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Mock Newbery Nominees 2019: Amal Unbound and The Journey of Little Charlie

 Mock Newbery round four is here! Today brings us to two titles that explore slavery and bravery. Aisha Saeed's "Amal Unbound" shines a light on modern slavery as Amal must find the bravery to stand up to injustice. "The Journey of Little Charlie" by Christopher Paul Curtis is the story of a boy forced to pay off a debt by helping to hunt down runaway slaves.

Let's take a look at the Newbery Criteria and why these titles might deserve the award.

Interpretation of the theme or concept: Fighting injustice is a central theme in "Amal Unbound." Amal's experience with injustice ranges from losing access to her education to being forced into slavery by the corrupt ruling family of her village. Even though there are times she feels hopeless, she holds on to her bravery and sense of justice, using information about the family's crimes to get them arrested, freeing herself in the process. "The Journey of Little Charlie" explores themes of justice and doing the right thing, even when it is difficult. Little Charlie knows life isn't fair, his life has often been marred by bad luck, but his sense of right and wrong remains strong in the midst of his unfair circumstances. While he would like to make the money promised him for hunting down "thieves," when Charlie realizes they are escaped slaves, his conscience leads him to correct course and find a way to free them.

Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization: The clarity and accuracy of "Amal Unbound" were its weakest points. The time frame wasn't clear, with chapters sometimes covering just a few hours or days, but by the end of the story Amal seems to have been in bondage for a longer time than the stated month. Readers used to smartphones may also be confused about Amal's unfamiliarity with emails and computers even though she seems familiar with using a cellphone and television. "The Journey of Little Charlie" keeps a clear narrative going, with readers learning as Charlie learns.

Development of a plot: Curtis expertly builds Charlie's journey from a passive participant in his life of misfortune to a person willing to take action in the face of evil. The scene on the train, as Charlie grapples with what he can do to right the wrong of kidnapping Sylvanus, is particularly poignant. Saeed brings to life Amal's struggle to stay true to herself and her dreams, while fitting into a life of servitude. The generally kind treatment by her mistress provides a complexity to Amal's life of slavery that will make readers think.

Delineation of characters: Amal is a well-drawn character with her sense of duty contrasting with her tendency to act first and think later. While many of the secondary characters are not highly developed, Nabila's transformation from jealous rival to fast friend is well-done. Almost all of Curtis's characters are  complex and full of life. The pitiful Captain Buck is believably human underneath his evil actions. The only character who doesn't ring true is Sylvanus, who seems oddly naive for a boy raised by such ingenious and careful parents.

Delineation of a setting: The South Carolina backwoods setting of the first half of "The Journey of Little Charlie" felt real and made a striking contrast to the orderly Detroit and Canadian cityscapes. Amal's house and village are given life by the little details of open air markets and intermittent electricity.

Appropriateness of style: Saeed's choice to have Amal tell the story from a first person point of view makes the injustice of her situation feel more immediate to the reader. Curtis uses Charlie's first person point of view in a similar way, but takes it a step further with the use of southern dialect that helps bring the setting and story to life.

Does one of these stories of fighting for justice seem worthy of your Mock Newbery vote? If so, make your choice here!

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