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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Hook

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.
 
SETTING
 
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.
 
CHARACTER
 
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.
 
PLOT
 
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. 
 
STYLE
 
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.
 
THEME
 
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. 
 
HOLISTIC ANALYSIS
 
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?  
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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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. faith says:

    Jonathan, from the text alone, I thought it was about a dragon. I suspect that my images of “the canyon” and the illustrator’s may be as divergent as my take on Hook. But my imagery is *very* clear. The story sparks the imagination to create a setting for it, and it doesn’t matter if your imagination produces something identical to mine.

    Still . . . I think Sendak’s book changed the world. Will Young’s? Sendak brought something entirely new to the field, as did Seuss. They did it with words and pictures together. If you take the pictures away and ask *would the text of the Wild Things have made any difference at all to the world on their own?* I think the answer is no, they wouldn’t have. Without their pictures, they wouldn’t have made the contribution that they did. So, can you really give the words alone the Newbery?

    If you give the words the Newbery because of what they effected WITH their pictures, aren’t you doing it to the disadvantage of books that DIDN’T have pictures?

    These words are great, but they don’t stand alone by any means. If you’d like to give the Newbery to a poem, I can find one I liked better, I think.

  2. Anon. says:

    Re:Picture book winning a Newbery???
    Having a separate Caldecott Award means a 32-page picture book will never again win a Newbery unless it’s an incredibly bad year for middle-grade books.
    This whole argument is like College Football before there were the BCS Playoffs.
    If you really want Newbery as an overall children’s book award you must:
    Make Caldecott Award include author as well as illustrator.
    Then establish three new awards for easy-reader, middle-grade, and non-fiction that would include the illustrator if the books had extensive illustration.
    Then the winning books of these four categories could square off for the Newberry Award with a totally separate set of judges.
    While you’re at it you could throw in the winners of the Belpre and King awards.
    A six-book smack-down…
    It will never happen…

  3. Sondy says:

    I’m sorry, but not having seen the pictures, the text alone doesn’t seem too memorable to me. This sounds like a book where the pictures will have to carry most of the story — appropriate for a Caldecott.

    I definitely want to read the book, but it’s easy for me to imagine a book with this text with awful illustrations that is not distinguished at all. (Okay, not easy to imagine illustrations by Ed Young that are awful, but if someone else were doing it.)

    As long as our awards specifically differentiate between text and illustration, I would think this particular book would be one where the illustration is the greater component – where if the illustrations are distinguished, the whole book is distinguished. If the illustrations are not, then it would be rather forgettable.

    On the other hand, last night I read I HEARD GOD TALKING TO ME: WILLIAM EDMUNDSON AND HIS STONE CARVINGS, by Elizabeth Spires. It’s a striking book, but the poems really gain their power from the photographs of Edmundson’s sculptures. I don’t think it can really be separated apart — equal weight to text and illustration. What then? Perhaps a Sibert?

  4. anonymous says:

    I’m trying to open my mind, but I just don’t get it. When the criteria say “‘contribution to American literature’ indicates the text of a book’” and “the committee is to make its decision primarily on the text” I don’t see how “Hook” has a shot. The texts of “Show Way,” “Dr. DeSoto,” and “Frog and Toad Together” can stand alone, so these make sense. Or are you suggesting that the criteria should be changed to de-emphasize text?

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Faith, the Newbery criteria actually don’t state that the text has to stand alone; what they *do* say is that the award must be based primarily on the text. Does primarily mean exclusively? I don’t think it does. I also think the texts of Sendak and Seuss have become just as iconic as the illustrations. And then, too, you make it sound like it’s those poor little mediocre novels that have an uphill battle rather than the excellent picture book texts.

    Anon, if you read Martha’s article you will know that ANNIE AND THE OLD ONES, DOCTOR DESOTO, LIKE JAKE AND ME, and (more recently) SHOW WAY have all won Newbery Honors since the Caldecott Medal was established; and A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN, a poetry collection in picture book format, won the Medal outright (along with a Caldecott Honor). And if you’ve been following this blog you will also know that it is either a subpar year for middle grade fiction or a superb one for nonfiction. I’d like to think the door is wide open for an excellent picture book text.

    Sondy, the pictures *do* carry most of the story (and I think the Newbery criteria allow for this). What I think the text does exceptionally well is style and theme. Maybe I need to further address this is in a future post.

    anonymous, an open mind is all I can ask for. I also ask that you stick with us for the duration of this discussion–about HOOK and other picture books, too.

  6. Monica Edinger says:

    Actually the criteria state, “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other aspects of a book are to be considered only if they distract from the text. Such other aspects might include illustrations, overall design of the book, etc.” So you can only consider the art if it distracts not if it enhances. Basically, I understood this to mean I had to consider the text away from the art. (I never really looked at the illustrations for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! until long after our decision.)

  7. Nina says:

    I’m with Monica here. That part of the criteria is pretty straightforward. The distinguished elements must all be found in the text. That’s a little different than saying “stand alone,” but close.

    Even if Hook isn’t it–can people think of other picture books out there that could be this year?

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    While I do think the illustrations enhance HOOK, I was very careful not to include that in my assessment of the text. I did say some elements are present in the illustrations, but I do think the Newbery criteria allow for that: “Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.” This coupled with the word “primarily” leads me to believe that we can, indeed, consider the text in a picture book where the words and pictures are interdependent. You will often hear people say that in a great picture book you cannot separate the words and pictures so if the Newbery criteria force you to segregate the two for consideration then it can’t really be a great picture book. Obviously, I don’t hold with that line of thinking.

  9. Roger Sutton says:

    I think we need to look at Jonathan’s larger point, that an evaluation of text alone may not be enough to judge whether a given book is a year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” that, in fact, the Newbery criteria may not do what they say they do.

  10. Lesley says:

    What about 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy as a picture book contender? The text is powerful, and the illustrations support the story beautifully.

  11. Monica Edinger says:

    Roger, I’m not understanding your last point, “… that, in fact, the Newbery criteria may not do what they say they do.”

  12. Monica Edinger says:

    I mean, whether you agree with the criteria or not, it is what you are obligated to work with. So while I agree with Jonathan that evaluating text alone is not enough, the rules as I understand them force committee members to do just that.

  13. Anon says:

    Anon here…
    Well Jonathan…I have been following the blog. And I have to agree with many of the commenters so far. Picture book text without the illustrations just doesn’t cut it.

    And why should it? Why should they ever be separated from one another? How many of these books would be read with PB text on blank white pages. Or how many with pictures without the text.(Probably many, many more with only the pictures…)

    As you noted, the argument in Martha’s original article pointed out that even after the Caldecott Award was established, 4 picture books were named as Honor books as well as 1 poetry collection in picture book format that actually won the Newbery Medal. Obviously the fact that it was a poetry collection helped the text stand on it’s own.

    In round numbers since the Caldecott Award was established (1938) you have 70 Newbery Medal winners and approximately 220+ Honors books. So the track record of 4 picture books being honored, and a single outright winner (poetry collection masquerading as PB) is minimal to non-existant at best.

    Guess what…and I know it’s complete heresy, but–the Newbery rules are totally outmoded in regard to picture books. To answer Ms. Edinger’s mantra of following the rules as written…the fact of the matter is, the way they are currently written force the committee to discriminate against the entire picture book genre. Unlike a poetry collection, from the outset picture book text is not usually written from the perspective of standing on it’s own. Quite the contrary, editors make it a point to keep the word count sparce to let the pictures tell the story.

    Jonathanm, the PB issue aside, I agree with you that this is a bad year for fiction giving non-fiction a chance. But I contend that the final winners skew middle-grade fiction(and lately, older middle-grade).

    I still like the idea of a Newbery Metal awarded as a runoff between winners in narrowed categories…and if the books have pictures and text then the authors and illustrators become joined at the hip. I really think you’d see more of a balance of winners. Just imagine the contest of WE ARE THE SHIP(King Award), THE SURRENDER TREE(Belpre Award), THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT(Caldecott Award), THE LINCOLNS(non-fiction award), EASY READER(easy reader award), and…KIRA KIRA(middle-grade award).

    One more observation is the fact that I think books like WE ARE THE SHIP and THE SURRENDER TREE are at a disadvantage of actually WINNING the Newbery. Because these books are the front runners of the King and Belpre Awards I think judges may be inclined to bend over backwards to confer Honor book status in leu of actually presenting them with the Newbery Medal itself. With a six-way runoff there would be no conflict, as each would have already gotten gold in their respective niches.

  14. Brooke says:

    Have we taken into consideration that HOOK is not an original story? The “eagle raised as a chicken and overcomes adversity to fly” tale is one I often heard as a teenager. I don’t know if it has an author, or published source (although I wouldn’t be suprised to find it in anthologies of inspirational stories). It’s the detail of the baby eagle in the chicken’s nest — it’s appeared in every version of this story I’ve heard, and seems particular to the tale. Is it folklore? What does that mean in terms of the Newbery criteria? I know there have been many books in the Newbery canon inspired by folklore, but HOOK seems like a straight retelling, rather than something inspired by a folktale. Forgive my ignorance, but I’d like to know.

  15. Sondy says:

    I agree with Roger’s comment. I think he’s saying that when the criteria force committee members to consider text apart from illustrations, they may keep them from choosing the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature for that year.

    I think it’s interesting that when the awards were set up, one committee did both, and they decided ahead of time which award a book could be considered for. The awards were mutually exclusive.

    It still doesn’t do much for the books where text and illustrations carry equal weight.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Words and pictures are meant to be read together in a picture book, but by segregating them you can see just what the text offers to that marriage. In this case, I think it’s clear to me that plot, setting, and character are largely carried by the illustrations; style and theme by the text.

    Martha mentions having six to eight Newbery Honors in the early years of the award, and while I don’t think there are six to eight distinguished fiction titles every year, I would welcome that number of Honor books again if they include the full diversity of children’s literature.

  17. Wendy says:

    Well, at the time when there were six to eight honors, they didn’t have the Caldecott and the Sibert and the Printz; so in effect, isn’t that what we’re doing now?

    I was all set to jump to the defense of It’s Like This, Cat, before I reconsidered the question; of course Wild Things is the greater contribution to literature, but as others have said, I think it’s probably the Caldecott that ought to change and give out awards for “best picture book”, not “best illustrations”. But I also like Roger’s point about the criteria preventing the committee from choosing what is the most distinguished addition to children’s literature; “literature”, after all, doesn’t exclude illustrations (does it?). And I’d like to think that all members of the committee are smart enough to be able to differentiate between a great picture book with a perfect marriage of text and illustration, and a book with gorgeous illustrations but lackluster text–just as they know the difference between a great middle grade novel and a novel that isn’t great but pulls at the heartstrings.

    I have to say, though, that like Sondy, I don’t get this one. I was amazed at how bored I was reading that very short amount of text; I don’t get the distinguished thing. I’m open to other picture book texts. What else ya got?

  18. Roger Sutton says:

    Monica, I’m saying that if we want to honor “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” we may have to change the rules of the Newbery. (Not that I think that will happen.) Literature ain’t just words; it’s story (among other things). Using the current criteria, there is no way I would have given Hugo Cabret the Newbery. But do I think it was the “most distinguished contribution,” etc. of whatever year that was? Yup, I do.

  19. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. I’m still not convinced that the Newbery criteria forbid looking at the text of an interdependent work so long as the focus is on the text. Moreover, nearly every award I can think of allows for this kind of discernment, segregating parts of a whole (Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, Odysseys, Caldecotts, etc). Was the Newbery really meant to stick out like a sore thumb?

    2. If we’re comparing boredom, Wendy, then I remind you that I couldn’t even read THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE on the plane, for Cripe’s sake! And that’s six precious hours of my life I can never have back compared to your single minute! But if we’re comparing literary merit, I’d really like to know why you think CALPURNIA is stylistically more distinguished than HOOK because I don’t get that one either.

  20. anon says:

    Not sure it qualifies as a picture book, since it’s non-fiction, but what about “Moonshot” by Brian Floca. Perfect words, informational + poetic.

  21. Monica Edinger says:

    Roger, thanks for the clarification; we are on the same page then.

    Jonathan, you’d have to have 14 other folks in that Newbery Committee room who agreed with you that “primarily” isn’t referring to that next sentence. Much as I generally consider picture books as a whole (illustrations and text) if I were in that room my understanding of the criteria would mean I wouldn’t be one of them.

    Oh, and I keep thinking of Bill Clinton’s discussion of the word “it” here.

  22. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, I retract my comment about the word primarily as I do agree that it refers to the negative considerations listed in the next sentence, and I wrote too hastily. But, again, I don’t think any of my arguments for HOOK are about the illustrations, but rather because of the text. Can you point out where I said we should give HOOK a Newbery Honor because of the illustrations? See, also, my subsequent post.

  23. Wendy says:

    Jonathan, I’m not one arguing for an award for CALPURNIA, though I did say I thought the sentence level writing was distinguished–so I can’t debate you very well there. But I can say that there are any number of sentences in CALPURNIA that I found so well-crafted, to carry humor and gravity in a few well-chosen words (i.e. “Some people aren’t fit to be librarians. I want to go home.”), and they pleased me greatly. I’m not big on poetic writing, so I’m not a good judge of HOOK. But it honestly feels quite generic to me and not like any kind of important contribution.

  24. Monica Edinger says:

    Jonathan, your posts indeed focus on the text, but I was getting confused by some of your comments where you seemed to be suggesting that the text and illustration were interdependent/connected and could be considered that way for the award. Again, while I completely agree that picture books art and text are meant to be experienced together as one artistic whole, as Roger made clear, the current criteria privilege picture books that have text that can stand alone against other books with no illustrations. I too have been looking for a picture book that might do that and also thought of MOONSHOT.

  25. a teacher says:

    It sounds like by “best contribution to children’s literature” some people are looking for the most intriguing format. Exploring new mediums and ways to tell stories, such as with HUGO CABRET.

    I like that as well, but how come books like WIMPY KID and SKELETON CREEK don’t get discussed? Is it that they’re too “popular”? (Sorry, strike that, I don’t want to get everyone riled up!)

    But seriously, arguments can be made for distinguished writing in both of those titles and both in my opinion, offer very intriguing ideas to the table of children’s literature.

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