Refugee: the Undoubtedly Relevant, but Is It Distinguished?
In the comment section of Sharon’s YA? Why Not? (October 18th) post, some readers discussed the timeliness of titles and whether a book’s thematic relevance increases its winning chances. Many considered the manual and emphasized that the committee members are not to make their decisions based on the chosen theme but how successful such theme is literarily presented.
That said, Heavy Medal reader Joe proposed that “many (not all, but many) Newbery winners do reflect the zeitgeist of the year in which they were awarded” and he went on using the 2017 winning titles to illustrate his point, citing The Girl Who Drank the Moon as about the control of information and isolationism, Inquisitor’s Tale, the intolerance of religious differences, Freedom Over Me, race and Own Voice, and Wolf Hollow, “kindness to outsiders” — all seem ultra relevant to the larger social consciousness.
No matter how objective one strives to be, reading is ultimately a very personal, emotional, and oftentimes subjective experience. (If not, we wouldn’t all be so passionately talking about books day after day here!) So, is it possible that the Newbery Committee members would carry their concerns, worries, beliefs, life experiences, aspiration for a better world, etc. into the close-door meetings? Even if the discussion is overtly not about the themes of the books, wouldn’t they naturally favor a book with both hight literary quality AND a worthy theme?
This brings us to one of the most timely titles in 2017: Refugee by Alan Gratz.
It received 2 starred reviews, 6 Heavy Medal reader nominations, and is now on the New York Public Library’s, Publishers Weekly’s, and Kirkus Book Reviews’ Best of the Year lists. Even if the book must have been conceived and written in 2016/2015 or earlier, the publication date for it is nonetheless so intimately connected to the current social conscience in the U.S.
I read the book quite a few months ago but could still recall many of its harrowing scenes: the losing of a baby sister/daughter on the darkened sea in Europe, the death of a friend in the shark infested ocean between Cuba and the U.S., and the ultimate sacrifice of an older brother, facing Nazi soldiers. These are important stories to keep alive in our collective memories and to inform readers about on-going plights of fellow human beings: wherever they originate and whatever their beliefs.
Gratz inter-weaves the three stories from different time periods. Certain revelation of the interactions and the ripple effects of action and inaction during times of crisis would be quite illuminating for young readers, even if some would have already seen easily all the interconnectivity before the reveals. Constructing the narrative in this way could be a risky undertaking. Some readers might find the breaking away from one tale and taking up another unsettling, especially since for most of the book these tales seem loosely thrown together merely because of their thematic similarity.
And then there’s the connecting thread from person to person between the three featured families through time and circumstances. For some readers, this device would be clever and satisfying, but for others, it might come off as trite and forced.
I imagine the book would have been nominated, and wonder how it will fare on the Newbery discussion floor in February.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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