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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Single Greatest Effort

willems 218x300 The Single Greatest EffortWe discussed I BROKE MY TRUNK! earlier here and here. I’m not sure that I can argue the merits of this book any better than I have already done. I still think it’s distinguished as all get out. Ironically, most of its strongest competition within the easy reader field comes from three other books penned by Mo Willems: AMANDA & HER ALLIGATOR, SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM?, and HAPPY PIG DAY! klassen 215x300 The Single Greatest Effort

The other strong picture book/easy reader challenger is I WANT MY HAT BACK by Jon Klassen which shares many similar strengths, particularly in the way it is written (sans quotation marks, with colored text) to allow for a more dramatic reading and the generous helping of humor (albeit in a very dark vein). Publishers Weekly: Don’t let the pared-down art and narration fool you: a wealth of emotion and personality hides behind the deadened eyes of Klassen’s woodland creatures, from anxiety to rage, stupefaction to satisfaction.

While I’m quite smitten with I WANT MY HAT BACK, I think I BROKE MY TRUNK! works better as a pure easy reader and, to me, that is the key to viewing this book as the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children: to view it through the eyes of an emergent reader, whether that emergent reader is three years old or seven years old. Of course, the book will be appreciated by independent readers, but it is most distinguished for those children in the early stages of learning how to read. Here’s what John Steinbeck, in the introduction to THE ACTS OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS NOBLE KNIGHTS, had to say about the whole business of learning to read.

Some people there are who, being grown, forget the horrible task of learning to read. It is perhaps the greatest single effort that the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child. An adult is rarely successful in the undertaking–the reduction of experience to a set of symbols. For a thousand thousand years these humans have existed and they have only learned this trick–this magic–in the final ten thousand of the thousand thousand.

I do not know how usual my experience is, but I have seen in my children the appalled agony of trying to learn to read. They, at least, have my experience.

I remember that words–written or printed–were devils, and books, because they gave me great pain, were my enemies.

Some literature was in the air around me. The Bible I absorbed through my skin. My uncles exuded Shakespeare, and PILGRIM’S PROGRESS was mixed with my mother’s milk. But these things came into my ears. They were sounds rhythms, figures. Books were printed demons–the tongs and thumbscrews of outrageous persecution. And then, one day, my aunt gave me a book and fatuously ignored my resentment. I stared at the black print with hatred, and then, gradually, the pages opened and let me in. The magic happened. The Bible and Shakespeare and PILGRIM’S PROGRESS belonged to everyone. But this was mine–it was a cut version of the Caxton Morte d’Arthur of Thomas Malory . . . Perhaps a passionate love of the English language opened to me from this one book.

While acknowledging the difficulty of learning to read, Steinbeck waxes poetic, not about the book he learned to read from, but rather the book that turned him into a reader, the book that fired his passion for the English language. Most of us would do the same, and it is sort of the Holy Grail for the Newbery committee: to find that book, the one that will magically turn children everywhere into readers.

But this bears repeating: The horrible task of learning to read is perhaps the single greatest effort the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child. When a book can be both the one that children learn to read from and the one that fires their passion, the one that opens the gate, the one that says, “Reading is fun, kids! Don’t you want some more of this good stuff?”, then we approach a level of genius few mortals ever achieve. Thus I put the question to you again: Is this not the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children?

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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. Nina Lindsay says:

    I urge you all to re-read, carefully, Jonathan’s previous posts on I BROKE MY TRUNK, and watch those videos he links to of children reading various Mo Willems books.

    Now, read the Newbery Terms & Criteria. Recall that we are choosing the most “’distinguished contribution to American literature,’ defined as text, in a book for children,”… basing our “decision primarily on the text”. The entire effect of the book may be conveyed through the combination of word and picture, but in a Newbery winner we expect to find distinguished qualities in the text.

    Now, read the text of the book (Jonathan has the whole thing in that first post).

    I’m fully with Jonathan on this one. Notice how well the characterization and mood is conveyed through the pacing of the text, and how rising tension is developed through the cumulative story.

    Here’s one of my favorite YouTube readings:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrTH9vM-atc

    Notice how these girls clearly have a sense of how a story should be told dramatically, but they are still learning how to pull that from the text? The girl playing Gerald is certainly having fun mimicking what she sees in the pictures, but she’s also creating her own drama from what she sees in the words: by the time she gets to the sister and the piano, her visual drama is her own, and not what is drawn on the page.

    I don’t want to rely too much on dissecting vids of cute kids reading, because we really need to consider the whole child audience; but I do think it’s important to listen to the effect of the rhythm of this text, the way that emphasis is cued through repetition, punctuation, type size and italics, the use of elipses and conjunctions, and see how it crafts mood, plot, and character… Surely this text is as:

    • Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    • Marked by excellence in quality.
    • Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    • Individually distinct.

    …as Holm’s and Schimdt’s in their use of voice to craft character arc? As Cole’s to craft a perfectly satisfying and surprising narrative arc? As Ness’s use of character storytelling to set an emotional stage?

  2. Ronnie says:

    I’m trying to think outside the box with this, but am struggling. I think the book is outstanding but don’t think it’s the writing that does it. On “characterization” for example: The words do “originate the characters” as Jonathan says. Yes, Gerald is “impulsive, long-winded, and proud,” and we get those traits from the text. But is that a significant writing achievement? A character in an easy reader should not be complex and multi-layered, I know. He should have a few major traits that shine through and impact the story. Willems has done that, but I don’t think it is distinguished characterization. It’s done a lot in easy readers: “Green Eggs and Ham,” “Fly Guy,” “Minnie and Moo,” are a few examples, though I haven’t read enough to give examples from this year. It’s hard for me to compare a character who can be summed up by three traits to someone like Amelia May or Doug. I feel that depicting complex and multi-layered characters like those two is a more significant achievement than what Willems has done. Willems’ writing is as good as it can be, but the type of book he’s writing, with few words and illustratins that play such a big part, limits his ability to reach eminence in characterization through the text. If the medal was for “best book of the year,” or “best book of the year with some good but not great writing” or “book where the writing complements the illustrations perfectly,” I might say yes. But if it’s “based primarily on the text” I just don’t think there’s enough evidence of distinction when you focus on text.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. I don’t think advanced easy readers are a good comparison to beginning easy readers because, of course, they can develop the literary elements to a greater degree just as a middle grade novel can develop them more than a transitional chapter book. Thus, note the word counts and keep them in mind: I BROKE MY TRUNK (267 words), HI, FLY GUY (324 words), GO, DOG. GO! (515 words), GEORGE AND MARTHA (626), ARE YOU MY MOTHER? (699), and GREEN EGGS AND HAM (769). I wouldn’t necessarily compare them to, say, MINNIE AND MOO (1,000+) or FROG AND TOAD (2,000+) in terms of what they can accomplish. Personally, I don’t think Eastman and Seuss are strong on characterization as their stories are whimsically nonsensical, focusing on rhyme and repetition at the expense of plot and character. FLY GUY and GEORGE AND MARTHA, on the other hand, have plot and character developed over more words and several stories, but are the characters developed better given the extra words? I don’t think so.

    2. See, I don’t think I BROKE MY TRUNK! is actually competing against OKAY FOR NOW or THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA because they are so dissimilar. Are you familiar with Plato’s theory of forms? That there are abstract ideals that define and epitomize various material objects. Thus, there is an ideal middle grade novel, and all of the middle grade novels partake of its characteristics, but none of them perfectly embody all of them to the fullest extent. How closely do OKAY FOR NOW and MAY AMELIA approach this abstract ideal of perfection? We discussed this in a previous thread–90% of Everything is Crap–and I think most of us found these books lacking in comparison to the Great Ones from the canon let alone the mythical Perfect Book. Similarly, there is an ideal beginning reader, and I BROKE MY TRUNK! likewise falls short of this abstract ideal, but it comes closer to the ideal beginning reader than OKAY FOR NOW comes to the ideal middle grade novel.

    3. Then, too, distinction is a relative measure rather than an absolute one, and I believe I BROKE MY TRUNK! separates itself from other contenders in the easy reader field just like AMELIA LOST separates itself in the nonfiction field, but when I look at the middle grade novels, I see a pack of runners rather than a clear leader who has broken away. I’ve put forth I WANT MY HAT BACK as the best easy reader challenger. It has a similar word count–254–but the black humor will probably be lost on many of its readers. As an easy reader, I BROKE MY TRUNK! will have wider appeal than I WANT MY HAT BACK, just as the humor in OKAY FOR NOW will have broader appeal than that in DEAD END IN NORVELT. Doesn’t necessarily make it better, but it makes it easier to build consensus.

    4. So, if the standard of Newberyness is The Middle Grade Novel then I BROKE MY TRUNK!–not to mention everything that isn’t a middle grade novel–is screwed, but if the standard of Newberyness is a bit of a moving target, if it can be The Middle Grade Novel for OKAY FOR NOW, but can be The Biography for AMELIA LOST and The Beginning Chapter Book for SIR GAWAIN and The Beginning Easy Reader for I BROKE MY TRUNK!, and The Picture Book for THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE then we’ve got ourselves a horse race, folks.

    5. I believe that the following phrases support such an interpretation . . . There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work . . . It also implies that the committee shall consider all forms of writing—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry . . . Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    6. There is an undeniably greater degree of difficulty for longer, more complex works, and we often reward that difficulty, even when such works are flawed and imperfect. King Lear by William Shakespeare and “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson both perfectly achieve what their authors set out to do, but because of the relative length and complexity, the former would always beat out the latter in any kind of head to head competition, and that is as it should be. So I understand why some people say that OKAY FOR NOW should also beat out I BROKE MY TRUNK! But such thinking doesn’t take into account this paradigm shift: An adult reads I BROKE MY TRUNK! and reads “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” while the emergent reader reads the same book and reads King Lear. I BROKE MY TRUNK! may be fun and enjoyable for adults and they can recognize it as excellent for its genre but inherently inferior to a middle grade novel. For the emergent reader, however, it requires their full powers of concentration and tremendous mental exertion; it can be a Herculean task.

  5. Mark Flowers says:

    To build off of what Jonathan just said, for those who have trouble comparing I BROKE MY TRUNK with OKAY FOR NOW: try comparing OKAY FOR NOW with THE TIGER’S WIFE (or, if you haven’t read that, pick any adult award winner from the last couple years). For me, if it’s just a straight comparison, there’s just no way that OFN ranks anywhere alongside my favorite adult novels. But if you consider the audiences for each, they begin to be comparable. Now you just have to do the same thing in the other direction.

  6. Beverly says:

    I don’t understand why this book is in the Newbery group at all. It’s a beginning reader, so it should be a contender for the Geisel Award instead. That’s what the category exists for. (Please remember that the Elephant and Piggie book We Are In a Book was a runner-up for the Geisel last year, so the ALA understands where that series belongs.) Case closed.

  7. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Beverly – that’s just not how it works at all. Books are eligible for whatever awards they are eligible for, and the Newbery criteria are crystal clear that any book written by an American and appropriate for ages 0-14 is eligible. Not only is that clear from the criteria, it is also clear from the fact that easy readers have been honored by the Newbery before (Frog and Toad). Easy readers are also clearly eligible for the Caldecott.

    If the Newbery or Caldecott want to revise their criteria, they are able to do so, but as it stands, I BROKE MY TRUNK is 100% eligible for the Newbery, the Caldecott, and the Geisel, and therefore could theoretically win all three.

  8. Beverl says:

    I’m aware of the criteria, of course, but my understanding was that early readers were often overlooked by the Newbery and Caldecott committees. They felt that the books had too little text for the Newbery, and too mediocre pictures for the Caldecotts (often because of their standard size, which does not accomodate some artwork). So the Geisel Award was created to focus on quality books that might otherwise be ignored. It would be logical to make the “Big Four” age categories mutually exclusive, since no age group is now being overlooked.

  9. Nina Lindsay says:

    Ah, but technically none of the “Big Four” have anything to do with age, and everything to do with content. Should distinguished illustrations in a picture book only be awarded for a segment of children? Informational books, etc?

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