While we are charged with only discussing the given books in a particular year, it’s entirely unreasonable to expect that our views of what is–
- Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
- Marked by excellence in quality.
- Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
- Individually distinct.
–are not colored by what we have read in previous years. In an article that I seem to reference annually here, “Finding Literary Goodness in a Pluralistic World,” Deborah Stevenson explains this better than I can.
In the face of all that pluralism, how then do we find our good books? Though much of the writing on literary merit is valuable, I think that such reflections can only feed consideration to a certain extent, and that just as one learns writing by writing, one must learn reading by reading. We each of us have an individual map of literature, constantly being redefined on multiple axes every time we read. (I visualize it as functioning like the fascinating map on the site at www.literature-map.com, where input from users on their favorite authors creates a constellation of literary names grouped according to user-determined kinship, and where the map is always in gentle motion as new input continuously redefines the relationship of its elements.) A new book gets slotted into the constellation according to its relation to what’s already there; “good” is a book that’s in some ways like books of its kind that have already been judged good, and not so much like books of its kind that have been judged lacking. That’s why external checklists of literary merit aren’t sufficient to enable somebody new on the scene to judge in the same way as an experienced reader; why, ultimately, writing about what makes a good book can’t provide a methodology to those who haven’t already found many books good, who have no series of data points for “believable characters” or “absorbing plot” or “lively dialogue.” That’s also why it’s more challenging to judge books of genuine originality or books in a scarcely populated genre (is a biography in a poetry sequence form that’s less good than Marilyn Nelson’s superb Carver lackluster or merely excellent?); why books in densely populated genres need to achieve more demonstrable excellence to stand out (yet another metatextual fiction based on fairy tales has to work hard to be more than simply more of the same); why read-alikes are some of the most popular and useful forms of reader’s advisory.
Thus, while this checklist helps us–
- Interpretation of the theme or concept
- Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
- Development of a plot
- Delineation of characters
- Delineation of a setting
- Appropriateness of style.
–it’s really only by reading widely in the field and comparing books against each other that we are able to ascertain which books are truly distinguished. Newbery evaluation is not an absolute value judgement, but rather a relative one. Everyone can be an A student, but not everyone can be the valedictorian.
It is very difficult to judge books of genuine originality or books in a scarcely populated genre. In other words, it’s difficult to judge books in a vacuum. We need multiple points of reference to determine whether something is good, and just how good it is. If we do not read lots of easy readers, picture books, poetry, fantasy, or whatever (fill in the blank), then it will be hard for us to evaluate those genres. Over the course of our Newbery year, however, we can make a concerted effort to read widely in our weaknesses, and gain an understanding and appreciation of them.
On the other hand, when we read extensively in a densely populated genre–middle grade novels, for example–a book does need to achieve more demonstrable excellence to stand out from the crowd. It’s harder to be impressed by the same old, same old. At least, it should be that way. Oh, look, a shiny new bauble: yet another historical fiction with a dead mother and a quirky voice and a feisty heroine! It’s like we’ve never read this story before? Yes, something weird happens with the Newbery, something Martha Parravano notes in “Alive and Vigorous,” another article I seem to reference quite frequently.
Reading through the oeuvre of Newbery winners, one sees a range in quality from . . .“respectable, worthy books of the traditional award-winning kind” to books of undeniable greatness . . . Is there an identifiable kind of book that tends to win the Newbery Medal? And what does that mean for the rest of children’s books?
Even the most cursory glance back through Newbery history reveals that there is indeed such a thing as a quintessential Newbery book. Call it the ur-Newbery. It’s fiction, with an older (twelve-ish) protagonist who is nevertheless not an adolescent (not preoccupied with adolescent concerns). The main character can be either male or female . . . He (or she) must face some adversity, must struggle against himself, or someone close to him, or with some idea or stricture, to find the right form of self-expression, the best way to be human; and if along the way he can have adventures that occur against a background of sweeping events and perhaps even face a threat to his own or his family’s survival, all the better. So many Newbery books fit that mold. . .
I think that’s why a little ping of recognition goes off in our heads whenever we come across a book like Johnny Tremain, or The Midwife’s Apprentice, or Out of the Dust. We read them and say to ourselves, “That’s a Newbery book.” And we’re not wrong to do so. These are the books and the themes that exemplify the power of children’s literature; they are why so many of us find children’s literature so compelling and so rewarding.
Nevertheless, it seems to me as if we are adhering more and more to this fixed notion of what a Newbery book should be. The adventure may sometimes be more internal, the venue more personal than the Revolutionary War or the Dust Bowl. But the essential elements remain, and the package is that of middle-grade fiction, slanting up slightly toward the upper ages.
So while we should be more critical of middle grade novels because we read so many of them, the power of the Newbery canon has subconsciously shaped what we look for in a Newbery book, almost as much as–if not more than–the actual criteria themselves. When we finish a new book don’t we tend to make a snap judgment–Newbery/not Newbery–and don’t we do so on the basis of the all the previous Newbery books we have read, books which tend to conform to the pattern Parravano just described? The previous four books we have discussed–SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE, HEART AND SOUL, I BROKE MY TRUNK!, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY–fall “outside the box” of the traditional Newbery book, but do they really not exhibit distinction and eminence in the stated criteria? Or is it just that they do not fit into our own personal Newbery constellations very well?
We’re fond of little games and exercises here to reassert the importance of the criteria which, contrary to popular opinion, do not favor middle grade novels. You’ve all heard of Sturgeon’s Law, right?
I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
Yep, 90% of everything is crap–even Newbery Medal winners. In Parravano’s article, this “crap” is euphemistically called respectable and worthy; the other 10%, undeniable greatness. (RIFLES FOR WATIE is respectable and worthy, for example; THE CAT IN THE HAT would have been undeniable greatness.) So, here’s your assignment. We’re going to comb back through the list of Medal winners for the past fifty years (because those are more likely to still be read today), and we are each going to identify, the five novels–10%–which are undeniably great. We can each pick different books and we can each use whatever criteria we like. I’m going to pick THE HIGH KING and THE GREY KING because I loved those as a child–and I love them still. I’m also going to pick THE WESTING GAME which I think is the greatest Newbery Medal book ever, truly a one-of-a-kind book, and I’m going to go with CRISS CROSS, another one-of-a-kind book, not nearly as beloved, to be sure, but one I cannot be objective about. And, finally, I’ll take HOLES as my kid’s choice pick, the one with the broadest appeal for the widest range of ages.
Now it’s your turn . . . Oh, it’s hard, isn’t it? Only five! It’s virtually impossible. Let’s pick fifteen then; that’s 30%. We’re talking Newbery Medal winners here, after all! So, my fifteen might look like this: A WRINKLE IN TIME; FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER; THE HIGH KING; MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH; THE GREY KING; ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY; BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA; THE WESTING GAME, MANIAC MAGEE; THE GIVER; WALK TWO MOONS; HOLES; THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX; CRISS CROSS; and THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. You might quibble with some of my choices (I just did this quickly on a whim), but there will probably be some crossover with your top fifteen novels. From your point of view, however, your list will not have the “weak links” that mine does. This is your Newbery constellation. Are you set?
Okay, now tell me which of the novels published this year deserve to be in the company of your top fifteen novels? Personally, I don’t think any of them belong with mine. OKAY FOR NOW comes the closest, however, and probably THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE after that, but I do wonder if PENDERWICKS is really better than everything else, or if I simply like it better. That’s my problem with most of the novels this year: I like lots of them, but are any of them demonstrably better than the others? They’re nice, but probably better suited to state reader’s choice awards than the Newbery–and some of them have no business even being in the conversation at all. But enough about me, I want to hear about you. Did you find a novel from this exercise that passed the test and would fit in your Newbery constellation? Tell us about it. And if you didn’t find one, then why lobby for respectable and worthy rather than undeniable greatness, for A students (or worse!) rather than valedictorians?