Mock Newbery Nomination Surprises: SWIM TEAM and LOVE IN THE LIBRARY
The results of our first round of nominations included a couple of surprises near the top (at least I was surprised). We haven’t had a lot of discussion so far about SWIM TEAM or LOVE IN THE LIBRARY, so let’s take a closer look:
SWIM TEAM by Johnnie Christmas
Though it came out in May, SWIM TEAM didn’t receive any suggestions from Heavy Medal readers during our March through September period…but it got an impressive five nominations last week! Maybe word of mouth is catching on for this one? It’s an engaging and inspiring graphic novel. After moving from Brooklyn to Florida with her dad, Bree faces her fear of water and joins the swim team. The cast of distinct characters and a content-rich, easy to follow plot contribute to its strong “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” I like how the plot and themes are driven mostly by the interactions between characters. Bree’s conversations with others steadily reveal her character development as she becomes braver and more empathetic. While the story centers on Bree’s experiences, information about the historical (and current) role of racism in swimming brings broader significance into the story. Themes of friendship, forgiveness, and the recurring motif of the jigsaw puzzle all fit together neatly.
As in most graphic novels, the artwork plays a big role in the reading experience…but the author contributes in just the right ways. For the two rival coaches, for example, we can see in the illustrations how Coach Pinella’s lack of confidence contrasts with the strict demeanor of the Holyhoke coach. Coach P’s words expand on that; he’s slightly comical, but also very likable, and ultimately a strong supporter of the team.
I also like the way Bree’s negative thoughts are set off alongside the word balloons and illustrations, so we get her outward persona and inner feelings at the same time. For example, she gets in the pool and says out loud to herself: “Come on, Bree. You know how to swim now.” But her unspoken thoughts are: “No way. / No how. / You’re in deep now. / How will you get out of this?…” (109-110)
While the plot was enjoyable and satisfying, at times it stretched credulity for me. I don’t know what middle school swim competition is like, but it seems incredible that Bree could go from a non-swimmer to a state champion in a few months. And her new neighbor being a former champion swimmer at Bree’s school and saving Bree’s life when she nearly drowns and reconciling with three friends from 50 years earlier who all live in the same town…
But I have to say, those actually didn’t bother me as I read, and I wonder if it’s related to the graphic novel format. Is there something about the cartoon illustrations that allows a writer room to be freer with verisimilitude than a straight fiction author would need to be? Or is that just me seeing that? I’m still working to figure out how to evaluate graphic novels in Newbery terms…one of these years maybe I’ll get there.
LOVE IN THE LIBRARY by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Unlike SWIM TEAM, LOVE IN THE LIBRARY has had support from Heavy Medal readers for a while, with six suggestions. Now it also has five nominations. This one surprised me, mostly because I didn’t see it as a strong contender myself. So I took a second look. It’s really a deftly told story with careful and important word choices. Within the picture book format, the author does a great job of telling us only what’s necessary:
All the Japanese Americans from the West Coast were in prison camps like Minidoka. Elderly people, children, babies.
It didn’t matter who you were, just what you were – and being Japanese American then was treated like a crime.
Nothing about World War II, or “relocation,” and she uses “prison camps” instead of “internment camps.” Background comes in the Author’s Note, but within the world of the story, she intentionally focuses on the specific experience of Tama and George. We don’t learn specifically why they’re there, but we know it’s “unjust” and that Tama is “scared and sad and confused and frustrated and lonely and hopeful.”
The words that Tama treasures run through the story, building themes: “constant,” “miraculous,” “human…” Initially, these are identified as being important by Tama and/or George, then when they’re used later they have even more significance:
Their love for the family they made was constant, even if the injustice their family was created within was constant, too.
To fall in love is already a gift. But to fall in love in a place like Minidoka, a place built to make people feel like they weren’t human – that was miraculous.
That was humans doing what humans do best.
Earlier, on the second spread, we had learned that in prison, “People did that jobs that needed doing. And that was that.” The last sentence from the passage above, telling us what humans do, subtly echoes that earlier one, but this time it’s infused with the hope that the two characters developed together. Pretty sophisticated prose for this format, but presented naturally, and at the level of a child reader.
The second read has made me appreciate this book much more (so thanks, nominators!). But it’s that “child reader” that still makes me wonder. Are the “distinguished qualities” in this book ones that children will grasp and appreciate? Do you need to be an adult to fully appreciate it? Hmm. Looks like I need a third read pretty soon…
I’d love to hear other thoughts on these two. Or share what you think about other nominated titles, surprise ones or otherwise…
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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