Sokrates, Leonardo, Greek Gods, and a Time-Traveling Cat: Historical Fiction Newbery Contenders
Finally, it’s time to start discussing books! After eight months of reading, it’s hard to know where to start. With my own favorites? The top titles from our suggestion list? Pick a genre? Look for other common threads (rivers? ghosts?) from this year’s publications? In the end, I settled on “historical fiction”…then ended up with two books that really don’t fit the conventional form of the genre; they’ve got ghosts, time travel, gods, and alternating time threads. And in terms of style, tone, and potential readership, they probably don’t have that much in common with each other. Despite those factors (or maybe because of them), I’m very interested in what others think of these two:
DA VINCI’S CAT by Catherine Murdock
The distinction between reading for fun and reading critically is an important one in Newbery discussions, where we need to apply specific criteria to our analysis. Sometimes it helps me to just do that reading-for-fun thing first, and wait until I’m finished to reflect back on the critical side. That worked with this book. As a reader, I found it fun, diverting, interesting, and funny. It wasn’t too hard to follow, even with the time travel twists, and I cared about the characters.
Then I tried to look more closely about the author’s technique, and began to fully appreciate the high level of skill required to make it all come together. Here are some thoughts about how the literary elements named in the Criteria work in this book:
Delineation of characters: Frederico isn’t a very likable fellow at the beginning, but we get to know him as he starts to think about more than himself through the events and the characters he interacts with. It’s quite a jump from his world to Bee’s, but their friendship is believable and engaging, also developed through the actions around them and the choices they make.
Development of a plot: Time travel can be bewildering for a reader (especially a young reader), sometimes to the point where it overshadows characters, themes, and the rest of the story. Murdock, though, deftly lets the details of her time elements emerge in pieces and they’re always tied strongly to the events. Delaying the introduction of Bee until Part Two (p. 73) is also a neat twist that pulls the us in deeper just when we’ve gotten settled into Frederico’s story.
Delineation of setting: With kids’ historical fiction, I always appreciate “feel” as much as “facts.” You get a full sense for what Frederico’s world is like, both inside the palace and in the very different environment just outside its gates:
Frederico sniffed. Rotting food. The waste of cattle and horses and people. The stink of the river and the hospital. An animal carcass. Bad wine. “It’s Rome.”p. 58
We also learn a bit about the art world and 16th century society without ever feeling like it’s a lecture.
In some ways DA VINCI’S CAT reminded me of LION OF MARS; neither book is typical of its genre, but both explore the key elements (history and future speculation) in thought-provoking ways, while also being highly accessible to readers new to the genres.
AMBER AND CLAY by Laura Amy Schlitz
This book was a little harder to slide into, but what a rich and highly original novel. Among its many strengths, the varied writing styles (including the captioned “artifacts”) are used to great effect.
The free verse for Rhaskos, for example, allows the author to capture key moments and emotions. In one example, the boy sketches a horse with a rock, before he even understood what art is:
I looked down. A shock of joy:
There was the horse
small but real
dug in the dust.
I’d made the horse.
I’d curved his rump.
I made the wind
that combed his tail.
Have you ever done that –?
Tried to do the impossible,
and you did it?page 39-40
The “Turn and Counterturn” sections, where two narrators use mirrored structures, are equally effective. In this excerpt, Lykos describes his confused and fearful descent into Hades, ending with:
I’m afraid of them both.
I’ve come to the land of gods and ghosts
and I don’t like either one.
I’m afraid of where they’re taking me.
And I’m afraid of the dark.p. 67
That’s followed by Hermes giving the god’s point of view, which ends:
I’ve come to show the way.
I’ll introduce you to gods and ghosts,
and keep you from getting lost.
There is no night that does not end.
And I can see in the dark.p. 68-69
The story is filled with illuminating moments like this, mixed in with a strong and surprising plot. (She told us that Melisto was going to die young on page 5, but I was still startled when it happened).
There’s a lot more to discuss about AMBER AND CLAY. Within the Terms and Criteria, the definition of “distinguished” includes phrases like “marked by conspicuous excellence” and “individually distinct.” So far in my reading, this is the book that makes me think of those words more than any other.
LEONARDO’S CAT and AMBER AND CLAY stand out for me, but I’ve read some other excellent historical fiction this year, including:
- A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON by Kate Albus (World War II England)
- WAR AND MILLIE MCGONIGLE by Catherine Cushman (World War II San Diego)
- JUST LIKE THAT by Gary Schmidt (Vietnam Era Maine)
We’d love to hear what others are thinking about AMBER AND CLAY, DA VINCI’S CAT, and/or other 2021 historical fiction for kids…
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 email@example.com.
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