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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: SHOW ME A SIGN by Ann Clare LeZotte

Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Aud Hogan:

Due to the publishing backlog caused by COVID, my library’s copy of SHOW ME A SIGN only just arrived the other day, and I am surprised all over again by how much this amazing #OwnVoices author managed to fit into this tidy little package.

To start, LeZotte recreated Mary’s portion of Martha’s Vineyard beautifully. The setting feels authentic, right down to the societal structure and unofficial caste system, where the Irish hired hands were “above” the freedmen and Wampanoag, and the white, “English” settlers were top of the pile. LeZotte also wrote Mary’s narration beautifully. The language feels old-fashioned without being bogged down with phrases that would be incomprehensible to modern readers, and the incorporation of sign language in the dialog is faultlessly accomplished. Between that, and the details of Mary’s everyday life, the reader gets an excellent sense of what Mary’s world is, and her place inside of it. She is a loved member of her tight-knit – but certainly far from perfect – community, and, despite her grief-stricken mother’s sudden distance, a cherished child in a comfortable home.

When Andrew Noble comes, Mary distrusts him almost immediately, picking up on his rudeness to herself and the other Deaf members of the community, but she is still unprepared to be ripped away from everything she’s ever known. The portion of the book where she lives in captivity isn’t particularly graphic, but it is heart-rending. Clever Mary, who loves storytelling, suddenly can’t communicate at all with anyone. She can’t even bathe properly. People are treating her as though she’s less than human, and she can’t really comprehend why. The sudden shift from one world to the other is rather shocking, but that is likely the point. Deaf people in this era were sadly treated with a great deal of ignorance and cruelty, and, since Mary herself had been shielded from this treatment by virtue of where she grew up, she’s never had to cope with it before. It is very easy for readers to put themselves into Mary’s shoes, and to cheer her on as she plots and executes her escape.

SHOW ME A SIGN has many strengths, but LeZotte’s ability to capture a time, place, community, and individual in writing definitely make this book distinguished.

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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. Great introduction, Aud Hogan! I think it deserves a reply. This book has moved to the top of my list. It’s a Jr Library Guild book and I just ordered for our combined MS and elementary library. The story brings up many great lessons. Not only that we should ‘choose kind’ with people with disabilities–but that they are “fine as they are made” and we must find ways to include them in all facets of life. While written for middle grade, it has some high level-vocabulary, which I appreciate. This story arc and originality have the feel of a Newbery book to me.

    You bring up something I hadn’t thought about. Mary is “a loved member of a tight-knit … community, and… a cherished child in a comfortable home.” The Richards are a loving Wampanoag family living under terrible circumstances. Even with the grief storyline, the book focuses more on society’s prejudices rather than family drama. Although it’s not polemic and I find the characters memorable. While mischievous, flawed Nancy initially seems more interesting, Mary rises before our eyes.

    I know little sign language, but the conversations flow smoothly. The author does manage “to fit [quite a bit] into this tidy little package.” I find the construction of the book clever and effective for its subject. I’ve noticed some adults prefer Part 1 or 2. I think the later adventure will pull kids in. I remember similar discussions about the last section of The Watsons Go to Birmingham— 1963. I hope we can agree now that it doesn’t ruin the book! I favor authors who take risks and hope LeZotte continues to tell stories we haven’t read before in her unique “voice.”

    Thanks to all involved in Heavy Medal for providing thought-provoking criticism and discussion, especially in such frightening times.

  2. Meredith Burton says:

    I am so grateful this book was written as it taught me so much I did not know. I have no doubt this book will win the Schneider Family Book Award. The attention to detail, Mary’s distinct voice and the seamless blending of cultures was excellently done. I love how this book shows the islanders coexisting together. The focus of the book is not the disability but stresses the importance of community. My favorite scene takes place at the church when the story of Noah is being related through spoken word and sign language. I love that LeZott portrayed a little-known time in history with such engaging storytelling. Excellent introduction, too.

    I do have to say that Andrew Noble’s character frustrated me to no end. With so many other dynamic characters, I found that his entrance in the story a bit inconsistent. I also questioned his motivation. It seemed rather strange. Perhaps the author deliberately dehumanized him to provide a stronger contrast to the island’s inhabitants. I also felt that the characters at the inn were flat. Again, that was probably intentional, too.
    I do applaud LeZott’s book and am thrilled more disability representation is being introduced into literature.

    • Charlie Longbow says:

      Hey Ms. Meredith! I’m always interested in your POV.

      One thing a bunch of us have noticed about this title is that BIPOC immediately embraced it, maybe more so than white readers. This is obvs because the author did extensive, thoughtful outreach in Afro–Indigenous and Indigenous community, wrote with accuracy and care about Wampanoag land rights and intermarriage and the book honestly admits the systemic prejudices of the white Deaf community. I’ve also noticed that while several HM participants focus on Andrew Noble–that he is not a compelling, well-rounded character–none of us mention it. In fact, it may be because the author isn’t interested in making the handsome, young white man complex and fascinating that we feel closer to the material. “The author deliberately dehumanized him” is probably close. I’d guess she wasn’t really interested in him except that he represents so many others who trample marginalized people’s rights and endanger our lives. To me, it wouldn’t matter if he were faceless and nameless. I can understand your POV–does mine make sense to you? Dr. Edith Campbell said it best: “This book shows that diversity and imperialism have always existed.”

      You write so well about a book with a dangerous and charming villain—Ashander. I think that book (GOFAS) is amazing too. But this is not that. Mary is really close with her dad and makes friends with older men like Thomas Richards, Ezra Brewer and Reverend Lee who teach her about things. One thing I like best about this book is that there are three very different girls—Mary, Nancy and Sally—and Mary doesn’t have to show that she’s the best one.

      Shonabish!

      • Your comments are so insightful here, and upon reflection, I feel I should amend my earlier statements. I still don’t think the book – overall – does the work it needs to do in THIS discussion, but of the characters, the ones I found most thoughtfully rendered and fully developed were Thomas and Helen and Sally. I got so caught up in not “liking” the book that I failed to give proper credit where it is very rightly due.

  3. I agree with Meredith that this book does important work just for being in the world – from education to representation. But I do not think its quality can match or exceed that of many of the books we have discussed here so far (and still more to come!) or even other titles not on our list. I would take Meredith’s comments one step further to say all the characters lack dimension and the plot strained credulity for me. I also would add a voice of dissent to Aud’s thoughtful introduction regarding the old-fashioned manner of Mary’s narration. There were quite a few phrasings that were unfamiliar to me, so I would imagine most kids would have a similar (or even more difficult) time with things such as baleen or trammel hooks.

  4. Carrie Bruner says:

    Having not been knowledgeable of Martha’s Vineyard Sign language prior to reading this book, I found myself craving to read more about it. I think the author did a stellar job of building the sense of community that Mary felt and the pride she feels in herself. However, I do agree with Meredith above that I too found myself frustrated with the character of Andrew. As a reader, I don’t need everything spelled out for me and like to let my imagination help build the story. However, a little more explanation about why Andrew was so interested in this community would have been helpful.

  5. Courtney Hague says:

    I was really impressed by this book. I thought the world-building was excellent. I, like many readers, didn’t know anything about Martha’s Vineyard sign language or this time period but I felt very much like I could see and understand the world based on the author’s descriptions. The characters were also very memorable.

    I guess I can see some of the quibble about Andrew being flat. But I took that as being mostly because we are getting the story from a very close perspective to Mary and she doesn’t understand Andrew either. And that worked pretty well for me. I didn’t need to know his motivation to believe his actions because it seemed like the kind of thing an arrogant white guy would do especially in the name of “science”.

  6. Aud Hogan says:

    Courtney, your reading of Andrew Noble is really close to mine, including that we’re only seeing what Mary sees: the arrogant, nasty “scientist.” Since he doesn’t think of Mary as being fully human, he wouldn’t bother showing her any other side, and he wouldn’t bother treating her with any compassion or consideration. This is how arrogant white men treated the humans they “owned,” so I didn’t really think to question it.

    The guy who really fried my fish was actually the doctor who read Mary’s note and “helped” her. Some help! If you can even call it that! He hears a girl is kidnapped, and, instead of doing anything active, just passively sets it up so she can run! If I were a member of Mary’s family, and I ever met that guy, I’d give him a piece of my mind! But this also, sadly, wasn’t actually unbelievable. White guys of a certain class stick together for social reasons (eyeroll here).

    Charlie Longbow: thanks again for your contributions! I appreciate your insights, especially since you’re summarizing conversations between members of the BIPOC community, and we definitely need those.

    • Charlie Longbow says:

      Hi Aud, it’s hard to overestimate how this book & author have been embraced and even invited into BIPOC circles with outreach & respectful work. Being 1/2 books by white authors on Cicely Lewis’s Read Woke 2020 list & the only non-Native author on AICL’s Best of 2020 are indicators. One theory is that LeZotte shows the darker side of science/medicine which BIPOC (like disabled) are too familiar with. Interestingly, that’s a strong focus here with folks who “get caught up in not “liking” the book.” Wat? I like how the doctor’s Irish maid tries to learn sign to communicate with Mary. Think about it–how many marginalized white authors have a chance to write a book and go in-depth on their own oppression but also show they’re systemic oppressors? Layers on layers. The book is anti-ableist and antiracist. I think it’s a great read and you learn a lot! Team Mary.

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    This was the 2nd to last book from the list that I read. KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES was the last. I think that did influence my feelings. I thought this was good MG historical fiction, but reading KING right afterwards, the dead brother in this one felt in comparison like a literary convenience. To be fair, compared to FIGHTING WORDS and A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS, the abuse subplot in KING felt like a device. Perhaps multiple books on the list are trying to do too much?

  8. Rachel Jamieson says:

    So far, Show Me a Sign is my top choice for a Newbery Medal. It encompasses all that a Newbery Medal should be – a great, original piece of work that is truly meant for a child audience. I know so many children who would love this book.
    LeZotte uses her own experiences as a member of the deaf community to give us a a picture of what it might be like to be Mary Lambert. I didn’t have any trouble picturing Mary’s friends and family. I do agree that we don’t get to know Andrew as a character, but I would argue that is not a false way of perceiving someone who doesn’t have any empathy and refuses to communicate with the protagonist based on a false sense of superiority. Every interaction they have is empty because Andrew views Mary as a “specimen” instead of another human.

  9. Meredith Burton says:

    Being blind, I appreciate any author who addresses such important issues. While I did feel some of the writing was lacking, (compared to other books of 2020), I did enjoy the story and the lessons it conveyed.Thank you all for these insightful comments. Thank you also, Charlie Longbow, for the insight into how the book is being received by marginalized groups. I also felt that LeZott did well at portraying many groups with fairness and accuracy.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed agafas so much, too! Yes, if you are looking for a memorable villain, Ashander definitely wins the prize this year! Don’t know if the book itself will win a Newbery, (although if it doesn’t receive an honor I will be flummoxed)!, I do think it’s amazing. Thanks so much for your comments.
    Blessings to you.

  10. I’m Hard of Hearing. I did not want to read this book. I’ve always been defensive about not signing (which people assume) or being part of Deaf Culture. I put off reading it for my school’s mock Newbery. It surprised me. I realized that if I were born on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805 with genetic deafness, I’d sign and not have hearing devices. The book didn’t feel at all politicized against me, and I really enjoyed it. I got caught about in Mary’s travails and felt personal indignation and joy at her struggles and successes. My daughter picked it up and read it. She loved it and told me she wanted to learn ASL, which panicked me all over again!

    I honestly appreciate everyone’s input here. Aud, great write-up. Leonard, I agree this year’s books are chock full of stuff. Charlie, thank you, I was curious about the reception of the Native and Freedman storylines. Rereading for a group discussion, I’ve come to believe like Rachel: “It encompasses all that a Newbery Medal should be – a great, original piece of work that is truly meant for a child audience. I know so many children who would love this book.”

    I think the poetic prose is lovely and the writing has an exceptional technical aspect– it masterfully renders sign conversation into written language. You know who is speaking, signing and interpreting and it doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling. Believe me, lifelong friends wouldn’t believe I’d be the one making this argument!

  11. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    (I’m not on the HM committee this year due to the craziness of hybrid teaching information literacy during this bizarre era, and I haven’t been following closely. I hope I’m allowed to still comment as an outsider, but, if not, I apologize and please ignore or delete this.)

    I was excited when this book arrived in my library. I’ve been learning ASL for the past few years, including Deaf culture and history, so I knew about Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language and the communities there, and I looked forward to a novel that could immerse me in that setting. But, when I started to read this, I was not at first impressed. The first few chapters felt like they were trying to accomplish too much: setting up the family dynamics, describing the community members and characters, creating the dead-brother tension, and giving more historical detail than seemed necessary. I dismissed the book as a novel concept but amateur writing and quit reading.

    A few months later, after seeing the book showing up on multiple Best Of lists and getting good reviews, I decided to give the book a second chance. Only a few pages after where I had given up, the story began to move a bit better. I very much enjoyed the rest of the book. The pace was exciting and the story really immersed the reader in the frustrated feeling of not being able to communicate because others refuse to make the effort (a frustration still felt by too many). While the forced detail at the beginning knocks it out of Newbery territory in my opinion, I do still see the value in this book and fully expect it will win a Schneider award or honor.

  12. ESE Librarian Bob says:

    I wasn’t going to talk here because I’ve said plenty about this book on HM and the school year got busy. I’m a biracial (Black) ESE Librarian from Birmingham, AL. The DHH kids I work with are Pre-K and 6-8th. This book is everything to the older group. I showed them Betsy Bird’s cover reveal for the sequel and they went crazy. Now there’s two Deaf girls on the cover (the other one possibly ethnic?) and they’ll get more story about Mary. Deaf (signing) creators don’t get to tell stories once—let alone a sequel! I saw a short ASL video Ms. LeZotte did early last year. She talked about being delayed in literacy, how she started writing poetry one word on a line with a period. That’s right by my experiences. I’ve read her book from fifteen yrs ago. It’s more of a sketch than a picture. The sheer persistence it took to get from there to here in what I encourage with all my kids. They’ve got to fight that hard.

    Mary says in the intro: “As for my mastery of the language, I will remind you that not every writer comes to English from the same direction.” Everyone has their tastes. I’m not going to tell anybody what they should like, or think is bad writing. I’m guessing whatever books this author does will be different from hearing authors.

    Andrew’s motives are clear. Mary in Chapter 14: “What will happen to our island if he does find the source of our deafness? I imagine our shores overrun by observers, stomping through our farmlands and asking impertinent questions. Caravans of explorers will arrive to visit the land of the deaf!” Then she remembers: “But isn’t that what the first White settlers did to the Wampanoag? Reverend Lee reminded us in a sermon that earliest contact resulted in Wampanoag men being captured and sold as slaves in Spain.” This is what “explorers” and “scientists” of the time were looking for. As Aud says: “This is how arrogant white men treated the humans they “owned.”

    In the dinner scene in Chapter Seventeen, every person and what they say serves a purpose. Supremacy beliefs. After asking Andrew his purpose, Mr. Pye (a hearing ally) signs and speaks: “…do you mean for the deaf to disappear? Is it your opinion that deafness is a scourge to eliminate, like yellow fever?” Andrew: “We must strive for perfection not just in nature but among men. Anything less is a poor substitute.” Talk about that with kids! The book gives a lot more. Mary to Thomas, “Do you think my family should leave?” He doesn’t say, “You’re my best friend!” but “That will not happen.” On the funny side, Nancy tells Mary, “Don’t you know anything about spying? You have to merge with the landscape.” (A class favorite.) My favorite—Mary: “It’s different in Boston. They don’t sign. They look down on us like we’re animals.” Deaf mentor Ezra Brewer: “I’ve been there. Watched all their lips flapping, and I don’t believe they are a wick smarter than Vineyard folk. Take you. I’ve been watching you for all your years. You’ve got something in you, girlie.” Mary: “Some people don’t think that’s a good thing.” EB: Pay no mind to them. I never do.”

    Like my man Charlie (keep rising!), I feel there are unspoken objections. Meredith and Mary, I’d love to see that shiny blue Schneider sticker with Braille on the cover. But we’re hoping and praying for it all! Excuse the length. Take care, y’all.

  13. Amanda Bishop says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think what stood out most in this book for me was the setting. I’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard, but I could imagine in based on the descriptions in the book and they way the author used to describe the people who lived there. I agree that the dialog between the characters helped to solidify the time period and the unique lived experiences of those living there.

  14. Tamara DePasquale says:

    I really savored so much of this book. The characters were memorable, the setting was spot-on (MV is a short ferry ride from me), and the effortless way the signing is incorporated into the dialogue are all great strengths. Even the rising tension regarding Andrew’s intentions and Mary’s abduction feels just right.

    That said, I left the story on the wild return to the island. It was too over-the-top for me, and felt like the narrative became more of a basis for a screenplay. The “high seas drama” really impacted the authenticity of the story already told, and I feel that it’s a big enough flaw to keep it from Newbery contention.

    My other question is just that, a question. Did Mary’s character feel true to the setting? She is mischievous and strong willed, but is she from 1805? I go back and forth on this question.
    I am thrilled to see a book like this available to young readers. The multiple perspectives are important ones to experience.

  15. Thank you for your introduction of this story Aud Hogan. I don’t know where to begin, except to say that this is another strong contender for the Newbery. I’m originally from MA and have visited MV several times and I think LeZotte did a great job immersing her readers into her story, location and felt quite cinematic like A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS. I think it’s important for readers to realize that the MC of a story, regardless of the time period, are supposed to go against the grain of normalcy. If the MC doesn’t challenge their societal norm, we wouldn’t have a story.

    Having worked with deaf, blind children in the past, I have a soft spot for this story. I champion this book, not only because it has merit – but again, it offers children a perspective into a different culture that also struggles like any other community deemed different or is not understood. EL DEAFO was such an amazing book. I really feel SHOW ME A SIGN is just as brilliant and should be a contender. We need more books like this on library shelves for children to have a greater sense, understanding and compassion for the people who have different lived experiences. A very immersive, unique story with some very emotional moments and opens a window to what life is like for someone else. This book merits recognition.

    • I don’t think that really follows…a story is about the main character changing, not (necessarily) about them changing or challenging their society.