Very soon Jonathan and I will start reposting, one by one, on the books on our shortlist, with the hopes that many of you will have had a chance to read, or re-read them. But here and there we’ll continue to make room for some that didn’t make it to our shortlist, and I know there are a lot of fans out there for these two titles. I like them both quite a bit…but I could never find anything in them that cried out “distinguished.”
SPARROW ROAD Booklist called this “A special book.” It strikes me as the quintessential type of book that many people expect the Newbery to be. Middle-grade fiction. Girl. “Special.” A little back and forth between Elle Librarian and Cheryl at Thinking Ahead is indicative of the kinds of reactions I hear about this book. O’Connor is very effective at telling a story. This passed the “page one” test for me, meaning that from the first page I could tell this was a good writer: I had an immediate sense of setting, character, mood, and wanted to read on. But it never got me hooked in the long-run. While Raine’s emotional arcs are piercingly believable on the up, they seem a little pat, or quick, or too smooth, in the resolution, and left me disappointed, page after page. Noting that is O’Connor is an accomplished writer, but that this is first novel for young readers, I think she perhaps has a little honing to do in getting the tone right.. in speaking really directly to her audience, and not about them. OKAY FOR NOW, THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA, and MO WREN LOST AND FOUND are, to me, distinguished examples of what SPARROW ROAD lacks in this regard.
THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING This might be my favorite book of the year that I believe is decidedly not Newbery material. There were a lot of positive comments for this when it showed in Jonathan’s Girl Power Goes Global post, and again when we looked at The Picture Book Proclamation and the idea that “It is right that anything a child sees, feels, or thinks be our grist.” “Satisfying” and “charming” are commonly used words to describe it. I found it utterly engaging and energetic, and enjoyed the framing device of the Bollywood plot structure. I appreciate Wendy’s question: “THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING does exactly what it sets out to do–is that enough?” I found it absolutely enough for the book to be a success on its own. Not enough, however, for me to see it as “distinguished” under the Newbery criteria. Some point out a similarity to THE WESTING GAME. I have to say I barely see that…unless it’s the idea of including a mystery, an assemblage of characters and a delivery boy. But the plotting here doesn’t really hold a candle to Raskin’s. I found myself thinking of WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON as another example of a book where a wonderfully allusive plot structure was one of the distinguished elements; and again, I think GRAND PLAN pales to it, when you look at the Newbery criteria. Comparing it to books this year, I think that WONDERSTRUCK ..or even I BROKE MY TRUNK or THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE (yes, we’ll get there), have more that stands out in the crafting of plot and tone to create narrative tension and carry the characters through their arc. Like a good movie, like a good burger, GRAND PLAN is wonderful as it is for what it is…and I think it shines best when not poked by the Newbery fork.
It bears, at this point, looking at the definitions for “distinguished” in the terms and criteria. We tend to focus on the criteria farther down the page, but I find this definition–as all over the place at it is–a good touchstone when I’m thinking about a book and trying to decide, in the words of the Eva Perry Mock Newbery club: “But is it distinguished?”
3. “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
What is it about any particular book that really raises it above the rest? That really gets to the point of the Newbery….here from Frederic Melcher’s formal agreement with the Children’s Library Section of ALA in 1922…
“To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.”
That is: writing for children can be of the same highest quality as highly-regarded writing for adults. What single book do we show the public each year to exemplify what the very best kind of writing for children can be? So that we get more of it?
To me…neither of these two are candidates for that honor. But this doesn’t stop them from being truly good books! And: both of them likely holiday gift candidates. (But if you’re shopping for me: some of those Dreamycakes curry puffs, please.)