Reader-Character-Author Connections: Autiobiographical Possibilities for the Newbery Medal
Children’s literature is filled with books that convey, in one way or another, the author’s own childhood or adolescent experiences. Recent examples from the Newbery canon include the only two Honor books from 2015: BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson and EL DEAFO by Cece Bell. Last year’s Printz winner (and the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery winner) EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE is another example. At their best, this approach can create strong connections not just between reader and character, but between reader and author as well. None of the three books below have received nominations on Heavy Medal so far, but they’re all fairly new, so there’s still time. At least one will get a nomination from me for sure:
BAD SISTER by Charise Mericle Harper, Art by Rory Lacey
The author narrates this graphic novel in the first person and it just feels like this is real stuff. The girl’s name is Charise, and the photo and dedication at the end confirm the connection. It’s that brother-sister relationship that rings so true, and usually not in the best ways. While the illustrations do a lot to convey character setting, Harper’s verbal storytelling is just right. The interplay between the narrative portions, where she does some reflective self-analysis, and the dialogue, where we see her creative/funny/downright cruel actions, works perfectly. Early on she successfully prevents her brother from playing with the cat:
[Narration]: Winning felt great. But sometimes winning had a price.
[Dialogue]: Mom: I don’t know what happened with you two, but someone has to take that dress off the cat so I can let him outside.
Daniel: Mwaaaaha cat too!
Mom: You’re right. Sandy belongs to everyone.
[Narration]: That was the price.p 18-19
Then we see Mom singing a song to Daniel while Charise looks on jealously, followed by:
Narration: But I know how to even the score.p 19
Their relationship develops both noticeably and subtly over the years as Charise becomes more guilty about her feelings and actions, but doesn’t really stop them, and Daniel turns into a popular, likeable kid in ways that elude Charise, even when she tries her hardest. The frank honesty with which the author portrays herself is powerful, but she also captures the affection she had for Daniel and reveals her own loneliness and anxieties.
THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE: GROWING UP BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN by Eugene Yelchin
Both the title and the subtitle are equally important in this fascinating book. The true story of Yevgeny’s emergence as an artist and the depiction of life behind the iron curtain in 1970s USSR are inextricably connected. Yelchin weaves them together with an engaging mix of humor and irony, interspersed with jarring reminders of how dire conditions really were for his family. The matter-of-fact way he relates small incidents gives readers specific and personal insights.
There’s a funny scene about gum, for instance, that’s triggered when a secret policeman calls his family “filthy yids”…the first example of the anti-Semitism that rises in prominence as Yevgeny learns more. He narrates:
I did not care. Being called a filthy yid did not matter to me at that moment. What mattered was the stick of American chewing gum in my brother’s pocket. No chewing gum was sold in our country, and for a good reason. We barely had stuff to eat, let alone stuff to chew that you could not swallow.
For three weeks afterward, Victor chewed on that stick of Juicy Fruit. Nights, he soaked the chewing gum in a cup of tea to keep it soft. By the time I inherited the gum, it had neither taste nor smell..p 10
It’s funny, and the tone is more playful than angry, but the hatred of the policeman and the hardships of his family’s daily life come through powerfully.
We get that in different ways through his interactions with other people, none of whom are able to tell him everything he wants to know. As readers, our understanding of the harsh realities of their situation deepens in fits and starts, just like Yevgeney’s does.
The light tough of the narration is interspersed with many powerful moments: the swastika on the door (85); the menacing appearance of Blinov at the ballet (122-124); and the moment he learns why some of his family’s photos include cut out heads (172-174), among other memorable scenes.
As narrator and protagonist, Yevgeney’s deceptively casual delivery invites readers in, then carefully drops in surprising and sometimes devastating insights into how a particular time and place can play such a large role in the lives of a family. This is a standout title for me, at the top of my nomination list for November.
FRIENDS FOREVER by Shannon Hale, artwork by LeUyen Pham
Like BAD SISTER, the book shows how the graphic novel format can be just the right choice to convey those cringe-y, self-revealing moments of growing up. The plot structure is built around the beginning-of-8th-grade list that Shannon creates, with a chapter about each one of her “I would be fulfilled if…” list. There are ups and down with each topic, and at least one fantasy sequence where she imagines what fulfillment would be like.
The sequential art construction demonstrates how well the form can work for the presentation of words as well as pictures. The note exchanges between Shannon and her friends for example, showed how she could sometimes (but not always) navigate the social dynamics more smoothly through writing, rather than conversation. And there’s a terrific moment towards the end where she sets her parents actual words against the way Shannon actually hears them:
[Narration] But lately, what my parents said and what I heard were very different.
[Dad’s word balloon] A’s again! I love you.
[Shannon’s thought bubble] So you love me because I get A’s?
[Mom] You’re doing so much better in school than your sister did.
[Shannon] So I only have value by comparison to someone less successful?
[Mom] You should finish your book. It’s what won you that award.
[Shannon] Since I haven’t finished it, I didn’t deserve to win.p 236
Individual passages like this capture specific dilemmas of Shannon’s eighth grade year in ways that are very relatable, even though readers may not share Shannon’s particular set of challenges. After the five self-improvement chapters, chapter six takes her into deep depression, ending with the dramatic “Stop feeling” scene (p 255). Chapter seven rights the ship, with the strong “you are enough” message. Though I was glad for the uplifting finish, I’m not sure we learned enough about how Shannon turned it around. At the same time, it kind of fits with the precarious ups and downs of her age, and it is her story after all. Either way, I think this book will connect widely and deeply with readers
Other notable books from this year that are at least semi-autobiographical include:
- THE BOY WHO FAILED SHOW AND TELL by Jordan Sonnenblick, a fictionalized telling of the author’s disastrous and very funny middle school experiences;
- GONE TO THE WOODS by Gary Paulsen, who just passed away this past week. Gary Paulsen was a master at drawing from his own life in many works of fiction and nonfiction, and it’s fitting that he revisited the autobiographical form in this last book published before his death.
- UNSETTLED by Reem Faruqi is “fictional” says the author, but she “drew on her experiences” in several key areas that she mentions in the Author’s Note. An excellent novel in verse that captures the challenges of being outsiders through poignant, personal examples.
- WE BELONG by Cookie Hipponia Everman, another novel in verse presentation, this one weaves elements from Tagalog mythology into events inspired by her own family’s immigration experiences.
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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