Standing Up to Bullies and Racism: three possible Newbery contenders
STARFISH by Lisa Fipps
Lisa Fipps’ STARFISH was the clear leader in our list of suggestions for possible Newbery contenders which ran from March through September.
The novel in verse form seems like just the right way to tell Eliana’s story. The poems are from her point of view, creating strong empathy and keen insights into her world. The opening poem sets the stage nicely. We get astrong sense of her sense of kinship with the water, but the closing line tells us that her joy will be short-lived:
As soon as I slip into the pool,
I am weightless.
For just a while.p. 13 (pagination is from the e-book version; not sure if it matches the print)
Many poems address the harshness of being an overweight girl in a variety of ways. Some are powerful and direct, like “Fat Girl Rules” (17) and “The Thing About Fatdar.” (23) Others are more subtle, but equally effective; in “Lucky Dog” she envies her pug:
She’s happy with her round body.
And no one bullies her because of it.
Lucky dog.p 31
There’s also a solid plot, as Eliana learns to trust a new (thin) friend, deals with harassment at school, and gradually connects with her mother. She’s a very engaging character. She gets repeatedly hurt, but we see the strength behind that throughout, and in the end it’s a hopeful and inspiring story. It’s one that will resonate with kids and perhaps with Newbery Committee members. Style, characterizations, and especially “interpretation of…theme” are especially strong.
PITY PARTY by Kathleen Lane
Kathleen Lane examines the agonies of middle school in a highly creative way, with a variety of short pieces about kids who are outsiders in one way or another. Some of the short stories are fairly realistic while many are more fantastical and/or satirical, like “Remembering Elena,” a “tribute” to a twelve-year-old girl who has died of embarrassment. (62-63). Along with stories, she mixes in a variety of other formats, including personality quizzes, mock ads (for new friends and a “happy head”), a “choose your own catastrophe” feature, and a “Chart of Relative Calamity.”
The use of satire and varied forms creates a fascinating mix of drama and humor, and most of it is engaging and thought-provoking. Initially there’s a sense of hopelessness as the chapters zero in on just how terrible kids can be to each other. But towards the end, there’s a positive shift as the kids in the stories take action in creative ways. “Behaviorally Challenged,” “Followers,” and “True Story” all end on upbeat notes, as does the final, triumphant chapter of the recurring segments of “The Voice.” What feels at first like a random set of imaginative pokes at middle school dynamics turns into a powerful reading experience, as inspiring as STARFISH in its own way.
I can see PITY PARTY standing up well in terms of the Newbery Criteria. It’s especially strong in “Interpretation of theme or concept,” and “Appropriateness of style” and certainly qualifies as “individually distinct.”
FINDING JUNIE KIM by Ellen Oh
This book tackles racism from a variety of angles, starting with the bullying the title character undergoes because of her Korean heritage. Junie becomes clinically depressed and separates from her friends as a result. The bullying is overt and violent; and also on the increase, as Junie tells her Grandpa:
Everything’s different now, Grandpa, ever since the election. People don’t even try to hide their racism.p 74
Then a surprising shift 80 pages in jumps us back to her Grandfather’s traumatic experiences as a child during the Korean War. The historical stories are vivid and exciting, capturing the violence and the excruciating choices people must make during wartime. After the narrative returns to Junie’s current problems, she gets another extended story of the war, this time from her grandmother.
The connection between Junie’s experiences and her grandparents’ is clear, expressed by her grandfather as “this deep, hateful division caused by conflicting ideologies.” (p 74) The way Junie absorbs her family history and uses it to address her own problems is believable and inspiring.
The shifting narratives work well. The historical pieces are told in a slightly more formal tone, with life-and-death events, while Junie’s first-person narration captures the very real damage that racism causes. The girl’s relationship with her grandparents deepens in a convincing way, through the shared family stories. Some of the conversations with her grandfather, though, seemed a bit lecture-y at times.
Overall, this is an engaging exploration of multiple aspects of racism, as well as the ways in which people can fight it.
I’m curious to see how FINDING JUNIE KIM might fare in a Newbery discussion. I also definitely want to hear more about the widespread enthusiasm for STARFISH…and if there might be support for an outlier like PITY PARTY.
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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