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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Sunshine, Aidan, and Pony: will a second read increase their Newbery chances?:

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I wasn’t far into AMBER AND CLAY I was pretty sure it would be a strong Newbery contender for me. THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE had me at “Juicy Fruit.” Some books are like that. Other times, though, it takes me much longer to figure out if a book really should be considered as a Newbery contender. Some titles catch me off-guard, and I only realize how strong they are once I’ve read the whole thing. Other times a book can shine in multiple areas, but leave me with nagging doubts about particular, sometimes pretty minor, elements that didn’t quite come together. That’s where reading them twice can really help. You’re less caught up in the story and can look more objectively at the writing and the choices the author makes. Here are three that fall into that category for me:

SUNSHINE by Marion Dane Bauer
This one kind of sneaks up on you. It seems like the story will be built around Ben reconnecting with his mother, and it mostly is. But the carefully constructed plot and strong characterizations, especially of Ben, make a surprisingly powerful impact. The role of the dog Sunshine is especially effective. First we think she’s real; then we discover that she isn’t (40); then we learn how she was inspired by a neighbor’s dog (101); during the fire, it seems that Ben’s mother sent Sunshine to get help (159); and finally we learn how a dog helped Ben through the worst day of his early life (182).

The narrative sticks firmly to Ben’s point of view. His naïve hope that his mom will return rings true, and so does the way he shifts between fear and impulsive behavior. He’s not that introspective, but we really get to know him. And with all of the insightful relationship dynamics, it’s also a fine adventure story, with some tense moments and a well-realized island setting.

When I re-read I want to pay special attention to how Bauer subtly reveals the story of Ben’s family and also track the many ways in which Sunshine aids his resilience, and ultimately helps him get closer to both parents.


This starts with a fascinating premise, in which Liam’s brother visits a magical world, but no one believes him. The story takes place in our known world, though, so the plot builds around the brothers’ attempts to frame Aidan’s story in a way that others will accept. But at the same time, there’s that lingering curiosity about that fantastic adventure which Liam (and readers) don’t get to take part in.

Liam’s response to his brother’s story seems just right. He’s skeptical, because Aidan’s just the type of older sibling who would pull a prank. But he does see the that leaf in his brother’s hair (12), and his curiosity and close attention to Aidan’s words and behavior lead to Liam’s gradual acceptance of the story in a convincing manner.

The exploration of themes of friendship, trust, and faith come through strongly, and are all very neatly woven into a highly original plot.

On a second read I want to think about how Liam’s character is developed. So much of his narration is about Aidan, but it’s Liam that we really learn about and become connected to.

PONY by R. J. Palacio
One of several excellent ghost stories from this year, PONY stands out because of its old west setting, a twist-y plot, and evocative first person narration. I thought Silas’ storytelling voice was very effective. He’s reflecting back as an adult, and the formal language also fits with his odd upbringing. There’s a melancholy distance to the telling, but it somehow doesn’t leave the reader uninvolved.

The mysteries about the past life of Silas’ Pa and of Mittenwool’s origins are neatly mixed in with the central action of pursuit and rescue. Silas’ lack of experience in the real world sets up some interesting character dynamics as well: he’s not really sure how to gauge people’s reactions to him, but it’s fun to see how he tries.

I definitely got caught up in this story, so maybe didn’t read as carefully as I might have, but a few things nagged at me. When I read it again, I want to keep better track of Pony and the role the horse plays in plot development. And I was confused a bit about Silas’ interactions with ghosts. Should he have known that Mr. Farmer was a ghost? And wouldn’t he be wondering more about his father’s identity? Or was that the older Silas as narrator, making choices about what to share?

One nitpick that I know will bug me however many times I read it: The chapter epigraphs from literature and folklore are a nice touch; they match the tone and Silas’ educational background. They seem like passages the older Silas chose himself to go with his story. Except one (p 201), which comes from a 1980’s pop song. It’s a great 1980’s pop song, but even so, it doesn’t match the established tone, provides no special perspective, and did not exist during Silas’ lifetime. I hope I’ll figure out a reason for this out-of-place choice, but fear I won’t.

I didn’t nominate any of these titles. In fact, there’s only been a single nomination so far among the three, for PONY. There’s a good chance that my own final two nominations in December won’t go towards any of the three…but I won’t know that for sure without those second reads.

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. I have read THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AIDAN S. The beginning chapters were full of suspense but the story bogs down at the end. Many loose ends remain unresolved. I was also interested in the exploration of how media distorts a narrative.
    This is one of several books published this year that pay tribute to the Narnia series. When Aidan reports that he was transported to an alternative world by going through an old wardrobe in the attic, the investigating police officer responds, “Are you sure it’s not called Narnia?” (p. 34)
    In DAVINCI’S CAT, a wardrobe designed by Leonardo Da Vinci provides a time travel portal. When Bee emerges from the wardrobe, her initial declaration to Fred is, “I’m in Narnia! Hey, are you Lucy?” (p. 123)
    Although Narnia is not mentioned in the text of A PLACE TO.HANG THE MOON, Albus describes in her author’s note how the evacuation of the children is modeled on the C.S. Lewis telling. And she chose to name one of the children Edmund as an homage.

  2. Rox Anne Close says

    PONY by R. J. Palacio is a beautiful story of the love between Pa and his son Silas and Silas’ loving relationship with Mittenwool, his ghost companion and Pony. The setting is strong. As a reader, I felt I was part of the adventure. As Silas was on the hunt to find his father, I could imagine Silas’ trail, the stream, the campfires, the woods, the cave, the hardship, etc., Palacio’s skillfully constructed story showed Silas’ inexperience in the real world, and added suspense when he needed to make decisions along the way. It was part a coming-or-age story as Silas discovered himself through this adventure. I loved how literature was interspersed throughout the book, and I learned a lot about early photography.. The book was well researched and the extensive author’s notes at the end of the book were helpful.

    At first, I wasn’t sure of the genre of this book, was it a western, a scientific book, or a ghost story? I guess a combination of all three. It took me a while to get into the book, I thought the dialogues that Silas had with Mittenwool at the beginning of the book, were a bit lengthy, but maybe they were needed for character development, (which I may discover on a second read). I also was not sure why the title of the book was PONY. The pony was integral to the story, but does not dominate the plot. Maybe I need a second read to see better the role of pony in the plot.

    I did not nominate this book as one of my Newbery selections, but it is an excellent book, and maybe it deserves a Newbery award.

  3. Rox Anne Close says

    I agree with Steven that strong characterization is the strength of the book SUNSHINE. Ben’s character is well developed as he confronts his fears, tries to figure out what he did to drive his mother away, and how he deals with forgiveness. Ben’s mom is an intriguing character, as she abandoned Ben when he was a kid, yet is warm, kind and caring while still being distant and reserved. The twist with Sunshine, the dog is expertly handled as well. The book is full of adventure and heart, yet has enough danger to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The only thing missing in this outdoor adventure in the north woods of Minnesota are mosquitoes!

  4. Julie Ann Corsaro says

    I “suggested” SUNSHINE, calling it a small gem. I agree with the comments made regarding its rich characterization, fully-realized setting (mosquitos, notwithstanding), and well-crafted plot and pacing. I also think Bauer’s writing style is distinguished in its use of vivid imagery with a nicely clipped cadence, including an artful use of repetition. I think the story’s style and construction works well with the lower end of middle grade as its target audience, as does Ben’s internal questioning, which makes his thinking concrete.

  5. THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE was one of the most charming, heartbreaking, and hopeful reads of the year for me. I would love to see this memoir of a Jewish boy figuring out life in communist Russia win a Newbery. It’s just lovely.

  6. Leonard Kim says

    I just read PONY. I had similar reactions to others — I thought it was excellent but may have some quibbles. That said, I probably will nominate it in December unless I read something I like more. I have an easier time believing it’s a Newbery book if I explicitly go through the Criteria, since I think it does check off excellence in character, plot, setting, information, style, and theme. My biggest quibble is probably around interpretation of theme: in this book (and also A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON) I question whether, today, a big financial windfall is needed or even appropriate for a happy ending. Love should be enough, and I think riches may cheapen that theme. While I am glad we aren’t likely to discuss A SITTING IN ST. JAMES here, I wish Palacio had resolved the buried treasure the way Williams-Garcia did.

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