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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

First of all, I do think the previous books affect A SEASON OF GIFTS in a negative way as much as a positive one.  Sure, some readers will already have a comfortable relationship with Mrs. Dowdel, but I think that the first book, A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, is clearly the superior book of the trio, and, too, both  A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO and A YEAR DOWN YONDER have both already won Newbery recognition.  Both of these factors make me inclined to pass this one over–until I actually compare it to the books published this year.
 
And, yes, I do think this book will appeal to adults, perhaps even more so than to children, but there is nothing in the Newbery criteria that excludes this, nothing that says a book must appeal to children more than adults.  On the contrary, children merely need to be a "potential audience" for a book.  I’m sure we can all think of recent Newbery winners with limited child appeal, say this one or that one, but that doesn’t make them any less distinguished.  I don’t find arguments against the child appeal for A SEASON OF GIFTS very convincing.  
 
Now I am certain that some Native children will find A SEASON OF GIFTS painful; others may find it funny; others, interesting; and others yet, boring.  It may even have more appeal to Native adults than Native children.  In short, I expect the range of responses among Native children to be just as rich and varied and complex as they are among white children.
 
Let us say, however, for the sake of discussion, that I have grossly underestimated the monolithic response of Native children, that many, if not most–if not all–of them would find this book a painful reading experience.  What then?
 
Well, I certainly don’t think their pain could be any greater than that of the African American child that reads ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY and finds the use of the n-word painful, and yet I would not wrest the Newbery Medal away from Mildred Taylor (and I’m quite certain that Nina wouldn’t either).
 
Pain alone should not unravel a book’s Newbery chances.  Nina argues that we can tolerate the pain if there is context for the child reader to understand it, and I’m sure she finds that context present in ROLL OF THUNDER (as do I), but that still does not diminish the pain of the child reader, does it?
 
Now, clearly, A SEASON OF GIFTS is not the stinging repudiation of racism that other recent books have been, say OCTAVIAN NOTHING, but neither is it the ringing endorsement that Nina suggests.  Peck aims for the middle ground.  He is not making a comment on Native culture, but rather the white culture that finds it, by turns, fascinating, mystifying, and exotic.  He is not disparaging Native culture, but rather mocking white culture.  Since our twelve-year-old narrator is white himself that is the only culture that we can expect him to expertly observe, either in the moment or in hindsight.
 
Given the prevalent views on Native culture in that time and place, how can we reasonably expect our narrator to be enlightened?  He obviously needs some kind of encounter with a wise white adult (preferably one plucked out of the 21st century) or better yet a member of the Kickapoo Indian tribe–and not just any encounter, but a didactic one.  This would take the book in an entirely different direction. 
 
While I understand Nina’s reservations, I’m not sure that I see any Newbery criteria that specifically reference them.  And here, dear readers, is where Irony chooses to reveal not only her hand, but her wicked sense of humor.  Remember our discussion of WHEN YOU REACH ME?  How I huffed and puffed and tried to blow the house down?  I employed arguments that were not specifically grounded in the Newbery criteria, but rather my own personal assumptions.  Surely, anybody who has read more than a handful of mystery and science fiction novels could spot the inherent aesthetic weaknesses in WHEN YOU REACH ME.  And, similarly, Nina argues for a moral weakness in A SEASON OF GIFTS.  How can anybody in this day and age perpetuate such an insensitive portrayal of Native people?
 
Now I see some of you out there in cyberspace shaking your head, wondering how I can equate X with Y when they are really not the same thing at all.  But it’s not me that’s equating them, it’s those cold, hard, unfeeling Newbery criteria.  They don’t care about your agenda, they don’t care about Nina’s agenda, and they sure don’t care about mine. 
 
share save 171 16 The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Nina says:

    Ok Jonathan, the specific criterium I’m most concerned about is “Interpretation of the theme or concept.” I don’t think the comparison to Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry holds. The characters there are *hurt* by the N word. Peck is making a joke, and we’re expected to laugh.

  2. Sondy Eklund says:

    I’m enjoying the way the two of you have different opinions about these books. Gives me a taste of what the Newbery committee must be like.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m not necessarily comparing ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY to A SEASON OF GIFTS. I’m just saying that we have to be really careful when we start talking about painful reading experiences and how we allow that to influence our perception of a book’s literary merit.

    The characters in ROLL OF THUNDER are clearly hurt by the n-word, but that may not make it any less painful for the African American child. I’m just worried that we’re going to start ranking which reading pain is acceptable and which is not. It’s a slippery slope.

    Peck is making a joke–but at whose expense? He’s mocking the whites, not the Indians. Monica is concerned that children will not pick up on this, and that may well be, but that’s probably true of the younger kids in the range.

  4. Wendy says:

    I haven’t read A Season of Gifts yet, so I can’t comment on it specifically. But Jonathan, how are you NOT comparing it with Roll of Thunder? I mean, you use the words “greater than”.

    Your focus on how kids of a particular ethnic group might be hurt by a portrayal of their ethnic group ignores the ways in which racially insensitive content hurts all of us.

    And yes, I would say the context of Roll of Thunder does “diminish the pain of the child reader”, though I don’t know that “pain” is the word I’d be using in this conversation. Roll of Thunder is cathartic, realistic. It’s never cavalier, and I get the impression that A Season of Gifts kind of is. I’ll try to read it with fresh eyes when I do read it.

    Surely it isn’t hard to find a different Newbery winner that’s controversial in terms of how it deals with a racially-charged subject and makes for a more meaningful comparison.

    As for how this kind of thing ties in with the Newbery criteria–which I think it must, because I think the definition of a distinguished book surely includes “does not disparage any group of people”–I wonder, in this case, about the clarity with which information is presented… or appropriateness of style… if others think that child readers might not get the point.

  5. Wendy says:

    (oh, and I’m also not sure why those of us who didn’t find an inherent aesthetic flaw in When You Reach Me are still assumed to have read only a “handful” of science fiction or mysteries. Mysteries? Really? I bet almost all of us have read a goodly number of those.)

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy,

    I was not comparing the literary merit of ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY and A SEASON OF GIFTS, but rather the pain that their respective readers may face while reading the book. I think a careful reading of the post will yield that conclusion.

    If you click on the Mildred Taylor link above you will find that for some African American and Latino readers that the context of the book did not, in fact, diminish the pain.

    You are welcome to define a distinguished book any way that you would like, but currently the Newbery criteria do not include the phrase, “does not disparage any group of people.” And even if it did, I think you would be hard pressed to convince us that the group of people being disparaged are the Kickapoo Indians. I think the group being disparaged, quite humorously, are the white country folk.

    I think it was pretty clear in previous posts that I let go of some of my hang-ups with WHEN YOU REACH ME. I brought them up again to illustrate the point that you cannot cling to your own assumptions and not allow others to do the same.

    I look forward to hearing your comments once you are able to get the book and read it. I think many people are in the same situation.

  7. Nina says:

    Jonathan, Peck’s joke is not targeted at Indians, but it IS at their expense. Readers are supposed to chuckle that Grandma Dowell is so clever to rebury the so-called-bones. And we’re supposed to think that she’s also doing a good, or a kindness, by reburying them in a Christian funeral.

    I realize many are put off by my suggestion that you think about it out of context…as if the so-called-bones were Jewish. Any non-Christian-belief-system-historically-hounded group will do in place.

    My contention in this discussion is not with the subject matter itself, but in its Interpretation of Theme or Concept and Excellence of Presentation for a Child Audience, as in the Newbery criteria. I think that Peck undermines the humor that is the strength of the story by using a tactic that will disengage his intended audience.

    …your comments on WYRM were totally grounded in the criteria: Plot. I just disagreed. ;)

  8. Wendy says:

    Removing a lot of “but you said” and “no one ever claimed”, because I think I get what you’re trying to say there; but anyway, Jonathan, isn’t one of the hottest of Newbery topics “what constitutes distinguished”? While I get that you don’t find this book racially insensitive, will you take this question–if a book is racially insensitive does that affect its distinguishedness?

  9. Debbie Reese says:

    I posted on Nina’s blog, on mine, stepped away from my computer, thinking and thinking and thinking.

    When I read Roger Sutton’s reference to popcorn and PC police a few weeks ago, I wondered what he was referencing.

    I bought the book today. When I got to the part where the body of the Kickapoo Princess is brought to Bobby’s house, I literally blanched. My eyes raced over the physical description of what was in that blanket. It was searing.

    I stopped reading.

    In the last hour I’ve skimmed a few reviews, and I gather that this is all a charade of some sort. Eventually I will finish the book.

    But for right now, I am stunned, disappointed, angry…

    Native people, again, are the plaything of the dominant culture. Mainstream society.

    I get that Peck may be mocking white folk from downstate Illinois (probably LeRoy, the town closest to the Kickapoo ancestral grounds), but on the way to the unmasking of whatever is going to be revealed about that body, my emotions as an American Indian woman (tribally enrolled, grew up on our reservation, know where our cemetery is, knows our rituals for burial) are being trampled with Peck’s words.

    It’s a knock-out punch. When I get up, I guess I’m going to learn he’s just kidding.

    That kind of kidding, that kind of humor, we can all do without.

  10. Debbie Reese says:

    I’ve got more to say.

    A few years ago, a house in a small town in Illinois went up for auction. It was owned by a dentist. He died, and the house and all its contents were auctioned. The person who bought it found, in the attic, skulls.

    Do an internet search on “Indian Skulls Found in Home” and you’ll find the article in the Pantagraph.

    Peck was apparently living in southern Illinois for awhile.

    I’m guessing most of those who praise his book have no idea that a storyline about Indian remains would generate upset or offense. I wish society was not so oblivious.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Debbie and Wendy, I am working on a response to your comments, but as I am also busy with preparations to go out of town, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to post. I am keenly interested in continuing this discussion when I return (if not sooner), and did not want either of you to feel that I am ignoring you.

  12. Debbie Reese says:

    I’m heading out of town, too. Going home, to Nambe, for ceremony. Not much internet access or time in the next few days. I’ll be back on Tuesday.

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