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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: The Plot Still Thickens

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). 

Mountain Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: The Plot Still ThickensIt’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?

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I find it interesting that we are having a bit of diffficulty in pinpointing just where in the Newbery criteria we can assume that we should find excellence in the stylistic quality of the prose. Certainly, I’d agree that it’s often hard to seperate literary elements out from each other because there is a synergy involved with them–and that is particularly true of style. I still remain very curious, however, about why some people think that the sylsitic quality of the prose outweighs everything else in the book. It’s a mystery to me. I don’t see any justification whatsoever in the criteria for that view.

  2. Nina says:

    Jonathan: it doesn’t outweigh everything. It is intrinsic in the evaluation of every criterion. I think the word *style* trips us up, because when I say *stylistic quality of the prose* I mean something different than the criterion *appropriatness of style* and that’s the distinction I’m trying to make above.

    The quality of the prose is the technical adeptness of the writing that allows for excellence in each criterion.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nina, yes, I do understand your distinction. I think that it’s possible to achieve technical adeptness in plot, character, setting, and theme without drop-dead-gorgeous sentence level writing. I think that’s why I remain confused, for example, on a book like CATCHING FIRE when people say the writing is undistinguished, but avoid talking about the specific elements that make it so.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    It’s also why I say that voice (or style) covers a multitude of sins. If you find the voice of a book compelling it mitigates things that would otherwise be flaws.

  5. Wendy says:

    I tried to be specific in my first response about Catching Fire, Jonathan. I think it’s too long, too much repetition, too much “telling instead of showing”, most characters not well-developed, theme hits you over the head (there’s a rebellion brewing. still brewing. still brewing. this is how it’s been happening all along in just a few paragraphs and something will finally happen in the next book). But I don’t think there’s actually a whole lot of support here for Calpurnia Tate, either.

    I wonder if perhaps the style does HAVE to be good; when you amass a bunch of books with good style, then you can start hemming and hawing over distinction of plot and character and setting and theme and accuracy. Maybe good style is the baseline. I can only think of a couple of Newbery winners without it.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, you’re the only person I know of that thinks plot is a weakness in CATCHING FIRE. Are there things to henpeck? Sure, but all things considered it’s still one of the strongest plot books of the year. Which ones are you gonna argue are better? WHEN YOU REACH ME? Okay, fine. I’ll concede that. A SEASON OF GIFTS? You just said you didn’t think this was strong either. THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE? So where are the fiction books that have a better plot than CATCHING FIRE?

  7. Wendy says:

    I will probably get laughed off if I cite the Entertainment Weekly review, but this blog review of Catching Fire is really good and says everything I’d want to say better than I could: tinyurl.com/knb5yj

    As for what’s better plot-wise, though, I’ve really got nothing. The only two books I’ve voted for on the Goodreads Newbery poll are When You Reach Me and Moonshot. (I’m putting off reading most of the MG/YA non-fiction at this point because I’m a Cybils judge for that.)

  8. Jess says:

    Thanks, Wendy, for linking to that review – it articulated some of my dissatisfaction with CF as a distinguished book. I still say I admire the not-plot of Calpurnia more than the plotting of CF. I would also argue that Season of Gifts doesn’t have a more distinguished plot than Calpurnia. When You Reach Me, yes – that’s good plotting. I just finished Charles and Emma, and I’d offer that up as another example of effective plotting – sure, the story is biographical, but the way Heiligman feeds us information creates a surprisingly tight arc.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Jess, can you talk a little bit more about how you find the plotting in THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE superior to CATCHING FIRE and A SEASON OF GIFTS? Thanks.

  10. Jess says:

    I should reread it to really articulate my thoughts, but I think the pacing suits the needs of the story. The point of the book isn’t that things happen TO Calpurnia so much as that she grows as a character and learns more about her world. I don’t know that a brisker pace or a tighter sequence of events would have given us better understanding of the setting or characters – there was as much plot as they required. I’m not saying that it has a better plot, but that the plot it does have is better suited to the rest of the book than the plot of Catching Fire is suited to supporting it’s characters, setting, themes, etc. I’ll try to give it a reread, though, and see if my thinking changes.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m all for understanding that a plot-driven plot and a character-driven plot are trying to accomplish different things, and judging them accordingly, but to my mind both CATCHING FIRE and CALPURNIA TATE both suffer from the same problem–too many words–despite being fairly good examples of each type of plot.

    I think A SEASON OF GIFTS is an episodic, character-driven plot just like CALPURNIA TATE is and Richard Peck accomplishes just as much characterization and character development as Jacqueline Kelly does–but in half as many words. So just as I think you can make the criticism of CATCHING FIRE that the excess verbiage hampers the other literary elements, I think you can likewise argue the same for CALPURNIA. Just because the writing isn’t as average as CATCHING FIRE, that doesn’t mean that somehow the other literary elements are better.

  12. Phyllis Davis says:

    I am a “lurker” in on this site and I would like to hear some discussion on THE BEST BAD LUCK I EVER HAD by Kristen Levine.

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