Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: JUST LIKE THAT by Gary Schmidt
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Louie Lauer.
Award winner Gary Schmidt returns to the 1960s with a companion to his award winning novels, WEDNESDAY WARS and OKAY FOR NOW. Set during the 1968-1969 school year in a coastal Maine community, JUST LIKE THAT is a story of transition, transformation and what happens when we face our problems head on. Once again, Gary Schmidt showcases his unique ability to create thoroughly engaging and meaningful historical fiction at the highest level, combining complex characters with careful plot development and a style like no other.
Schmidt’s characters are fully fleshed out, believable, and easy to connect with. Meryl Lee, a recent arrival at the St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy For Girls has experienced a traumatic loss and is struggling to cope with overwhelming grief (The Blank) that accompanies it. Matt Coyle finds his way to St. Elene’s merely by accident, as he attempts to escape the OliverTwist-like gang of thieves that threatens his life. Both Matt and Meryl, in addition to a rich cast of supporting characters, are complex and relatable, their struggles are our struggles, just in a different place and time. As in other Schmidt novels, these characters are uniquely voiced, giving the reader an individual perspective on the time period as well as their own situation.
Careful plot development carries the reader through the story, addressing important current events while also offering a window into personal struggle, growth and transformation. In my second reading, I was much more aware of how effortlessly this story unfolds and how easy it is to get invested in the drama. Much of this is owed to the complex characters that the readers instantly connect with, but it also is in large part due to the story’s structure. Schmidt introduces us to the main conflicts first and then uses multiple perspectives and careful flashbacks to provide background and connect these stories together. The use of humor, tense action and heartbreaking situations keep the reader invested in the story all the way to the nail-biting conclusion.
Most notable, however, is Schmidt’s use of language and style. Careful word choice, rhythmic phrases, and patterning not often seen in middle grade writing, creates almost a magical or folkloric feeling. There is no doubt that this reads like historical fiction, but Schmidt’s use of language draws us in like only the best storyteller can. A mix of literal and figurative language shows great respect for the middle grade reader. After a comical miscommunication between Meryl and Matt over a hatchet, Meryl Lee opens the door to find her not-so-friendly roommate. Meryl Lee comments that at least Jennifer “wasn’t running at her with a hatchet”. When Jennifer asks with implied disdain,“What are you doing here?” Meryl Lee wonders if “maybe she was running at her with a hatchet”. I have always respected Schmidt’s ability to create complex works that respect the reader and tell a yarn at the highest level. This is certainly the case for JUST LIKE THAT a book that will thrill, challenge and inspire its’ readers.
Filed under: Heavy Medal Mock
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci
Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at email@example.com.
SLJ Blog Network