Heavy Medal Finalist: SWEEP by Jonathan Auxier
Look! Here they are now, approaching through the early fog: a thin man with a long broom over one shoulder, the end bobbing up and down with every step. And trailing behind him, pail in hand, a little girl, who loves that man more than anything in the world.
. . . But when they sing, the most unusual thing happens. Instead of people snapping their windows shut to block out the sound, they rise from their beds, one by one, throw back the curtains, and decide to love the world just a little bit more. Parents suddenly feel the urge to hug their children. Children suddenly feel the urge to let them. (3-4)
Jonathan Auxier deftly builds instant empathy. He exposes just enough vulnerability to open an itch of dread, yet overlies it with a wisp of hope, assuring us that our hearts are in good hands.
SWEEP explores the theme of sacrifice through a multitude of elements. We see it paralleled as the Sweep mends the rents in his girl’s coat, leaving holes in his own. Charlie loses parts of his body, as he fulfills his destiny as a protector. Nan sidesteps the opportunities Miss Bloom offers in order to keep Charlie safe and concealed. Culminating in the cemetery, as Nan lies suspended in Charlie’s hardening arms. Where love and purpose change the destiny of not just one broken and battered girl but furthers a movement to rescue the overlooked climbing children of London. Various themes are layered throughout this book: What is a monster? Charlie asks:
“Am I a monster?”
Nan hesitated a long moment before answering. She thought about Crudd and Trundle and the cruel indifference of every person in the city who didn’t care if she lived or died. “I’ve met monsters before,” she said, resting her head atop his. “And you are not one of them.” (99)
And of course, Toby’s discovery: We are saved by saving others. (180). A man on a bridge is saved by the needs of a baby. A boy sleeping under a bridge protects his own young life in order to care for that same child. A truth so universal it will continue to resonate for another hundred years.
Auxier creates an atmosphere seeped in the grimy haze of Victorian London. A place where unspeakable cruelty against forgotten children, sleeping half-starved in coal bins, thrives under the oblivious noses of those whom benefit from their exploitation. But even as this underbelly is exposed, he overlays the grimness with a serenity that comes from hearts looking out for each other and embracing the world they are given. As shown in the New Year’s Eve scene where Nan muses that she was content with her life: Sitting on a rooftop. Charlie on one side. Toby on the other. A clear sky above. The whole world below. (181).
The plotting of the story is driven in starts of pure dread, Nan’s seeming abandonment by the Sweep, the Devil’s Nudge, Crudd’s capture of Nan, and ultimately Newt’s fall. These overwhelming moments are mixed with enough lulls to give the reader a chance to relax and enjoy the connective tissue of Charlie and Nan’s friendship. I store the joyful visual of Nan’s first encounter with a bed, where she and Charlie jump “for probably an hour.”
Nothing about the action of this story felt contrived, it all grew organically from the groundwork laid through character development and setting. Once the battle cry, Brooms up! is heralded we are propelled into a most glorious act of civil disobedience. The unfolding of the final scenes is flat-out cinematic: the signs are turned – Nan stands on the Sweep’s hat and sings her truth – the race up the Candlestick – Charlie scoops up Nan’s broken body and returns to the Sweep’s resting place. Each scene is brilliant and vivid.
This year, we have many books on our list that are timely – this is the one title that feels timeless.
Introduction by DaNae
Discussion of SWEEP begins now. This is the last title to be discussed and Heavy Medal Committee members begin submitting ballots tonight….so try to add comments about this book as soon as you can. As usual, start with positive comments below, and feel free to expand the discussion to include potential flaws and weaknesses any time after 12:00 noon (EST).
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 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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