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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Conspiracy of Kings

Conspiracy 198x300 Conspiracy of KingsAlright, I figured the photo of my shelves would be a good opening party trick, but I do have to explain that those piles will start shifting, and quickly, as we get going in our discussions. So let’s go!

Why not start with A Conspiracy of Kings, whose position in my pile many of you speculated on, and which–he says in a comment on that first post–would be in Jonathan’s Mock-Newbery ballot if he had to vote today.  I certainly relished this latest installment in the series following The Thief, and appreciated that Turner took the leap to focus on a different character than the much-adored Eugenidies.  Though the tone seemed disappointingly subdued in comparison at first, even that of course turned out to be part of Turner’s grand scheme, and reflects on her skill.  Sophos’ point of view deflects attention; as does his character. It’s an almost miraculous trick.

Those of you who were around for my Mock Newbery in 2006 might remember the discussion for Megan Whalen Turner’s previous The King of Attlolia, which did wind up on our Honor list, though not uncontentiously.  There were two main issues, neither trivial, which I think also pertain to this title:

Age level

The Newbery criteria state in part that:

2. A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.

The newest revision of the Newbery Manual contains an appedix of “Expanded Definitions and Examples” which helps to clarify:

 CHILDREN’S BOOK – means a book for which children, up to and including age 14, are an intended and potential audience. Books for this entire age range are to be considered. ALSC awards (with the exception of the Geisel award for books for beginning readers) are given to “children,” defined as “persons of ages up to and including fourteen.”

 Example:

 Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel, was a Newbery Honor Book in 1973, despite the young age of its intended audience.

 In some instances, award-winning books have been criticized for exceeding the upper age limit of fourteen.

 If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible?  Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible. Questions for committees to consider include these:

* Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?

* If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?

* If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?

 

A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee feels that

* it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book;

or

* it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership;

or

* it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.

 

***

With these interpretations, I think it’s hard to make a case that A Conspiracy of Kings is not eligible by consideration of age level, as long as it is distinguished enough

So is it?  That’s where the other issue comes in:

Does it stand alone?

Back to the criteria:

10. The term, “only the books eligible for the award,” specifies that the committee is not to consider the entire body of the work by an author or whether the author has previously won the award. The committee’s decision is to be made following deliberation about the books of the specified calendar year.

This definition compels the committee to consider only the books at hand, and only as they relate to another.   Can you compellingly convince a committee of the distinguished elements of A Conspiracy of Kings without referring to the series as a whole?   Surely, the previous relationships developed between Eugenidies and Sophos, and Eugenidies and Eddis in previous novels, are essential in supporting the tension in this story.   As much as I feel this is a distinguished novel in a distinguished series, I’m not sure it would stand up under the Newbery criteria. I’d have to hear otherwise from someone who’s not read the others to be convinced otherwise.

Of course, Jonathan has an opinion on whether the criteria are justified on this count, and it comes more and more to bear now that sequels and series are almost a norm in children’s literature.

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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. Sondy says:

    I, too, think we’ll really have to hear from people who haven’t read the earlier books — I so badly want Megan Whalen Turner to win a Newbery, I have no perspective. (Guess I’ll have to read the book again! And that’s perfect preparation for going to hear her speak at the Horn Book Colloquium on October 2.)

    The trouble is, I don’t WANT people to read it without reading the other books first. It will spoil a lot of the surprises in the earlier books! Well, okay, I love reading them over and over and catching more of the clues she planted every time — so the books’ genius does not depend on not knowing how they turn out. But that first time, when it really was a surprise, when she completely fooled me. — I hate to have anyone miss out on that.

    However, I’m sure there will be some people on the Newbery committee who haven’t read the earlier books, so they will be in a good position to decide.

    As for me, besides my prejudice in favor of Megan Whalen Turner, having read the earlier books actually hurts my evaluation of this book. I didn’t think it was as absolute genius as The Queen of Attolia. Of course, maybe it’s that I’m harder to surprise, and I was expecting a bigger plot twist at the end.

    The plotting is definitely excellent — That’s one of her big strengths. Oh, and she’s also an absolute genius with character. I’m in love with Eugenides, but I sure wouldn’t want to be married to him — and the queen is absolutely perfect for him. They are both very flawed but incredibly strong characters, and Megan Whalen Turner pulls it off so well. They seem very real. The flaws and the strengths tie together — seem realistic in these people.

    Her settings are brilliant — this world she’s created seems totally real.

    But even when I’m defending her characterization, I’m not mentioning Sophos, the main character of this book.

    I definitely need to read it again. (Aw, twist my arm.)

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Is it too old?

    In a recent SLJ interview, Terry Pratchett was asked about the difference between writing for children and adults. He replied, “I take the view that fantasy fiction for children and fantasy fiction for adults are the same genre. I know adults read my children’s books and children read my adult books.”

    I also want to point out that, of the four books in the series thus far, the publisher has designated THE THIEF and A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS as being for ages 10 and up, while THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA and THE KING OF ATTOLIA as being for ages 12 and up.

    Thus, like Nina, I am very quick to dismiss objections raised about the audience.

    Does it stand alone?

    No. It does not stand alone, nor was it ever intended to stand alone, which is not to say that different readers cannot enter the series at various points and go back to read the other books in the series (much as I did with The Dark Is Rising sequence, reading THE GREY KING first, followed by THE DARK IS RISING, and the others). It also does not mean that this does not stand alone better than others in the series (because I think it does).

    Of books in a series we (myself included) often ask the question–Does it stand alone?–but it is really a lazy and imprecise question, and I do not believe it is justified by the Newbery criteria. Rather the question, before the Newbery committee in regard to this book is this: Can we evaluate whether or not this book has distinguished literary elements based solely on what we find in the pages of A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS? And I find evidence that plot, character, setting, theme, and style are all distinguished elements in *this* particular book. Certainly, an appreciation of plot and character are enchanced by a reading of the earlier books (probably THE THIEF more than the others), and a lack of that appreciation will hamper the enjoyment of certain readers, but it does not mean that we cannot assess whether or not A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS is a distinguished contribution or not.

  3. Katie Jacobs says:

    Conspiracy of Kings is the first Megan Whalen Turner book I have ever read. I loved it. However, it does not stand alone. I really was confused for good portions of the book, aware that I was missing essential information and background story from earlier books. I repeatedly had to ask my coworkers to give me backstory so I could make sense of alluded-to past events and relationships. So, as good as it is, it does not stand alone and really shouldn’t qualify for awards.

  4. Martha says:

    My two cents: I find this whole approach to sequels limiting and ultimately anti-literary. Standing alone shouldn’t mean “absolutely no prior knowledge needed of the previous books in a series.” It should mean “within the universe of a series, this book has a beginning, middle, and end and a specific and identifiable story arc.”

    In any case, please let’s not throw words like “ineligible” around. A Conspiracy of Kings is just as eligible for the Newbery as any other book written this year for children up to and including 14—it just has a more uphill battle to fight.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I understand why people read the Newbery criteria and infer that the books need to stand alone, but if you read the criteria closely it does not actually state that. What the paragraph in question actually means is that we ought not spend time at the Newbery table discussing THE THIEF, THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, or THE KING OF ATTOLIA. We ought not even discuss whether the book stands alone. Rather, we should discuss the various literary elements of *this* particular book. In such a discussion we would examine the parts which may cause confusion, perhaps lack of character motivation or an illogical sequence of plot events, for example. From such a discussion we can begin to assess its strengths and weaknesses in relation to the other books, but even then we may not be in agreement, and there will probably not be a unified decision on whether or not the book “stands alone.” The consensus voting process will either unite people behind the book or it will divide people to the point where the book will fall off the table.

    Now some words confusion. Confusion is a subjective state. Confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in some genres (such as mystery and science fiction) the early stages of the novel are deliberately confusing before moving through gradual stages of enlightment. What confuses one person does not confuse another person. And what confuses a child will not always confuse an adult. Children can be more adept than adults at dealing with confusion. Vocabuarly, subtext, tone—these are just a few of the things that either bewilder children or escape notice entirely.

  6. Ah, Jonathan….you are really and truly back. I know that you have been truly chaffing at the bit to get started! (Others should read Jonathan’s Horn Book article of a few years back on Sequel Prejudice. Can’t recall the exact title.)

  7. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan and Martha, thanks for clarifying the stand alone issue. Of course I asked the question “Does it stand alone” which, you are right, is a reductive and lazy way of addressing the criteria. Beyond that, you and I are on the same page…the criteria requires that only the book at hand be discussed. I’m just less convinced than Jonathan is that this one will stand up in discussion. I’m recalling the discussion for King of Attolia…and the real “confusion” that some had in interpreting character motive and plot element, without havnig read the previous titles. I think that will be even more of an issue with this one.

    There is a true Catch 22 about this that I cannot solve. Martha, I’m with you: this is a book within a series and should be taken as such, and it’s arc should be evaluated against the Newbery criteria for what it is. But, “what it is” (a sequel) assumes that the best reading of it comes by having read the previous titles. And the way the Newbery criteria are written, it seems like we can’t require that, or even ask it, of committee members. I’d really like to see an interpretation of the critieria that addresses this issue better…but I’m not sure the way out of the knot.

    Listen: Heck: I’d love my pessimissim to be proven wrong on this one!

  8. Sondy says:

    Jonathan, I like your clarification of the “Does it stand alone?” question. That it’s the wrong question. And looking back, I’m happy to see that I asked the exact same two questions as Nina about it in my comment on the “Welcome Back” post. (“Is it for too old an age group? Does it stand alone?”

    I’m not sure A Conspiracy of Kings is as strong in the criteria elements as some of Megan Whalen Turner’s earlier books, but those are exactly the books I’m not supposed to be comparing it against. On the other hand, is it as strong as ONE CRAZY SUMMER? I’m not sure it is, though they are very different books. I’m going to read it again and take a closer look at its strengths and weaknesses as a volume in a series and a complete book in itself.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, I’m not necessarily optimistic that the Newbery committee will recognize A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS either, but I think that will largely depend on the make up of the committee. I couldn’t fault any committee member for not voting for this book, regardless of how excellent it may be, once they have wrestled these issues over multiple readings and Newbery discussion. What I find disturbing, however, are people who would like to dismiss the book from the outset without giving it due process.

  10. Richard says:

    Is there a built-in series prejudice against even the first books? It sounds like only the first book has even the remotest chance of winning a grand prize Newbery. First books of a series naturally start at the beginning, so a missing back-story is never an issue.

    Pretend that J.K. Rowling was an American author. The Sourcer’s Stone came to a satisfying ending…didn’t it? How would the committee have approached it once they were informed it was to be “part of a series”? Do you think they would have automatically said “possible honor” but “definitely not the grand prize”.

    Anti-series bias is especially harmful to “boy books” which more than likely come in series format. I’m thinking along the lines of Percy Jackson. I know, I know…everyone is rolling their eyes saying that The Lightening Thief was not distinguished. Well, what happens when a distinguished book of any type comes along that is “the first of a series”?

    As I see it, Megan Whelan Turner’s only chance was back in 1997 with The Thief, and low and behold, it did pick up an Honorable Mention. But did series-bias automatically demote it to the ‘second tier’?

    Maybe publishers should emulate the movie studios.
    Rule number one: don’t do or say anything that will lessen your chances for the Academy Award.
    Don’t even mention the dreaded “S-Word”.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think an anti-series bias only comes into play on the first book only when it is so obviously part of a longer story arc. So I don’t think it hurts something like HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE as much as it does something like THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. In retrospect, however, it does appear that the first book has the best chance.

    And now that you mention it, Richard, I’m hard pressed to think of a better “boy book” Newbery contenders. Most of the others are either “girl books” or gender neutral.

  12. LaurieA-B says:

    The Chronicles of Prydain are a five-book fantasy series. The Black Cauldron, second in the series, won a Newbery Honor in 1966. The fifth and last book, The High King, won the Newbery Award in 1966.

    I read them in order when I was around 11 or 12, so I’m not sure how The High King reads solo. Certainly it has a greater emotional impact when you have spent four books with the characters, but I agree that it is distinguished literature independent of the other books.

    Personally, I’m a fan of Alexander’s Westmark trilogy. I read the Attolia series all in a row this summer, first time for all–it was a great reading experience–and it reminded me of Westmark.

    (And there goes most of my brain, sucked into Heavy Medal once again…)

  13. Elizabeth Bird says:

    Re: the question of whether or not it’s too old, Laura Rodgers, the little girl who was given a shout-out at the Newbery/Caldecott Banquet this year for reading all the Newbery Award winners commented on my blog about this book recently. Said she, “It is the only book that I have not finished in my whole life. Even if I don’t like the book I keep going but this one was too confusing. I didn’t even make it half way.” This from a girl who made it through “The Story of Mankind”. Laura is ten or eleven at this point. I’m not saying the book isn’t awesome incarnate. Just that in terms of age, it may be a bit much.

    Potential boy book Newbery winners may include Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson, As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins, The Boneshaker by Kate Milford (stars a girl but is horror-tastic), and most notably A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. The last being the best bet.

  14. LaurieA-B says:

    Correcting myself above: of course I meant to write that The High King won the Newbery Award in 1969, not 1966.

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Since most 5th graders start the school year off being 10 years old, it sounds like Laurie is at the young end of the audience for this book (according to the publisher’s designation). We’d also want to solicit feedback from children up to and including the age of 14 (i.e. 5th grade to 9th grade). I had some 6th graders in my reading club last year who were more than equal to reading CHARLES AND EMMA and LIPS TOUCH, and I think they could likewise handle A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS. I’m not saying whether their response would be positive or negative, but they could finish it.

  16. Roger Sutton says:

    High King, Grey King, Hero and the Crown, Dicey’s Song, A Year Down Yonder–all winners, all sequels of one kind or another. And Laura Ingalls Wilder made something of a specialty of Newbery Honors, which, remember, must follow the exact same rules of eligibility. Is there really prejudice against sequels qua sequels?

  17. Miriam says:

    Okay, Betsy, I’ve got to disagree with you on A Tale Dark and Grimm—I found the narrator the height of intrusiveness and annoyance. Consistently disrupted the flow, distanced me from the story, and insulted my intelligence. The tales were interesting enough that I didn’t put the book down, but I came very, very close several times.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t think there is a prejudice against sequels alone, but rather an insiduous–yes, insiduous!–combination of sequel prejudice and fantasy prejudice. It’s much more obvious in the Printz choices (in part because of how those criteria are written). Because of the dearth of quality high fantasy in the past couple decades, the Newbery committee is sort of off the hook here. I mean, aside from Turner’s Thief series, what else might you argue has been shafted that is Newbery eligible? Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series? I don’t think it’s good enough. Nancy Farmer’s Viking trilogy? Possibly, but the first one was clearly the best. Ditto for Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games trilogy. Elizabeth Wein’s series would be on my list, but it’s too obscure to make the argument. Meredith Ann Pierce, maybe? What else? I don’t get to bring my conspiracy theories to the Newbery table, anyway, but I still remain bothered by people here and on Betsy’s thread who would dismiss A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS so easily.

  19. DaNae says:

    I worship Megan Turner. But I’m going to advocate for two sequels that are severly lacking in attention: Scumble and Clementine, Friend of the Week.

    I found Scumble every bit as appealing and delighful as Savvy.

    Speaking of prejudice, what about the reverse discrimination of books for readers younger than 10? Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine books are perfection. They not only connect with their target readers of the 7 and up set, but are a treasure to any adult looking for a read aloud for that age, that won’t induce a diabetic coma.

  20. I’m just glad you guys are book. Can’t wait to show this site to my students!

  21. errr…that would be *back*…

  22. Miriam says:

    Kathy, I think “book” is probably one of the best compliments you could give in this crowd!

  23. Leslie says:

    I’m glad you’re back, too!

    Jonathan wrote, “Now some words confusion. Confusion is a subjective state. Confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in some genres (such as mystery and science fiction) the early stages of the novel are deliberately confusing before moving through gradual stages of enlightment.”

    If confusion in a reader (me) meant a book was ineligible for the Newbery, The Westing Game would be un-Newberyed in a heartbeat. I was baffled all through it right to the end!

    Nina wrote, “I’m recalling the discussion for King of Attolia…and the real “confusion” that some had in interpreting character motive and plot element, without havnig read the previous titles. I think that will be even more of an issue with this one.”

    I read King of Attolia before any of the others, and while I did feel some confusion, it was very appropriate confusion because I was accompanying poor baffled Costis through the book. Yes, it did leave me wanting to know more at the end (which is why I so hurriedly ordered The Thief and The Queen of Attolia), but it was not an “I’m completely lost and don’t understand the book,” it was “This was a wonderful story and now I want to know more about the characters and what happened to make them the way they are.”

    Nina again: “But, “what it is” (a sequel) assumes that the best reading of it comes by having read the previous titles.”

    I’m glad that I read King of Attolia first, because many of the things that surprised and delighted me, or that tantalized me with little hints (“Wait a minute – she just kicked him in the ankle? She doesn’t hate him – she *loves* him!”) wouldn’t have been as surprising (though they’re still delightful no matter how many times I read it). I honestly think that reading the third book first was the best reading of it.

  24. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The thing about A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS is that if Sophos’s story is confusing to you, then it’s not because you haven’t read the earlier books. It’s not until the middle section which begins on about page 130 and goes to about page 200 that anything from earlier books has any bearing on the story.

  25. steven says:

    It’s certainly a different experience reading a Eugenides book if you haven’t read the others, but I don’t think that necessarily detracts. It’s just that if you’ve met Gen already you know he’s way smarter/braver/etc than he appears, while if you haven’t, you’re as suprised as the rest of us were the first time we read “The Thief.” In fact I think I may have rated “Conspiracy” lower because I’ve read the other books…Sophos is fine, but not as interesting as Gen; and I’ve already seen smug Medes (or is it just the same Mede with a different name each time?…kind of seems like it) get their comeuppance. Maybe a reader new to the series would have been more absorbed.

  26. Miriam says:

    I just finished A Conspiracy of Kings, having not read any of the prior books—not even really knowing anything about them, aside from their beloved status to many. (We all have strange gaps in our reading experience, right?)

    Whatever we think about how much a later-in-series book needs to stand alone/be independent of its predecessors, I do think there’s value in the reactions of a not-previously-exposed reader… so here you go, my reactions!

    It’s a good book. It’s very well written, and Sophos is an interesting and compelling narrator and character, and I cared about him. His relationship with Eddis (Why isn’t she Eddia, if it’s Attolia/Attolis and Hanaktos/Hanaktia?) in the second half of the book is believable and well-portrayed. I had no trouble following the main plot and I’m looking forward to reading the earlier books to find out how they got there.

    The relationship between Eugenides and Sophos, on the other hand, I didn’t find particularly interesting, and I suspect this wouldn’t be the case if I’d read the earlier books. Sophos kept saying he was trying to be like Gen, but this didn’t mean anything for me, and was frustrating—it felt like telling instead of showing, and not even really telling. Again, if I’d already been shown what Gen was like, I might have experienced it differently.) Likewise, Saphos kept talking about Ina’s awesome badassery, but we never saw it.) And at the end, the book presented issues of trust and belief between Saphos and Gen as crucial and revelatory, but I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I didn’t feel like I had context for the conclusion of the book I had just read, nor do I think the conclusion gives the book context. Even if one of a book’s merits is how it fits into a series, I still want each book to have some sort of cohesion. I felt it coming together at the climax… and then it fell apart a bit.

    The transitions between first- and third-person narratives were jarring to me, and the brief dip into second person was particularly confusing; did the earlier books set a precedent that would make these shifts expected?

    So, overall, I liked it but I wasn’t blown away by it. I think my biggest issue was lack of a sense of cohesion.

    Also, maps. I wanted one. Or more. Even if the Peninsula is basically ancient Greece. But that’s often the case.

  27. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Miriam, thanks for taking the time to read this novel and give us a newbie’s perspective. I’m planning to reread the book later this fall, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say then. I will say now, however, that I have read THE THIEF several times (a couple times as a read aloud to classes) and THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA and THE KING OF ATTOLIA only once in the year of their publication. So when I start a new Turner book, I’m always really fuzzy about what happened in the previous book because so much of her plot hinges on characterization and character development; it’s very subtle. I probably don’t have a huge advantage over you just because I’ve read the books before. For example, I seem to recall some guy in a dungeon in the last book, THE KING OF ATTOLIA, and I kept waiting for him to show up in this book. I think he was off fighting the Medes. Am I right? Am I hallucinating? I have no idea.

  28. Miriam says:

    I consider it time well spent, Jonathan.

    I’ve experienced that several times with other series. I remember Inkdeath in particular—I’d loved Inkheart, I’d loved Inkspell, I was so excited to get my hands on an ARC of Inkdeath… and was so lost for the first 50 pages as I tried to dredge details from Inkspell out of the depths of my memory. And that’s something that could hurt a series book even if the committee members have previously read the earlier books,

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