First Time a Charm?
In a comment from an earlier post, Genevieve said: “I wish there was a Morris equivalent for children’s books.” It’s an interesting idea. YALSA started the Morris Award in 2009 to honor a “first time author writing for teens.” ALSC doesn’t have a similar award at this point, and the Newbery Terms and Criteria tell us “not to consider the entire body of work by an author,” so first-time status doesn’t impact the award at all.
We’ve had first-timers win the Newbery Medal in the past, but very rarely. MOON OVER MANIFEST was the most recent (2011), but, unless I’m missing one, then you have to jump back to SOUNDER (1970) and IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT (1964). Honor books by debut authors are much more common, though. Recent examples include Lauren Wolk’s WOLF HOLLOW (2017), Vince Vawter’s PAPERBOY (2014), INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai (2012), and THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly (2010).
Until I started thinking about it, I hadn’t realized how many of the books we’ve discussed on Heavy Medal are by first time children’s book authors (at least as far as I can tell). The list includes MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, THE HATE U GIVE, I’M JUST NO GOOD AT RHYMING, THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK, AUMA’S LONG RUN, THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE, and SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS. Here are two more worth talking about:
TRAIN I RIDE by Paul Mosier received three starred reviews and three nominations so far from Heavy Medal readers. Like SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS and THE SOMEDAY BIRDS, it’s a road trip novel. Rydr travels from Los Angeles to Chicago on a train, and along the way meets people, learns things, and gradually reveals the truth about her life to the reader. Her first person, present tense voice is a strength. She’s cynical and unsentimental, but we sense that she’s using that to hide some deep feelings. Early on she looks back at her ninth birthday spent at a diner with her mom (p 14-16). A guy comes by to talk to her mom, who then leaves to go to the bathroom. “I could tell by her cheery tone that everything was going to get very bad.” Rydr tells about the songs on the jukebox and the food she ate (“The waitress gave me a sympathetic smile, and I hated her for it”.) Then bluntly describes the sirens and the paramedics who recognized her: “It wasn’t the first time I’d see them and it wouldn’t be the last.”
She uses that tough attitude and an ease with making up lies to get by on the train ride, where she has no money for food. She makes some tentative friendships along the way, and the characters she meets are interesting and well-drawn. The shifts back and forth from the train journey to events from her past keep the character development and the plot moving forward, and you’re not always sure which direction it’s going.
By the time the journey’s over, a lot has happened. Maybe a little too much,,as Rydr’s terse, pointed observations and opinions give way to big emotional moments. The kiss from Carlos (140), the flight from the train (145-149), the conversation with Neal where they share how they’ve both changed each other’s lives (168-171)…all of those are powerful individual scenes, but putting so many cathartic events into the last 30 or so pages seems a little jarring, especially given the restrained pace of the rest of the book. I understand that the emotional build up is intentional and it’s set up carefully, but it wasn’t fully successful for me. Still, this is a book I’ll recommend, and I definitely will be interested in Paul Mosier’s next one.
STARS BENEATH MY FEET, David Barclay Moore’s first book, earned four starred reviews and has two Heavy Medal nominations so far. Setting, characters, and plot all shine. Lolly’s Harlem neighborhood feels like a real, specific place, and one that impacts his life significantly.
When you’re a little kid in Harlem, you can pretty much go anywhere and do anything as long as you’re careful. But when you start to get old – about my age, twelve – things start to change.
You can’t go everywhere (4).
The buildings of New York City are important too, as Lolly and Big Rose walk through the city in search of Lego-building inspiration.
Lolly’s narrative voice has a natural ease to it. You feel like the words he uses really come from a twelve year old kid, not from an author. Like the way he responds when Yvonne brings home two bags full of Legos (31): “I was so stunned I couldn’t say nothing.” Then a couple paragraphs later:
I waded my hands through all the Legos some more. There were so many. They made a sound like money, like quarters tumbling together.
What do you think, Lolly?” Ma said again.
The thing was, I couldn’t!
Man, I just couldn’t!
The plot includes several threads that are all connected in some ways, including the death of Lolly’s brother, the building contest, and the Lego theft. Characters are well drawn and distinct. I especially appreciated the ways that the friendship between Big Rose and Lolly evolves. I read this one a while ago and have a feeling it will really hold up with a second read. It’s in the running for my third round of nominations.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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