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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: AMBER AND CLAY by Laura Amy Schlitz

Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Michelle Lettus

Amber & Clay is probably one of the most complex works on this list. Laura Amy Schlitz uses many styles and forms of writing to tell the story of Melisto and Rhaskos. Hermes begins to tell the tale in verse.  Like Hermes, Rhaskos tells his story in verse. Melisto, staying true to character by being different from the others, starts her part of the story in prose. Throughout the novel, different characters voice their opinions using turn and counter-turn. Amongst all of this, there are illustrations of exhibit items along with captions. These show important items that we learn about in the story.  Different gods pop in to give their take on the situation which only adds another layer to this story. When you turn the page, you really don’t know what to expect.

As for the content of the story, we are introduced to Rhaskos and Melisto. Rhaskos is a slave whose mother is taken and sold to Melisto’s family. Melisto is the daughter of a wealthy man and is wild and stubborn. It is a clever way to link these two characters who have nothing else in common because Thratta was important to both of them. Rhaskos only  has his mother for a very short time. Melisto’s mother is cruel to her and asks why she was cursed with her for a daughter.  When Melisto dies, Thratta curses her, saying she will not rest in death until Rhaskos is free. Ending the story with two exhibit pieces, we find that Rhaskos is freed and able to create the art as he longed to do throughout the story. 

Delineation of characters and plot are two points where this story is strong. Rhaskos start as a small boy, who is a slave and his mother is taken away from him. He grows to be an artist with incredible talent and he fights for his freedom. Melisto is stubborn and wild, and even in death, she is fierce. For those who are interested in Ancient Greece and mythology, this book will be a delight.


Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!:

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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. Aryssa Damron says

    I really enjoyed how interwoven this book was by the end—I love seeing a common name, or a similar making, and racing to make the connection before the story tells me I was correct! I kept describing this as if Madeline Miller had said “and one for the children!”

    I also really really enjoyed the use of the “exhibits” as someone who loves art history and that intertextual interplay

    • I agree, Aryssa! Especially the Madeline Miller part — what makes her work so remarkable is also what sets Laura Amy’s apart: the sense of engaging with these points of history or mythology through tangible, human experiences and emotions. That said, I read it quite awhile ago, and I would need to reread to see where I would place it in the field.

  2. Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

    Thanks for the intro Michelle! Yes, plot and characters were strong but I thought setting was where this title truly stood out. The reader is transported to ancient Greece and I really feel the contrast in all the different locations and that we can see them through the various narrators eyes. The use of artifacts really helps convey setting too.

    The authors note and bibliography at the end is really worth a read and shows the authenticity of the book.

    • Aryssa Damron says

      Totally agree, Emily, with the bibliography and author’s note! It really showed how impactful each choice was and how thought-out the entire piece was!

      • Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

        Yes, definitely appreciated her explanations. The one that stuck out most to Me was how hard it was to find information about Brauron and the Little Bears. I like how she has Hermes explain the lack of knowledgeable about them and her line “a historical novel, like a diamon is kind of mule: half history, half story. Every author has to make up her mind how to handle the two halves.”

  3. Courtney Hague says

    Thank you for your intro, Michelle! I agree this book is very complex. It has so many moving parts between both Melisto and Rhaskos but also all the gods’ perspectives and switching between verse and prose, but I think Schlitz does an excellent job of balancing all of those styles and stories in a way that makes sense.

    Her writing at a line-by-line level is so beautiful. Her descriptions really draw you into the world of Ancient Greece.

  4. Megan Howes says

    This book was absolutely stunning! I do agree with Emily that the setting is where this book stands out from others. I also loved that most of it is in verse, and it really brings to mind Greek epics like the Illiad and the Odyssey. The fact that it is focused on two characters who were low in the social standings in Greek society, unlike epic poetry which focuses on the warrior men, was really special, and I love that Schlitz turned that trope around. It lets their voices be heard, and gives us a new look at what Greek society could have been like.

    Really outstanding! I’ll be kind of surprised if this doesn’t win at least an honor.

  5. April Beckman says

    I liked this book. I thought the characterization was strong and the setting was well researched. But I thought this book needed 100 pages cut to make the pacing and the story stronger. Basically everything concerning Socrates can be lifted out of the story. I don’t think he really added anything to the story at all. He just seemed like a random person Rhaskos met and kids would only really care about this character if they already knew who Socrates was. His philosophy was not explored enough in this story to justify his addition and basically it just seemed like he popped up to slow the story down.

    • Michelle Lettus says

      I completely agree! Socrates really did not add anything to the story. I read this book when it first came out and reread recently and I completely forgot everything about Socrates part in the story.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    Interesting comments about Sokrates. I initially wondered if the complexity of the book, both in forms and plot, might be too challenging for young readers, but in the end I felt like each of the parts, and the whole thing, was carefully constructed to connect with young readers…not all, but that’s okay. But April and Michelle have me thinking about how that one Sokrates might have been one too many elements in an already complex narrative. Are there ways that that piece made the book stronger?
    Maybe it’s Sokrates’ recognition of Rhaksos’ specialness, which he couldn’t even see himself. In terms of plot development, he helps Rhaksos figure out the meaning behind his “Thracian tattoos”:
    “Now Sokrates was saying I was of noble blood.
    My darknes became light:
    My mother knew she would be sold –
    she knew we would be parted –
    she wanted to give me a name. A clan,
    a birthright, proof that my forbears were noble;
    I was too young to understand,
    so she carved the truth on my skin.” (390)

  7. Aryssa Damron says

    I will agree with the comments about Sokrates, and also Steven’s initial thoughts. My first impulse after “wow!” was…”is this really FOR kids?” Just because it has young protagonists does not make it FOR children. Not that young readers don’t deserve complex engaging titles, obviously, but this to me…I struggled with staying in it, and I’m an adult. I don’t know a single kid under 16 I could hand this to right now and that would just sit down and read it.

    • Andrea Tyler says

      Aryssa, I had the same thoughts when I read this book as well. While I really enjoyed it, I had a hard time thinking of any children that would appreciate the book as much as I did. I don’t want to underestimate a young reader’s ability to understand the complex themes of the book, but I really felt that this book could have been marketed towards an older audience.

    • This is where I struggle with this one too. It’s a fascinating story, but I can’t think of a single student at my school that I could successfully pitch this to, or convince to read the whole thing. Can it be the most distinguished book for children if children aren’t interested in it?

      • I know a few kids who would love it.
        AND, I will definitely try to sell fans of Percy Jackson.. maybe fans who read it a couple of years ago and are older but still love ancient Greece.

    • Emily Mroczek (Bayci) says

      I have been griping with this, but agree with the Sokrates comments. I read this interview with the author https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/85678-four-questions-with-laura-amy-schlitz.html
      and it seems like Sokrates is what she wanted to write about in the first place… I just feel like his scenes were dragged out. I try to tell myself what a big part he was to Rhaskos character and development, especially when he lacked a mother but I don’t think it’s enough

  8. Amanda Bishop says

    Thank you for the great introduction Michelle. This is such a unique book and is unlike most books, particularly those written for children. I loved how Schlitz combined so many elements in this story to bring it to life. One of my favorite parts were the artifacts that she placed throughout the texts to connect the reader with the past.

    I have to agree with others that the delineation of setting might be what makes this book Newbery worthy. I also think the “Interpretation of the Theme” is what makes this book award-winning. Schlitz really embraced all things Greek while writing this book and because of all these elements I think she really did a great job bringing life in Ancient Greece together for her readers.

    This is a challenging book for sure, but readers who love Ancient Greece will not be disappointed.

  9. Stephanie Saggione says

    Aryssa, I agree! Just looking through this book at first glance was daunting and I love a long book. I can’t imagine a child in this age group choosing to read this. When I’m reviewing a book, I usually try to think of a specific student I know who would enjoy it; I could not think of a single student for this one. I worry that the awards are moving toward an adult audience instead of considering a child’s perspective first.

    • Kathleen Jarombek says

      I would agree that this book isn’t one that will have wide appeal, but I booktalked it with my book group of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and they voted it one of their favorite books of the year. So I think it does have a readership and is especially appealing to kids with an interest in mythology and Ancient Greece.

  10. I agree with Stephanie in that I have had a hard time giving this book to students. Amy Schlitz is such a talented author and I have heard rave reviews from adults about this book, but still waiting to hear from my students who enjoyed the read and really understood it.

  11. I’m so conflicted about this book. The writing was beautiful and I loved how the stories fit together, but I did find myself questioning who the book was for. I really liked it…but like Stephanie said above, I can’t think of a child who would sit down and read this one without being really confused. Do kids learn about Greek history in elementary/middle school? I did, but I was a weirdo homeschooler. I feel like most kids would understand the mythology aspects thanks to Percy Jackson, but I can’t imagine they’d know who Sokrates is. Please correct me if I’m wrong! I would love to know if there’s a public elementary school out there teaching Greek history and Socratic philosophy!

    • Brooke Shirts says

      It’s fairly common for elementary schools to do an Ancient Greece unit in 5th or 6th grade, and then again as part of social studies in middle school. In my district, the elementary unit focuses specifically on “Athens vs. Sparta” and the philosophical/social differences between them.

  12. Meredith BUrton says

    I enjoyed this book very much on my first reading of it. I listened to it, though, and I think that helped me to keep characters stright. I would have been very confused reading the book, though. Schlitz does a superb job with her characterization and setting. I do feel that Melisto’s mother was a bit one-dimensional. I also agree about the portions pertaining to Socrates. I enjoyed them but didn’t really feel that they added enough to the story to justify their inclusion. And, I felt that Rascos’s mother, who was my favorite character, was a bit too spontaneously dealt with by Hermes. Perhaps if Rascos had seen her in her sea creature form or something at some point? ON a second attempt to reread the book, my interest was not held as effectively.
    Schlitz is a wonderful writer and incorproates much research into her books, but I just felt that this one was a bit slow in places.

  13. Windy Hunter says

    I loved this book and I thought it was well balanced. Unlike most comments, I really enjoyed the sections with Sokrates, and thought he added dimension to Raskos’s character.
    I taught at a charter school in Arizona which utilized the Socratic method of teaching, and also taught Greek Mythology. Although I know this is not the norm, I believe that children benefit from learning about how people thought in ancient times.
    I don’t believe that the Newbery award was set up to be based on wether a book is popular with children or how often a child will randomly pick up the book to read. I think the best contribution to children’s literature are often read to students who may be reluctant to read it themselves, and the related discussions can present a learning experience. When I was a kid I would never had picked up Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry, but my teacher read it to the class and it was such a memorable experience. I think that Amber and Clay would be thoroughly enjoyed by most students in this situation. .

  14. Mary Lou White says

    I think many kids would enjoy the Greek history in this book thanks to Rick Riordan. I frequently have to replace our books on Greek mythology. I also think that graphic novels have opened the door for new and more complex ways for readers to assimilate stories. The length may be a little overwhelming at first sight, but that has never deterred a devoted Harry Potter fan. Amber and Clay has created a unique reading experience whose timing is perfect as we examine our own history of enslaving people. Character, setting, writing – some of the best I have seen this year.

  15. Tracy Bedford says

    I thought this was a beautiful story, and I was hooked from the beginning. I also loved the structure of the book, with the artifacts, verse and prose, alternating storylines. Maybe it would be too much for some young readers. I hope it reaches the older middle grade readers, as well as young adults and beyond. I don’t know that it’s right for the Newbery.

    • Emily Mroczek (Bayci) says

      Thanks for the comments Tracy! I’m curious though, what makes you not sure it’s right for Newbery? I need details haha

  16. Louie Lauer says

    I just finished my second read of this novel. I listened to it in April and although I found it interesting, I will admit, that as an audiobook it fell flat for me. It took me over a month to read and I found myself really losing interest in the story. I wondered openly “Who will read this book?” This time around, I read it in two days and I really felt myself pulled through the story. The combination of verse and prose to share the two main perspectives helped not only to keep the two narratives straight, but also offered a variety of pacing that helped this story move along. The interjections from gods provided some levity and perspective that was needed to help the reader connect with the story. And this little mystery that keeps unfolding throughout was way more clear to me as I read it than as I listened. I certainly think that this is for the older side of the Newbery range and might not have broad appeal, but the story telling here is so unique and so well executed that it should be considered as one of the most distinguished books of the year I am thinking of some readers right now that I can get this book to.

  17. Tamara DePasquale says

    Such great comments and insights from our HM community! I, too, read this title twice. It was an early selection for our Mock Newbery at my library. It’s a mixed age group, ranging from 6th graders to retirees. The adults in the group were also debated the targeted readership. That said, we agreed to call it a “Printzbery” – our term for those books who reach out to the older Newbery audience as well as the Printz audience. I’m happy to share that the younger readers of our group did enjoy the book and recognized the author’s monumental task of telling this story in a cohesive and accessible manner. I do not question its intended audience, and I have no problem with it receiving Newbery and/or a Printz recognition.
    The setting is indeed strong. From the Rhaskos’ time in the Andron to Melisto’s journey to Brauron the images are vivid and memorable. Thessaly, Athens, Brauron, and Mount Olympus come alive though Schlitz’s meticulous descriptions. As adults, we are able to envision the setting from our acquired knowledge. A young reader may not have that luxury and must rely completely on Schlitz’s “world building.” This is accomplished without burdening or losing the reader with lengthy descriptions. What a delicate balance!
    We all agree that the writing is strong, as well. To incorporate the variety of writing styles and to assign these styles to characters to help distinguish them from each other is truly brilliant.
    The characterization is another strength. There are so many characters in this book. Yet, we are not forced to reread or remove ourselves from the story to identify who they are. Each has his/her own voice, behaviors, and thoughts. And, I agree with those who feel Sokrates has a purpose. He not only helps Rhaskos see himself, but also adds depth to Rhaskos simply through his interactions and reflections about Sokrates.
    When looking at all the books I have read for this committee as well as my library’s own Mock deliberations, I find that this title most definitely stands out. It’s so unique in its telling and certainly meets the Newbery criteria for excellence.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I love the idea of a Mock “Printzbery.” Great way to put books like AMBER AND CLAY into a discussion without having to deal with the age level debate…

  18. I’m going to try and weigh in on the titles that I have read. I taught third grade in public school in Virginia for six years and part of our social studies curriculum was a unit on Ancient Greece, so this would 100% have been a read aloud for me. As a bookseller, I’ve had good success in handing it to young readers who have finished the Rick Riordan books and are interested in learning more about the real history as well as the mythology. It reminded me of earlier Newbery winners such as Eloise Jarvis McGraw and even in a way of Susan Cooper and Megan Whalen Turner’s work. I think the most distinguished part for me, aside from the setting, which others have covered, was the inclusion of the specific artifacts which I found truly original.

  19. Emily Mroczek says

    I wanted to share a link to Betsy Bird’s review on this, which hits on a lot of what we have already covered and more that we have not. I like her description of characterizations and how rhaskos was nasty for a while, but Schlitz did a good job in portraying the reality of his character. I also agree with how Betsy says this book is for “that kid,” —
    “Funny story. I remember working as a children’s librarian in New York City when, one day, I got “that kid”. Librarians, you may have had “that kid” in your rooms as well at some point. It’s the kid that has read (their words) “everything”. They are fairly certain that you will fail to impress them, so, naturally, you bend over backwards to do so. They want good books, nothing but the best, and if you mention something they’ve already read they are allowed to look upon you, not with scorn, but with pity. In this particular case (and it was about a decade ago) I found that Diana Wynne Jones took care of the problem nicely (they’d never heard of her) but I think about that kid periodically over the years. And when I encounter a book that is of high literary quality, they sometimes come to mind. Yet the thing about Amber and Clay, by Newbery Award winner Laura Amy Schlitz, is that while it would have been the perfect story to hand over, it isn’t just for “that kid” at all. A verse novel at its core, this is a book for those Percy Jackson fans. For the kids that like their fiction realistic, but don’t mind the occasional Greek God butting in for effect. For kids that like historical fiction with loads of accurate details (you’ll never forget what a strigil is). For kids that like verse novels, since they look so impressive and read so much more quickly than you might expect. This is a book positioned to impress, that then sneaks over and steals your heart. Hermes would be proud.”

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