Sunshine, Aidan, and Pony: will a second read increase their Newbery chances?:
I wasn’t far into AMBER AND CLAY I was pretty sure it would be a strong Newbery contender for me. THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE had me at “Juicy Fruit.” Some books are like that. Other times, though, it takes me much longer to figure out if a book really should be considered as a Newbery contender. Some titles catch me off-guard, and I only realize how strong they are once I’ve read the whole thing. Other times a book can shine in multiple areas, but leave me with nagging doubts about particular, sometimes pretty minor, elements that didn’t quite come together. That’s where reading them twice can really help. You’re less caught up in the story and can look more objectively at the writing and the choices the author makes. Here are three that fall into that category for me:
SUNSHINE by Marion Dane Bauer
This one kind of sneaks up on you. It seems like the story will be built around Ben reconnecting with his mother, and it mostly is. But the carefully constructed plot and strong characterizations, especially of Ben, make a surprisingly powerful impact. The role of the dog Sunshine is especially effective. First we think she’s real; then we discover that she isn’t (40); then we learn how she was inspired by a neighbor’s dog (101); during the fire, it seems that Ben’s mother sent Sunshine to get help (159); and finally we learn how a dog helped Ben through the worst day of his early life (182).
The narrative sticks firmly to Ben’s point of view. His naïve hope that his mom will return rings true, and so does the way he shifts between fear and impulsive behavior. He’s not that introspective, but we really get to know him. And with all of the insightful relationship dynamics, it’s also a fine adventure story, with some tense moments and a well-realized island setting.
When I re-read I want to pay special attention to how Bauer subtly reveals the story of Ben’s family and also track the many ways in which Sunshine aids his resilience, and ultimately helps him get closer to both parents.
THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AIDAN S. (AS TOLD TO HIS BROTHER) by David Levithan
This starts with a fascinating premise, in which Liam’s brother visits a magical world, but no one believes him. The story takes place in our known world, though, so the plot builds around the brothers’ attempts to frame Aidan’s story in a way that others will accept. But at the same time, there’s that lingering curiosity about that fantastic adventure which Liam (and readers) don’t get to take part in.
Liam’s response to his brother’s story seems just right. He’s skeptical, because Aidan’s just the type of older sibling who would pull a prank. But he does see the that leaf in his brother’s hair (12), and his curiosity and close attention to Aidan’s words and behavior lead to Liam’s gradual acceptance of the story in a convincing manner.
The exploration of themes of friendship, trust, and faith come through strongly, and are all very neatly woven into a highly original plot.
On a second read I want to think about how Liam’s character is developed. So much of his narration is about Aidan, but it’s Liam that we really learn about and become connected to.
PONY by R. J. Palacio
One of several excellent ghost stories from this year, PONY stands out because of its old west setting, a twist-y plot, and evocative first person narration. I thought Silas’ storytelling voice was very effective. He’s reflecting back as an adult, and the formal language also fits with his odd upbringing. There’s a melancholy distance to the telling, but it somehow doesn’t leave the reader uninvolved.
The mysteries about the past life of Silas’ Pa and of Mittenwool’s origins are neatly mixed in with the central action of pursuit and rescue. Silas’ lack of experience in the real world sets up some interesting character dynamics as well: he’s not really sure how to gauge people’s reactions to him, but it’s fun to see how he tries.
I definitely got caught up in this story, so maybe didn’t read as carefully as I might have, but a few things nagged at me. When I read it again, I want to keep better track of Pony and the role the horse plays in plot development. And I was confused a bit about Silas’ interactions with ghosts. Should he have known that Mr. Farmer was a ghost? And wouldn’t he be wondering more about his father’s identity? Or was that the older Silas as narrator, making choices about what to share?
One nitpick that I know will bug me however many times I read it: The chapter epigraphs from literature and folklore are a nice touch; they match the tone and Silas’ educational background. They seem like passages the older Silas chose himself to go with his story. Except one (p 201), which comes from a 1980’s pop song. It’s a great 1980’s pop song, but even so, it doesn’t match the established tone, provides no special perspective, and did not exist during Silas’ lifetime. I hope I’ll figure out a reason for this out-of-place choice, but fear I won’t.
I didn’t nominate any of these titles. In fact, there’s only been a single nomination so far among the three, for PONY. There’s a good chance that my own final two nominations in December won’t go towards any of the three…but I won’t know that for sure without those second reads.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired 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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