October 20, 2009 By 25 Comments
In her excellent article, "Alive and Vigorous: Questioning the Newbery," Martha Parravano asks this pentrating question: Looking back at the books of 1963, for instance, what would you choose as “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”? The novel that won the 1964 Newbery Medal, IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT? Or WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE?
To be sure, Martha has selected arguably the greatest picture book in the entire canon to make her point. But what if we took the past five winners of the respective Newbery and Caldecott Medals? THE GRAVEYARD BOOK or THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT? GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! or THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET? THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY or FLOTSAM? CRISS CROSS or THE HELLO, GOODBYE WINDOW? KIRA-KIRA or KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON?
Now HUGO CABRET and FLOTSAM are not your typical picture book texts so let’s go back two more years: THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX or THE MAN WHO WALKED BETWEEN THE TOWERS? CRISPIN or MY FRIEND RABBIT? I look at a couple of those choices and think that the Caldecott winner emerges as the more distinguished contribution, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you could do the same (although we probably wouldn’t agree on which ones). My whole point with this little excercise is that Martha’s question is not trapped back in 1963; it’s timely and relevant.
Because a picture book text has to be judged on its own merits, it’s a good idea to copy the text down on a blank paper so that you can see how it stands independent of the illustrations. And so I present for your humble consideration the text of HOOK by Ed Young, all 93 words of it (reprinted here with the kind permission of Roaring Brook Press).
An abandoned egg. / A young boy. / When? / A strange chick. / A hook nose? / "Let’s call him Hook." / Kicking up a storm. / Looking back. / "You are not meant for earth." / A higher place. / He pushes off, but falls to earth. / A short first flight. / She asks for help. / An even higher place. / Another try. / Another fall. / "We’ll try again, Hook." / They start off before daybreak. / This time in the great canyon. / Hook plunges. / He spreads his wings, catching a gust of air. / And rises to where he belongs . . . / For he wasn’t meant for earth.
Now not every book needs to excel in every single criterion, and it’s not that HOOK doesn’t excel in terms of setting, but rather that the illustrations convey the setting–as they should in a picture book. Nevertheless, I will point out that there is mention of a great canyon and one can infer from the flight attempts that the story takes place outdoors.
The characterization, too (that is, whether these characters look and think and act and feel like real characters would), is largely conveyed through the illustrations. The character development of Hook, on the other hand, as he changes from a frustrated, confused chicken into a majestic and noble eagle is present in the text and is as dramatic as any character’s transformation in children’s literature this past year.
The plot arc is simple and clean and effortless. Not only does it evince a high degree of the causality that E.M. Forster praised, but Young masterfully paces the story with his page turns to take full advantage of the suspense.
I reviewed Catherine Reef’s new biography of Ernest Hemingway for Horn Book, and it includes a trenchant observation from Hemingway about his own work, one that aptly describes Young’s prose style here: "Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it out thin." Young has boiled his story down to its very essence in highly concentrated prose that packs quite a punch. It is quite possibly not only the most distinctive prose style of any picture book, but quite possibly the most distinctive prose style in all of children’s literature this past year. You could read me any two lines at random and I could immediately identify this book as its source.
Astute readers will notice a resemblance to "The Ugly Duckling" by Hans Christian Andersen, but Young takes that story about beauty and self-worth and grafts on something about perserverance and triumphing over adversity, raising it to a whole different level. It also recalls HOW TO HEAL A BROKEN WING by Bob Graham from last year, but that book, good as it was, does not have quite the same transcendantly sublime quality as this one. Now, to be sure, this book will not endear itself to all readers; some will undoubtedly find it too cloying, preachy, moralistic, or whatever. But that divergence of opinion is true of any of the serious contenders that we have put forward.
Young’s minimalistic masterpiece of a picture book text requires the Newbery judges to infer many of its excellent qualities about plot, setting, and character–but then, too, WHEN YOU REACH ME makes similar demands of them. HOOK is strong in each of these elements–only for a picture book text, though, not for a longer narrative–but in terms of style and theme, HOOK can play with the big boys without any concessions for its genre. In terms of theme and style, it is arguably the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, and word for word it may well be the most distinguished contribution, period. I think it deserves nothing less than a Newbery Honor. Don’t you agree?