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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Sir Gawain–Nina’s Take

This short book has already stirred up a lot of controversy on this blog.  Jonathan first mentioned it in his Chapter Book Newbery post, and then made a full-fledged pitch for it.  Recently there was a little flurry over a side-line reference to “the economies,” and truly I had no idea what you all were talking about until I reread the book looking for it, it’s that incidental, and shall not be mentioned here again (at least in this post).

Jonathan has done an excellent job of drawing out the variety of ways in which this book excels, showing that it indeed has “distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.”  Some of you have come back to say that although you really do like this book, you have a hard time seeing how it rises to the top.  So I’d like to focus on the couple of elements that made it, for me, particularly distinguished in this year’s field.


Yes, humor is subjective, and it certainly makes it hard for it to build consensus in a committee.  Yet the Newbery committee has to try to figure out their way around this, because surely humor can be as distinguished as other styles of literature.    Morris perfectly clues into a kind of eight-year-old, Saturday-morning-cartoon humor here, replete with eight-year-old literary jokes (p.98 “I call them clothes that when I wear them you can hardly see me, because I look just like the forest.”), and eight-year-old slapstick expressions (p.17 “Sighing softly, the Green Knight brought his fist down on Sir Gandefere’s head, like a hammer. Sire Gandefere crumpled to the floor. The Green Knight said, “Your knights are very brave, O king. But it’s rude to speak when someone else is talking, you know. As I was saying…”).

Think of the kinds of jokes your 3rd grade crowd likes.  Do you find them funny? I hope that your humor is a little more sophisticated at this point.  So is Morris’, here, actually, but just a tad.


Morris’ style is so appropriate, in fact, that it allows him to intricately develop the themes of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight story for this audience: a true feat!  Some of you have called the story didactic.  I don’t think that Morris actually intended primarily to send home a message…I think he’s mostly trying to get his audience to consider what various messages they might take home from this story.  And I think that it’s how he does this, not just the content of it, that makes his story distinguished.

A light reading of this book (very easy to do, as an adult), might suggest this is a story about how to be polite, and how to treat your friends.  Actually, it’s a story about how codes of honor and politeness can be at odds, even if they are equally virtuous, and how to negotiate friendship at such odds.  How do you express this to an eight-year-old audience?  Here’s p.70-71:

“Just promise never to rebel against the king. It isn’t so hard.”

“I have only made one solemn promise in my life,” Sir Gologras said.

Sir Gawain brightened. “You have? You’ve made one? Then why not make just one more?”

“Because that solemn promise was to my father, on his deathbed. I promised not to make any more solemn promises.”

“Well, that’s not fair!” exclaimed Sir Gawain. “No, really! Promise me not to make any promises? That’s cheating! Either you make promises, or you don’t!”

Sir Gologras hesitated. “When you put it that way, it does seem a little irregular. But all the same, do you want me to break that promise?”

Now Sir Gawain hesitated. “No, I guess not. Just as I won’t break my promise to King Arthur.” He sighed. “So where does that leave us?”

“I think we have to fight,” Sir Gologras said.

“Bother,” replied Sir Gawain. Then they separated, rode to their positions, pointed their lances, and charged.

Recall, at that age, how important were the ideas of cheating, and fairness?  How important it was for things  to be black and white–right, or not right–and how frustrating when they are not?  And: how simulatenously funny and terrifying it is when two friends charge each other and fight, in real life or in cartoons? Thus making the resolution of this scene a truly sophisticated touche for the audience (p.76-7)

“When I slipped just then, I left quite an opening at my neck. I’m surprised you didn’t cut off my head.”

“I … ah…I thought it might be a trap,” Sir Gawain said. “And what about you? When I lunged forward and you stepped aside, you could have brought your sword right down on my back, where my armor’s weakest.”

Sir Gologras said nothing for a long moment. At last he murmured, “I…thought it might a trap?”

They charge again, and then in pages 77-79 execute a very lovely arrangement of  Boolean logic involving numb hands to come up with a solution in which one of them makes the smallest sacrifice possible in order to save the most between them.  It’s Gawain’s sacrifice, and of his repuation, which on page 1 had been paramount, but on which, by page 80, he “gladly” yields in favor of saving his friendship and two lives.   Morris never panders here.  Everything is in the subtext in this scene, and positioned exactly where his audience can work towards it.  Unlike unredeming didactic stories that use cheese sauce to obscure the offensive broccoli, Morris’s story is like a fabulous pot pie where everything is delicious because of how you get to it, and because it’s not disguised.

The competing ideas of promises, vows, courtesy and friendship are part of what make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a memorable piece of literature for any period of history, since these themes can be interpreted differently at different ages.  Different ages of history, but also different ages of people. I think Morris takes his readers on a farther philosophical leap than most chapter books for this age, and more effectively.  On style and theme, this rates on par for me with MAY AMELIA, JUNONIA, and WORDSTRUCK. Definitely worthy of consideration.

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


  1. Mark Flowers says:

    Thanks for this, Nina. I’ve been trying to work out the relationship between this book and the medieval poem, and I think you’ve nailed it.

  2. I loved this book so much that I never even thought about it for the Newbery, which was a genuine error.

    His writing is so lucid, so simple, like clear water, and yet funny on many levels from the eight-year-olds on up. He teaches but never preaches. It is lovely to see people thinking about it.

  3. I just finished this over the weekend and agree that this definitely belongs in the conversation. Nina, you’re so right about the way Morris excels with 3rd grade humor – a bit goofy at times, but never going completely over the top and losing control of the story with an overly slapstick scene like so many middle grade books. Somehow, I’ve missed out on Gerald Morris (this was the first of his books I’ve read) and I have some catching up to do!

  4. Ok, I’m sorry to continue hammering this minute point, but now my complaint is slightly different . . .

    Should the sole remark about “economies” weigh down the strengths of this book? Absolutely not. I truly see that now. Nina (and probably moreso Jonathan) have opened my eyes to this.

    However, to toss it aside as if it is so insignificant that it doesn’t matter and shouldn’t even be discussed further, seems a little rude, if not biased. In my opinion, it is still a flaw of the book.

    The exact quote is this:

    “Things are different nowadays. Nations are not founded on keeping promises so much as on bleak and gloomy things called economies, which expect people to do whatever suits them rather than what they’ve said they would do.”

    I just don’t feel that this remark belongs in a book of slapstick comedy aimed at 3rd graders. Nina compared this book to Saturday morning cartoons . . . I don’t see Curious George and The Cat in the Hat making snide comments about things that are incomprehensible to 99% of their viewing audience, like “economies”.

    And to say that the remark is not didactic, is also a little naive. I could see the argument if Morris would’ve stopped at “things called economies” but he didn’t. He went on to give his opinion on “economies” which branched into the realm of being didactic.

    I wish I had the book in front of me to pull out the other few quotes from instances where Morris inserted himself into the narrative by offering a sidebar of sorts. He did it a few different times and they were all perfect and fitting. Then came this one and it felt so totally out of the blue.

    What in the world do “economies” have to do with making and keeping promises anyway?!

    Now . . . is it enough to weigh down all the strengths of the book as Nina and Jonathan have so successfully laid out? Probably not. But to me, it is still a fault (in appropriateness of style, and audience) and one that stands out because the narrative (page count, word count) is rather short. Whether that’s valid or not, it is what it is to me.

    Now, I wish somebody else could muster up some of Morris’ other sidebars in the book so I can compare! I really did like the book, I just didn’t love it. And I personally think that building consensus around a book like this is going to be darn near impossible. But, then again, we have HOMER P. FIGG!

  5. Nina Lindsay says:

    Mr H., I had no doubt this would be discussed further, thus my parenthetical. I thought it had gotten quite a bit of discussion previously, and didn’t have anything further to say about it, nor did I feel that it affected my evaluation of the book.

    Now, however, I do find a have a response to your comment here. Saturday morning cartoons, and children’s entertainment in general, have a long history of asides that go over kids heads, and are funny, or frustrating, to adults. The adult laughs or grumbles, the kid wonders why. If done well (as Morris’s is) it doesn’t mess with the kids’ attention to the story. In fact, it peaks it…. tantalizes them, sharpens their attention. If they want to know enough what that laugh/grumble was about, they’ll ask an adult. If not, they’ll forget about it.

    I never called the sentence “not didactic,”…I only called it incidental. I’m curious now though: what message do you feel he’s imparting with it? I wonder if adults are so put off by this comment because we have our own opinions about political economies. I think his remark is totally silly and ambivalent. At the most he’s poking fun at the idea of free market democracy in opposition to “benevolent monarchy,” which I think even third graders will realize is tongue and cheek. (Note his sentence construction and word choice…everything in it indicates this is a joke.) What’s the message in his remark? I have a hard time finding one. So, now that you say it, yes: not didactic.

  6. Mr. H, did you see my last comment on the other discussion? I thought I addressed some of your points and was interested in your response (no bones if I didn’t, or didn’t do it well). But yes, I agree with Nina regarding the cartoons: take Shrek, for instance. The Muppets. Even lower-brow work like, as I recall, Garfield and Friends. (I confess that I haven’t seen any of the current-generation Saturday morning cartoons; the kids in my life do watch Phineas and Ferb and Spongebob, but I’m not clear on whether those are really meant for kids. They’re definitely full of humor-aimed-at-adults.)

    I haven’t really come up with anything substantial to say about this book; I didn’t post a lengthy Goodreads review that I can quote from. I think my overall impression was that it was pleasant, but not distinguished in the field, and for non-concrete reasons. I am on the side of finding it overly didactic–it felt to me like a magazine story written to illustrate a concept, “the Sharing issue”, “the Friendship issue”–granted, a well-written one. As I mentioned in another post, I had the feeling that I was there to be taught with this book much more than with Jefferson’s Sons, which left me to do more of the thinking. Now, being my own devil’s advocate, Baker really had the easier job there: we all read the book with the understanding that slavery is bad and that Jefferson was not in the right. People have more varied ideas about honor and promises and Morris could make no assumptions about the reader. My two test readers (one adult, one child) thought it was too much of the same thing, and I see their point. Actually, the first time I read it I skipped a chapter without realizing it until I was two more chapters in and a glancing reference didn’t make sense. Overall, a pretty good book, but nothing I can get excited about.

  7. Was I the only one who had a hard time stomaching the dialogue in this one? Even in the examples Nina cites above the characters are speaking to each other in such a way that I’m never convinced they are anything other than caricature.
    These are suppose to be adults right? Not only adults but incredibly violent and dangerous adults yet they often speak as if they are 6 year olds. (not to mention the furry slippers really!!!)
    Thinking back through the newbery canon (which we can do even if the real committee members can’t), one can find a couple of instances of fiction stories which do not include a single child. ABEL’S ISLAND comes to mind right away (as does Dr. DeSoto). I challenge anyone to find an instance where Steig writes down to his readers, or turns the adults into buffoons. Yes there is a difference in genre and I understand that Morris is writing a low brow comedy where as Steig does something more subtle but do we really believe that 7 and 8 year olds need to be written down to in the way Morris does here?
    I mentioned this earlier and in my goodreads review but i was also disturbed by the lack of violent outcomes for the characters. This seems to me to be another example of Morris writing down to his audience sparring them the violence that should naturally occur when trained knights attack each other with brutal weapons. The lack of real threats to the characters’ well beings totally negated the threat of Greenman doing any true damage to anyone. In a book where ‘fights’ result in headaches and exhaustion, why would a reader believe that Gawain’s head is really at risk? Great action writing gains its momentum from its characters working against legitimate threats but in the world of Sir Gawain no one’s life is ever at risk so there is never any suspense. In turn central mystery (how will Gawain survive) never forces the reader to read just one more chapter to find out what happens because none of the actions of the narrative mean much.
    I thought this book and the LANCELOT (the first in this series) were prime examples of lowest common denominator writing. Writing for 7 and 8 year olds doesn’t have to mean writing down to them.

    As a second grade teacher I appreciate the idea of finding Newbery books for the lower end of the age range. But i think this blog has gotten a little side tracked in this mission in its thinking that a potential newbery book for this age range needs to be “readable” by this age range. There are tons of great newbery books for ages 5 to 8, they’re read alouds for this age range but that doesn’t make them any less applicable for the pre-middle grade audience. I love that FROG AND TOAD and MY FATHER’S DRAGON have shiny newbery honors on their covers and yes i’ve got second graders who love reading both books, but i’ve got tons more second graders who love hearing books like DESPERAUX, ABEL’S ISLAND, THE WHIPPING BOY, RABBIT HILL and GINGER PYE (not to mention non-newbery novels like DOMINIC, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, EDWARD TULANE, etc). These are books that my students are 3 to 4 years away from reading independently (my students are all ELLs, I have kids reading any where from the preprimer level to the low to middle 2nd grade level) but can be enjoyed as read alouds just fine.

    The newbery is for books from age 0-14 but that doesn’t mean the books have to be written at a level where pre-middle grade readers need to be able to decode the text. PENDERWICKS, CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT, WONDERSTUCK, and TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS would all make wonderful read alouds for ages 4-8 even if these students might struggle to read them independently, therefore I think these books would all reach the audience that some hope the newbery medal would speak to more often.

    In his ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE POST Jonathan wrote: “but now I ask you: what of the four-year-old reader? What does distinguished literature for preschool children, for toddlers, even for babies, look like?”
    My mother teaches pre-K in an affluent area (i.e. kids with precocious vocabularies ie completely different from my school’s students) and when I asked her what she thought distinguished literature for preschool children looked like she answered said that DiCamillio and Steig novels were some of her students’ favorite read alouds. These are 4 year olds. Yes they love Mo Willems but it doesn’t mean that the newbery committee needs to give its award to an easy reader or transitional chapter book in order to reach the low end of its intended scope. As long as the committee continues to strive to find the MOST distinguished pieces of literature for children the audiences will find them.

  8. Mark Flowers says:

    Sam – your point about the audiences for Newbery books is well taken. My 3-yo daughter is currently loving Roald Dahl books read aloud. At the same time, I think it misses Nina and Jonathan’s point a bit: even if there are younger kids out there listening to middle grade novels, there are still even younger kids who need slightly younger material, and other young kids who are clamoring for great material that THEY can read. Plus, don’t forget zero-year-olds. I personally think Sandra Boynton deserved a Newbery for any number of her board books (take a look at the text of “But Not the Hippopotamus”).

    On your other point, about talking down to kids, I think you have a stronger argument. I don’t work directly with these kids, so I don’t know them as well, and I’ll defer to your instincts. I will, however, note that I get a lot of parents of teens (I’m a YA librarian) who are looking for books without sex and violence, etc. So I imagine the same would be true of 7 year olds. So, perhaps Morris isn’t talking down so much as offering a safe alternative for kids not ready for violence??

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, I’m curious what you think the lessons about “friendship” and “sharing” are because, like Nina, I find that they can vary depending on the reader. Take, for example, the phrase that Mr. H finds didactic: “Things are different nowadays. Nations are not founded on keeping promises so much as on bleak and gloomy things called economies, which expect people to do whatever suits them rather than what they’ve said they would do.” Clearly, the storyteller has a very strong voice here, one that invites the reader to think about the “lesson” of the story, but in order to find it truly didactic the reader needs to make sense of this vague reference by attaching some kind of meaning to it, and readers will attach different meanings, thus making the lesson different for every reader. I’m with Nina in finding that a distinguished feature of the text.

    Eric, nobody is suggesting that easy readers and chapter books should be shoved willy-nilly into the Newbery canon, and while I very much appreciate that many books read aloud beautifully for a younger audience than that which can read them independently, it does not absolve the Newbery committee of considering–not necessarily recognizing, however–the full breadth of its charge which does include picture books, easy readers, and chapter books.

    To my mind, the characterization is deliberately cartoony, the dialogue is cartoony, and the violence is likewise cartoony; the tone of the piece is entirely consistent. It’s a stylistic choice, and it may not work for you, particularly if you do not find it humorous, but humor is subjective, which makes it challenging to build consensus around any funny book. For example, I do not find M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Perils series very funny at all, whereas I know that you are a big fan (and have likely read the latest, ZOMBIE MOMMY). Anderson’s humor here is just as stylized, and undoubtedly some of the things I might complain about, you would explain as parody. And I understand that, but it doesn’t magically make the books work for me, just as whatever we say here will not make SIR GAWAIN work for you.

  10. (Jonathan, “sharing” and “friendship” were just used as examples of children’s magazine themes, stylistic comparisons. I thought the lessons of this book were what Nina said; I just find the book stronger in tone than she does, I think.)

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    If, when people describe the book as “didactic” they are referring to the strong voice of the narrator who frequently comments on the story (or the tone as you have put it) then I can understand this description (although its not how I would chose to describe it). But, if when people describe the book as “didactic” they are talking about the actual lessons themselves, then I strongly disagree because I think the lessons are not only different for each reader, but somewhat complex. If, for example, I were to survey those who have read the book, what it teaches about friendship, I think I would get a variety of answers, and none of them would be simplistic.

  12. Didactic means teaching with a moral in mind.

    Eric, I’m intrigued by your treaty. I don’t get, quite, where it attaches to your dislike of the book. Morris is, indeed, writing in caricature. Doesn’t caricature serve a purpose? Can’t it be distinguished?

    I saw two great movies over the holiday weekend: Hugo and The Muppets. Same theater, back to back nights, with all of our adult friends, and the ticket manager gave us kids prices on the second night for coming back. In Hugo, I thought the visual slapstick and caricature of the station Inspector was the perfect addition to the story. It added a playful energy that the movie otherwise lost by not having those dramatic page turns from text to picture to text. But The Muppets, oh, the The Muppets made me cry. Because by getting you to laugh, by being that outrageous and extreme and unreal, they open you to experience some critically real ideas and emotions that otherwise might be obscured by mundanity. That’s distinguished caricature.

  13. What strikes me about this book is that you’ve got a third person omniscient narrator who is a strong character in the vein of those Philip Pullman writes and speaks about so wonderfully. (Google this and you will find various articles, interviews, quotes, etc from him on this.) And this narrator has his own very strong and opinionated point of view that comes through strongly, at times. Not as explicitly as the one for A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, but in the same tradition, I think. And so you do have the economies aside where the narrator is just unable to hold back, or so I think the child reader will think, not caring much what it is he is nattering on about. Or an earlier parenthetical on page 13: (Don’t worry; they all got better afterward.) Not unlike Gidwitz who prepares his readers similarly. That Morris’s narrator is a bit moralizing is part of his/her personality. He’s Merlin perhaps (he’s missing right?) or a bard or goodness knows who telling his story as he wishes, tics, opinions, and such all along with it.

  14. “Didactic means teaching with a moral in mind.”

    What’s your source, Nina?

    Here’s a stylistic issue well-illustrated in the paragraphs quoted above. The author seems to fall into the trap of avoiding “he said he said he said”, which I found distracting–one of the things that I think keeps the writing from being particularly compelling, which in turn does nothing to help the reader (this reader, anyway) escape the feeling of being taught. Just in the first passage above, we have brightened, exclaimed, hesitated, and replied. I’m not one to insist on traditional writerly conventions, but this is a good example of why avoiding “he said” is generally not recommended. Anyone else notice this?

    I’m curious, how do people feel about the plot arc? I was expecting comments about this aspect.

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Eric, I’m also going to further ask you about the lack of violent outcomes . . . I’ve mentioned that I think of it as cartoon violence. But contrast it to a book like THE HUNGER GAMES which has lots of violent outcomes, but treats the violence just as superficially: it’s not cartoon violence, but video game violence. But it never really registers very strongly with the readers. It’s not real violence.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, from Merriam Webster online–

    Definition of DIDACTIC
    1 a : designed or intended to teach b : intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment
    2 : making moral observations

  17. Wendy — Yes, I did see your comment in the other thread but just never got back to it. Nothing personal! By that time, I felt like I had beaten the “economies” comment to death and realized that the book would be discussed later so I could bring it back up then.

    What you said in that thread (What Are We Missing) is actually, what I find so off putting about the comment Morris makes. Children’s authors are careful with their word choice. Morris didn’t have a lot of words to tell this tale. So one would assume that he has to choose his words wisely. In today’s day and age, with our current economic state, you just simply don’t casually make a comment like that and get to say “Eh, it’s just incidental.”

    When Morris takes the comment beyond the comma and says (about economies): “which expect people to do whatever suits them rather than what they’ve said they would do”, I think HE, Morris, is stepping into the text and voicing his opinion. I think it’s a jab at our current economic state, the corrupt bankers and whoever rolling in dough at the expense of the other 99% of the population. I think that is what he’s getting at. That these individuals do NOT any longer live by principles, or promises. And to me, that’s a bit preachy and politically aimed. Doesn’t really fit in a book like this. I’m okay with making a few jokes that adults will find funny more than children will, but not like this. It just doesn’t fit. That’s my beef.

    Monica made reference to how Morris did this a few other times throughout, inserted himself into the text. I wish I could find a few other examples because the few other times he did this, it rang true to the narrative he was weaving. But the remark about economies is what REALLY made me aware of Morris’s narrating of the story and I think it totally took away from the text. The idea of a third person omniscient narrator is not the point, it’s when that third person omniscient narrator oversteps his boundaries he’s already previously established. That’s what I think happened with the line about economies. Does that make sense?

    And about the whole “didactic” issue – I think this story is definitely didactic in nature, Morris has a lot to say about honesty and friendship and chivalry and respect. So of course it’s didactic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When being didactic hurts a text like this, is when Morris makes his moral observations about something very current (our economy) and states his opinion.

    Again, I do see how Nina and Jonathan (and others) can see distinguished traits in this work. I’m not sure I personally agree with them, but I can see their argument. I’m even okay now with acknowledging the fact that the book’s strengths should easily outweigh one measly comment such as this. What irks me a little now though, is when the comment itself is brushed aside as if it’s incidental when to me, it clearly was not incidental.

    And like you Wendy, as a whole, I thought the book was fun, but I’m finding it difficult to say much more about it in regards to being “most distinguished”.

  18. Do you think that means the same thing as “didactic means teaching with a moral in mind”?

  19. One of the most damning words I use in writing book reviews is “didactic” when the Lesson is bigger than the Story. I do not see that in Morris at all. It is one of the pleasures of all of his books, I think, that he so clearly presents moral and ethical dilemmas in ways that even very young children can get, and yet never, to my mind, preaches or bludgeons his readers.

  20. Again, to clarify . . . the entire book is technically “didactic” to me, because he’s teaching about honesty, and friendship, and gentlemanness, etc. That’s not a bad thing at all.

    But the economies remark itself, to me, is “didactic” in a bad way. My opinion.

  21. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mr. H, while you read the economies reference to be about a national economy (particularly the U.S. economy with the bailout, recession, and Occupy movement), I read it to be about the state economy of California in which year after year the legislature deadlocks and is unable to balance the budget, and this year we are facing mid-year cuts (no bankers involved). I also read it to be about the debt crisis in Greece over the summer. My problem with your reading is that you are pretending that it is the only valid way to read the text. If it were the only valid way it would make it much less distinguished, sure, but I still don’t know that it would be didactic. It would certainly date the book very quickly, however. Again, with each of the themes–friendship, loyalty, courtesy–you are assuming that we are all taking away the same lesson, but I very much doubt it. So for me, it’s not the “lessons” you are objecting to as much as the narrator.

    As Graceanne mentioned, we often use the word “didactic” in book discussion the same way we might use “Nazi.” It’s name-calling. We need to be careful how we use it not only in this discussion, but also in JEFFERSON’S SONS. That’s why I posted the Roger Sutton and Brock Cole quotes.

    Again, I caution you that you are heading down a very dangerous line of thinking. If you follow it to its natural and logical end, you would have to assume that all those rhetorical questions in OKAY FOR NOW–which, by your own recent admission, DO NOT WORK for the target audience–then we have enough sentences to disqualify the book, no?

  22. Jonathan, actually I have recently acknowledged that this one line should not outweigh the book’s strengths. I NEVER said this book should be disqualified. I’ve even acknowledged being able to see what you and Nina find so distinguished about the text, even though I don’t. In my opinion, OKAY FOR NOW is different because it’s highs are SO high. So far more distinguished than anything else I’ve read this year. I can’t say the same about SIR GAWAIN. As far as early chapter books go, I find THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS and TOYS COME HOME far more worthy.

    I think my point all along has been with the narration, not the overall lessons of friendship, loyalty, courtesy, etc. I like that about the book! Didn’t I make that clear? It’s the narration doesn’t ring true to me. I see what Monica brought up and recognize why some people would like it, but in the end, I find it even more obtrusive than Gidwitz’s in A TALE DARK AND GRIMM. At least Gidwitz’s narrator stayed on topic. I felt that Morris rambled at times and the first few instances I noticed it, I excused it since it appeared to be in accord with the story. But the line about economies really through me and made me realize how annoyed I was.

    Sidebar: A few years ago, my wife and I were on an airplane, seated near the middle, watching episodes of 24 on our laptop. We both had headphones in, and it was a late night flight. At one point in time, I came to the realization of what was going to happen in the episode and turned to my wife and spoke very loudly (because of the headphones): “They’re going to blow up Air Force One!” A stewardess was walking by coincidentally and stopped. She glanced down at the laptop and grinned. She leaned into our seats and said, “Sir, you need to be careful how you talk on an airplane nowadays.”

    Just like you can’t say “Bomb” on an airplane, I kind of feel like it’s impossible to make an “incidental” comment about “economies” (the way Morris did) in today’s day and age in a children’s book. As I said, Morris is a talented writer. One who obviously puts a lot of effort into the words he chooses. To not find the remark that big of a deal, is one thing. To toss it aside as if it meant absolutely nothing at all, is a little naive. That’s all I’m saying.

  23. Eric Carpenter says:

    Not enough time in my lunch break to respond to some of this but I would like to ask Mr. H why he believes that it is “not a bad thing at all” to teach kids about honesty, friendship and gentlemanness, etc.

    Sure we want kids to learn these things. But do we really need books to explicitly teach? I strongly believe that young kids have the ability to draw conclusions and create interpretations of text that may indeed impart these ideas without having to explicitly tell the reader why one should be kind or honest or value friendship.
    It doesn’t seem as if Morris has enough faith in his readers to let the story carry his intended message without bringing it to the forefront again and again.

    I think this quotation from Martha Parravano from A FAMILY OF READERS gets to my point quiet nicely: “Given the chance, kids will read the same way adults do: for themselves. Don’t think of books for young people as tools; try instead to treat them as invitations into the reading life.” Reading SIR GAWAIN I often felt that Morris was attempting to use the book as a tool and for that reason it didn’t work for me.

  24. If we’re talking about jokes/lines aimed at adults that don’t fit the child audience, Sir Gawain is definitely not the only book to cross this line. For example, I’d also bring up the passing joke about how an actor would never become president that Schmidt includes towards the end of Okay for Now. I’m not convinced the majority of kids would know that Reagan was an actor and without that knowledge the joke misses completely. However, that in itself is not enough to make me dismiss the excellent qualities in Okay for Now just as the economies comment (which admittedly didn’t stick out for me at all) is not enough to make me dismiss the excellent qualities in Sir Gawain.

    Eric – In your objections to the way the characters in Sir Gawain are portrayed and the lack of realistic violence, it seemed to me that you were holding the book up to a standard of what you would want or expect a book about Arthurian knights for early chapter book readers to be and were then disappointed that Morris hadn’t created something that met that standard but instead written a farce. I agree that there was never any question of Sir Gawain’s survival – the tone makes it clear from the beginning this is not the sort of book where the main character is going to die tragically. I did feel compelled to continue turning pages to see exactly how Gawain would survive – more from a puzzle solving viewpoint though than a question of suspense. I also wanted to move on to the next chapter and the next to see what new mess Gawain would have to extract himself from and what kind of goofy solution he would come up with.

    I also did not feel like this was talking down to kids. I run a monthly 3rd-5th grade book club in a middle-class suburban public library and am consistently amazed by the variation from kid to kid and from book to book in what they understand. I have some 3rd graders that wouldn’t see any of the complexities Sir Gawain offers in terms of honor and keeping your word, but would enjoy the very silly humor and basic storyline. I have some other 3rd graders who would immediately see the underlayers that Morris includes that are ripe for discussion (Is it ever ok to break your word? What’s more important honor or kindness?). Far from writing down to kids, Morris’ writing actually seems remarkably complex with plenty to unpack while still being written so that it can be enjoyed by its target age group without having to unpack anything – a tricky task which I would equate with distinction.

  25. Beth Martin says:

    We are reading this book for our Mock discussions and our students have a question. Is this considered an “original” work as the criteria suggests? Or could it considered a retelling of the Green Knight story? We love it and Gerald Morris is a local author here so we would love to see him win the Newbery or receive an honor. I apologize if that aspect has already been discussed and I missed it.

  26. Eric, I guess I don’t have a distinguished explanation for my feeling. It just is what it is. I can turn a blind eye to books teaching kids things like honesty and respect (even though, as you brought it up, I now see how heavy handed this was in SIR GAWAIN, and not necessarily as subtle as some would argue) more than I can with books that preach to kids about political ideas. I know that the “economies” comment is not even close to being that extreme, but I do feel that it begins to approach that realm. I feel like throughout SIR GAWAIN, Morris approached preachiness, but I forgave him because I found value in the “lessons” to that point. However with the “economies” comment, I feel it became too much and made me open my eyes to just how obtrusive his narration was. As you alluded to, much more heavy handed than subtle.

  27. Was A TALE DARK AND GRIMM deemed eligible? Do we even know? SIR GAWAIN is definitely NOT an original story, but Morris’s retelling is original.

  28. Mark Flowers says:

    On didacticism: quick – how many people know/remember that THE SECRET GARDEN was written in large part to advocate for Burnett’s Christian Scientist views about the healing power of nature? How many people care?

    Mr. H – I continue to be baffled by your argument about the economies line. I think you are bringing your very specific interpretation to it and rejecting it because of that interpretation. Jonathan has already said he has a different interpretation, and I had another altogether (I thought he was talking about the very general idea of market capitalism being based on the individual actions of consumers, and how our contemporary society is based on these individual actions rather than social contracts).

    Regardless of the specifics, I happen to believe that it is not a terribly complicated or controversial point to say that modern society is run by a different set of rules than medieval society. I think a 3rd grader could easily understand that, even if she did not know the specifics of economics (which, in my opinion, are indeed “bleak and gloomy”, no matter how important).

    I also cannot even begin to see how this is “preaching” to kids. Surely you don’t believe that Morris believes society would be better off with absolute monarchs, serfdom and all the rest? I can’t see any political point being made at all, really. He’s not advocating for OWS or Marxism or a return to the Middle Ages.

    I believe the “point” of the joke (to the extent that there is one) is just that his readers might wonder what happened to all this talk of vows and promises – and he is pointing out, in a humorous way, that things don’t work the same way today.

  29. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sometimes we get into these discussions and people think that if they make a certain point that it somehow makes a book less distinguished, less worthy, or altogether ineligible for the Newbery. For example: But it’s YA! But it’s a sequel and it doesn’t stand alone! But the words and text don’t stand alone! But it’s didactic! Of course, a book can be all of these things and still be distinguished, worthy, and eligible for the Newbery. For the purposes of this particular discussion on didacticism and SIR GAWAIN, we are really considering two questions: Is it didactic? And, if so, is it that sort of didacticism that is not convincingly worked into the world of the novel and therefore problematic?

    While the narrator highlights the themes of the book, I don’t think those themes are presented as lessons. Aside from the economies remark which has already generated at least four interpretations, nobody has offered up what they believe the book teaches about friendship or loyalty or courtesy. I believe that if we did have those discussions–and we would certainly have them at the Newbery table even if we manage to neglect them here–we would see that these, too, are subject to multiple interpretations, that there is not single lesson being offered up but several.

    I’ll draw your attention back to Mo Willems’s Zena Sutherland Lecture, particularly this part–

    Yes, I make incomprehensible books for illiterates.

    Incomprehensible also because I never know what the book I’ve made “means.” That’s my audience’s job. You, the reader, create meaning out of the story; I just set the table. The fundamental truth of this was driven home when I read two early reviews for my first picture book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The first one said, “I love this book because it teaches perseverance. It teaches kids never to give up. To fight on.” The second review said, “I love this book because it teaches kids to value the word ‘no,’ to know when to stop.”

    Here’s the thing: both reviews were right. Their authors each brought their own selves to the story and in their minds created meanings that had never occurred to me. They became the co-authors of the book, implanting the meaning that was purposefully omitted, or perhaps obscured. Because, truth be told, I don’t have any answers. I’m not interested in them.

    –This is interesting to me because I think that many of Willems’s books do come with pretty obvious messages, and yet he claims the opposite. I BROKE MY TRUNK didn’t have a message, but I think both SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM? and HAPPY PIG DAY! did.

    The relevant criteria to the original work question is here: “Original work” means that the text was created by this writer and no one else. It may include original retellings of traditional literature, provided the words are the author’s own. The more you investigate the original source material to see just how original the retelling is, the more you realize how much Morris has done a wonderful job adapting this tale not just to a contemporary audience, but a very young one.

    I haven’t read TOYS COME HOME yet and will weigh in when I do, but as for THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS (of which I am a big fan), I found SIR GAWAIN funnier (not everyone will agree, I know), the themes more powerfully developed (what, pray tell, is the theme in THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS?), and the plot more sophisticated (four small mysteries leading up to one big reveal vs. the single garden variety mystery). I know Wendy mentioned concerns about the plot arc, and I would love to hear more about those.

  30. Mark says: “He’s not advocating for OWS or Marxism or a return to the Middle Ages.” and I say in response, how do you know? The mere mention of economies and people “suiting themselves” makes me think there is a possibility he could be implying that. You see it one way. I see it another. So why are you right and I’m wrong?

    Jonathan, the Willems quote is interesting and it made me think — I think it’s telling me to be done with this whole debate and let the chips fall as they may. Because . . .

    You love SIR GAWAIN and say SIR GAWAIN is distinguished. According to Willems, you are correct. Because of what you, personally took away from the book.

    Yet I say, SIR GAWAIN is a good book, but is not distinguished. According to Willems (in a way), I too am correct. Because of what I, personally took away from the book.

    Or did I totally construe that?

    However, when discussing the Newbery Medal, the point is to find a book that the most people can find common ground on. I’m not sure this will be the one. Maybe it will be and I’m just in the minority. But either way, I can’t change how I reacted to the text, no matter how many different ways I try and look at it, and that is impacting how I view this book.

  31. Also for the record, my initial reaction to the book was overall good, and I feel that my own rambling now has muddled my feelings. I clearly didn’t like the book near as much as I thought I did initially. Maybe “like” is not the right word. I laughed out loud and thought it was funny. But digging deeper, I’m not seeing it as Newbery-esqe. Must be the narrator that’s not ringing true.

  32. Oh, I don’t really have concerns about the plot arc (especially after my second reading), but I thought others would. And I’m more interested in discussing specifics like that (and like my comment above about style) than the more amorphous questions, so I hoped people would respond.

    I did almost post that I thought the development of plot was lacking, but as I thought about it more, it’s just that it doesn’t follow the conventional plot shape; doesn’t mean it isn’t distinguished. As you say, everything in the book is leading to the end. I do (as I mentioned somewhere or other) think the book drags because I didn’t get much of a sense of building, other than being told that there would be this final showdown, and some of the chapters do feel very similar to me. But among the many things this book is, it’s an episodic, chapter-oriented book. Many books I love, such as Henry Huggins, are made up of short vignettes; so I can hardly criticize this without criticizing the brilliant Henry Huggins, or Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

  33. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think that the book only appears to be episodic, but on closer inspection it is more integrated. For example, Chapter 2 when the Green Knight comes to the Christmas feast is a direct result of what happens in Chapter 1 when Sir Gawain saves the damsel. It’s just that the reader doesn’t recognize the connection until much later. The same holds true for Chapter 3 when King Arthur decides to head north, looking for Merlin to help Sir Gawain in his forthcoming contest against the Green Knight. Arthur’s heard reports of a powerful enchanter in the north and has assumed that it’s Merlin, but the reader later realizes that it wasn’t Merlin at all, but the antagonist who we then meet in various guises over the next several chapters. Anyway, that’s the kind of delayed emergence of causality that I found distinguished on a second read. It appears episodic, but that appearance is deceiving.

  34. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, I just finished TOYS COME HOME, and here are my initial impressions. First, I think the chapters are too long for a chapter book and the narrative is continuous with no line breaks. I mean, the first chapter is 33 pages long. That’s a long stretch of reading for a newly independent reader. Second, I don’t think it tops SIR GAWAIN. It’s not as character-driven as SIR GAWAIN or THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS, but not as character-driven as CLEMENTINE or ALVIN HO either. I also found all four of those books funnier. I could go on, but it’s clear that I can’t support this one over SIR GAWAIN. Sorry. :-(

  35. I did not know that about “The Secret Garden”, Mark – that’s fascinating, I want to read more about it!

    I confess to using didactic in a condescending manner – something that is didactic is also humorless and somewhat puritanical, I think. That said, I found “Sir Gawain” less didactic than “Jefferson’s Sons” – mostly because the humor diffused it.

    If I had to choose between those two, I don’t know what I’d do.

    But I’d still pick “Okay for Now” over both. :)

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