Of any predictions I could hazard in Newbery season, my best bet would be to say that the discussion over this title will get contentious. This seems to be a “love it or hate it” title, and if you’re not loving it, it asks a lot of you. So take some time to get yourself in the mind of its perfect reader. You love a “fat” book, one which completely sucks you in, a literal door into another world that you can go to behind its covers. One that is peculiar, and frightening, but deliciously so, like a Grimm’s tale or a Sendak drawing, one where each character alternately annoys and enthralls you, like your best friend.
This is SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS of course, by Newbery-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz. It is surely “highly anticipated”. I find it daring: Schlitz has firmly chosen a pacing, voice, and structure to suit her story and characters. It unwinds slowly and circuitously, as if in homage to Dickens’ serial novels. It is not “shaped” like the kind of novel many of us expect to be written for children today. But its meandering tone allows her to set scenes so vivid you’d swear you’d been transformed into a puppet in her stage. Allows her characters to develop intricate quirks and nuances that serve the final development. Would Parsefall have been able to fill the role he does if we didn’t understand completely his individually crafted moral view of the world, and his reliance on the artistry of puppetry to feed his soul? Would Clara have been able to be a sympathetic heroine in her horrible visage if we didn’t come to an understanding along with her of the dysfunction of her family? And the story stays true to itself to the end; it is a happy ending for the protagonists, but not one of a post-Freudian 21st century children’s novel. Happy here means money, food, friends, and thus: joy.
No story is perfect. I am sure there are moments within this novel that were thinner than others. (Of all the characters, we are never allowed sympathy for Grisini. Even Clara’s father gets the tinniest bit, but not our evil mustache-twirler. Perhaps the story needed one solidly bad bad guy, but it’s the one thing that felt slightly off-kilter to me.) But by giving readers so much in the form she did, Schlitz allows herself and her readers room for all of it, and there is so much “real” here that anything else fades away. For the reader who appreciates the length and pacing of this story, it becomes an incredible buffet, a constantly evolving landscape of words and scenes and emotions and action to savor. It addresses every one of the Newbery Criteria with writing of a quality and individuality we’ve rarely seen, making it–to my mind–truly distinguished.