I’ve been steadily plowing through the many titles that have been suggested by you all, and still have a ways to go. My jaw isn’t dropping yet, and I find myself thinking a lot about Jonathan’s suggestion that "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." I’m not sure that I agree.
"Appropriateness of style" to me suggests the tone of a book, or its rhythm, or arc, or voice…the "manner" or "character" of the presentation of the "stuff" that is plot, character and setting. In this crietrion, as much as in as many of the other five that are "pertinent," I am looking for evidence of distinguished writing. That is, I want to be able to identify technically how the writer achieves distinguished plot, distinguished setting, distinguished style. "Distinguished is defined as":
• Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
• Marked by excellence in quality.
• Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
• Individually distinct.
…which, um, often just gets me more confused.
But, I look back at the first few pages of past winners for clarity. Read the first page of The Graveyard Book. That, to me, is distinguished setting (and plot development, for that matter…in the way it establishes the beginning of an arc so intensely). The Westing Game: distinguished style (a memorable and quirky tone gives an inkling of mystery with comically timed rhythm). The Tale of Despereaux: disinguished delineation of character (the mother).
It’s not always in the first page. In fact, the first page of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon made me sigh a little like Despereaux’s mother. I found the writing…clunky. On that first page Lin is trying to delineate setting, and it’s not done in a distinguished manner. But it is a physically appealing book, and a lot of people had mentioned it to me, and I like Grace Lin’s other work, and I’d only read three sentences so far. So I read on.
And I found the way the story unfolded to be "conspicuously excellent" and "individually distinct." The style is simple, and emulates the tone and structure many folktales in a way that will be familiar to readers, creating a comforting environment within which Lin meticulously builds layers and layers of complex plot and theme…like building up layers of lacquer. There’s the way each individual story is actually a small section of a larger one, though the reader doesn’t necessarily notice at first, giving a "blind men and an elephant" effect. There’s the way Minli’s character development progresses episodically…the reader is "shown" and not "told" through each adventure the lesson that Minli herself doesn’t know she’s learned until she is forced to a choice at the very end. And, like a mirror or an echo, there’s the anchoring story and character line of Minli’s Ma and Ba at home waiting for her, the softening of her Ma to the power of story.
This is a book for a young age set, and ultimately the very simple language–if occasionally flat or clunky–suits the audience, and suits the development of plot, character, setting and style: marvelously.
How does it compare to other contenders? I think that Stead is a technically more adept writer, and may acheive more "distinguished" plot, setting, and characters. Looking at some of our strong nonfiction, we don’t need to find disinguished plot setting or characters, but rather interpretation of theme and presentation of information, so this is where the balancing of apples and oranges comes into play. (Neither Jonathan or I have really posted about Charles and Emma yet, but there is where I see extraoridinary interpretation of theme.) How does a seemingly "simple" book stand against such a "complex" one? Is it the same problem a picture book has standing against a novel? Can a Newbery win by sheer volume of distinguishedness? Shouldn’t we be weighing mass instead?