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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Nominations Catch-Up: under-the-radar Mock Newbery contenders

Our call for November nominations continues through November 6, but meanwhile, let’s catch up on the list of October nominations. 20 titles received at least two nominations, and we’ve highlighted 15 of those in previous posts. (There are links to each post on that October nominations list). So what about the other 5?:

ONE JAR OF MAGIC by Corey Ann Haydu
Noticing that three out of five of these nominated-but-not-featured books are fantasy leads me to again question my genre preferences. I think of fantasy as one of my favorite genres, but fear that this leads me to too easily dismiss title that don’t live up to my all-time favorites. You don’t have to be Lloyd Alexander or Diana Wynne Jones to be worthy of Newbery discussion, but sometimes that gets in my way.

I really like the premise of ONE JAR OF MAGIC, where the gathering of magic holds a place in Rose’s world that’s similar to coming-of-age issues in non-magical worlds. When Rose falls behind on magic it changes her sense of self and her relationships with friends and family. Her plight has similarities to those of Eliana in STARFISH or several characters in PITY PARTY. The book demonstrates how a well-conceived plot can be the catalyst for exploring themes. I thought the characterizations were fine, but not outstanding, which might be why I never became fully immersed in Rose’s world. This book has strengths, though, and does not seem out of place on our list.

This historical fiction novel received 5 October nominations, and is surprisingly popular at libraries. There are waiting lists at all of the libraries in my area, and a quick check shows that to be fairly common around the country. Of course the Newbery is “not for…popularity,” but the high circulation hints at the “excellence of presentation for a child audience” which the book clearly displays. It’s an orphan story set in World War II England. The three siblings are appealing from the start, as a set and as individuals, and the plot is intriguing and easy follow. While the story is built around their search for a home at a perilous time, Albus mixes in thought-provoking elements without seeming heavy handed.

Though it may not have the dazzling originality of AMBER AND CLAY or the emotional impact of JUST LIKE THAT, it’s important not to underrate books that are less spectacular, but still demonstrate excellence in plot, characterization, setting, style, and themes.

ROOT MAGIC by Eden Royce
It’s pretty clear early on that magic is a real thing in books like AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS and ONE JAR OF MAGIC, but in ROOT MAGIC the magical elements emerge more slowly. When the twins first start to learn root magic, they’re not sure themselves what its powers will be. About 100 pages in Jez’s doll walks into the marsh, so it’s clearly more than just folk remedies, and when Susie sheds her skin as a boo hag, it’s still deliciously surprising.

There’s a lot more going on in this book, though, and the mixing of issues like friendship, family, bullying, and racism, plus the strong historical setting, feels more natural to me than it does in some other fantasies. Some of that comes through Jez, who narrates and is a complex, fully developed protagonist. Her sense of herself grows convincingly through her experiences and some of the choices she has to make, like her decision to trust the boo hag, which could have put her family in danger), are key to establishing plot and themes.

WHILE I WAS AWAY by Waka T. Brown

If I had read this in time I would have included in an earlier post about autobiographies and memoirs. Several other books, including UNSETTLED, WE BELONG, THE YEAR I FLEW AWAY, and RED WHITE AND WHOLE explore the challenges of coming to the U. S. from another country; this one, though, is the true story of the author’s temporary move from the U. S. to Japan in the 1980’s.

Brown captures the immediacy of her childhood experiences, without letting her adult knowledge seep into the narrative. Maka’s emotional responses to everything from her struggles with the guruupu at school to the simple pleasures of Japanese handkerchief practices take readers right into her 12-year-old worldview. The differences she notes between the two countries are fascinating, and the information is effortlessly woven into her day-to-day experiences.

The family relationships are very well drawn, especially the central one between Maka and Obaasoma. I like the way their closeness develops in small steps, sparked by seemingly small events. Like in chapter 12, where Maka sees her laugh for the first time, followed by a conversation where the girl begins to understand her grandmother’s loneliness for the first time (pp 143-150). The revelations near the end, when Maka reveals what will happen in the years after her visit, are especially powerful (291-291). She doesn’t need to describe that part with detail or emotion because by this time readers know Maka so well that we understand the impact those events would have on her. This another stellar memoir from a year that has several.

I’m afraid I did not get a chance to finish this one yet, so can’t say too much. I started it several months ago, then stopped; that can happen a lot in a Newbery year. You try a book and for one reason or another put it aside, keeping in mind that you may go back to it if it appears on a nomination list, or if you hear more good things about it.

I read about 80 pages and didn’t continue more on my personal reading preferences rather than a critical judgement. I think I’ve just read (or started) too many books about an ordinary kid who learns she has powers and goes to a school for kids with powers and some kids are jealous of her and there are quirky teachers, and so on. But I stopped before getting to the heart of the book, and I do feel that Amari’s situation and her character, as much as I absorbed of it, offer potential for a strong fantasy. It received strongly positive published reviews and two nominations from Heavy Medal readers, so yes, I have to get back to this one. I plan to finish it later this week, but meanwhile would love to hear about its strengths from other readers.

Please share your own thoughts about any of these neglected-until-now titles, and/or call attention to any of the nine one-nomination titles that we haven’t discussed yet….

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. Julie Ann Corsaro says

    While I’m not sure it rises to the level of Newbery, which is the search for the top book, after all, I think A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON is one of the most-appealing middle-grade fiction books of the year. It follows in the tradition of many classic children’s books and many classic orphan stories, but manages to update them; perhaps, because the children have a lot of wherewithal, there is wit and humor, and contemporary issues, such as bullying and social class (although that sounds like some of the older ones, too). Moreover, lots of things happen as the kids search for a new home. It’s not that too much is happening but, rather, the action keeps readers continually engaged. If I were still working directly with students in schools, I’d be sharing the rat-catching episode in a flash.

  2. ROOT MAGIC is one of my favorite books of the year so far. I haven’t gotten a lot of chances to hand-sell it to kids since we don’t have nearly as many kids coming in to the (public) library as we used to, but I really need to figure out a way to get it into kids’ hands…maybe I’ll build a display around it or something! I would love to see it win an award of some kind!

    AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS was a fun read that I really enjoyed, but I’m not sure about Newbery potential. Like Steven said, it’s a plot we’ve seen many times (although still one I enjoy). I thought the writing was a bit clunky in the beginning – as I got farther into the book it bothered me less, but it took a while for me to really get interested.

  3. Meredith Burton says

    A Place to Hang the Moon is one of my favorite reads this year. THe omniscient narrative, which places you in each child’s perspective, is spot-on. I love how rich the setting is as well as the strong characterization. Particular appreciation for me came when the children learned to like the headmistress in charge of the eevacuation operation. The ending about the garden was very well done.
    I enjoyed One Jar of Magic very much and thought the characterization was wonderful. I think Haydu deliberately understates certain character’s contributions as the father is such a dynamic source of fear. Lyle’s quiet but profound protection of Rose is unforgettable as is the father’s brother’s role and the role of his family. It’s a quiet story but very effective. I think I’ve forgotten a bit about it as I read it very early in the year, but I do remember the profound beauty of the story. DOn’t know if it quite reaches Newbery potential, but the themes and characterization are well drawn.
    I hope to read WHile I was Away soon as well as THe Genius Under the Table and ROot Magic.
    I did begin AMari and the Night Brothers but didn’t finish it. Just couldn’t keep my interest. MIght have been the audiobook narration, or perhaps I wasn’t in the mood at the moment. WIll try it again.

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