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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Plot Thickens

Laurie wrote–

I am very surprised that The Hunger Games was third on your personal Newbery list last year. I enjoyed it very much, as did a number of my middle school students, but not because the writing was particularly distinguished. The plot is memorable and compelling, sure. I agree that "somebody has to represent for the fantasy [and science fiction] readers" but there is truly distinguished writing in these genres, better than HG/CF.

Laurie’s response to THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE is rather common, but I find it slightly unsettling.  But first I want to be sure that we are speaking the same language.  When I see the word writing in these conversations I am assuming that it is interchangeable with style which is merely one of the Newbery criteria–one of six, to be exact.
 
Interpretation of the theme or concept
Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
Development of a plot 
Delineation of characters
Delineation of a setting
Appropriateness of style
 
If the word writing is used to mean everything but plot, if it used so that it encompasses more of these Newbery criteria than style, then I think we need to better strive to articulate which criteria are not being met.  Regardless, I find it unsettling because we are suggesting that style should be weighted much more than its fair share and that plot should be weighted much less.

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.

Now during the picture book discussion, I suggested that a text need not be distinguished in every single element, but Nina disagreed with me, citing and emphasizing the second sentence here.  While I understand her interpretation, I’m still not completely sold on it, primarily because so many Newbery Medal and Honor books are merely average in one or more of the criteria.  But if Nina is right then it only strengthens my argument that there is no justification for privileging any one of the Newbery criteria over the other.

So why, then, do so many of us do it so consistently?

Carol wrote–

For me, a Newbery has to be enjoyable along the way — with interesting characters, events and narration that hold me riveted and reward my return to them time and again. Even after I know what happens.

I am going to explore several factors that might answer my question, but I believe this is the answer that, to my mind, most closely approaches the truth.  Style and theme (rather than plot, character, and setting) are the elements that stand out in repeated readings of a text.  It might not be fair, but it’s the truth.  Shakespeare did plot, character, and setting like nobody’s business, but that’s not why he’s endured so long.  Nope, he’s endured because of style and theme.

However, I’m not sure that this is the only factor at play here.

Wendy wrote–

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.

Not only do I strongly disagree with Wendy, but this seems to be the type of attitude that Philip Pullman railed against in his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech for THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship.

So I wonder if we might not say that this second factor is an attitude about plot that we have inherited from adult literary fiction (and I’m certainly not suggesting that Wendy inherited this attitude; I’m merely noting the similarities in order to pose the question).

I think a third factor worth exploring is possible gender differences in reading preferences.  Generally, speaking I think men tend to be more plot-driven readers, while women tend to be more character-driven.  As I said, this is a generalization and is probably not very meaningful in a conversation like this, but then I have to wonder because . . .
 
On the one hand, two of the more plot-driven novels last year, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and THE HUNGER GAMES, failed to make the shortlist of Nina’s mock Newbery.  On the other hand, when I see what did win Nina’s mock Newbery–THE PORCUPINE YEAR, AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER, and ALVIN HO–what I see is three character-driven novels that are pretty average in terms of plot.

Coincidence?  How would you explain it?

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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:

    Well, Jonathan, you can’t really “strongly disagree” with ME on what is only a question I brought up, not an opinion I stated. But you’re also not responding to the point of the comment, which is that in my opinion the plot of Catching Fire is not written well. It is, in my mind, something of a failure because of that. If you take two novels that both feature distinguished writing, and one has a good plot and the other doesn’t, certainly I’d choose the one with the plot.

    As I remember, The Graveyard Book wasn’t part of last year’s Newbery only because of doubt about whether it would be eligible, not because of anything anyone thought was lacking in the writing.

    While on consideration I agree that the books we gave the mock award and honors to aren’t particularly plot-driven–you left out The Underneath, by the way–it’s more meaningful (and less helpful to the point you’re trying to make, ahem) to look at them in contrast only to the other books considered in the small group. Highway Cats was plot-driven but I don’t think anyone felt the writing was as good as in the others. Chains was a strong character piece. My One Hundred Adventures was characters and poetry. The Mark Twain book was a biography. I don’t think one can look at that list and claim that The Porcupine Year was chosen over plot-driven books mostly because all of us around the table were ladies.

    I don’t agree, either, that theme and style are what stand out on rereads of books. That might be the way you reread, but I think it’s far from universal.

    I can’t speak for Laurie, but when I say “writing”, I don’t mean “style”. I say “style” when I mean “style”, and yes, I’d say I use writing to mean all of the elements above. The Newbery is a good exercise for me because it forces me to think about books in ways I wouldn’t ordinarily; my stumbling block is “setting”, which I enjoy when I find it but don’t personally care about that much.

    The phrase is “appropriateness of style”, which I’ve always taken to be the place where the Newbery committee considers “is this really a book for kids”. It doesn’t say “excellence of style” or anything like that.

    You ask if “writing” is meant to encompass everything but plot, and I see where you’d get that idea from Laurie’s comment, but I certainly think (and I’m guessing Laurie does too) that DEVELOPMENT of plot is certainly part of good writing. There’s “what happens”, and then there’s the way “what happens” is carried out in the words.

  2. Miriam, Lee and Low Books says:

    We actually did a poll a few weeks ago on what people look for in books – plot, character, writing (sorry; to me writing means style, craft, and evocativeness), facts, or evenly split between factors. To date (and folks can still go vote), character is ahead, followed closely by writing and evenly split. It’s a fun poll rather than a scientific one, but I think it does point to a trend of plot being regarded as less than other aspects of a book.

    Poll’s here, if you want to take a closer look (or vote, and thus make my comment untrue or more true): blog.leeandlow.com/2009/10/12/poll-of-the-week-what-do-you-look-for-in-a-book/

  3. Nina says:

    Um, Jonathan, if you look back through the posts you’ll see Wendy is right…we left off The Graveyard Book for eligibility questions. In fact: you were part of that discussion! (You were right and I was wrong. You MUST remember…) You don’t recall me saying after it won that I actually thought it was the most distinguished?

    Ok, except for that cheap shot on your part, you and I are actually on the same page. Plot is as important as Style…. and I DO think there are generalizable distinctions in male and female reading tastest that can skew a discussion overly-populated by females.

    At the table, when it comes down to voting, I think that what happens is that books that are strong in ALL the elements tend to do better than any that have a clear weakness in one element. However…that’s not to say it couldn’t happen (that a book with a clear weakness would win)…and in fact TENDS to happen most often with plot. (Criss Cross, Kira-Kira, our Mock winners last year, et al.) Could it be that all those complaints about popularity are actually about plot?

  4. Anon. says:

    Sometimes it seems the Newbery criteria are treated like commandments, each mutually exclusive of the others and able to stand on its own…all on the same plane.

    I don’t think that is a workable model. I think the criteria are hierarchical, and need to be thought of in that way. So before one can argue merit, there has to be some agreement as to what each one of the six criteria means and where it sits in the hierarchy.

    At first glance the criterion of **Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization** makes absolutely no sense. This criterion may apply to the owner’s manual to your new digital camera or Honda Civic…or maybe a Geography or Chemistry textbook.

    Accuracy, clarity, and organization, as requirements can be subsumed into the other criteria:
    If the SETTING is *inaccurate* then that is a defect of SETTING.
    If a PLOT is *unclear*, or *unorganized* that is a defect of PLOT.
    If a specific CHARACTER has red-hair in Chapter 1, and blond-hair in Chapter 2, that is a defect of CHARACTER.

    So throwing out this one criterion, that leaves the five remaining criteria: PLOT, CHARACTER, SETTING, STYLE, and THEME.

    If you represent the book (story, story-line) as a triangle, the criteria of PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING form the hierarchical base of that triangle.
    You can reverse-engineer a book and delineate it into a numbered list…like a grocery list:
    1. A 14 year-old girl named Katniss is our main character.
    2. Katniss lived in a country of 12 districts.
    3. The entertainment of the day was a TV show where two kids from each district are selected to kill each other.
    Every one of these lines contains a piece (or combination) of PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING information. You could continue on, and fill out this list with two or three hundred lines until you reached the end of the Hunger Games book (story).

    Then you could hand this list off to a thousand different writers and what would result would be a thousand different books. These books would differ because of the writer’s STYLE (the actual words written on the page). Unfortunately, many of these books may not stylistically rise much above the re-hashing of the numbered list itself.

    Thus STYLE occupies the next level up in the hierarchy of the triangle. STYLE is the author’s attempt to tell the story in written words. STYLE includes everything in the writing. STYLE includes the order or reorder of PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING information and events, the point of view, spare vs. verbose, dialog vs. narrative…everything down to the specific word selection from the first word to the last.

    Again, STYLE does not exist in a vacuum but is totally dependent on the base story-line criteria of PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING. Without a story (PLOT, CHARACTER, SETTING) you can’t write (STYLE) anything. A good rule of thumb is that the more substantial (i.e. distinguished) the story-line (PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING)….the higher the starting point for the writer to employ his STYLE.

    THEME is very much more abstract. THEME rides above everything in the very top of the triangle. A writer may intentionally address and illuminate certain THEMES through story (PLOT, CHARACTERS, SETTING) and writing (STYLE). But the reader can also draw additional THEMATIC INFERENCES that the writer had no idea were even there.

    Jonathan, you said:
    ***Shakespeare did PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING like nobody’s business, but that’s not why he’s endured so long. Nope, he’s endured because of STYLE and THEME.***

    The very fact that Shakespeare was able to drive his storyline of PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING so high enabled him to propel his presentation though STYLE (writing) and THEME to even greater heights.

    To judge a book I contend that you can stick to these three hierarchical levels.

    PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING occupy level one. You may have plot-heavy Hunger Games, character-heavy Calpurnia Tate, or maybe a setting-heavy fantasy book that does a lot of world-building. There is often an emphasis of one of these base criteria over the others. But books that show excellence and maybe more of a balance across all three are usually (not always) more satisfying and should be judged as more successful.

    The next level of STYLE is the one that causes a book to stick in your mind forever. STYLE is what separates the mid-list from the masterpiece. But STYLE can only propel a book to masterpiece level if the 3 base-level criteria are already judged as highly distinguished. I don’t know how many times I’ve read reviews where the reviewer points out that the writer squandered a tremendous opportunity (great story-line of PLOT, CHARACTERS, and SETTING) because he or she simply didn’t possess the writing chops (STYLE) to propel the story up to the next level.

    Lastly, I think THEME just comes in automatically. If the other four criteria are distinguished…more than likely distinguished THEMES are in there as well.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Wendy, I assumed you were asking a rhetorical question, but since you were sincere then I will not strongly disagree with you, but rather answer your question: Yes, it’s better to have a plot that isn’t carried off well than to have very little plot in the first place. Otherwise, we’d be accused of having a stereotypically feminine response or (b) a stereotypically elitists response. And we can’t have that, can we?

    2. I am open to your interpretation of appropriateness of style, Wendy, but I think trying to evaluate the stylistic quality of the writing under development of plot is equally as tenuous.

    3. When I went to write about CATCHING FIRE specifically I realized that I didn’t think we meant the same thing when we used the word writing because it seemed like we could divide a book into two parts–plot and writing–whereas the Newbery criteria seemed to divide it into five or six parts. Once the dust settles here, I will take a shot at defending CATCHING FIRE. I myself don’t believe it can compete very well in this particular field, but I am perplexed by the double standard between CATCHING FIRE and some of the other titles put forth (THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE, WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS, and THE BROTHERS STORY, for example).

    4. While I do think GRAVEYARD BOOK is distinguished in terms of plot when compared to its Honor books, I don’t think its episodic structure puts it in the same league as recent winners like HOLES and THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX. Nor do I necessarily think it’s particularly strong for the genre, compared to Jonathan Stroud, Philip Reeve, or Megan Whalen Turner, for example.

    5. The previously published short story is not the only thing that threatened THE GRAVEYARD BOOK’s Newbery hopes. If US editor Elise Howard had not been involved in the editorial process since the inception then it would not have qualified either. So I was not criticizing Nina’s decision, and I did not mean for my comments to come across as a cheap shot. Sorry. :-(

    6. So if we can remove THE GRAVEYARD BOOK from the discussion, then we should probably also remove ALVIN HO because just as I would make allowances for a more simplistic plot for THE DUNDERHEADS, so too would I make them for this transitional novel. I still contend that THE HUNGER GAMES is more distinguished than THE PORCUPINE YEAR and AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER (although that doesn’t mean that I am not a fan of all three novels), and perhaps I will compare them, once we completely iron out our differences about what *writing* and *style* actually mean.

    7. Nina, I am intrigued by your suggestion that complaints about popularity are really just complaints about plot. You could be on to something. Still thinking . . .

    8. Anon, I do like your hierarchy and I think it’s similar to what Carol Edwards and I have both suggested in different ways, although we have taken the perspective of readers rather than writers. The more times you read a book, the less mileage you get out of plot; it’s like the law of diminishing returns. On the other hand, I think style and theme appreciate in value when you read a book two, three, four times, or more.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Anon, I think information, accuracy, clarity, and organization are especially for nonfiction titles, but accuracy could apply to historical fiction, and clarity could also apply to everything.

  7. Sondy says:

    I don’t know if I completely agree with “The more times you read a book, the less mileage you get out of the plot.”

    Most books, that’s probably true. But Megan Whalen Turner’s books I love to read over and over, and each time I see another plot detail she planted that I completely overlooked — In rereading I more thoroughly enjoy how intricately plotted her books are.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sondy, I think plot-driven readers can probably always appreciate plot on multiple reads even when that breathless rush of anticipation is lost. And you have chosen a great author in Megan Turner with which to make your point, but I’m guessing that your readings of her books are probably not accomplished over a short peiod of time–say, four times in one year?

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