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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Dunderheads, Part Two

In the short introductory section, you can see how Fleischman is able to superbly characterize Miss Breakbone with just a handful of details.  The Dunderheads are characterized with even greater economy, nicknames–which not only summarize their talents but foreshadow their part in the plot–coupled with a few details (e.g. I nodded to Clips.  His reading scores were low.  His math scores were worse.  But if they tested for paper-clip chains . . .).  While it’s true that the characters remain little more than types, it’s a remarkable feat of characterization considering that Fleischman introduces ten of the Dunderheads–Einstein, Junkyard, Hollywood, Clips, Wheels, Pencil, Google-Eyes, Nails, Spider, and Spitball–and Miss Breakbone in such a short text.  There is no character development unless we can consider the Dunderheads as a single entity.  It’s not that the Dunderheads grow and change over the course of the story as much as our understanding of them grows and changes.  They continually surprise us, first with their unique talents and then with their cooperation and synergy.  
This is not a character-driven story, however, but a plot-driven one.  The central conflict is delineated early and the subsequent events flow logically and effortlessly toward its resolution with a great sense of pacing and suspense.  It’s hard to think of a novel with a similar degree of execution in the plot.  The nice clean plot arc works beautifully for newly independent readers–don’t be surprised if this one also gets a Geisel sticker; Fleischman may be the only one who can wrest it away from Mo Willems–while the language also makes it a delicious read aloud.
I love the wordplay in that opening line, and how the typeface reflects the escalating volume in Miss Breakbone’s voice.  If the text never quite rises again to similar heights, there is still some great imagery ("Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw") and ("The dogs dropped like marionettes.") and the humorous tone remains consistent throughout the text.  I don’t need to remind you how funny books get short shrift in the Newbery process.  Moreover, the tone of this story is reminiscent of a hard-boiled detective novel, a wonderful stylistic quality.  I believe this is why one commenter thought the text read older than your typical picture book, and while this may be true, I certainly don’t think it reads any older than DOCTOR DE SOTO with its million dollar vocabulary. Fleischman has listed some of his influences for the story, but Miss Breakbone is a delicious villain, one that could have easily stepped out of a Road Dahl book, while the Dunderheads–they remind me of James Marshall, particularly the class in MISS NELSON IS MISSING and boys in THE CUT UPS. 
Cooperation and teamwork are the major themes here, and there is an additional subversive quality that makes them particularly enjoyable.  If the themes don’t seem as deep and weighty as the Sunday-School-Lesson-in-a-Haiku of HOOK, they certainly aren’t any more trivial than the themes in DOCTOR DE SOTO, arguably the greatest picture book in the entire canon.
If this is the weakest element, then it must be noted that (a) the setting in a picture book is typically conveyed in the illustrations and (b) contemporary settings tend to be more transparent than their fantasy and historical counterparts (even more true of novels than of picture books).  You can find text that addresses the setting, but the economy of the text doesn’t allow it to shine.  We could say the same of every modern picture book Newbery. 
I find all the elements of THE DUNDERHEADS distinguished (although I do make concessions for setting because of the picture book genre), and I find the elements of plot and style to be most distinguished.  Now novels and picture books are such wildly different texts that you may find it hard to compare them head-to-head (indeed, many of you simply refused to do it for HOOK).  Here’s another way of looking at it: Is this a better apple or is that a better orange?  Does THE DUNDERHEADS more closely approach perfection as a picture book or does WHEN YOU REACH ME more closely approach perfection as a novel.  Now I could never throw out these names from the canon around the Newbery table because they were not published this year, but I think the best picture books are FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER and DOCTOR DE SOTO while I might say that the best novel in the canon is THE WESTING GAME with A WRINKLE IN TIME somewhere in that upper echelon.  I don’t think either THE DUNDERHEADS or WHEN YOU REACH ME matches or exceeds the books mentioned, but I think the gap between THE DUNDERHEADS is much, much closer than the one between WHEN YOU REACH ME and its ideal.  Ergo, THE DUNDERHEADS is absolutely worthy of Newbery recognition.
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. Oh, Jonathan, where do you find that many of us “simply refused” to compare Hook head-to-head with the novels? You make us sound like dunderheads (when in truth we just didn’t like the book that much).

    I do like the “which of these is closer to perfection” angle. Really, when I read When You Reach Me and started recommending it to others, I told them I thought this was a special book, the kind that doesn’t come around every year or even every decade. So I can’t agree with you, but I do find that a meaningful way of making comparisons and am already extrapolating to using it for nonfiction, high fantasy, and realistic fiction. (The Westing Game is also my #1 Newbery, BTW.)

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, I think our discussion of HOOK was dominated by the brevity of the text and the interdependece of the text and pictures and thus our discussion of the literary elements seemed to be of the yes-it-is-no-it-isn’t variety. While you all didn’t like the book that much, aside from our little exchange about CALPURNIA, you all also didn’t propose more distinguished contributions in terms of style and theme so that we could compare head-to-head.

    If WHEN YOU REACH ME wins the Newbery Medal it will be the greatest Newbery Medal winner . . . since . . . oh, damn, the slump is over! Well, it’s the greatest Newbery Medal winner since THE GRAVEYARD BOOK! :-)

  3. Actually, Moonshot was suggested twice as a picture book that is perhaps a more distinguished contribution in terms of style and theme than Hook.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    MOONSHOT was suggested once–as a Newbery worthy picture book, not as a book that was superior to HOOK in style and theme. My personal reaction to the text of MOONSHOT was something akin to how Roger responded to HOOK: I felt it strained a little to hard for lofty grandeur. But I’ll check it out again and perhaps post about it here.

    Since we’re concerned about the most distinguished contribution to literature, not picture books, I’d really like to focus on how picture books can possibly survive in direct competition with novels. A gifted writer can always do a better job with plot, character, and setting given more words. Style and theme, however, can be conveyed relatively economically; picture book texts can compete head-to-head in these elements. But overall, it’s still very tough. Thoughts?

  5. Like Wendy, I don’t have a problem with the length of either HOOK or THE DUNDERHEADS. I can think of some truly great, truly distinguished picture books. Recent ones that come to mind are: ARE YOU READY TO PLAY OUTSIDE? by Mo Willems, A VISITOR FOR BEAR, by Bonny Becker, TIMOTHY AND THE STRONG PAJAMAS, by Viviane Schwarz, and MILLIE WAITS FOR THE MAIL, by Alexander Steffensmeier. I don’t think any of those are recent enough to be Newbery contenders, and all of them probably rely far too heavily on pictures, though I think I could make a case for their text.

    I just don’t find the text of either HOOK or THE DUNDERHEADS to be particularly distinguished. DUNDERHEADS does have good plotting, but it is rather predictable, don’t you think? (Of course, that’s almost a strength in an easy reader!) Good, but most distinguished? You’d have to do more arguing to convince me…

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    While HOOK and THE DUNDERHEADS have elements that are very distinguished (perhaps *most* distinguished), I don’t think either one of them is the most distinugished contribution to American literature for children–and I don’t know that they ever can be.

    But I do think they deserve to be in the conversation, and while I never thought HOOK would go over well with this audience, let alone the Newbery committee, I do think that THE DUNDERHEADS would make a very fine Newbery Honor, indeed. Given the constraints of a picture book text and a newly independent reading audience, I think it is fabulously plotted. Predictable. Perhaps, but so is FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER.

    So you don’t find HOOK or THE DUNDERHEADS sufficiently distinguished. Fine. Find the most distinguished picture book of the year, tell me why it is so, and then tell me whether you think it merits Newbery recognition in direct competition with novels. That is the particular challenge of this whole excercise.

  7. Monica Edinger says:

    I told my 4th graders about this situation, using HUGO CABRET as an example as it is a book many of them know and love. I then told them I was going to read aloud a picture book, MOONSHOT without showing them the pictures to see if it was a Newbery possibility. I’m about half way through (only read it for a few minutes at the start of the day as I have another read aloud going on as well), but so far it is holding up for me and for them. (I show then the pictures after our reading and discussion.) I’m not sure what you mean about it straining, “… a little too hard for lofty grandeur.” I don’t have it on hand (it is at school), but the text has some lovely bits — the sounds, in particular, are very effective. (The drama of the CLICK as they close things prior to liftoff, for example.)

  8. Sorry, but I’m getting a little turned off by the whole “YOU don’t like MY title, find me one BETTER” argument. It’s all a little “in your face” to me.

    Is that REALLY how the “best contribution to children’s literature” is discovered? Because ONE person likes ONE book, and since no one else has the time to dig through thousands of publications to find one better (even though one surely exists), that ONE book is pushed on through to the finish line?

  9. And Monica . . .

    What if you read your students HUGO CABRET in that same fashion? Would the book hold up without the pictures?

    Personally, I don’t think it does. I’m not a fan of HUGO CABRET . . . it was an intriguing format, but the entire story was very BLAH for my tastes . . .

  10. Monica Edinger says:

    The kids and I have talked about HUGO CABRET and they agree with me that it has to be read, words and pictures as one. It would be way too long for them to do without pictures; MOONSHOT is fun for them because it is short.

  11. So is HUGO CABRET an exception to the rule? Is the committee one to decide that some books are allowed to be judged and read as “one” (pictures and text), but others, like HOOK, not?

    I was just curious if you personally, felt that HUGO CABRET the story would’ve worked as text alone? I didn’t get the hype and thought people were excited more because of the interesting format than the writing and story itself.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    It may indeed come across as too “in your face” in this forum, but around the Newbery table, all the members have read widely and thought deeply, so it’s not an uncomfortable stretch.

    In the real world, we can love WHEN YOU REACH ME and THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE and MOONSHOT and CLAUDETTE COLVIN–all of them distinugished–and we can appreciate and celebrate their differences, but around the Newbery table, we are not asked to make an absolute judgment, but a relative one (*most* distinguished), and this means comparing the books with each other.

    So when I put forward a book such as THE DUNDERHEADS and you want to argue against it, you can either (a) refute any of the points that I have made about it above or (b) argue that, good as THE DUNDERHEADS is, it’s simply not as good as book A, B, or C.

    Of course, you are welcome to express your opinion without any substantive commentary (either here or around the Newbery table), but simply stating that you do not find a book distinguished doesn’t convince anybody or move the discussion forward.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, I missed your previous suggestion of MOONSHOT in the comments to an earlier post so the book was indeed mentioned here twice. I’ve placed a hold on the book so that I can take a second look and then we can compare notes.

  14. I’m trying to say that I don’t find either THE DUNDERHEADS or HOOK as distinguished as any of the novels put forth. I’m trying to say that’s not a prejudice against picture books, because I can think of several picture books from earlier years that I find distinguished. But I haven’t read nearly enough new books this year to find one I would put up against the novels suggested. (If I find one, I’ll suggest it, though.)

    And, hey, is it just me, or does anyone else find it disturbing that the kids in THE DUNDERHEADS commit a crime (however justified) of breaking and entering? I’m not sure if that objection fits with any of the criteria. Maybe presentation of theme? The small rise up against oppression, and the reader can decide if their methods are warranted.

    In some ways, that objection is tied to the objection against A SEASON OF GIFTS — the idea that some readers (and parents) might find some of the content objectionable. How does that fit with the criteria?

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The only novels I like better than THE DUNDERHEADS and HOOK are WHEN YOU REACH ME and A SEASON OF GIFTS–and I like several nonfiction titles better, too. THE DUNDERHEADS would definitely be one of my official Newbery nominations, and I would probably nominate HOOK just to test the boundary, to stir the pot, not really expecting it to advance very far. Many of us seem open to recognizing a text with the length and independence of MOONSHOT or THE DUNDERHEADS (if not these titles specifically) so that is a good sign.

  16. Jonathan, you said:
    I’d really like to focus on how picture books can possibly survive in direct competition with novels. A gifted writer can always do a better job with plot, character, and setting given more words. Style and theme, however, can be conveyed relatively economically; picture book texts can compete head-to-head in these elements. But overall, it’s still very tough. Thoughts?

    Yes–my thought is this–as written in the typical format(sparse, 0 to 1000 words), picture books can’t compete.

    They can’t compete on plot, setting, characters…or even style, and theme.

    If you want a book with pictures(picture book) that can compete, then take finished novel like Holes and intersperse 50 or a 100 pictures that relate to the story.

    Or a perfect winning example would be Good Masters Sweet Ladies. As it’s currently printed, I believe each chapter started with a thumbnail color picture. So just blow these up to a full-page, add some more pictures where need…and voila…a Newbery winning picture book!

    The bottom line is the text must stand on its own. Good Master’s Sweet Ladies does…the typical spare picture book does not…

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, I don’t know that picture books can ever be the *most* distinguished contribution in the rigorous Newbery process as it’s presently constituted(although I’d argue that from hindsight WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE clearly *is* a more distinguished contribution than IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT).

    It’s one thing to argue that picture books will never–or should never–win the Medal, but another thing altogether to say they should not be Honor books. Or would you argue that the Newbery committees erred in their selection of ANNIE AND THE OLD ONE, FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER, DOCTOR DE SOTO, LIKE JAKE AND ME, and SHOW WAY?

  18. In the first place, to judge only the text fairly, you would have had to have never seen the book illustrations…ever…period. Otherwise, intentional or not, your overall knowledge of the book’s story is influenced.

    For instance, in your previous arguments on HOOK you kept refering to the chick as an eagle and having an identity crisis of not realizing that he wasn’t a baby chicken. Nothing in the sparse text gave enough information to remotely arrive at these observations.

    Then in the book Dunderheads there was even confusion surrounding the cat. I, like another commenter, assumed the cat found in a garbage can was a DEAD cat, not a porcelain cat statue.

    I do take it that you contend that of all the picture books, the text of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE would have historically been the most likely to have won the Newbery.

    I have never seen the book WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. I have never seen any of the other books you mention in your previous comment. I was raised in the early 50’s in the MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS, SCRUFFY THE TUGBOAT, LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD era.

    But I obviously have seen the WILD THINGS movie trailer on TV, so I do have some inkling of what the WILD THINGS look like. It would be intresting to read the text alone–to see if it really stacks up.

    Jonathan, in your last comment you said:
    It’s one thing to argue that picture books will never–or should never–win the Medal, but another thing altogether to say they should not be Honor books.

    That’s kind of a ridiculous argument. If the committee decides that there are 5 novels that deserve the medal and 4 honors…and maybe a lesser picture book, I hope the committee doesn’t feel obliged to knock out one of the novels in order to make room for picture book honors. By the same token, if the text of the PB beats out all 5 novels–it of course should rightly receive the medal.

    The only solution is to let the pictures in. Heck, with 1000 words or less the PB’s are already conceeding the novels a huge head-start.

    With pictures, PB’s perhaps would be more of a WILD THINGS heavyweight contender, to go up against that string of less-popular pre-GRAVEYARD Newbery Medal selections.

  19. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Again, I remind you that you are making assumptions that are not found in the Newbery criteria. Nowhere does it state that the text must stand alone or that pictures cannot influence your reading of a book (i.e. that you cannot read a picture book and know the story better because of the pictures). If it did say those things I don’t see any way that any of the Newbery committees could have recognized a picture book. Period.

    You speak of the Newbery committee deciding one thing or another as if it is a single entity–and it is not. Some issues never get resolved. The committee can remain extremely divided on books and issue, despite reaching a decision. Their decision is reached by a secret weighted ballot, not by the casual wheeling-dealing discussion you suggest. I guess I should write some more process posts . . .

  20. You said:
    Nowhere does it state that the text must stand alone or that pictures cannot influence your reading of a book (i.e. that you cannot read a picture book and know the story better because of the pictures). If it did say those things I don’t see any way that any of the Newbery committees could have recognized a picture book. Period.

    Yes…that’s my entire contention!!! I can’t find the exact snippet from a previous post, but I gather that the rule states that the illustrations can only come into play if they detract from the book as a whole. From that, I can only infer that the illustrations must not otherwise come INTO PLAY as far as illuminating in any way the story concerning: plot, setting, theme, characters, style…etc.

    I believe other commenters have come to that very same conclusion of rule intrepretation. So if this is indeed the rule, then I agree with you that your short list of one medal and four to five honors perhaps should not have been granted at all.

    No one can argue that this specific rule isn’t poorly framed in its wording, and leaves gaping holes in interpretation. This is the rule that must be reassessed.

    As far as selection process, voting etc. I withdraw any of my unfounded notions as to how it all works.

  21. Anon, this is exactly the kind of fine-line judging of the criteria that goes on at the table.

    You say:
    *I gather that the rule states that the illustrations can only come into play if they detract from the book as a whole. From that, I can only infer that the illustrations must not otherwise come INTO PLAY as far as illuminating in any way the story concerning: plot, setting, theme, characters, style…etc.*

    I’d make a slight adjustment to what you infer. The illustrations are only to be considered if they detract, yes. The text isn’t TECHNICALLY required to stand alone. However, the committee can only CONSIDER the text in relation to the criteria, and the committee must find excellence–in the text–in all of the *elements pertinent to [the book]* (i.e. plot setting etc., as listed in the critera).

    So, for instance, the Doctor De Soto committee must have been able to argue that the text of that book was one of the most distinguished texts of the year, according to the listed criteria. Their discussions could only be relevant to the text. However, they wouldn’t have had to pretend never to have seen the pictures. They would have had to identify specific places in the text that were *distinguised.*

  22. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I believe that Nina, Monica, and others claimed the text and the pictures of HOOK to be inseparable and, therefore, outside the purview of the Newbery committee, but I don’t think they made those claims about picture books, in general, or the five named picture book Honors, in particular.

    I think that’s more of an extreme view. Granted, my view is extreme, too, albeit on the opposite end of the spectrum. Are these extreme views incorrect? Not necessarily; it is a matter of interpretation, as you suggest. But I do believe that most people fall somewhere in between no-picture-books-should-be-honored and relatively-wordless-picture-books-should-be-honored.

    I very carefully framed my arguments for THE DUNDERHEADS (and HOOK) so that they reference the text. Maybe if/when you read THE DUNDERHEADS you can chime in again about some of my specific arguments about the text.

  23. Nina,
    Your argument is still a bit out in the ether.

    If someone at the table made the argument that Hook was distinguished because it shows the nuanced theme of an eagle coming to grips with his own lost identity–what would your counter argument be? Mine would be your deriving too much from the pictures.

    Nina, you said:
    **the committee can only CONSIDER the text(THE TEXT, my emphasis) in relation to the criteria, and the committee must find excellence–in the text(again THE TEXT)–in all of the *elements pertinent to [the book]* (i.e. plot setting etc., as listed in the critera).**

    The second rule is, and I paraphrase, illustrations can only come into play if they detract from the overall book (please help me with the real verbage).

    Given the two above assertions, then how is it that: *The text isn’t TECHNICALLY required to stand alone.*

    So again I contend that as written the rules mitigate against the illustrations from ever coming into play.

    That’s not to say that the judges should never see the pictures.

    In regards to Doctor De Soto, although I have never read the book I did go out to Amazon and perused the first few pages.

    The illustrations were great! But, the text was also EXCELLENT and VERY FLESHED OUT!!! If the trend from the first two pages continued, I could see where this story (the text) could VERY WELL stand on its own.

    I may be totally off-base but my impression is that in today’s PBs editors are shooting for lower word count. Why? To shoot for Cadecott recognition do editors have to subordiante the author in favor of the illustrator?

    Jonathan and Nina,
    I am not against wordy picture books getting the Newbery award as you see in my argument regarding Dr. De Soto.
    I am not against quiet or even wordless picture books getting the Newbery award, especially since that seems to be the editorial soup of the day.
    If you want to honor the most distinguished children’s book with the Newbery then the rules have to provide for it.

  24. I must protest: I thought it was a LIVE cat, with one ear missing. Read over the passage quoted thinking of a live cat, and you will know why I was so delighted… and then disappointed.

    For some reason I thought we’d come to an adequate conclusion on this The Text Stands Alone issue; not sure what the argument is about now, actually. Maybe I’m too much of a big picture person, but I can accept “The text has to be awesome”, with all implications that contains, and feel like I “get” it. Any thoughts?

    Anon, I don’t think the criteria are saying that the story has to be full and complete without any help from the pictures. That would be a bad picture book. It’s a great exercise to divorce the text from the pictures, because it limits our emotional response to the pictures that could color our rating of the text. But the Newbery, as is, seems to be given for writing; and it’s not a sign of bad writing that the text says “cat” and the illustration shows “statue of a cat”. Now, if a book is pretty much just a string of words until you add the pictures that make it imaginative and uplifting–well, that isn’t BAD writing per se, but surely it isn’t great writing.

  25. I agree with what Anon is saying. It’s possible for picture books to exist that would garner attention from a Newbery committee, but as the Newbery rules state currently, I don’t see how it’s possible for a picture book with a low word count, to compete with fuller length novels.

    If a book like HOOK does compete for a Newbery and steal away committee discussion time, then I don’t think it says very much about the novels published during the same time.

  26. Very sorry Wendy for my misinterpretation.
    So now there are three cats…alive, dead, and porcelain…lol.

    This has been a good lively discussion, and especially timely since this seems to be a down-year for novels. But I agree, probably time to pull the plug on this one.

  27. I found one! A recent picture book with text I think more distinguished than HOOK or THE DUNDERHEADS:
    JEREMY DRAWS A MONSTER, by Peter McCarty.

    It executes the plot with tension and economy of words. Jeremy draws the monster, and the monster is not very nice. What will Jeremy do? His solution is ingenious.

    Jeremy has character growth. At the start, he never leaves his apartment. At the end, he appreciates the company of real live children and goes out and plays.

    Even the setting comes into play of Jeremy’s high-rise apartment. The style is spare, but gets across the theme of dealing with the monster and choosing human companions. (Something like that?)

    I still don’t think it’s as distinguished as the novels we’ve been discussing. I do like a story more fleshed out. So maybe I simply can’t go that “low.” But I think this would be my choice so far for picture book contender.

  28. Monica Edinger says:

    My class and I took another look at JEREMY DRAWS A MONSTER (which I’d read to them already) and we don’t see how the text is distinguished without the images. The story is told with both. Text alone doesn’t seem particularly distinguished.

    On the other hand I did finish reading aloud MOONSHOT this am and we did feel it is something to consider — the text really does stand out without the illustrations. There is imagery in the text. It is poetic. It captures the ear. Hope you all take another look at it.

  29. I just read Moonshot and thought it was outstanding. The drama, the tension–reading it, I finally felt like I understood why older folks (tee hee) speak of the moon landing in such reverent terms. Moments of humor, too.

    And I read Hook. And disliked it. The words were even less distinguished to me than they were when presented as plain text, and while I liked the pictures as pictures, I didn’t find the pictures and text worked together that well. No Newbery OR Caldecott interest from me on that book.

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