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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

How Low Can You Go?

It seems that as we consider whether or not picture book texts are worthy of Newbery recognition we are confronted with two issues.  The first one seems to be the interdependence between the text and the illustrations (something that affects not only picture books, but graphic novels, nonfiction, and the occasional mold-breaker like HUGO CABRET).  The second issue is one of quantity.  How do you compare two different texts of wildy different lengths?   Isn’t a shorter text inherently inferior to a longer one?  Both of these issues complicate our assessment of picture book texts, and we would do well to keep them in mind.
The Newbery criteria state: "Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered."  Given this, I would like you to close your eyes and visualize some things.  Visualize what a distinguished literary contribution for one-year-olds looks like.  Now visualize what a distinguished literary contribution for three-year-olds looks like.  And, finally, a literary contribution for five-year-olds?  Okay, now open your eyes.  Without regard to the aforementioned nonsense, can you think of any books published this past year which match your idealized vision?  I did.  I thought of THE LION AND THE MOUSE by Jerry Pinkney.  I thought of HIGHER! HIGHER by Leslie Patricelli.  I thought of the Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems.  And I thought of HOOK by Ed Young.
All of these are wonderful picture books with good (but minimalistic) texts and even better illustrations, but when I look at them through my Newbery lens, with the issues of interdependence and quantity lurking in the back of my mind, then I realize that HOOK is the one where I feel the text makes a significant enough contribution that I can recommend it for serious Newbery consideration.  I have reached my threshold: HOOK is how low I can go.  HOOK may seem too spare to you, but next to THE LION AND THE MOUSE, it’s positively verbose.  Now you may have a different threshold of how low you can go, but I urge you to find it, and then find the most excellent books there.  How many words does a text need before you think it’s distinguished?  How independent do the pictures and text have to be before you feel comfortable with the text being a distinguished contribution to literature?   We’re all going to have different thresholds, but it behooves us to find the most distinguished contributions to literature throughout the entire range, not just in the middle.  
Now here are the two Newbery criteria that were brought up in the last post as being pertinent to this discussion.

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.

Each book is to be considered as a contribution to literature. 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.

My argument is that the story of HOOK–plot, setting, and character–is largely conveyed through the illustrations.  You can infer some basic information from the text about these elements (just as you can infer an elaborate scenario of time travel with just burn scale, dome, A WRINKLE IN TIME, and diamonds on a ring), but those inferences hardly raise the text to a distinguished level.  Nowhat raises this text to a distinguished level is the style and the theme.  Those are the elements that are pertinent to this picture book text; you need not expect to find excellence in the others.

We’ve already noted that the narrative has a very stripped down, spare quality that allows the reader room to draw inferences, make connections, and otherwise be a very active participant in the reading of this text.  Moreover, the clipped phrases make for a cadence and rhythm that perfectly mirrors the building suspense and intensity in the story.  If there is a more distinguished stylistic contribution to American literature for children, then I would love to know about it.  Name names, people!

Brooke noted that this story is a folklore retelling, and folklore retellings can be eligible.

In defining the term, "original work," the committee will consider books that are traditional in origin, if the book is the result of original research and the retelling and interpretation are the writer’s own.

I had not heard this tale (like Brooke had), but when I trolled the internet, I found numerous variations (here and here and here and here), all of them markedly different than Young’s retelling–and markedly inferior.

Many of the reviewers noted a close resemblance to "The Ugly Duckling" by Hans Christian Andersen.  Wikipedia reports the following commentary.

Bruno Bettelheim observes in ‘’The Uses of Enchantment’’ that the Ugly Duckling is not confronted with the tasks, tests, or trials of the typical fairy tale hero. “No need to accomplish anything is expressed in “The Ugly Duckling”. Things are simply fated and unfold accordingly, whether or not the hero takes some action.”   In conjunction with Bettelheim’s assessment, Maria Tatar notes in ’’The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen’’ that Andersen suggests the Ugly Duckling‘s superiority resides in the fact that he is of a breed different from the barnyard rabble, and that dignity and worth, moral and aesthetic superiority are determined by nature rather than accomplishment.

Young does gives Hook tasks, tests, and trials–and I think that takes this already wonderful fable to a different level.  Some of the variants that I looked at did not have the eagle ever realizing that he was not a chicken, while most of them had the eagle taking flight upon the first attempt.  In fact, I’m not sure that any of them emphasized the perserverance that Hook exemplifies.  That might be an original contribution (or I may not have read all the variants).  In any case, if literature strives to explore what it means to be human, I don’t know of any story from this past year that does it as powerfully as this simple one.  Again, if there is a more distinguished thematic contribution to American literature, then I would love to know about it.  Names!



Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. How many words does a text need before you think it’s distinguished? Well, obviously more than 93…at least these particular 93.

    The first commenter in the previous post thought the main character was a dragon. The MC could have just as well been a baby mythological griffin which has the face, beak, tallons and wings of an Eagle (I think there was one in Harry Potter…Harry was in Griffindor–right?). I myself assumed it was some kind of bird, but I must admit, an eagle didn’t immediately come to mind.

    In the story of the ugly ducking it is perfectly logical for a duck to grow up with a brood of chicks. But how’s a mother hen going to raise a bird or prey?

    In fact, there isn’t even enough text here to place the MC in vacinity of any farms, chicken coops, roosters, hens, or sibling chicks.
    The first four lines are:
    An abandoned egg. / A young boy. / When? / A strange chick.
    That’s as close as we ever get…

    For all we know the boy could have brought home what looked like an abandoned chicken egg that he found in the middle of Fifth Avenue. And since the egg was chicken-egg-size the boy might have assumed that the baby bird that hatched was a strange looking chicken.

    The text actually reminds me of a nature show I saw on TV (National Geographic?) documenting retailed-hawk know as Pale Male who lives adjacent to Central Park on a Fifth Avenue upscale co-op.

    People would watch the brood from the park benches across the street as the hatchlings learned to fly. The hawk chicks tested their wings by flapping and hopping up and down on the nest and surrounding building facade. Finally the fledgings would get enough nerve to fall to earth and end up in the middle of the road a couple of blocks away. Then I belive the birdwatchers would put them into a cardboard boxes and take them back up to the nest to try again.

    So maybe this was an egg that a boy found that had fallen out of this very nest. And maybe the final edge of the canyon is the top of the Empire State Building.
    That would be way cool!!!

    But the fact of the matter is, these lines of text are only serving as mere captions to the accompaning pictures.
    It’s the pictures…from an Arizona ranch, Manhattan co-op, or wherever…that will drive this story.

    In my mind, sans pictures, distinguished text must at least be able to unambigously flesh out the whole story including the setting and MC with certainty.

  2. Jonthan, I’m nearly with you on your argument, except that I don’t find “Hook” a compelling example with which to make it, and I think you DO need to find excellence in plot and setting in it. The criteria ask us to find excellence in all of the elements pertinent to *the book*. Not to just the text.

    I’m looking, I’m looking, for another picture book example for this year. I always look at the Elephant & Piggie books, but they never quite work–for the same problem. The characterization is ALL in the illustration.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, I do think plot, character, and setting are distinguished–for a picture book text. If you took all of the picture book texts published this year, both dependent and interdependent, both young and old, both minimalistic and wordy, I think you would be able to see this more clearly (and, of course, we would never expect a Newbery judge to see this view of the field because the publishers never send picture books–shame on them!). However, if you compare those elements to, say, WHEN YOU REACH ME and A SEASON OF GIFTS then it is not very distinguished at all, or rather it has no claim whatsoever to *most* distinguished. Where I do think it lays claim to *most* distinguished is style and theme, and I wish people would take those arguments more seriously. Criticizing a picture book text for being spare and interdependent seems akin to criticizing a fantasy novel for the presence of magic in the story. Are they really inherent weaknesses? Or just genre conventions? Or does the Newbery criteria really render this whole discussion moot?

  4. Jonathan, it seems like the problem here is that you’re the only one (as far as I’ve noticed) who finds this particular text distinguished. I think most or all of us are interested in the idea of whether picture book text can be distinguished enough to win the Newbery; I don’t think anyone is totally hung up on word count.

    I don’t have a large number of picture books in my personal collection, so I haven’t got a great example to share. I just looked over Princess Hyacinth, which I’m not putting forth for either Newbery or Caldecott, and maybe it’s impossible to compare with Hook because it’s such a different kind of book (so “wordy” in comparison, it’s practically a middle grade novel), but I find there great sentence-level writing, focused development of a theme, intriguing characters. I don’t think it’s one of the most distinguished books of the year, but I think it adds more than Hook and has a better “presentation for a child audience”. Certainly I thought the text was better than many or most picture books (but then, I’m a fan of the wordless ones).

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, I think we are totally hung up on word count, actually. Forget the Newbery criteria for a moment. Find me 93 words (or less) that are better than HOOK’s.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    And to give you a frame of reference GOODNIGHT MOON is 130 words so find me something that is 25% leaner than that, please. The message I’m getting is that something with that few words cannot be a distinguished literary contribution.

  7. I just don’t know how to answer that, without a list of low-word-count picture books; I’m not even sure if it’s a meaningful question, because we aren’t looking to see if Hook is the most distinguished picture book with so few words (or at least, I’m not), but whether Hook itself is distinguished. When I say “not hung up on word count”, I mean that I don’t think of any of us would toss a book aside solely because it had only 93 words, or only fifty. We just aren’t finding it in Hook. If we look at poems and imagine that they might have been published as picture books, I think I can come up with a few that I might have considered for the Newbery, that I find more distinguished than Hook. William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say”, for instance. 28 words–33 if you count the title–and I think there’s a beautifully written plot and theme and characters and even a setting in those few words. There’s the famous Hemingway six-word story (“For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn”), although that isn’t for children. (Not that the Williams poem is, but it could have been published that way.) “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” has only 108 words.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy writes–

    I’m not even sure if it’s a meaningful question, because we aren’t looking to see if Hook is the most distinguished picture book with so few words (or at least, I’m not), but whether Hook itself is distinguished.

    Jonathan responds–

    But the whole point of this particular post has been to explore whether there is a prejudice against short texts that affects our view of whether or not they are distinguished. Is HOOK undistinguished because it really is undistinguished or is it that we don’t find *any* short text sufficiently distinguished?

    I really don’t think it’s all that different from the question that Tanya Lee Stone is asking in ALMOST ASTRONAUTS: Were these women really not qualified or were they the victims of sexism. Would we really tell Stone, “I’m not sure if that’s a meaningful question, because we aren’t looking to see if Jerri Sloan is the most qualified female pilot with the most flight hours, but whether Jerri Sloan is qualified.”

  9. Roger 'Kirkus' Sutton says:

    My problem with the text of Hook (and, okay, I’m not so crazy about the pictures, either) is that those 93 words feel like so many, many more, portentous and ostentatiously humble. Ick.

  10. I’m just now catching up with all of these posts, and wondering about the historical shift away from younger books (if that’s a fair thing to call it).

    I happened to notice tonight, while reading to my kids, that Lobel won both the Caldecott and the Newbery with Frog and Toad. I can’t imagine that happening now. Has anyone written anything authoritative about the change over time?

  11. Sorry! Honors, not medals… but still.

  12. Laurel, I don’t believe there has been a change over time.

    Purely subjectively, based on my own split-second decisions, I’m going to count the number of books per decade that I’d say are primarily for the 11-and-up crowd.

    1920s: 7 (of 8)
    1930s: 2
    1940s: 2
    1950s: 6
    1960s: 8
    1970s: 5
    1980s: 5
    1990s: 6
    2000s: 4

    That’s far from definitive, but I think it at least suggests that there isn’t any strong trend toward the Newbery skewing older. The only “Newbery trend” I believe in is that characters and authors of color are more widely represented since the 1960s.

  13. Oh, this is useful. Much appreciated

    I guess it’s not an accurate depiction then. Just a gut response I have when I think about My father’s Dragon or Frog and Toad… that such a book wouldn’t be honored today. But maybe that’s just not true!

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