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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Sokrates, Leonardo, Greek Gods, and a Time-Traveling Cat: Historical Fiction Newbery Contenders

Finally, it’s time to start discussing books! After eight months of reading, it’s hard to know where to start. With my own favorites? The top titles from our suggestion list? Pick a genre? Look for other common threads (rivers? ghosts?) from this year’s publications? In the end, I settled on “historical fiction”…then ended up with two books that really don’t fit the conventional form of the genre; they’ve got ghosts, time travel, gods, and alternating time threads. And in terms of style, tone, and potential readership, they probably don’t have that much in common with each other. Despite those factors (or maybe because of them), I’m very interested in what others think of these two: 

DA VINCI’S CAT by Catherine Murdock

The distinction between reading for fun and reading critically is an important one in Newbery discussions, where we need to apply specific criteria to our analysis. Sometimes it helps me to just do that reading-for-fun thing first, and wait until I’m finished to reflect back on the critical side. That worked with this book. As a reader, I found it fun, diverting, interesting, and funny. It wasn’t too hard to follow, even with the time travel twists, and I cared about the characters.

Then I tried to look more closely about the author’s technique, and began to fully appreciate the high level of skill required to make it all come together. Here are some thoughts about how the literary elements named in the Criteria work in this book:

Delineation of characters: Frederico isn’t a very likable fellow at the beginning, but we get to know him as he starts to think about more than himself through the events and the characters he interacts with. It’s quite a jump from his world to Bee’s, but their friendship is believable and engaging, also developed through the actions around them and the choices they make.

Development of a plot: Time travel can be bewildering for a reader (especially a young reader), sometimes to the point where it overshadows characters, themes, and the rest of the story. Murdock, though, deftly lets the details of her time elements emerge in pieces and they’re always tied strongly to the events. Delaying the introduction of Bee until Part Two (p. 73) is also a neat twist that pulls the us in deeper just when we’ve gotten settled into Frederico’s story.

Delineation of setting: With kids’ historical fiction, I always appreciate “feel” as much as “facts.” You get a full sense for what Frederico’s world is like, both inside the palace and in the very different environment just outside its gates:

Frederico sniffed. Rotting food. The waste of cattle and horses and people. The stink of the river and the hospital. An animal carcass. Bad wine. “It’s Rome.”

p. 58

We also learn a bit about the art world and 16th century society without ever feeling like it’s a lecture.

In some ways DA VINCI’S CAT reminded me of LION OF MARS; neither book is typical of its genre, but both explore the key elements (history and future speculation) in thought-provoking ways, while also being highly accessible to readers new to the genres.

AMBER AND CLAY  by Laura Amy Schlitz

This book was a little harder to slide into, but what a rich and highly original novel. Among its many strengths, the varied writing styles (including the captioned “artifacts”) are used to great effect.

The free verse for Rhaskos, for example, allows the author to capture key moments and emotions. In one example, the boy sketches a horse with a rock, before he even understood what art is:

I looked down. A shock of joy:

There was the horse

            small but real

            dug in the dust.

I’d made the horse.

I’d curved his rump.

I made the wind

            that combed his tail.

Have you ever done that –?

            Tried to do the impossible,

               without thinking?

                and you did it?

page 39-40

The “Turn and Counterturn” sections, where two narrators use mirrored structures, are equally effective. In this excerpt, Lykos describes his confused and fearful descent into Hades, ending with:

I’m afraid of them both.

I’ve come to the land of gods and ghosts

            and I don’t like either one.

I’m afraid of where they’re taking me.

And I’m afraid of the dark.

p. 67

That’s followed by Hermes giving the god’s point of view, which ends:

            I’ve come to show the way.

            I’ll introduce you to gods and ghosts,

                        and keep you from getting lost.

            There is no night that does not end.

                        And I can see in the dark.

p. 68-69

The story is filled with illuminating moments like this, mixed in with a strong and surprising plot. (She told us that Melisto was going to die young on page 5, but I was still startled when it happened). 

There’s a lot more to discuss about AMBER AND CLAY. Within the Terms and Criteria, the definition of “distinguished” includes phrases like “marked by conspicuous excellence” and “individually distinct.” So far in my reading, this is the book that makes me think of those words more than any other.

LEONARDO’S CAT and AMBER AND CLAY stand out for me, but I’ve read some other excellent historical fiction this year, including:

  • A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON by Kate Albus (World War II England)
  • WAR AND MILLIE MCGONIGLE by Catherine Cushman (World War II San Diego)
  • JUST LIKE THAT by Gary Schmidt (Vietnam Era Maine)

We’d love to hear what others are thinking about AMBER AND CLAY, DA VINCI’S CAT, and/or other 2021 historical fiction for kids…

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. Some possible additions to the historical fiction discussion are:
    The best worst summer by Elizabeth Eulberg (if you are able to think of New Kids on the Block in 1989 as history)
    Nicky and Vera by Peter Sis (1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia)
    Boy Who Failed Show and Tell by Jordan Sonnenblick (1979 events: Three Mile Island accident and gasoline shortage)

  2. Meredith BUrton says

    I have yet to read Da Vinci’s Cat but hope to do so soon. I also hope to read A Place to Hang the Moon, which sounds most appealing.
    Regarding AMber and Clay: I particularly loved Melisto’s growth throughout the narrative. Having her sections be told in third person and Rascos’s sections told in first person free verse was very effective. I loved Hephaestus’s brief sections, too. His choosing of Rascos was very powerful as they share similar characteristics.
    Hermes was a very appealing narrator. His humor was welcome, and I liked how Schlitz made a point to illustrate the gods’ callousness as well as their occasional benevolence. I did find that the section with Socrates trial dragged a bit for me, but that was probably my own impatience. I am unsure as to whether this book would be more suited to Newbery or Printz consideration, but I think it’s a wonderful book for upper middle school and other ambitious readers. It is obvious that Schlitz did amazing research, and the setting and characters come vividly to life. I do wish there had been more interaction between Melistos and Rascos, though. THey only converse near the very end of the book, and I found this fact to be a bit jarring. THe theme of entertwined fates was wonderfully explored. My only other comment is that I found Hermes’s decision to turn Rascos’s mother into a whale to be a bit strange, although perfectly in keeping with the gods and their capriciousness. I do think she should have appeared again in the story, though, as she just seemed to vanish out of the book.

    Regarding Just Like That: Setting was particularly wonderful as was delination of character. I found myself unable to put the book down and have actually read it four times now this year. It stands perfectly on its own without having to have read other Schmidt books. I don’t know how well the book will do, though. It will be interesting to see.

  3. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    I hadn’t really though about that lack of interaction between Melistos and Rhaskos that Meredith points out. I kind of felt like I was observing events in this book, rather than involved in them, and maybe that’s part of it. The different narrative forms also contributes to that I think, where as a reader you kind of have to shift and reset with each change. It’s a different kind of experience from most of this year’s fiction, where direct empathy with characters is a big part of the appeal. At the same time, I was emotionally connected to the characters and events. That just came more through the style and the careful plotting. Which I believe is the intent, and it worked very well. Just different.

    • I loved the poetry in Amber and Clay. I enjoyed the style with the interruption of the artifacts. I enjoyed how she evoked the setting with really well chosen words. Looking at the criteria, I can see many strengths. My actual issue with this books felt more personal. I really did not connect with the characters. It felt removed from the present day. I do not know if that is what the author wanted with the way she wrote, or just a flaw in me as a reader, but I felt so much more emotionally connected to so many other characters this year.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

        Cherlylnn wonders about “what the author wanted with the way she wrote,” which is a great question to ask with Newbery evaluation. In this case, I feel like the choices the author made about style(s), plot, and setting resulted in a different kind of reading experience. More distant, maybe, in terms of connecting with characters; but at the same time, those choices lead to insights, observations, and understanding for readers that they may not get with a more conventional telling. For the purposes of Newbery, we have to judge how effective she was in executing those stylistic choices, and weave that into our assessment of how it meets the goal of “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” You might argue that while the writing is excellent, the presentation doesn’t do enough to resonate with that child audience (keeping in mind that it doesn’t have to work for all, or even most children). I think it does do that well, but it seems like a book where having that discussion would be key to its chances.

  4. Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock is among my top three choices this year. The author’s strength is describing life in Renaissance Italy. I also love the way she presents head-strong characters such as Federico and Michelangelo. They are difficult to deal with but not vicious.
    The author is a little weaker describing contemporary New Jersey. Cell phones and remodeled houses provide a mundane setting. The same sex parents are perplexing to the visitor from the past, who asks “Which one has the dowry?”
    Da Vinci’s time travel cabinet, evoking the wardrobe from the Narnia books, has rules that are never completely explained. Rather the author leaves us with speculation and questions. “No time passes” and “How does the cat move?”

    Another book published this year, The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga, provides more theoretical explanation of how time travel might work. Although no time travel actually occurs in that story.

    Although the papal apartments of the Vatican are the primary setting of Da Vinci’s Cat, the book lacks any strong religious elements. This is reflective of the changes occurring during the Renaissance, but seemed odd to me for a book with this location.

    • Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

      Hi Kate! I think I had similar thoughts about Da VINCI’S CAT. I wish we spent more time in New Jersey too, I feel like we didn’t hear enough about what happened in that setting, with those characters. Also with the papal apartments, I wish there was more information about how this pope is one deemed “a bad pope” etc. etc. I feel like I had to delve back into my own historical knowledge for that.

  5. I haven’t read DA VINCI’S CAT yet, but I can say that AMBER AND CLAY resonated with me strongly, and I think I would have been that child reader who would’ve eaten it with a spoon as a kid. I’ve been fascinated with the Ancient world since I was about 9, and the way the author presents how Rhaskos and Melisto live is pretty cool. The benefit of a slightly pulled away point of view is that the reader can observe with a wider lens and see how the characters’ personal lives fit into a the wider world. To me, it feels like a very deliberate choice, and a way to explain the world of the Ancient Greeks in a way that doesn’t feel as much like an info-dump that might have been necessary with a different point of view. It might not work with every young reader, but I definitely feel that it will work for some. Personally, I did not have trouble connecting emotionally to either main character. I think their motivations and their emotions are well shown and, while sometimes complicated, easy to understand and feel along side them. But that’s a subjective measure – every reader is going to be different.

    I also think the examinations of the “artifacts” was also a really nifty touch, and kids who are into archaeology will enjoy those parts. In terms of being distinct, and having an amazing setting, I think this book has it in the bag.

  6. It’s interesting the next post is about did-not-finish books, because though I ended up appreciating both AMBER AND CLAY and DA VINCI’S CAT, it took me a while to get there and I was in far more danger of not finishing either. It took me a good 200 pages to get into AMBER AND CLAY, and as Steven points out, it takes DA VINCI’S CAT 73 pages to introduce the 2nd major character. As Steven also points out, Federico is not very likable at first. Given that, and the 3rd person voice (which may make it even harder to engage with the main character), and the remote time period, I think a child reader may well prejudge what kind of book this and perhaps decide it’s not for them well before the introduction of Bea and the “actual” plot is set in motion.

  7. The alternating characters is another reason AMBER AND CLAY and DA VINCI’S CAT is a good pairing for discussion. There are pros but also cons of such an approach, especially if a reader finds one character much more engaging than the other. In addtion, I’d say that even if AMBER AND CLAY “only” takes 20 pages to get to Melisto, it’s 20 pages of stylized and, as people have said, somewhat remote verse, so possibly a child reader not committed to reading the book may have already decided by then. The verse and prose sections are very different in effect and both may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, I think Schlitz is one of the best children’s writers, but I didn’t love her verse, and my own reading experience felt like I was trying to get through those parts to get to the next prose section.

    I’m sure it’ll get its own post, but certainly OPHIE’S GHOSTS is another for the list of historical books with fantastic elements.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      There does seem to be a lot of books with ghosts in them. DEAD WEDNESDAY and TOO BRIGHT TO SEE along with AMBER and OPHIE’S. None of them are really the scary kind, but I’m about to start DARK WATERS by Katherine Arden which will have something spooky for sure, whether it’s ghosts or not…

  8. An additional perspective on Amber and Clay. In an era when slavery is linked to racial tension, it was interesting to read about slaves who were not Black or enslaved in Africa. The yearning to be a freeman is expressed on the first artifact. Mother and child slaves are sold and separated without regard for family links.

  9. Rox Anne Close says

    I have not read Amber and Clay yet, but here are my thoughts on Da Vinci’s Cat.

    I thought the characters were strong and skillfully developed by Murdock. Both main protagonists, Federico and Bee have strong personalities, which I thought would clash, but in this book the friendship worked. Federico is arrogant, entitled and insulting, He has the constant inner conflict of behaving in a manner that honors his father and family, and the struggle of living the isolated, protective life of an aristocrat, when in reality, he just wants to be a child, have a friend, a pet and an adventure. Bee on the other hand is quirky, curious, somewhat obnoxious and ‘all over the place’. She loves adventure, art, and is on a quest to help Miss Bother. The two main characters compliment each other. Bee sees through Federico’s arrogance, realizes his needs and pushes him out of his comfort zone to have an adventure chasing Michelangelo, break aristocratic rules, and unites him with Juno, the cat.
    Federico, throughout the book becomes more likable. He feeds Bee’s curiosity and love of art, by showing her the etiquette of aristocratic life, introduces her to Michelangelo and Rafael, and helps her with her quest. The interaction between these two characters, from very different lifestyles, is delightful, full of heart and at times the clashes are tense.

    Another strength of this book is the detailed descriptive setting. I could smell the scents of the palace banquet, – mustard sauce, mutton, spicy oysters, see the sights of the flickering candelabras, the layout of the pope’s palace, down to the black cloak with the violet lining, silk hose and gold trimmed belt Federico wore.

    There were lots of historical details, interesting tidbits about the art world, personalities of artists, food and customs of the 16th century. The book seemed well researched, (although, it did not list a bibliography of references), and the author integrated fact and fiction quite seamlessly.

    The plot is intriguing. I was engaged with trying to figure out the rules of time travel, solving the mystery of the unsigned portrait, all well, delightfully following the adventures of Federico, Bee and Juno, the cat.

    I am confused about what happens at the end. It seems the future is changed, when I thought one of the rules of the time travel wardrobe is NO TIME PASSES. It left me with many questions: How does that cat move? Does it have anything to do with the cat door? Is there a connection between Miss Bother and Nana? Why did the picture appear and disappear in Herbert Bother’s office?

    Anyway, Da Vinci’s Cat is a fun whimsical read, but yet very thought provoking. I think it is a strong contender for a Newbery Award.

  10. Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

    Speaking to Amber and Clay I also really appreciated the Turn and Counterturn portions along with the artifact descriptions. I think those really contribute to the presentation and make it somethign distinguish and creative.

    I listened to the book on audio and think I can understand the presentation more when I need it.
    I thought the characterization of Melisto ( who thanks to the audio book I call MELLIE STOW) and Rhaskos was really authentic and you could see them progress throughout the story.I think the characteristics of the gods were relaistic too and it helped insert you into that time period– hearing the reason Melisto was a girl etc. etc.

  11. Commenting on Just Like That, I like the way the story is told, the mood and the language capturing the characters of Meryl lee and Matt and the mentors in their lives. I did have a problem with its plot. Another post described the book as Dickensian. I think the clash of Dickensian with the Agnew string of the plot and its ties to Meryl Lee’ classmate was a bit too much of a stretch. I think it can be done in a book with fantasy or magical realism A(like Murdoch’s) but not in historical fiction.

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