Show Me a…Newbery Medal? A unique #ownvoices historical novel might have a chance to win
After finishing most of the Newbery contenders on this list, SHOW ME A SIGN quickly stood out as a top contender and clear front runner. This historical fiction novel offers a beautiful #ownvoice examination of the Deaf community, discussion over the controversy of Native American land disputes, and a touching picture of a young girl finding her place in the world.
Deaf librarian Ann Clare LeZotte does an amazing job of portraying Mary, a young Deaf girl living in Chilmark (Martha’s Vineyard area) in the 1800s. The area is unique in that it is settlers are overwhelmingly Deaf and most of the residents communicate in sign language. The author’s note at the back of the book indicates that this area had approximately one in twenty-five residents who were born deaf.
Mary’s character development is clearly shown through her acceptance of her brother’s death. She feels responsible and must come to terms with the accident that caused his death. The book clearly shows her growth as she learns to forgive herself and let go of the guilt that she has been carrying around with her.
After a scientist studying the island kidnaps Mary, she is thrust into a much larger world. This opens her eyes beyond her sheltered life. This is another example where LeZotte does a fantastic job with the character development of Mary. She is down and broken. She loses her only source of communication and feels completely isolated and even starts to question her entire life. She begins to wonder about her island and the people living on it. Wondering if she is, in fact, a lower being for being deaf and mute. When she finally returns to the island, she appreciates all that she has. She becomes hopeful for the future.
Another important aspect of the book dealt with the treatment of the Wampanoag. The tribe of the Wampanoag people lived on Martha’s Vineyard for “at least ten thousand years” according to the author’s notes at the end of the book. The book discusses the prejudice against the Wampanoag – she mentions she envies their comfortable moccasins and deerskins, but her mother forbids wearing such clothing. There are disputes about the land and who it belongs to, with Mary feeling torn about what the right answer truly is. She tends to side with the Wampanoag. She says that Reverend Lee told them about Wampanoag men who were captured and sold as slaves in Spain. She says she “feel[s] less impressed by our forefathers, even as I cherish our island” (pg. 105).
There are other instances of prejudices and racism. Thomas works on Mary’s land. He is a freedman, or former slave. Mary says that her mother is nice to him, but he is not allowed inside their home. Thomas, in addition to many freedmen, often become part of the Wampanoag tribe. Thomas married a Wampanoag woman named Sally and they have a daughter. There are even instances of prejudice amongst different settlers. She says in the town the Irish are “inferior to the English but superior to the freedmen.”
In addition to all of the engaging discussion and subject matter, the writing itself is excellent. LeZotte does a great job of creating a tight plot line with realistic dialogue and beautiful imagery. The dialogue of the “signing” of the conversations was perfect. Even though my sign language knowledge is limited to the alphabet and basic signs, and the book is clearly written in sign language that isn’t even ASL, I could still find myself picturing a full conversation between the characters with beautiful flowing movements and signs.
The descriptions of Mary’s time in captivity were especially powerful. The language used to describe her feelings of helplessness was heart wrenching. LeZotte described the feelings of isolation and desperation with perfection. The simple, “He took my voice when he tied my hands” packed such a punch in a seemingly simple sentence (pg. 151).
SHOW ME A SIGN deserves all of the high praise it has already received and should certainly be a top contender for the Newbery award this year. The book was a delightful, yet powerful, #ownvoices look at the Deaf community that encourages rich discussion on important topics and issues.
Alissa Tudor currently works in a public library as a Youth Services Librarian. She lives in Texas with her husband, two daughters, and a dog she loves like a son.
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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