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

Bored in the woods, raconteur’s something something, just like sadness? Books I didn’t finish

In an effort to be time-sensitive this year (or uh keeping a toddler and baby alive), I am trying to be brutal when it comes to finishing books. If I don’t think it haves what it takes to win it all, I stop reading. I’ll admit that I can be too harsh and am willing to revisit some of these titles… if you can convince me to!

GONE TO THE WOODS: SURVIVING A LOST CHILDHOOD

cover of GONE TO THE WOODS by Gary Paulsen

I love Hatchet as much as anyone, but I just couldn’t get into this title. The descriptions bogged me down, the retrospective narrative was too rambling for me and I was just bored.

Cover of THE RACONTEUR'S COMMONPLACE BOOK by Kate Milford

THE RACONTEUR’S COMMONPLACE BOOK: A GREENGLASS HOUSE STORY

The multiple perspectives jumped around too much for me and I felt like I needed to reread the other Greenglass house books to understand everything better.

Cover of JUST LIKE THAT by Gary Schmidt

JUST LIKE THAT

I’ll be honest. This one was way too sad for me, I simply could not handle it.

Cover of THE SHAPE OF THUNDER by Jasmine Warga

THE SHAPE OF THUNDER

I thought the characterizations were very strong, but I wasn’t buying into the time travel. I felt like the science fiction took away from the powerful realistic aspects of the novel.

I know this post is negative and I want to reiterate that I am very open to revisiting any and all of these titles, I just need a little convincing.

So, convince me otherwise!

Share
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci

Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at emilyrmroczek@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Mary Lou White says

    Emily, Just Like That does have sadness (the death of Holling Hood Hood for starters – I don’t think that is a spoiler because it is stated in the first few pages) but it also soars by the end. It seems that Schmidt’s favorite theme is the significant and transformative role that outside adults (teachers, mentors) can play in helping a child from a troubled and unloving home. And when Meryl Lee she has to introduce Spiro Agnew, I laughed til I had tears (you may be too young to appreciate it – he was a truly heinous VP). It is probably my favorite this year. Raconter’s Common Place Book is my first book by Kate Milford and the writing is just beautiful and the ending is a big Kaboom! when the story pieces finally all weave together. But like for you, it sagged for me in the middle – I needed a little more to convince me to keep reading, that all the tales would tie together by the end. Which they do, but it seemed to take a long time to get there

  2. It was in fact the time travel elements that kept me reading The Shape of Thunder. I was in suspense over whether the book would become science fiction and time travel would occur. One of the most powerful scenes was when Cora and Quinn were visualizing what they would do if they were able to travel back in time. They did not, in fact, plan to change events. Instead, they each wanted to change the conversations they had with their siblings. It was their regret over personal interactions that emerged.
    I also thought the time travel theories, based on Internet searches, presented a lesson in the limitations of online information, even when presented by apparently accredited people.

    • Laura Indick says

      I agree with this! I wasn’t sure where the time travel would go, and I would really recommend finishing it — I thought the ending was great (and I cried a lot). I think this one has a lot of Newbery potential.

  3. Lorie Bonapfel says

    The only one I would keep advocating for is the Shape of Thunder. For all the reasons Kate mentioned! I loved that each girl had to work through the relationships with the siblings they lost to come back to each other and the resulting text from those issues is pretty profound.

  4. Emily, could you share how far you got in each book? I am a bit surprised by your inclusion of RACONTEUR, because it would seem possible to view this as a short story collection that one could skip around in as opposed to a front-to-back book that one might decide to give up on. I actually thought the weakest section was the very end, the last 3 or so stories.

    It seems clear the reading experience would be different for those who’ve read Mlford’s other books. I think even those like me who’ve read the other Greenglass House books but not her others would miss out on most of the Easter eggs and allusions. I read Bluecrowne after I read RACONTEUR and only then realized how much Milford layered in for her hardcore readers. But I also thought RACONTEUR was terrific on first read, without having had any of that knowledge.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I read RACONTEUR without reading other Greenglasses (though I started the first one). It didn’t seem to me like one where you would read out of sequence. The parts in the tavern lead into the stories, and you kind need to know who the teller is before you jump into the story. I was very impressed by the writing and the intricate, highly original plot. I did have this sense that I might be missing something, but I don’t know how much of that came from the writing style (she doesn’t spell thing out, for sure) or my unfamiliarity with that world. In the end I think it worked just fine, and if I missed some references (I still don’t really get the title), I feel like I got the essence of plot, characters and themes. I’ll have more to say about this one in a future post….

  5. JUST LIKE THAT, I’d also be curious how much was read before stopping. It seems to me the further one gets in that book, the less “realistic” and the more Dickensian it becomes. I’ve been a bit surprised by the reactions I’ve read here about the book being too sad or violent. To me, the book’s style made these elements feel literary and far less raw than say last year’s Honor book, Fighting Words. I was far more upset by Matt punching the other kid in the nose than any of the more over-the-top violence.

  6. Julie Ann Corsaro says

    I also didn’t finish THE SHAPE OF THUNDER which makes it hard to comment, but I turned away like Emily because I had a hard-time engaging with the time-travel aspect. Although we haven’t talked about it here, I thought HAZEL BLY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA, which i read around the same time, did a better, more realistic job with showing the devastation that accompanies a traumatic, life changing event.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      Time travel doesn’t really happen in SHAPE OF THUNDER, though. It’s something the girls really wish for, and at times it seems like they really believe it could happen. I read that as a way to convey the depths of their grief and regret, to the point where they can believe in something they would ordinarily doubt, and actually go to a great deal of effort to make it happen. It’s similar in ways to SUNSHINE, where an imaginary dog helps the character cope with some deep-seated fears. The time travel premise also gave the girls an excuse to mend the division between them, which they couldn’t work out any other way. In a way, the author’s ability to convince readers that this will be a time travel book without ever truly veering from a realistic plot, is a strong accomplishment.

      • Julie Ann Corsaro says

        I didn’t think there would be actual time travel in the book, but I appreciate your insights and explanation, Steven. Now, I will have to finish THE SHAPE OF THUNDER, so I can make more informed comments, particularly since you draw comparisons with SUNSHINE. For a short book, I thought its writing was impressively literary. As with JUST LIKE THAT, the setting and trio of main characters was also well-developed, and there was plenty of action to keep young readers engaged. It’s a small gem.

  7. Julie Ann Corsaro says

    I did finish JUST LIKE THAT, and agree with Mary Lou that the theme of mentoring vulnerable young people is worthwhile and well-realized. I read the book early in the year and it remains strongly as one of my favorites, too. I’m not sure if I’m agreeing or disagreeing with Leonard here, but I think Schmidt’s writing style is literary and the story is Dickensian (so, sacrifice is required), but it’s leavened with wry humor and plenty of action. The three main characters are also well-realized; more so, perhaps, Meryl Lee and Nora MacKnockater (and what kind of great name is that) than Matt. But the point of Matt is that he doesn’t even know who he is. As Emily noted in another post, Schmidt is adept at straddling the line between YA and MG, which he does well here.

  8. I thought Just Like That was transcendent in the end – the best MG book I’ve read all year. I like the “Dickensian” description – I think that fits with the almost exaggerated elements I felt the book contained. Exaggerated for effect, though – because wow, what a payoff.

  9. Meredith Burton says

    I enjoyed The Shape of Thunder, particularly the alternate perspectives of both girls. THe exploration of time travel and the wish to change the past is a very relevant theme and rings true in my mind. I never felt like the time travel would work, so I think realistic expectations were maintained even while grief was explored and the girls were brought together again.
    I did not finish Raconteur’s Commonplace Book because I grew confused as to how everything was going to come together. I felt removed from the characters. HOwever, I did appreciate the Canterbury Tales-like motif and thought that the author was clever with the use of different styles of storytelling. HOwever, I think it would have helped me to read more books in the series. I don’t know how well it would stand on its own.

    Yes, Just Like That is sad in places, but the whole point of the book is to find a way to persevere and journey through the sadness toward hope. THe further you read, you will encounter more humor, excellent literary allusions, and well-rounded characters. Even the boarding school girls, who at first seem to be one-dimensional, prove to be much more dynamic. Meryl Lee, who is confronted by the Blank, a void of grief which threatens to consume her, finds common ground with Matt Coffin, a boy facing similar loss. Their found friendship is pivotal and beautifully described. THe book is ultimately hopeful, and the interwoven plot strands form a cohesive whole. Schmidt’s allusions to Oliver Twist and The Grapes of Wrath are well done, too. NOt to mention: The Maine setting is so vivid. ALso, as someone who attended a residential school, I found the boarding school scenes to be very realistic. I thoroughly recommend that you give this one another chance. I know the first chapter is particularly difficult, (especially if you loved Holling Hoodhood as much as I did), but Just Like That is a strong book, and I think it deserves more respect than it seems to be getting.

  10. Rox Anne Close says

    I thought THE SHAPE OF THUNDER was a powerful and thought provoking book. It asks the bigger questions: How do we deal with gun violence? How do you heal from grief and loss of friendship when you cannot change the past? Even though the book dealt with the curiosity and belief in possible time travel to change the past, like Steven, I saw the time travel problem as an excuse for the girls to mend the divisions between themselves, and help them through their own guilt, anger and forgiveness. This book has in-depth characters, strong themes, and is a beautifully written book.

  11. Rox Anne Close says

    THE RACONTEURS COMMONPLACE BOOK
    It took me two tries to read this book. On my first read, I was confused with the many characters and put the book aside after chapter 3. On the next try, I made notes of all the characters and the clues that were given about their lives. That’s when I saw the beauty of the book and realized that you need to know who the person is that is telling each story and who they are actually aimed the story at. The storytelling is skillfully done, and the book is full of imagination and mystery. Maybe I enjoyed the book, because after being housebound with the pandemic, I could relate better to evenings around the fireplace telling stories. I have not read the other Greenglass House books, so maybe I am missing something. My concern is that it may be difficult for children to engage with this book, but the author certainly has a talent for telling a story.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I haven’t read RACONTEUR’S a second time, but I’m looking forward to it. I think, like Rox Anne, I’ll get more out of it now that I get the premise and know the characters. Which makes in tricky in Newbery evaluation. Does the fact that readers may need to read it twice, or extra carefully (i thought about taking notes too the first time through) detract from it’s literary quality? Especially when you can identify that quality more completely the second time? Or does the need to “display respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations” indicate that a book has to be easily digestible the first time through?

      I can think of plenty of adult books from my English major days where I barely could follow the first time, and only really understood the second time…and they rate pretty highly (“Ulysses,” “The Sound and the Fury”…that sort of thing).

      • I find this interesting. I strongly believe a Newbery book needs to be compelling on first read because of the criterion Steven cites. But again I found this more of a problem with books like AMBER AND CLAY and DA VINCI’S CAT that took me a long time to get into than RACONTEUR. Can’t a child reader simply enjoy the first story, “The Game of Maps”, as an atmospheric haunted house tale without worrying about (or even contemplating) having to keep track of characters and motivations and how things will tie together? That to me is second read stuff. On my first read I was honestly willing to accept this as a collection of stories (like The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain or The Tales of Beedle the Bard) without a larger point and enjoying them as such. And so I believe a child’s first read could be carried on just the strength of the storytelling, which is why I made the above comment about “skipping around.” Perhaps I should have said “skipping ahead.” If a child isn’t into the romance of “The Coldway” or feel like reading the verse “Hollow-Ware Man” I think the book gives permission to skip. When (if) the reader realizes there is more afoot, they can always go back. But I honestly believe the book would work on the strength of the stories even in the plausible scenario that a child reader completely misses the larger point.

  12. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    I agree with Leonard that “the book would work strength of the stories.” In that first story, “The Game of Maps,” has so many engaging elements. The vivid setting of the “city that could not be mapped” and the house; the plot, which expands the standard haunted house stayover so neatly; the role of the house itself in actively opposing Pantin with its macabre rooms. The recurring motifs of a child in peril and the peddler with dubious intentions are planted and gain meaning later, but the story itself is first rate. Not every reader has to take in a book’s distinguished qualities at the same level. Younger readers, or old ones like me who don’t know Greenglass, can appreciate the writing and not connect all the pieces. You could argue that writing a book that succeeds both as a collection of stories and as a more complex, wider ranging whole is a distinguished accomplishment.

  13. Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

    OK thanks for all the info. everyone. You have convinced me to revisit RACONTEUR’S, SHAPE OF THUNDER, AND JUST LIKE THAT. My apologies to Gary Smith, but I’m not seeing much support for GONE TO THE WOODS.
    So quick revisit to them all, (with how much I read for Leonard).
    RACONTEUR’S- probably only made it 15% thru this one, and I think listening to the audio might have been my downfall. It will probably be better to follow reading print. Also I just need to throw away anything I don’t remember about Greenglass House and roll with it.
    SHAPE OF THUNDER- read about 40% of this, before skipping to the end. Clearly, I need to think more about time traveling and science fiction and actually read what happens.
    JUST LIKE THAT- probably made it about a third of the way thru this one and I need to power thru to see all of the themes.
    And GONE TO THE WIND, I did about 40% of and that is fine.

    • Julie Ann Corsaro says

      I really liked Gary Paulsen’s GONE TO THE WOODS. However, I think it raises the question of a child audience, perhaps even more so than AMBER AND CLAY, since it extends to the author’s young adult time in the military. While the war violence in the Philippines is graphic, it is tempered by being largely represented as part of the boy’s later memories. I think memorable is an apt description for the book, overall, particularly the first section where the parentally abandoned, five-year-old Gary takes refuge with his tender aunt and uncle in Minnesota’s Northwoods, as well as the later section where a 13-year-old Gary — once again abandoned by his parents — finds shelter in the library with an understanding professional who sets the stage for his future career. The story was well-written in a muscular style with vivid settings, natural and otherwise (a writer friend drew a fitting analogy to Hemingway’s Nick Adam stories).

Speak Your Mind

*