and the doll exchange, by Shirley Parenteau.(SHIP OF DOLLS, DOLLS OF WAR, DOLLS OF HOPE) They are also published by Candlewick, so it sounds as if Candlewick needs to make their books available to everyone.

  7. Molly Karene Sloan says

    Thank you all for this lovely conversation about The Summer We Found the Baby. Amy Hest will be our (virtual) guest author at my school tomorrow and I am delighted that her newest book is a contender for the Newbery. She is a talented writer who captures nuance and complex characters in deft and subtle ways. I am glad to see our armchair Newbery community taking notice of her work.

  8. Leonard Kim says

    I know it’s not quite done to comment on a book while still reading it. I am enjoying this but I do wonder about “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” Not just the immersion into the children’s POV to the exclusion of perhaps needed context mentioned above. But there are real challenges of structure. As Emily points out, “Of the three narrators, Bruno is the most conscious of time and of ordering the events of the story into something which makes sense” which means, to perhaps too great an extent, time and ordering don’t make sense. We get the promised baby in the title right away, and it all makes sense for 5 chapters through the old lady’s appearance. Then in chapter 6, abruptly, Julie starts, “We took the train to Belle Beach. Pop, me, Martha, plus George.” And I became deeply confused. I actually skipped back a couple of chapters trying to figure out when I missed Pop’s appearance. Eventually, I figured out that we were jumping through time with basically no warning. Which is fine. I am enjoying it. But if I am confused, I worry about younger readers making sense of this. I think the problem may be even worse than in a book like EVERYTHING SAD. At least in that book, all the elements are complex (perhaps too complex.) But in this book, as Steven points out, the language and scale of the book otherwise suggest a “smaller” book for a younger readership. It might be interesting to compare this directly to WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE but it looks like neither may make it to the mock list.

    • Leonard Kim says

      This was really good. Thanks Emily. But I suspect elementary school me wouldn’t have understood any of it. This book requires a great deal of inference. And I couldn’t infer in elementary school. And although I agree this was an excellent “authentic expression of children’s inner lives”, I feel like the significance of the story they tell is beyond their understanding, which I understand is by design and may well make this all the more touching for adult readers, but again would have been completely over my head as a child.

      • Leonard, and Steven, I think the main point of this discussion is how subjective our reception of this book, and all books, can be. I don’t see that as a bad thing. Leonard, I’m not sure exactly which part of chapter 6 confused you, since the narrators had mentioned Pop before this point. I guess you mean the return to when they actually arrived at their summer location. I knew the book was set during World War II before I read it, so it’s difficult for me to accurately address that issue. Leonard observed that the letter writing anecdote certainly sets it in the past. As early as p. 6, there is a reference to Bruno’s brother, Ben, leaving on a train and checking his watch (not his cell phone), so that Ben also leaves Bruno a note in an envelope. So that set it in the past for me, although these references might not have set the book specifically during WWII. I still maintain, as Steven also pointed out, that supplying too many explanations of references specific to the era will spoil the first-person narrative, since the narrators would never have found it necessary to explain those allusions. On the other hand, I understand the idea that this is a novel,not a diary. There is always an element of artifice. The author has to make it accessible to the reader. So there is no straightforward answer. I felt that kids would understand and relate to the story. It would certainly be helpful for adults to engage kids in discussion about the book, or any other middle-grade book. (With YA books this might be little harder, given that older readers might be more resistant.) Picture books, for example, always benefit by explanations. What is a dial phone, a typewriter, or a car from the 20th century, to a child reading or listening to those books? I read many books as a child which were set in the past and demanded some familiarity with history. Maybe the degree to which we expect kids to engage with the past has changed. I’m not sure. On the other hand, the language of SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY is actually more accessible than some of the other books we are discussing. There are different ways in which different readers relate to books. I understand Leonard’s point about the shifting timeline, but I don’t think that this book is unique in using that technique.

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