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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Splendors and Glooms: Jonathan’s Take

Interpretation of the theme or concept?  Check.

Presentation of information?  Check.

Development of a plot?  Check.

Delineation of characters?  Check.

Delineation of a setting?  Check.

Appropriateness of style?  Check.

Boring?  Check.

Oh, wait!  That’s not part of the critiera.  Nevertheless, that is my reaction to this book on a first read (and if you don’t feel the same about this particular book, then surely you have felt the same way about a different book–perhaps even NO CRYSTAL STAIR).  What to do, then, when your head and your heart lead you in different directions?

Since there is an issue of personal taste involved here you should take everything I say hereafter with a big grain of salt.  This story simply failed to capture my imagination.  Or perhaps I should say that I failed the story.  I admire the craftmanship, but it never came to life for me.

Last year, I complained about bloated books, and while I definitely think this one is longer than it needs to be, I can clearly see that Schlitz is an excellent prose stylist and that words and phrases are chosen with precision and care.  And yet . . . and yet . . . Oh, criteria be damned!  How is it that Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken can write in a similar Dickensian/Victorian mode with stories that are merely one half to two thirds as long and suffer not one whit in comparison–not one whit, I tell you! How is it that they strike me as being closer in spirit to the genuine article?  How, indeed!

Yes, I know I’ve committed the unpardonable Newbery sin of comparing SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS to ineligible books, and I would certainly never do this at the table.  I do it here only as a think aloud to explore my own tepid response, even as I realize how woefully inadequate it is.  If that’s the best I can do, then it’s the sure sign of a very strong Newbery contender.  And so it is.

I’ve set up a false dilemma here.  SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS can be a second rate version of Leon Garfield/Joan Aiken and still be the most distinguished contribution of American literature for children.  I certainly think the first premise is true, and as for the second . . . Well, that may also be true . . . To my mind NO CRYSTAL STAIR is the best “novel” (consensus problems notwithstanding).  SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, LIAR & SPY, and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN–which I put a cut below–are vying for bridesmaid status.  But there are a handful of very formidable nonfiction books to consider that may be better than any of them . . .

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Dang, my boxing gloves are that the cleaner.

    Jonathan, Jonathan, Jonathan, simply put, I never found SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS boring, unlike your number one pick above. And I find that it crushes the criteria more completely than NCS.

    Things just heated up at the table.

  2. It’s true that the pacing is… unique. I was just about to compare it to A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, which I remembered as being about half as long, and was astonished to discover that they are both 400 pages long.

    Like Nina though, I think the pacing is a feature, not a bug.

  3. So, is Boring not a flaw? Maybe, by definition, a flaw in “development of a plot”? Isn’t excellent plotting what makes a book not boring? (And, yes, NCS definitely had boring moments, moments that did not move the plot along. I haven’t read S&G yet.)

  4. I would say boring is a flaw, but a subjective one.

  5. I certainly think that a book that is “the most distinguished contribution of American literature for children” should not be boring. Readable by children should be a factor relating to the construction of plot, style, etc. otherwise what makes it children’s literature at all? I do not mean readable as in popular, those are very different things. I’m not sure that in this case the art doesn’t get in the way of it’s appropriateness for it’s audience.

  6. I agree with DaNae. Yes, we want the medal winner to be readable, but children are very different in what they each consider ‘readable’–especially taking into account the age range covered by the Newbery! I can think of ten year olds who would love this book, and others who would get bogged down by the descriptions and varying viewpoints, but regardless, I think it definitely has an audience.

  7. Determining what is or is not boring is highly dependent on personal taste as Mr. Jonathan Hunt Provocateur noted right up at the top. My personal response to this book was completely the opposite to his, but I have no doubt there will be some young readers who respond as he did and others as I did.

    I’m always troubled by those who complain that a particular winning book is not popular with kids, suggesting that it is indeed boring to them. It completely marginalizes those kids for whom it is not. As we’ve discussed before this is not an award for popularity. The winning book needs to have child appeal, we need to feel that it is a book children (how many matters not) will engage with. Dean has given us evidence that they are out there for S & G.

    Getting away from S & G I just want to express strongly my advocacy for those young readers who genuinely love the books that are not particular popular among their peers. Whether it is a Gothic melodrama or a work of nonfiction about a remarkable bird, there are child readers who are loving these books.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Boring is not only very subjective, it’s not very convincing as an argument. In fact, it borders on name-calling, fostering entrenchment in current positions rather than evolution to new ones. Boring doesn’t convince DaNae to be less enthusiastic about SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS or me toward NO CRYSTAL STAIR. Yet we often do feel bored as we plow through so many books in a given year, the question–and the focus of this discussion–is: How do we deal with it? Rest assured that my personal response was in no way meant to suggest that other readers–child or adult–would share my view.

    When I say that SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS failed to capture my imagination, I am not necessarily talking about the leisurely pacing (although that is part of it). The Victorians were a wordy bunch and I do not think Schlitz radically departs from the style of the period. Yes, I have suggested other writers who capture the same essence a bit more economically (and Monica and I have been quibbling privately about DODGER by Terry Pratchett as well), but comparing them is a bit of an oversimplification. While they do share the same millieu, they differ slightly in tone, style, and audience.

    While I do think the pacing is too leisurely, some of that can be explained by personal taste. And the rest could have been taken care of if I had simply been immersed in the story. I always had that critical voice in my head, taking note of various literary elements, and I wanted to become so lost in the story that, to take DaNae’s example, I’m either surprised by the brass monkey or I have forgotten about him. Is that too much to ask for?

  9. I saw the actual brass monkey that inspired Schlitz at Dennis Severs house (google it to see what it is) in London on a hot humid day with a thunderstorm underway. I had forgotten that it was there until I saw it and boy oh boy did chills go down my spine (metaphorically as it was so horribly hot that in reality it was sweat:).

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    It is also quite possible that I will change my opinion of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, either slightly or radically, for better or worse, after another reading. Rereading not only helps me let go of all that irrelevant first-reading baggage, but it allows me to give the book a second chance under different circumstances. Maybe my headache will be gone, or I won’t be tired, or I’ll be able to read the book in three sittings rather than twelve, or the dogs won’t bark, or I’ll be in an entirely different mood having read different books just prior.

    At the end of the day, after all the reading and rereading has been done, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS may still sit on the cusp of my objective top five, unable to advance any farther despite that fact that it is clearly one of the most distinguished contributions to American literature for children. But you’ll remember that I’m of the mind that the search for the *most* distinguished is a bit of a snipe hunt. There is no single most distinguished book of the year. Rather there are at least a half dozen books every year that could be described as such. So while I acknowledge (and even agree with) all of the arguments that will be put forth in support of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, I think there are equally compelling arguments to be made for other books. I just need to make sure that the books I vote for, then, are from this small handful of books that are as good as (or better than) SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. But there is a boon here as well as a curse: I can summarily dismiss 95% of the books under consideration simply by comparing them to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS–and I can do it coldheartedly.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I hasten to add that just as rereading causes the reordering of my personal ranking so, too, does the more strategic process of face-to-face discussion and consensus-building. So I could actually vote for this one. I just don’t currently foresee the circumstances right now under which I would do so.

  12. Jonathan said: “But there is a boon here as well as a curse: I can summarily dismiss 95% of the books under consideration simply by comparing them to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS–and I can do it coldheartedly.” Oh, this is so true. Every year there are any number of books about which I want to say “Do we even need to bother with this one, considering what we have to compare it to?” If only we could all agree on which books those ones are! Of all the winners/honors over the last four years, I think the only one I might have dismissed summarily is Moon Over Manifest. And often the discussion of books that I privately think we must all KNOW are not going to win the Newbery is illuminating or interesting or fun. Thank goodness, because otherwise this would be a brief blog.

  13. Nina Lindsay says:

    It’s hard to put up an argument against “boring,” so I’m glad Jonathan addresses the difficulty of it. It’s true that this is where the consensus-building part of the Newbery process gets so interesting. I have served three times now, and every single time there has been at least one book that I never fully “got” as a reader, but was–by the end of the process–fully behind as a critic and a committee member. I even cast votes for some. It’s a weird disassociation process, because you have to feel right in your gut about it…but it’s as if you grow a second gut. And, yeah, it’s uncomfortable. But feels right.

  14. I totally agree with you, Nina. And also with Jonathan regarding the importance of discussion. Even here (which is not face-to-face), I’ve changed my view on some books due to the thoughtful comments. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge here (and before this occasionally on child_lit) of attempting to make myself clear in a way that might get others to reconsider a stance and have appreciated the others who do it as well. Especially when it is a book that is roundly admired and I’m not getting. I want to get it and the discourse is how I often do.

  15. mslibrarian says:

    I enjoyed reading everyone’s view on this title and am surprised at how I strongly agree with many of the positive comments even though personally I was slightly disappointed. It probably has something to do with my expectation: the book came with a hugely enthusiastic praise and a heavily hinted potential of being “really scary” or “very gothic” — and the first part of the book did give me high hopes of a book that is extremely chilling. Then, the story turned into more of an exploration of how each person is the product of his or her childhood/youth experiences and we must all strive to break that bond and better ourselves lest we might suffer unbearable ends! It turned slightly preachy and there was not that much horror for most of the book. DaNae mentioned that everything planted by the author pays off somewhere later… I don’t quite agree.

    For example, the hair from the dead siblings in the locket, so sinister and chilling when first encountered, never got “played” out later in the story. The scene where the two children are trapped in Cassandra’s invisible maze also felt not as sophisticated or intricate as the concept promised.

    But, that is me reading the book and expecting a good scare with exquisite writing and perfect plotting and finding the flaws magnified.

  16. mslibrarian says:

    By the way, I think “boring,” although probably not the most powerful argument at the table, is not really that subjective to taste. If that is the case, then we could just excuse every unskilled writer of poorly constructed plot and bad pacing by saying that the readers just don’t have the “right taste” for such and such book. Boring means the readers feel detached, uninvolved, or irritated by the lack of excitement or reading pleasure and each author’s top priorities always should include ways to engage the readers’ emotions: empathy, admiration, detest, etc. toward the characters, and thrill, surprise, joy, sorrow, etc. toward the events.

    So, Jonathan, who definitely admires characters in fantasy novels, such as Lyra and Bartimaeus, and also finds their stories thrilling and worthwhile, should not even think that you are just “not the right reader” for S&G. I don’t quite by the taste argument here.

  17. mslibrarian says:

    Argh… buy — not by in the previous comment.

  18. Diantha McBride says:

    Because of other reviews, I am FORCING myself through this book. I don´t think “boring” is a very analytical word, but it hits the nail on the head for me. Sorry.

  19. “Boring” is the last word I’d use to describe S&G, so I do think it is subjective. Maybe not subjective to taste, necessarily, but to mood or something else. There are books I’ve read in the wrong mood and didn’t love, but could admire for writing quality. Sometimes I’ve read them at another time, in another frame of mind, and had a completely different reaction.

  20. I finish S&G last night and thought it was quite good. I wouldn’t call it boring. But I did have some pacing issues.
    I read the 1st third of the book in one go because I found it so exciting. The middle third (once we know what happened to Clara and traveling/settling in at wintermere) was a bit of a slog and it took me forever to get through. The last third was pretty exciting and I plowed through it. Am not sure I would call the book boring but there were certainly some slower parts.

  21. Jonathan Hunt says:

    SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS just picked up its fifth starred review today from Bulletin, joining LIAR AND SPY and BOMB; MOONBIRD has six. I say we toss those four into a hat and pick one for the Medal with the others as honor books. 😉

  22. I think we ought to at least wait 9 more days for the National Book Awards finalist to be revealed before narrowing the field. With Susan Cooper and Gary Schmidt serving as judges this year I’m looking forward to seeing if there are any under the radar titles among the finalists that we should consider.

  23. Eric, are you turning into Jonathan? (That reminder about the NBA and who two of the judges are… sounds eerily like him:)

  24. TeenReader says:

    “I read the 1st third of the book in one go because I found it so exciting. The middle third (once we know what happened to Clara and traveling/settling in at wintermere) was a bit of a slog and it took me forever to get through. The last third was pretty exciting and I plowed through it. Am not sure I would call the book boring but there were certainly some slower parts.”

    Thank you, Eric, for expressing what in my mind was the only pressing flaw of this fantastic book. The careful pacing often worked against SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, but once I got through it I was fully on board. The language, characterization, plot, and theme are in my mind, deserving of the Medal. And I loved that the ending was one of the best parts of the book. I can be picky about how a book ends, and I was so glad that it didn’t unravel the good it created, as so many great books have. (**cough, LIAR AND SPY, cough**)

  25. TeenReader, I’m very picky about how books end, too (I just went off in a diatribe about BOMB on GoodReads), but what’s your issue with LIAR & SPY? You might take it over to that post, if you want to reply.

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