2024 Newbery Buzz #4: Simon Sort of Says by Erin Bow

Simon Sort of Says was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Could it win the Newbery?

We’re continuing our long-running Newbery Buzz Discussion series this year with a book that was longlisted for the National Book Award: Simon Sort of Says by Erin Bow. To read the rest in our series or previous years’ discussions, check out the Newbery Buzz Page.

Simon Sort of Says: Does it Have a Chance?

Hayley: To start off, I’m going to give a quick summary of the story. Ask Simon why he and his parents have relocated to a small town in the middle of nowhere, and he has a story for you. It involves his dad’s previous job and a disastrous blessing of the animals that went viral. Thankfully, both his parents have found jobs in this new town. Is it weird being the new kid? Sure. Is it inconvenient that scientific research next to the town has created an internet-free zone? Yup. But Simon is cheerful. And glad that no one knows him. And he has a new backpack.

Janie, I didn’t know much about this book’s premise, but that backpack was my clue. Did you pick up on the foreshadowing?

Janie: Not so much the backpack but Simon’s evasiveness about why they moved to Grin and Bear It, Nebraska (we’ve got to get the name of that town in!). To hear him tell the story, it’s all about that Blessing of the Animals ceremony in Omaha, and the fortuitous way both parents landed jobs (Dad as deacon of the Catholic cathedral and mom as the new director of the one funeral home, Slaughter and Sons). But there’s clearly something else going on here: is that viral video the only reason they’ve come to live in a National Quiet Zone?  

The first thing I noticed about Simon is his distinctive voice. He uses a lot of biblical phrasing, e.g., “So that was morning and evening, the extension cord day.” He’s well-versed in church lore and lingo because of his dad and dad’s weekly homily, described as “the book report on the Bible that the celebrant gives every week.” You don’t see that kind of churchy language in children’s books these days! But there’s a reason for it. The slow unfolding of Simon’s trauma takes place against a liturgical background. this is significant. Do you think the author succeeds in this kind of framing, Hayley?

What Stands Out in Simon Sort of Says

Hayley: Erin Bow set out to do what seems unthinkable: write a hopeful book about the survivor of a school shooting. Does she succeed? I have to say, I think this book has caused me to laugh and cry the most out of any middle grade fiction I have read in 2023. 

There are two notable things I would mention as considerations: Simon’s dad’s sermon, and his friend. I loved his friend, but reading her character and her philosophy of life, I was in my head trying to frame how I would describe her. “Consideration: Simon’s friend’s hand-printed t-shirts are clever and liberal, with some LGBT+ pride.” I thought it was distracting, but I loved the friendship. What did you think? (And what did you think of her representation? 

Janie: Agate is an interesting character, to say the least –I was wondering if her scientific experiment to steal 4 seconds from the universe might coincide with a desire to turn back time so that certain things don’t happen. Their mutual friend Kevin is the classic humorous sidekick, and both are loyal allies when the going gets rough. And don’t forget the dog!

What do you see as the centerpiece of the novel, Hayley? 

Hayley: Once a local gossip has gotten a hold of Simon’s story, and the town knows, Simon’s dad gives a withering sermon/litany. It is painful. It is raw. I think you and I had two different take-aways. My first impression was a reminder to not tell people, in the face of horrific suffering, that God is good. Don’t equate the goodness of God’s plan with evil. God is love. And God hates injustice. God doesn’t cause evil. I had just heard a sermon on suffering, and this all fitted together in my mind.

I need to re-read that section, but I remember you had a different first impression?

Janie: I’ll admit, when I come across religious sections in children’s books, I’m reading with a more critical than charitable attitude, just because most children’s authors (with traditional publishers, at least) aren’t writing for a Christian audience. I have mixed feelings about the sermon. It’s important that he gives it after the truth has come out about Simon’s experience, and people have questions. Mainly, how could such a thing happen? (Spoiler Alert! Simon was the only survivor in his classroom, and suffers from survivor guilt.) Dad affirms God and God’s love while wrestling with the age-old question of how a good God could allow such terrible things to happen. What struck me is the fatuousness, in Dad’s mind, of insisting there’s a plan in all this: “There is no plan. Stop saying that.” Suffering is a mystery, and God answers it by entering the suffering himself. He doesn’t give answers. He gives himself. Dad mentions Jesus rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, but doesn’t mention Jesus’s suffering for our sake.   

I recently heard a sermon from Tim Keller in which he noted that liberal churches stress God’s tears (“Jesus wept”) while conservative churches stress God’s truth. The sermon by Simon’s dad struck me as the former: sympathy layered with ambivalence. My big problem with the book might be located there: truth without tears is harsh, but tears without truth is dangerous to the soul. But what were some of the positives of this story? 

Does Simon Sort of Says Have What It Takes?

Hayley: On the side of things I loved, I really adored Simon’s parents. They’re funny, sharp, hurting …. And the family is growing closer in the face of this trauma. 

As some of the humor (a certain squirrel’s transgressions!) impacted Simon’s dad’s church, I think as a Protestant, I wasn’t as offended by the absurdity. However, a Catholic might take a different stance. Or, it might be considered a jab against the church institution. I think there’s a line and while it’s important we laugh at ourselves, we also should respect the church. This edges up very close to that line -or do you think it crosses it?

Janie: Not for me, so much. I flagged the opening incident with the squirrel in the first chapter: “Pinky clawed his way up Father Kirk’s leg and–well, let’s just say it’s a good thing Father Kirk had already taken that vow of celibacy.”  I can certainly see Catholics objecting to that, and some Protestants as well. There are also plenty of jokey references to Mom’s business–dead people in the basement, and the kerfuffle when her assistant loses a body. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis says about the two things that set humans apart from animals: They make coarse jokes and they fear death (often covered with uneasy joking).

We usually wind up these discussions by asking what we think the chances are for Newbery gold. I’d give Simon Sort of Says better-then-even odds. It’s different, funny, gives a few nods to progressive causes (note the LGBT t-shirt you mentioned), and falls on the liberal side of religion. Can you think of any more rationales?

Hayley: You kind of covered this with the descriptor “different,” but I think it’s unique premise could be a draw. I also wonder if the way Erin Bow engages with the idea of community could give it an edge? She looks at both the negative (as gossip spreads) but also the positive, as Simon settles in and finds new friends. Finally, while I have read other books that deal with trauma, I think this was exceptionally well done as Bow depicts Simon’s PTSD, and don’t forget his faithful therapy dog in training!

Will that be enough for it get some Newberry attention? I don’t know. But I wish it all the best.

Readers: do you agree with us? Have you read Simon Sort of Says?

For the rest in this Newbery Buzz series, past and present, don’t miss our main Newbery Buzz series page!

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Hayley Morell

Born in a library and raised by books, or rather, raised by a book-loving family, Hayley loves talking and writing about books. She lives in the middle of Wisconsin and works with children as well as with words.

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