In comments on OFN: The Gloves Come Off I brought out the first sentence of Schmidt’s novel as evidence of a tone that I think contributes to the book’s success. In Newbery discussion, committee members are often called upon to produce several pieces of evidence, in the writing, for their argument. “I think it works” and “I disagree” don’t cut it. The award is given to words, and the evidence must be in the words.
Not every distinguished book must show itself off on page 1…but many do. Here are some of my favorite examples of distinguished elements on page 1. You already know the first, and can probably guess the other two, but I’ll put the titles at the bottom for just a little mystery.
Development of a Plot:
The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!
Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. This glittery, glassy apartment house stood alone on the Lake Michigan shore five stories high. Five empty stories high.
Then one day (it happened to be the Fourth of July), a most uncommon-looking delivery boy rode around town slipping letters under the doors of the chose tenants-to-be. The letters were signed Barney Northrup.
The delivery boy was sixty-two years old, and there was no such person as Barney Northrup.
Delineation of setting & Appropriatness of style:
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
Delineation of Characters:
This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.
“Where are my babies?” said the exhausted mother when the ordeal was through. “Show to me my babies.”
The father mouse held the one small mouse up high.
“There is only this one, “ he said. “The others are dead.”
“Mon Dieu, just the one mouse baby?”
“Just the one. Will you name him?”
“All of that work for nothing,” said the mother. She sighed. “It is so sad. It is such the disappointment”
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. When reading for the Newbery, committee members are looking for these kind of identifiable passages of distinguished writing, as well as where something is clearly not distinguished: where it is passé, or flat, or boring. As it gets later and later in the year and committee members have really read hundreds of books, it doesn’t take that many pages to discern if something is at one extreme or the other. And if you pick up any past Newbery winner or honoree, it shouldn’t take you too many pages to see it either. What are your favorites?
(Mine above, were The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.)