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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Reader-Character-Author Connections: Autiobiographical Possibilities for the Newbery Medal

Children’s literature is filled with books that convey, in one way or another, the author’s own childhood or adolescent experiences. Recent examples from the Newbery canon include the only two Honor books from 2015: BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson and EL DEAFO by Cece Bell. Last year’s Printz winner (and the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery winner) EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE is another example.  At their best, this approach can create strong connections not just between reader and character, but between reader and author as well. None of the three books below have received nominations on Heavy Medal so far, but they’re all fairly new, so there’s still time. At least one will get a nomination from me for sure:

BAD SISTER by Charise Mericle Harper, Art by Rory Lacey
The author narrates this graphic novel in the first person and it just feels like this is real stuff. The girl’s name is Charise, and the photo and dedication at the end confirm the connection. It’s that brother-sister relationship that rings so true, and usually not in the best ways. While the illustrations do a lot to convey character setting, Harper’s verbal storytelling is just right. The interplay between the narrative portions, where she does some reflective self-analysis, and the dialogue, where we see her creative/funny/downright cruel actions, works perfectly. Early on she successfully prevents her brother from playing with the cat:

[Narration]:  Winning felt great. But sometimes winning had a price. 


[Dialogue]:   Mom:  I don’t know what happened with you two, but someone has to take that dress off the cat so I can let him outside.

Daniel:  Mwaaaaha cat too!

Mom:  You’re right. Sandy belongs to everyone.

[Narration]:  That was the price.  

p 18-19

Then we see Mom singing a song to Daniel while Charise looks on jealously, followed by:

Narration:  But I know how to even the score. 

p 19

Their relationship develops both noticeably and subtly over the years as Charise becomes more guilty about her feelings and actions, but doesn’t really stop them, and Daniel turns into a popular, likeable kid in ways that elude Charise, even when she tries her hardest. The frank honesty with which the author portrays herself is powerful, but she also captures the affection she had for Daniel and reveals her own loneliness and anxieties. 

THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE: GROWING UP BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN by Eugene Yelchin
Both the title and the subtitle are equally important in this fascinating book. The true story of Yevgeny’s emergence as an artist and the depiction of life behind the iron curtain in 1970s USSR are inextricably connected. Yelchin weaves them together with an engaging mix of humor and irony, interspersed with jarring reminders of how dire conditions really were for his family. The matter-of-fact way he relates small incidents gives readers specific and personal insights. 

There’s a funny scene about gum, for instance, that’s triggered when a secret policeman calls his family “filthy yids”…the first example of the anti-Semitism that rises in prominence as Yevgeny learns more. He narrates:

I did not care. Being called a filthy yid did not matter to me at that moment. What mattered was the stick of American chewing gum in my brother’s pocket. No chewing gum was sold in our country, and for a good reason. We barely had stuff to eat, let alone stuff to chew that you could not swallow. 

For three weeks afterward, Victor chewed on that stick of Juicy Fruit. Nights, he soaked the chewing gum in a cup of tea to keep it soft. By the time I inherited the gum, it had neither taste nor smell..

p 10

It’s funny, and the tone is more playful than angry, but the hatred of the policeman and the hardships of his family’s daily life come through powerfully.

We get that in different ways through his interactions with other people, none of whom are able to tell him everything he wants to know. As readers, our understanding of the harsh realities of their situation deepens in fits and starts, just like Yevgeney’s does. 

The light tough of the narration is interspersed with many powerful moments: the swastika on the door (85); the menacing appearance of Blinov at the ballet (122-124); and the moment he learns why some of his family’s photos include cut out heads (172-174), among other memorable scenes.

As narrator and protagonist, Yevgeney’s deceptively casual delivery invites readers in, then carefully drops in surprising and sometimes devastating insights into how a particular time and place can play such a large role in the lives of a family. This is a standout title for me, at the top of my nomination list for November.

FRIENDS FOREVER by Shannon Hale, artwork by LeUyen Pham
Like BAD SISTER, the book shows how the graphic novel format can be just the right choice to convey those cringe-y, self-revealing moments of growing up. The plot structure is built around the beginning-of-8th-grade list that Shannon creates, with a chapter about each one of her “I would be fulfilled if…” list. There are ups and down with each topic, and at least one fantasy sequence where she imagines what fulfillment would be like.

The sequential art construction demonstrates how well the form can work for the presentation of words as well as pictures. The note exchanges between Shannon and her friends for example, showed how she could sometimes (but not always) navigate the social dynamics more smoothly through writing, rather than conversation. And there’s a terrific moment towards the end where she sets her parents actual words against the way Shannon actually hears them:

[Narration] But lately, what my parents said and what I heard were very different.

[Dad’s word balloon] A’s again! I love you.

[Shannon’s thought bubble] So you love me because I get A’s? 

[Mom] You’re doing so much better in school than your sister did.

[Shannon] So I only have value by comparison to someone less successful? 

[Mom] You should finish your book. It’s what won you that award.

[Shannon] Since I haven’t finished it, I didn’t deserve to win.   

p 236

Individual passages like this capture specific dilemmas of Shannon’s eighth grade year in ways that are very relatable, even though readers may not share Shannon’s particular set of challenges. After the five self-improvement chapters, chapter six takes her into deep depression, ending with the dramatic “Stop feeling” scene (p 255). Chapter seven rights the ship, with the strong “you are enough” message. Though I was glad for the uplifting finish, I’m not sure we learned enough about how Shannon turned it around. At the same time, it kind of fits with the precarious ups and downs of her age, and it is her story after all. Either way, I think this book will connect widely and deeply with readers

Other notable books from this year that are at least semi-autobiographical include:

  • THE BOY WHO FAILED SHOW AND TELL by Jordan Sonnenblick, a fictionalized telling of the author’s disastrous and very funny middle school experiences;
  • GONE TO THE WOODS by Gary Paulsen, who just passed away this past week. Gary Paulsen was a master at drawing from his own life in many works of fiction and nonfiction, and it’s fitting that he revisited the autobiographical form in this last book published before his death. 
  • UNSETTLED by Reem Faruqi is “fictional” says the author, but she “drew on her experiences” in several key areas that she mentions in the Author’s Note. An excellent novel in verse that captures the challenges of being outsiders through poignant, personal examples.  
  •  WE BELONG by Cookie Hipponia Everman, another novel in verse presentation, this one weaves elements from Tagalog mythology into events inspired by her own family’s immigration experiences.
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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. The book that resonated with me was THE BOY WHO FAILED SHOW AND TELL by Jordan Sonnenblick. Set in Staten Island (the smallest NYC borough) in the 1970s, it still evoked memories of my Staten Island library work in the 80s and 90s. The main character describes himself as that “smart kid who gets in trouble all the time.” The writing style is old fashioned, using humor to bring the stories to life. The adults have realistic character flaws. The local settings are presented as I remember them. This is a book that I found enjoyable to read.

  2. Carol Arlene Edwards says

    I’m waiting to get my hands on several of the titles mentioned. Just wanted to affirm that Gone to the Woods by Paulsen is powerful and memorable. I admire so much the way he adapted such a difficult childhood to a child audience. By which I mean the 10-14 age range of the Newbery.

    • Julie Ann Corsaro says

      I’m a big fan of GONE TO THE WOODS, as well, Carol. I think it’s one of those books that will remain with me for the rest of my life. I also like Paulsen’s refined yet muscular writing style. However, I think I would put it at the top end of the Newbery age range: twelve or thirteen through fourteen. I agree with Steven’s comments about THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE, and see it as being in the darkly comedic tradition of a book like Paulsen’s fictionalized HARRIS AND ME, as well as Roald Dahl’s BOY. I can’t recall reading another middle grade book about anti-Semitism that is funny, with the humor arising out of the distinctive characters and vivid circumstances of living under the repressive Soviet regime, where creative expression helps some of the family members survive.

  3. Leonard Kim says

    I’ve only read FRIENDS FOREVER of these. It’s interesting you wrote, “I’m not sure we learned enough about how Shannon turned it around,” because other people have made that exact same point to me in conversation, while for me that was the part of the book that worked best. It may have helped that I had revisited the previous books in the series. I see Shannon’s imagination as her superpower, even when it makes it harder to fit in and relate to her friends. Each book in the trilogy devotes extensive time to Shannon’s imaginary life — the imaginary play of Real Friends, her imaginative writing in Best Friends, and, in FRIENDS FOREVER, her imagined different, “better” versions of herself. Even though these versions may not seem psychologically constructive at first (one can see them as manifestations of negative, unrealistic expectations), it is those selves that return for the therapeutic (imaginary) group hug at the end. In a comment about AUNTIE PO, I called this “imagination-as-lifeline” — and I do think this theme is interpreted better in FRIENDS FOREVER, because it seemed both more necessary and more of a last resort. Whereas in AUNTIE PO, Mei seems less fragile than Shannon and has a better family/community support structure. So I saw Mei as less in need of Auntie Po, even though that was how that device was presented, whereas Shannon’s imagination at times seems like almost all she has.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      Leonard’s observation that “those selves return for the therapeutic (imaginary) group hug at the end” is helpful. I hadn’t really thought about how those earlier imaginary Shannons, who didn’t really help her one at a time, might have the positive impact when taken as a whole. It makes some logical sense to me, but I still feel like the complexities of her struggles would require more than advice from an imaginary therapist. Since she’s imaginary, we know that the advice is really Shannon’s own self, and if that’s all it takes, it kind of minimizes the realness of what she’s gone through to me. One thing I liked about STARFISH was how it showed that therapy isn’t as simple and straightforward as we wish it could be.
      At the same time, though, Shannon’s imaginary life is unique and central to her being, so if there’s an eighth grader who could use an imaginary therapist to get her through tough times, it would be a person like her.

  4. Rox Anne Close says

    I just finished reading THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE, and loved it. Yelchin easily brings the reader into the world of his childhood in the USSR. He uses illustrations to help tell the story, but the words are vivid enough without the pictures. The narrative is engaging and full of dark humor. I laughed at Yevgeny’s visit to Lenin’s tomb with the observation of the bandage on his mummy, I was grossed out with the American Juicy Fruit gum he shared with his brother Victor, and I thought the afternoon that Grandma, Victor and Yevgeny listened to American Rock & Roll records on illegally recorded X-ray pictures was hilarious.

    Yet through this all Yelchin powerfully shows the oppression of communism, the discrimination of the Soviet Jews, and the harsh living conditions without overwhelming the reader. I don’t know how he does it! He shows the harassment of the police, the lack of privacy living in a communal apartment, with a KGB spy camped out in the kitchen and the puzzle of moving the furniture each evening, as the whole family sleeps in the same room. My heart ached for Yevgeny as the only place he can draw is literally on the table (underneath) with the stub of a pencil, when he is suppose to be sleeping.

    The characters were well developed with mom obsessed with Baryshnikov, the ballet dancer, dad obsessed with Russian poets, Victor with ice skating, Grandma with her intense love for Yevgeny and her sarcastic humor, and Yevgeny trying to find his talent. This is one book I will be nominating in November.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    The illustrations are wonderful, and do support with the characterizations. But the words carry this fine as Rox Anne notes. For example, the drawing of the guy with the Stalin tattoo on his chest, set across from a view of an uneasy Yevgeny is very effective, but we really get the full menacing depth of that scene from the text, as the poor kid wrestles with his courage and his reluctance to lie, and ending with:

    He looked from my dad to me then back to my dad. His nasty smirk told me he knew we were Jewish.
    “A nice little boy you have here. Honest little boy.” (p 100)

    My only complaint: I found it distracting with an illustration broke up the line of text (p 27, 93, 148). But that’s maybe just me…

    • Rox Anne Close says

      Steven, yes, I agree that it was distracting when the illustrations broke up the line of text, especially (p. 148-149), with the Brazen Serpents. It made it difficult to read those pages, even though the illustrations were wonderful.

  6. Rox Anne Close says

    In the graphic novel BAD SISTER, I was amazed how brave the author, Charise Harper was to share her many flaws and self reflections in this very personal memoir. I agree with Steven that the frank honesty with which she portrays herself is powerful.

    The storytelling is engaging, in each chapter I was waiting to see what shenanigans Charise would do to her brother. I felt guilty enjoying her escapades, I didn’t endorse her cruelness, but I had to give her credit for her creativity and ways she manipulated others, and talked herself out of each situation. In real life I know kids just like this. I loved the self reflections, such as on page 73, ” It was exhausting to be mean. Sometimes afterwards I felt a little guilty. — Somethings you can’t undo.” (Then she just dismisses the guilt by saying), “He’s probably already forgotten about it.”

    I thought it was clever how Harper named the chapter title by Powers: THE POWER OF THE TRICK where Daniel, her brother, ends up eating cat food (p 25-27), and others such as the POWER TO FOOL, …TO DARE,…TO LIE, …TO BLAME, etc. Charise’s reflection in the chapter THE BIGGEST POWER rings so true, (p 217), ” I used it up. Sorry has lost its power. It didn’t work anymore.” (pictured with her parents). “Not even on Daniel.” (pictured with her brother).
    I enjoyed reading this book, and I think kids will love it, especially if they have siblings. Even though Charise was impulsive and cruel at times, her love for her brother did shine through in this novel. I would love to know what her relationship with her brother is now, that they are grown up. My one complaint is that the font is very small, so it was difficult to read, (or maybe it is time for me to get my eyes checked, LOL).

    • Rox Anne,
      I agree with you about the font size. It is going to be even more difficult for any reader who is far sighted.

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