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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The King Died And Then the Queen Died

We recently discussed the slower pacing of THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE, how it may have just as many events as other historical fiction titles (RIOT, A SEASON OF GIFTS, and THE BROTHERS STORY), but how the author uses at least twice as many words.  She does use beautiful language, but it slows the story considerably.

We also already talked about style in a previous post, but now that we’ve started this discussion of CALPURNIA maybe we also should discuss another Newbery criterion–plot–more thoroughly.  We often use "plot" and "story" interchangeably, but plot more precisely refers to the arrangement of the events in the story.  Moreover, novelist E.M. Forster proposed that–The King died and then the Queen died–is a story, nothing more than a mere succession of events in time, but that–The King died and then the Queen died of grief–is a plot because it shows causality.  Of course, events may often seem random only to accrue meaning as the story progress (as often happens in a mystery story, for example), but this is only the delayed emergence of causality.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but it seems to hold especially true for the linear stories that largely dominate the Newbery field.
 
To be sure, there is a matter of personal taste involved here, but at what point would CALPURNIA fans feel it was overwritten?  438 pages?  538?  I had a fan of THE SWEET FAR THING by Libba Bray (848 pages) tell me she just wished the book could have gone on forever!  I’m sure many fans of HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT feel similarly.  But at what point does length and pacing cross from the realm of subjective personal taste (where it is largely unassailable) into the realm where we can collectively and objectively recognize it as a literary weakness?
 
That answer is our goal as Newbery judges, one that we can better achieve with a series of relative judgments rather than absolute ones.  These are all good books; they might even all be distinguished books.  We may indeed have nothing but Cezannes and Rubens on our hands, but our challenge is to find the most distinguished book, and that implies that distinction is a relative term rather than an absolute one, and so we would do well to consider literary merit not just in isolation but also in relation to other books under consideration.  (Hence, my previous comparison of the pacing of Kelly to Stead and Peck.)
  
When we consider this definition of plot then two books immediately leap out as distinguished in this element.  One is WHEN YOU REACH ME; the other is CATCHING FIRE.  If tight plots like WHEN YOU REACH ME and CATCHING FIRE stand at one end of our spectrum then loosely interconnected short stories like WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS and HEART OF A SHEPHERD stand at the other, with other novels falling somewhere in between.  I think the former are more distinguished than the latter in terms of plot, but when we holistically evaluate these books we may find the latter books have elements that raise them to a similar level of distinction–or beyond.
 
CATCHING FIRE, for example, has a wonderful plot, but Collins (like Kelly) uses too many words to tell her story (though not as well as Kelly).  That is to say, the sylistic quality of the writing is not a distinguished element of the book and yet we feel compelled to read it for its plot nevertheless.  Roger Sutton coined the phrase page-browser to describe this type of page-turner.  But, really, I think the term could apply anytime one reads a book where the pacing of the story is not justified by one’s interest in the other elements of the book (language, characters, setting).  It’s the kind of book that many of us–both children and adults–put down because we have better things to do with our time, but those of us who masochistically read on are essentially reading page-browsers, too.    
 
So the plot-driven CATCHING FIRE may feel like a page-browser to some, but so too may the more character-driven CALPURNIA TATE.  Of course, it’s not an either/or conundrum.  It is possible to have it all.  You can have a long book, leisurely pacing, excellent writing, and a suspenseful plot.  In fact, that’s a perfect description of THE LOST CONSPIRACY by Frances Hardinge which is the best children’s book published this year, but ineligible for the Newbery Medal by virtue of its British author.
 
Back to CALPURNIA which I find at a disadvantage not just because of its slow pacing and episodic structure, but also because much of the excess writing does not seem to contribute measurably to the already considerable strengths of the book.  I think there is a point when the excess writing actually dilutes the strengths of the book.  What if the same story had been written in 238 pages?  The writing would still be beautiful, the characters wonderful, and the setting evocative, but they all would have been even more so (more beautiful, more wonderful, more evocative)–and the themes would have been brought into sharper focus.  Hence, the popular saying: less is more.
 
 
 
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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. Wendy says:

    What’s wonderful about the plot of CATCHING FIRE? THE HUNGER GAMES, now there was a plot. I think CATCHING FIRE could maybe be called a wonderful IDEA (except in the case of what the theme of the next Hunger Games turned out to be), but plot?

    I have a lot of thoughts about Calpurnia (interestingly, because I read it in an e-book version, I wasn’t really aware of how long it was), but one is relevant here–I don’t think it’s the “beautiful language” of Calpurnia that slows it down, really; as I mentioned earlier, I found that it really punched the book up. I think perhaps there was just too much repetition–we get it, Calpurnia doesn’t like to do girl stuff–and that a few of the episodes could probably have been cut entirely without losing anything.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I probably need to do a separate post on CATCHING FIRE, especially considering how unpopular THE HUNGER GAMES was on this blog. Then we can look at all of the literary elements of CATCHING FIRE holistically rather than just focusing on plot.

    But for now, Wendy, let me ask you this: Do you think that CALPURNIA TATE has a more distinguished plot than CATCHING FIRE?

  3. Wendy says:

    But I just want to whine! No, I’d agree with you that CF probably has a more “distinguished” plot than CALPURNIA, with quotes because I don’t really think it’s distinguished at all; and I also wonder if it’s better to have a plot that isn’t (IMHO) carried off well than to have very little plot in the first place.

    I’m sort of surprised to hear you say that HUNGER GAMES was unpopular on this blog, unless by that you mean that Nina didn’t think it was one of the most distinguished books of the year. That isn’t how I remember it–but I haven’t gone over the old posts or anything. I’ll be interested to read your post on CATCHING FIRE, although curiously, I noted while reading that I was all on board with calling THG middle grade but CF feels much more YA to me. I’ve noticed that you’re big on the “if a 14-year-old would read and enjoy it, it’s eligible” criterion, and certainly 12-14-year-old and even younger are reading and enjoying the book; but really, I think that designation renders the age-span eligibility almost moot, because there are almost no YA books that are “too old” for the intelligent 14-year-old. Maybe you’ll give us a post on that.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Whine on! I’m not going to necessarily argue for CATCHING FIRE as the most distinguished book of the year, but let’s not leave it out of the conversation while we put forward inferior books either.

    Yes, I do have that anything-goes mentality, but for every one of me on the committee, there are three or four people who think the Newbery should only go up to age 12, so they kind of render me null and void in most cases.

    Then, too, I also think picture books and easy readers should be in contention every year–and we haven’t even begun to talk about those yet. I kind of get rendered null and void on those titles, too!

  5. LSCHL70573@aol.com says:

    I can’t help thinking that when we start to talk about how many pages–or how many words–we’re back to a question of individual taste–the Cezanne/Rubens thing. I think the modern assumption is that “less is more”–that if you can tell a story in eight words, that’s automatically better than telling it in sixteen. But I think it’s important to see what the author does with the additional eight words. If the story is richer, more evocative, more layered; if the characterizations are more interesting; if the emotional tension that accompanies the plot is stronger, then more is more. I read WHEN YOU REACH ME and CALPURNIA TATE in the same week. I admired both enormously, though I read them differently. When I read WHEN YOU REACH ME, I rushed through it–couldn’t put it down–and that is certainly high praise. But I didn’t want CALPURNIA to end, and now, weeks later, it is CALPURNIA that I remember more vividly. Yes, the plot is not as tight as the plot of WHEN YOU REACH ME. But my sense of the landscape is sharp-etched and I still have strong feelings about the characters. I often feel that modern books “read thin”–the prose is terse and tidy and the plot moves forward dutifully–but I end up feeling unsatisfied, because I’m not deeply involved in the story. For a reader like me, the words that Kelly used were not wasted.

  6. Fuse #8 says:

    And I, for my part, am just relieved that there is someone else out there who believes that The Lost Conspiracy was the best book of the year. If only because, it really was.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think I have already made many of your points, LSCHL70573. You are right that it’s not how many words or pages authors use, but rather how they use them. You are also right that CALPURNIA and WHEN YOU REACH ME is not the most fruitful comparison because they are markedly different kinds of stories.

    That is why my original post on CALPURNIA proposed A SEASON OF GIFTS for comparison because they are, in fact, precisely the same kind of story. A SEASON OF GIFTS is half the length of CALPURNIA but has the same strengths. Vivid period setting? Check. Strong narrative voice with country dialect? Check. Memorable characters that grow and change over the course of the story? Check. A plot that takes a back seat to the characters? Check. Resonant themes? Check. Indeed, when I go through each of the Newbery criteria–plot, character, setting, style, and theme–I do not see one in which CALPURNIA is markedly better than A SEASON OF GIFTS.

    What did Kelly do with twice the number of words as Peck? Did she achieve a book that was twice as good? No, I don’t think she did. Now you may like it twice as much, but I don’t see how that convinces anybody around the Newbery table. Please do check in after you’ve read the Peck and we’ll continue the conversation.

  8. Amanda says:

    I absolutely adored Calpurnia Tate… I didn’t think it was overwritten or too long at all. I thought it was a fantastic book with real Newbery potential!

  9. Sondy says:

    The book with the best plotting that I’ve read lately is SILKSINGER, by Laini Taylor. She worked in multiple subplots related to secondary characters to make a beautiful whole. (Yes, I read WHEN YOU REACH ME and CATCHING FIRE, and thought the plots for those were well-done, too, but SILKSINGER really stood out for plot.) The book might be considered for too old an audience, but I think it would still work for under 14, and plotting was one of its great strengths.

    As for CALPURNIA, I didn’t have a sense of a timeline, which is a plotting issue. Here’s what I mean: It starts out in a hot summer, and she’s getting to know her grandfather. But then didn’t it switch to something that must have happened during the school year? (Her checking out a book or something.) I lost interest about there, not having any sense of where it was going — which I think of as poor plotting.

    I usually read at bedtime, and with most kids’ books, end up reading until I finish. With CALPURNIA, I was losing interest and falling asleep with only a chapter or less read, so it was going to take me weeks to finish the thing, and I quit. The plot didn’t have any sense of something about to happen to keep me turning pages.

  10. Miriam says:

    Actually, most Harry Potter fans I know, myself included, really wish that the last four books, especially numbers 5 and 7, had been more tightly edited and were thus shorter. Too much angsty-teenager-yelling (yes, he’s angry and feels betrayed/abandoned. Totally realistic. We got it in the first five pages. Moving right along.) and too much wandering-in-the-woods (they feel alone and untethered and vaguelly betrayed and lost. Totally realistic. We got it in the first five pages. Moving right along.)

  11. a teacher says:

    I get the feeling through reading these comments that “distinguished” to lots of people means “historical fiction”. I’m not so sure I agree.

  12. val hobbs says:

    It’s heartening to read that writing quality is–or should be–the premier criterion for Newbery books. It does make me wonder, however, about a few award winners of the past several years– but glad the line is being held by somebody. I have to say that I must be alone in the world in yawning through the Stead book (I adored First Light). It’s got a nice little trick with time, but is it really a tight plot? If so, how does work in the sandwich store contribute to it?

  13. a teacher says:

    I LOVED WHEN YOU REACH me the first time I read it, but after reading it a second time, I’m wondering WHY I loved it. Was it getting so much hype that I wanted so badly to love it. Upon reading it again, I find it surprisingly LIGHT, and not near as deep and clever as some would claim. I like that there is a sci-fi element to it and agree that a historical fiction book like this with a sci-fi twist should NOT be held to all science-fiction book standards, but at the same time, I wonder if Stead gives us ENOUGH, in the form of science-fiction and time travel? It’s the most creative thing I’ve read this year, but at the same time, I have a hard time NOT wondering if it’s really as good as people think it is. Is the competition just that weak?

  14. lori says:

    I loved When You Reach Me too and I think it is because it was so refreshingly unique. It also didn’t hurt that it brought back and time and place that was very familiar to me. I read a review somewhere that liked it to Harriet the Spy and The Mixed Up Files, add to that A Wrinkle in Time and what fan of children’s literature wouldn’t love it?!? But, is it ENOUGH? I say YES!

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