The Toll! The Toll! The Toll!
One of the most popular series for my students (5-8 grade) in the past two years is the “Arc of a Scythe” trilogy: Scythe, Thunderhead, and The Toll. On Heavy Medal — Scythe was never discussed as a serious Newbery contender: perhaps Jonathan and Nina at the time felt that it fit Printz or BFYA (Best Fiction of for Young Adults) better. Which turned out to be the case: both Scythe and Thunderhead were TOP TEN teen fiction (as part of BFYA) and Scythe won a Printz Honor. I wrote about Thunderhead last November, naming it a favorite and an unlikely title to be considered by Newbery, Printz committees or by Heavy Medal readership: being a sequel and a science fiction to boot, with violent scenes that some adults might feel unsuitable for younger readers. I do not wish this fate befalling The Toll. The book is truly outstanding and distinguished — what a feat!
It is well within the age range for Newbery — so I won’t spend any bandwidth discussing or defending this point. I simply wish to present a few, of many, distinguished aspects.
- It deals with complex geo-political and environmental issues, featuring both young adult and adult characters and yet with the exciting plot development, the story speaks directly to younger readers and compells them to not only keep reading but also to consider our world and the crisis we face;
- Shusterman builds a fully realized world that feels expansive: mystery island in the far away sea, Scythe groups on different continents, and even the remote location of the preservation of the minds of those who have perished. At the same time, the tales of the sizable cast of characters feel intertwined and intimate. It highlights the sense of how small acts by individuals could have significant impact on a global scale;
- The Toll, gives readers multi-layered and multi-faceted characters who actually change how they behave and make different decisions as they are informed by the events within the narrative. We even got to see how Goddard progressed from an aspiring young man to the evil overlord;
- The authorial devices of scattering of future sacred text of The Toll’s life’s work, interpreted and analyzed by future scholars and the many past “dialogs” between iterations of The Thunderhead both playful and informative. Such devices, successfully deployed, further enrich the already outstanding narrative. (The “plot” is the present, the Iterations is the past, and the TOLL’s sacred text is the future. I MUST RE-READ it to glean even more hidden messages and themes.)
There are more strong points of The Toll which was published just two weeks ago and all 10 copies of them in my library are being devoured by passionate young readers (ages 12 to 14) — some have already finished and can’t stop talking about it. Others have told me how they started and in one sitting, having read more than 100 pages and cannot stop!
I nominated it for our Heavy Medal Award. And would dearly see it discussed here in January. I am sure that the discussion will come up of whether a book in a series needs to “stand alone” in order to be considered by a Committee of 15, some of them having never read the first two installments. We will save that discussion in the comments or when we talk about it in more detail later. Hint: my instinctual reaction is “stand-alone” be damned! If you love children’s books and serve on a children’s literature award committee, you would (or should) probably have read at least Scythe!
Just a reminder that both 1976 Medal Winner: The Grey King by Susan Cooper and the 1969 Medal Winner: The High King by Lloyd Alexander are the final volumes of two series. Both are speculative fiction (fantasy, not SciFi, granted.) Will decades later, the 2020 Newbery Committee repeat history and give The Toll a Newbery that it deserves?
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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