At last! It’s time to talk about GHOST HAWK, arguably Susan Cooper’s best book since The Dark Is Rising Sequence. (I say arguably because I think the other book you can make a case for is KING OF SHADOWS.) That’s not really part of the Newbery criteria, however, but the book does well in that department, too. As far as middle grade novels go, I favor THE THING ABOUT LUCK and THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP, but GHOST HAWK would easily sit in that third place spot for me, and here’s why.
The surprising plot twist at the end of part one is arguably the best of the year, perhaps surpassed only by the flip-flop twist of THE REAL BOY. Moreover, the switch from first person narration to first person omniscient narration helps segue the story from the wilderness survival adventure of the first part to the epic historical fiction of the second part. The story seems to grow in both scope and ambition, as Cooper starts on a singular viewpoint and gradually zooms out until she’s captured the nation’s viewpoint, or at least a synthesis of viewpoints.
Setting is distinguished in many of our top contenders this year, including (but not limited to) NAVIGATING EARLY, P.S. BE ELEVEN, THE THING ABOUT LUCK, and THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP. What sets this one apart for me is the depth and breadth of the world that Cooper has built from vivid descriptions of the physical setting to the evolving social fabric of colonial society. Again, she does this gradually and skillfully.
Finally, I also find the themes of this book to be in the category of most distinguished. Cooper’s narrative is bookended by a pair of contrasting epigraphs in front (by Roger Williams and Woody Guthrie) and a timeline in back, both showing how wave after wave of encroaching settlers altered the physical and human landscape of this country. Cooper’s story, however, is written from Little Hawk’s perspective, a choice that engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture. Even when the focus of the story shifts to the second protagonist, this is always in the back of our minds.
In conclusion, I find GHOST HAWK distinguished in all elements pertinent to it, and when it comes to plot, setting, and theme, I find it rises to the level of most distinguished. When Nina asked what we wanted in a Newbery winner, my response was that I wanted to feel like I was in the hands of a master storyteller, someone who has complete mastery over her story–and I certainly feel that way here.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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