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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Is This Absolutely Necessary?

When I survey the books suggested on the previous threads, I notice the following–

WILDWOOD (560 pages)

THE APOTHECARY (368 pages)

CHIME (368 pages)

CITY OF ORPHANS (368 pages)

OKAY FOR NOW (368 pages)

THE QUEEN OF WATER (368 pages)

DEAD END IN NORVELT (352 pages)

AKATA WITCH (349 pages)

ICEFALL (336 pages)

THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK (336 pages)

BREADCRUMBS (320 pages)

SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS (304 pages)

Do you see a pattern here?  Of course you do.  These books all exceed 300 pages.  We might be able to classify a couple of them as YA, and excuse the page counts because of it, but most of them are solidly middle grade.  I know you can use line spacing and font size to manipulate page counts, but still . . . the blatant fact remains that middle grade books, in general, are growing at an alarming rate.

Here’s the problem: when you write a 350 page book you shift the age of your audience so that it’s older.  What could have been much more widely read in elementary school at 250 pages, now becomes a middle school book at 350 pages.  But if your characters are elementary school age, then it potentially curbs the middle school audience, too.

This really isn’t a concern for the Newbery committee, however.  The only criteria which you might be able to argue about length (which we have euphemistically called “pacing” here on the blog) is this one: The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.  Long books and leisurely paced books may have a smaller audience, but they still have an audience, and nobody will argue on behalf of those atypical readers more than I will.  So my frustration isn’t really with the Newbery committee, past or future, but rather with the publishing industry, namely authors and editors.  Why would you want to make your book appeal to less children rather than more?

Here’s an anecdote that Stephen Roxborough shared about George Selden in a recent Publishers Weekly article on colorful characters.

When I was new in the business, young and of an academic mindset, I was editing one of the books in Jerry’s Cricket series. I deleted a chunk of text and wrote a note in the margin: “Is this absolutely necessary?” When the manuscript came back, Jerry had reinstated the deletion, and had written me a note: “No, it is not absolutely necessary. NOTHING is absolutely necessary, but texture is everything. Shithead!”

Too often, I read these big middle grade novels with Stephen’s question in mind: Is this absolutely necessary?  I get the texture argument, I do, but 350 pages of texture?  Really?  I know that some of you fantasy authors are sitting smugly out there in the dark–because your readers, as DaNae mentioned, are not intimidated by long books.  But you’re not excused either because nothing you’ve written can touch THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE; THE BOOK OF THREE; or THE GIVER–all of which come in under 200 pages in their original editions.  See how silly you look publishing these 400 page monstrosities?

Now, as I’ve said, there is nothing in the Newbery criteria about the length of the book–and that is as it should be.  I can name many middle grade books over three hundred pages that I adore–WONDERSTRUCK being the first one off the top of my head–but for every one of them I can name five that I think are bloated to the detriment of the story and its audience.

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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:

    Child appeal isn’t my chief concern (since I have the freedom to look at these books purely from a literary standpoint), but my friends are tired of my constant refrain: “too long”. Whether or not kids will read books of any particular length, it does seem to me like most books would be better if they were tightened up.

  2. Some of my favorite books are loooooooong. But I agree with you that most of the loooooong books could be shorter. Isaac Babel said it best.

    “Your language becomes clear and strong not when you can no longer add, but when you can no longer take away.”

    I think often a long book needed more time for revision.

  3. Or maybe ISAAK. One of those guys.

  4. I’m a new reader, so I apologize if I’m commenting on something you’ve addressed before.

    The length of many recently-published children’s books isn’t the only factor failing to show “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” It’s the overall pacing of the stories. A long book and a shorter book that “feels long” are equally blamable for not considering their audience.

    Take a look at many of the books from the last few years: Turtle in Paradise, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, After Tupac & D Foster, Feathers, The Higher Power of Lucky, Penny from Heaven… In addition to a striking homogeneity of genre and the sex of the protagonist, an overwhelming number Newbery honorees from the past five years share an introspective, character-driven focus. If the reader isn’t immediately engaged in the characters, there isn’t really sufficient plot to hold his or her interest.

    Yes, there is a time, place, and audience for long, thoughtful, introspective children’s fiction. But must these books be the only kind we recognize as honor-worthy? I long for more plot-driven books like Holes, The Giver, Maniac Magee, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to read to my son, but they seem out of fashion.

  5. Jess says:

    I’ll admit that my main issue with long, thick books is that they take up so much shelf space. Our fantasy section, in particular, is full to bursting (apart from that delightful time when the shelves are emptied in a burst of summer reading). Library shelves can only take so much. I sighed when I pulled Wildwood out of the box – where will I fit it when the holds dwindle?

    Apart from that, I do think a lot of these books could be cut back in size and become better versions of themselves. But I also see a lot of kids who love those big, fat books (and all their sequels) – they get to spend more time with characters they love, in worlds they love.

  6. DaNae says:

    I do agree overall with both Jonathan and Laurel that tighter writing shows a mastery of craft. In the discussion of distinguished literature for children we should be aware of when the author is adding detail and description for the sake of the story, or when she is simply being self-indulgent.

    I thought a lot about this over the summer during the Harry Potter finale. I was at the movie with a few people who had never read the books. I needed to contribute a little elucidation to chink up a few gaps in logic for the movie to make sense. I found, however, that there were entire story threads absent from the movie that never needed to be broached in the catch-up conversations. It has long been argued that Rowling’s writing became unwieldy in the last four books. If I were an editor or a critic I’m sure I could comb through her plots and extract hundreds of surplus pages. As a reader it would break my heart to lose Dumbledore’s back-story or Harry’s obsession with the Hallows.

    So to answer the question from on high, Is it necessary?

    No. But in the hands of a skilled writer excess is a gift of richness and texture to a besotted reader.

    And Jess, I so second the shelf space aspect! I can’t wait for the HUGO trailers to make an appearance so I will have room for WONDERSTRUCK. I find it amusing that I need two whole shelves for Riordan at the end of the school year when all books are in, while during the year he barely needs a few inches. (Does he really need to come out with two behemoths a year?)

    (Side note: Behemoth, much less inflammatory word than monstrosity.)

  7. Nina Lindsay says:

    DaNae, you called the culprit, but I’ll officially point the finger: Harry Potter. Where it was absolutely not absolutely necessary. I’m hoping to watch this trend wane. Meanwhile, I think the the “necessary?/shithead!” rule is an easy and handy one for applying Newbery criteria to any given text. Thanks for that Jonathan (and Stephen)!

  8. Jim Murphy says:

    I totally agree with Nina. I remember reading the first (and shortest) Harry Potter to my oldest son and thinking that it could have been ten or fifteen pages shorter if someone had gotten rid of all those dreadful adverbs. And as the books grew in size, I found more words and whole scenes that were perfectly nice, dramatic even, but weren’t at all necessary to the story or to the characters’ development. But it never stopped our son, who wasn’t a particularly passionate reader, but managed to gobble them down nonetheless.

  9. For some readers, spine girth is a badge of honor, and for others it’s totally intimidating. I didn’t think about it at all a child reader, but as an adult reader I really enjoy seeing, as DaNae put it, mastery used to create a compelling story within a scope narrower than 300 pages. As a librarian, I appreciate it because I can read more books in their entirety and thus recommend them personally.

  10. Cecilia says:

    I’ve found that it also leads to a lot of comparing among students. “I finished it in two days and it’s 500 pages!” They may be ‘reading’ the books, but based on their comments and writing, they aren’t truly understanding as much. And they don’t talk to their friends about the characters or what they liked about the book–just how long it was, which is sad.

  11. Sondy says:

    Take a look at TUESDAYS AT THE CASTLE. I looked it up, and I’m afraid it doesn’t come out until October. However, besides being written from a solidly middle-grade perspective, with a refreshingly original plot, it is only 240 pages long.

    Obviously, I read long books, and enjoy many. But it is nice when a story for children is told in more compact form. It seems to fit the content a little better.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I get chasing the next Harry Potter, and I get letting veteran award-winning authors have their way (Avi, Gary Schmidt, Jack Gantos), but I’m puzzled why so many new authors that don’t write in the fantasy genre get to publish 300 pages plus. It’s a mystery! And of, course, it’s pacing more than the pages. In many of these books, more stuff doesn’t happen in those extra pages–it’s just description and unnecessary scenes and introspective characterization.

  13. I watched my picky reader daughter go through the Twilights when she was 11, and recalled my own management of long (generally: “full of description”) books when I was young, because I was seeing her do the same thing I did: skip, dip and flip her way through to the end.

  14. Beth Wright Redford says:

    Thank you, Jonathon. I used to review children’s and YA fantasy but stopped a few years ago, partly because the books were becoming so long that I had forgotten many early details by the time I finally reached the end.

  15. Donna Bray says:

    As the editor of WILDWOOD and other hefty books, I’d like to chime in.

    I think it’s worth thinking about word count vs. page count. I have noticed that some older titles have pages that are packed pretty tight with type — if I were overseeing their design today, they might wind up significantly longer. I prefer (as I think most readers do) a page with a bit more air in it for a more pleasant reading experience. This definitely contributes to longer page counts. Also — is the book illustrated? How illustrated? How many chapters does it have? Wildwood for instance has 85 illustrations including 4 maps; it has 3 distinct parts, and 28 chapters, with generous front and backmatter. The trim size is also smaller than usual. All these factors contribute to the longer page count. That said, it is still a long book, but it’s epic fantasy-adventure — a genre not known for brevity.

    As an editor I’m always looking for ways to make a book tighter, and there’s no doubt that there are books out there that could stand some trimming, but I also feel strongly that there’s no right length for a book — a book should be as long (word-count-wise) as it needs to be. You wouldn’t want to make SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL any longer — but not every book is SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Page counts can absolutely be manipulated and word counts are a more accurate measure of the length of a book. MOON OVER MANIFEST has 81, 369 words in 351 pages. OKAY FOR NOW has 77,017 words in 360 pages. THE DARK IS RISING, from an earlier era with cramped type, has 82, 143 words in 216 pages. THE DREAMER, which desperately wanted to be a big book, has 28,871words in 372 pages. That’s quite a range, isn’t it?

    I agree that there is no right length for a book, and if THE LOST CONSPIRACY with its 130, 604 words in 568 pages had been eligible, then I would have been arguing it for Newbery consideration. My beef isn’t really with 500 pages books–it’s 500 pages books with 250 page plots. I also wanted to bring this up as a general aesthetic argument rather than something to bring into each discussion of a long Newbery contender, but I haven’t proven very successful right out of the gate. I’ll try to do better.

  17. Charlotte says:

    My own wildcard pick is Where Do You Stay, by Andrea Cheng, that packs an incredible amount of emotion, backstory, and sense of place into 136 pages. Please do consider this one, if you haven’t read it yet!

  18. Charlotte says:

    And viz the length of many mg fantasy books–the fonts and margins are a heck of a lot more generous than they used to be back in the day….so in many cases, killing more trees, but not necessarily offering more words.

  19. Ed Spicer says:

    Interesting discussion! I don’t think we give enough credit to the author’s ability to keep reluctant readers absolutely riveted to a LONG text regardless of whether each scene or adverb is absolutely necessary. The real question is what Jonathan asked, Do longer texts discourage younger readers and make reading less pleasurable? Is the longer word count and the fatter book trend (the 2 are not identical) decreasing the number of young readers? And how do we measure this?

  20. Ellen Grove says:

    I was so glad to come across this thread. I have just finished reading Wildwood. I loved it, but I also love Colin Meloy’s lyrics (the unusual images and ballad-like stories). But I doubt that the Decemberists are the favorite band of most 10-12 year-olds. The readers that we librarians love will gravitate towards these longer, more atmosphere driven books and I can’t wait to recommend Wildwood to them. Our patrons are far more frequently the kids who need to write book reports on a certain genre and want the absolutely shortest book that falls within the requirements of the assignment.

    A different, but related, topic is the use of vocabulary that sounds like it could be a study list for the SAT. What happened to the five finger rule for beginning readers? Either a child will become frustrated (and stop reading) or else skim over these parts; what is the point of creating that amazing atmosphere if it’s not going to be understood or read?
    I’m not pointing my finger at Wildwood; this frustration began with the publication of Octavian Nothing as a YA rather than adult book. I’m interested in seeing what others think about the vocabulary issue. BTW, I am DEFINITELY not in favor of dumbing down books for kids.

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