Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: THE LAST MAPMAKER by Christina Soontornvat
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Angela Erickson
Two-time Newbery Honoree Christina Soontornvat’s fantasy adventure THE LAST MAPMAKER invites readers to accompany Sai, a scrappy 12-year-old mapmaking apprentice, on a ship chartered for a voyage to lay claim to a mysterious continent. The journey itself is an exciting and dangerous one; however, perhaps more compelling to readers of all ages is the intrigue in discovering that each character aboard the ship has their own agenda for participating on the expedition.
There are two Newbery criteria that I wish to highlight that make this story particularly compelling to kick off this discussion:
Delineation of characters
Sai is a survivor. Even though she has been raised in a morally ambiguous environment, she has a strong sense of integrity. Nonetheless, she is an unreliable narrator insofar as she is naive to many of the situations surrounding her. Readers experience the world through Sai’s limited perspective, but Soontornvat deftly weaves in secondary characterization so that readers have a growing awareness that not everything is quite how Sai perceives it to be. This nuanced characterization is not easy but Soontornvat makes it seem so.
Interpretation of the theme or concept
Soontornvat introduces her readers to some heavy conceptual understandings related to classism, animal cruelty, exploitation of natural resources, and colonialism, but handles them in a way that is age-appropriate and relevant for her young readers.
Sai and all the characters on the ship must navigate a society that adheres to a rigid social class system as is shown in various passages when lineals, chain-link items of jewelry that act as social class indicators, are described or discussed. This system of refusing mobility to its citizenry is further reinforced by having a founding ideology “The Tail is the Teeth” which is a visual metaphor describing that one can never escape one’s past.
However, the larger overarching theme is about colonialism and offers a commentary about one country’s ambition to lay claim over another land and exploit its people and resources. Soontornvat handles this particularly well when Paiyoon explains the probable future impact of a voyage like the one they are on:
“Do you know what it looks like for one country to take over another? Do you know what happens to the people who live there?”
The question sent a shiver through me. I swallowed and shook my head as Paiyoon stood up slowly and began to pace the room.
“How about Wilna and Dusak, all those faraway places that our Queen has never set foot on but now claims for her own? They have been stripped of their forests, mines have been dug into their mountainsides like open wounds, and their people have been given no choices but to work in them. Mangkon has grown into a bloated beast, devouring all her neighbors. And how does she find her next meal? She uses my maps.” (p 232)
It is a writerly challenge to avoid being heavy-handed and overly moralistic when it comes to sharing these ideas with young readers, but since Soontornvat allows her reader to learn alongside her naive narrator, this novel works and therefor should be a strong contender for the Newbery.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
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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