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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Emotion vs. Intellect

We’ve had a running conversation in the comments about whether nonfiction books appeal more to our emotions or our intellect. We’ve discussed four titles in some depth, and if I had to place them on a spectrum from most emotional appeal to most intellectual appeal, then I would rank them thus: WE’VE GOT A JOB, TEMPLE GRANDIN, MOONBIRD, and A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE. Those books in the middle–TEMPLE GRANDIN and MOONBIRD–both have some technical information, but they also tell involving stories about living things: people, birds, and cows. Of course, successful books often reach out to all kinds of readers, so this is not to say that each of these books does not appeal to both the emotional and intellectual reader, but rather that this is how I see their primary appeal.

Now if I take the fiction that we’ve discussed so far and place it on the same spectrum from most emotional appeal to most intellectual appeal, then I would rank them thus (excluding STARRY RIVER and WILL SPARROW which I haven’t read yet): WONDER, THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK, THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE, CROW, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, and NO CRYSTAL STAIR. But as I do this, I notice that neither THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN and NO CRYSTAL STAIR have the same cerebral level of involvement as A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE. In fact, I would correlate them to TEMPLE GRANDIN and MOONBIRD because they play to both the emotion and the intellect. I realize that many of you may quibble with my rankings here, you may be thinking that some of the books that I have ranked on the emotional end of the spectrum caused you to think quite a bit, perhaps even more than the ones I have placed on the intellectual end of the spectrum, but when I talk about intellectual appeal, I mean more than just thinking.

I’ve been reading THE READER’S ADVISORY GUIDE TO GENRE FICTION by Joyce Saricks (a professional reference book for librarians) which lists emotion and intellect as significant appeal factors for many readers. Saricks has divided her genres into four groups: adrenaline genres (adventure, romantic suspense, suspense, and thrillers); emotions genres (gentle reads, horror, romance, and women’s lives and relationships); intellect genres (literary fiction, mysteries, pyschological suspense, and science fiction); and landscape genres (fantasy, historical fiction, and Westerns). Intellect is the most important appeal factor for me followed by adrenaline, so it’s not surprising that when I see a book that plays to emotions and landscape (SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS or THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK, for example) I have to fight off a tepid response.

But back to our emotional/intellctual spectrum which currently lacks anything that I would place solidly to the right of NO CRYSTAL STAIR. I think there are some books that could be there, but we just haven’t discussed them yet. LIAR & SPY and THE FALSE PRINCE come to mind rather quickly, but I think we may also have some mysteries that end up there, too. Still there is nothing on our fiction spectrum that approaches the cerebral level of A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE so I am going to reach up to that 12-14 age range for a couple of unlikely Newbery candidates: RUINS by Orson Scott Card and ALL THE RIGHT STUFF by Walter Dean Myers.

RUINS is science fiction–the big fat middle volume of a big fat trilogy. This book will be challenging for readers drawn to the emotions genres, but the landscape, adrenaline, and intellectual appeal is off the charts. Booklist describes it thus: “At the end of Pathfinder (2010), Card left readers’ minds sugar rushing from some of the tastiest brain candy in recent memory . . . This is philosophically challenging, mind-pretzeling stuff about time travel, engineered evolution, gene splicing, artificial intelligence, xenocide, and the very nature of what it means to be human and have a soul.”

ALL THE RIGHT STUFF is . . . well, another novel of ideas. It’s kind of literary fiction, but the prose isn’t pretentious enough to be literary fiction. Publishers Weekly describes it thus: “Myers expertly turns a series of Socratic dialogues on the nature of the social contract into an engrossing and fast-paced novel that never feels preachy . . . Myers fits a large cast and many motivations into a relatively small work, and they in turn transform this extended examination of political philosophy into a must-read novel.” Once again the primary appeal here is intellectual. The other factors are present: the Harlem setting is distinct, the novel is brief and the pacing fast, and the characters are well drawn. But this book is anathema to the emotions reader who will feel like the characters are merely puppets for Myers’s dialogues rather than fully realized characters with their own thoughts, feelings, and actions.

So when you tell me that WONDER and THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK and THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE make you think about lots of issues. Well, yes, they do, but it’s not the intellectual workout that you get when you read RUINS or ALL THE RIGHT STUFF. I have not made a value judgment on any of these appeal factors nor have I made any attempt to relate them back to the Newbery criteria, but they do explain how we can read the same book and with the same criteria come to different conclusions.

It is important that we turn our critical eye inward from time to time and examine how we ourselves are flawed and how those flaws, in turn, impact our ability to apply the criteria fairly and impartially. Knowing what you know about me as a reader you can probably assume that when it comes to, say, development of a plot, that I am going to evaluate a book very differently than a reader who is drawn primarily to emotions and landscape rather than adrenaline and intellect. Fortunately, the committee process affords two important tools–rereading and discussion–that can help me see things from different perspectives.

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. This is so interesting! I’m a fiction-heavy reader with a love of landscape. Increasingly I’m interested in structure.

    I wonder if you can explain a little more about how you’re defining intellect? (as opposed to information) I assume it has to do with the way the information has been gathered, arranged, described, etc. But can you say more?

    I havent’ read all the books yet, but as I do, I want to think about this spectrum.

  2. (I mean “information” specifically as it relates to nonfiction.

    Typing this late at night and tired, but what I mean is– how do you separate out this idea of “intellect”?

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    According to Saricks, intellect genres present puzzles to engage the mind. THE WESTING GAME: not only do you have to find the murderer, but there’s also a bomber, a bookie, a burger–and a mistake. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Find the rest of the horcruxes, find the three hallows, figure out the connection between Harry and Voldemort, why Dumbledore trusted Snape, and what happened really happened on the night that Harry’s parents died. These are puzzles; they move beyond the typical what-happens-next suspense that can be found in virtually any story. Think of me as that kid in the cross-country car trip: Are we there yet? Are we THERE yet? Are we there YET? When the author creates puzzles to engage my mind the way that Raskin and Rowling do then it placates me. I do have the short-term suspense of what happens next to Turtle and Harry, but I have those other things to chew on as well.

    The novels I placed at the emotional end of the spectrum have landmarks for the reader, too. Since both WONDER and LIONS take place over the course of a school year, I can measure my progress through the novel by each passing month, holidays, and such. ARE WE THERE YET! Incidentally, MOONBIRD fits here, too, from a pacing standpoint (a year on the wind with B95) and not surprisingly, some people have complained about the pacing. To my mind, the numerous sidebars serve the same function as the viewpoint switches in WONDER. Personally, I find that they effectively complement what is otherwise a very simple narrative, but I understand people who disagree, especially since I have a similar response to those other two books. You might make solid and convincing arguments that these three books have distinguished plots: the events are interesting and unfold in a credible manner. The emotions reader may need nothing more distinguished than this. But another kind of reader is likely to look at LIAR AND SPY and BOMB and find those aformentioned books lacking something in comparison.

    Now the authors of WONDER and LIONS (and MALONE, too, which I place on that emotional end) have created first person narrators that they hope will enamor readers so much that their emotional investment in the story will override the are-we-there-yet impulse. According to Saricks, emotional reads need an evocative mood, enhanced by language and pacing, in order to create a strong emotional pull. Is that not the very definition of these books? And does it not also explain the lukewarm response to NO CRYSTAL STAIR? The choppy pacing doesn’t allow readers to connect with any of the characters and make the emotional investment they need in order to appreciate the story? Sounds about right to me.

  4. Very interesting! I read a lot of nonfiction (for adults as well as kids), and the stuff I give five stars to on goodreads always engages my emotions as well as my intellect. I’m thinking of writers like Stephen Jay Gould, Natalie Angier, and Wendell Berry.

    I think of the adrenaline genres as appealing more to men, although certainly not exclusively! I wonder if it breaks down this way in kid’s books, too.

    I think part of the popularity of nonfiction in the last ten years or so has to do with more creative nonfiction – it’s less “wonders of science and nature” strictly information type books, or dry biographies of famous men, and a lot more story-oriented stuff. :-)

  5. Okay, yeah. This is helpful. I like the idea of puzzles. That helps to clarify.

    But its interesting to me that “literary” gets lumped with “intellect.” I tend to think of puzzles as relating to mystery.

    And often I think the “emotional” books are doing the same sort of work, only the reveals and puzzles are about human interaction, and so more subtle. The reader doesn’t get that AHA! moment, so much as a growing sense of awareness about the deeper layers of the characters, relationships.

    But I guess this is the point– it’s not about the way the author writes, but the reader reads…

    In general, I find these distinctions to be inadequate, if useful, but I understand why we need them.

    I’ll get the Saricks! Sorry to take up so much space here mulling. This was really useful to me. First thing I thought about this morning!

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sarick’s book is about adult genres, and while I would argue that literary fiction has crept into the YA field, I really don’t see it very much as a children’s genre. Literary fiction seeks to explore moral and ethical dilemmas, and does so with lots of symbolism and figurative language (which is where the puzzle stuff enters in).

    I don’t think any book is 100% in any single category; there is bound to be crossover appeal. I also don’t think these categories necessarily describe the best appeal factors for children. In my experience, for example, while children may appreciate landscape, it is not their primary consideration when selecting books.

    So, of course, many books with an emotional appeal may also have a subtle intellectual appeal, but I would also argue, from my earlier examples, that Rowling and Raskin do all of the emotional stuff–and then then all intellectual stuff on top of it.

    I also think that most of us would probably describe the books that we gravitate toward as appealing both to our emotion and our intellect. In our discussion of LIONS, Sondy noted there’s a lot of stuff in the book: “Marlee’s not talking and needing a friend, Civil Rights in Little Rock, girls and math, cheating or not, standing up for what’s right, social justice…” There’s certainly a lot of food for thought, but I would never describe this as an intellectual book under the terms that Saricks lays out. If you’re still resisting my argument then read ALL THE RIGHT STUFF–it’s a quick read–and then compare it to LIONS in the context of this discussion.

  7. Jonathan, the first book that jumped to my mind as an “intellectual” one this year, based on your distinction, was MR. AND MRS. BUNNY–DETECTIVES EXTRAORDINAIRE. It’s possible that I’m overstating it because the idea of it being the most intellectual fiction of the year cracks me up, though. Have you read it? Another I thought about is THE UNFORTUNATE SON.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I have MR. AND MRS. BUNNY checked out now. It’s my second time with it, and I’m hoping to get it read this time around. If it’s a legitimate whodunnit kind of mystery, then it would definitely fall on the intellectual end of the spectrum, and I’d probably guess that Horvath’s wacky sense of humor also plays to intellect more than emotion. THREE TIMES LUCKY is another interesting one because it’s an emotional read through and through, yet it’s also a mystery, so I’m looking forward to discussing that one. And, then, finally there is this mystery that will published later this month: WHO COULD THAT BE AT THIS HOUR? by Lemony Snicket.

  9. Coming back for more:

    So, with the nonfiction books, as opposed to the example of mysteries… are they “intellect” books simply because the material appeals to that part of the brain? I mean, the author doesn’t get credit for how insanely complex the material might be, I can’t imagine? If one writes about Einstein, the writing isn’t smart simply because the book is about smart information, complex ideas, is it? Are these nf books especially excellent because the style of the writing somehow mirrors the content? In a mystery, the author gets credit for the invention of the puzzles, but maybe that’s not quite true for biographical or scientific information in the same way?

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    In this paradigm, I don’t think nonfiction books can be intellectual simply because they impart information. I classified JOB as an emotional read because I think it strives to hit the same emotional response as LIONS. To me, the narrative of JOB is more sophisticated and interesting because you have four narrators instead of one. MOONBIRD and TEMPLE GRANDIN also have strong emotional pulls on the reader. As for what makes for an intellectual appeal, I think some of it is the subject/genre and some of it is the style.

  11. Gotcha. Thanks!

  12. This helps me think about myself as a reader, and to understand where you’re coming from, Jonathan, so thanks for posting this!

    I probably appreciate emotions and landscape first and intellect a fairly close second. I have essentially no interest in adrenalin, which is why many of my all-time favorite books are ones where the most common criticism of them is “BUT NOTHING HAPPENS!!!”

  13. @Laurel, The subject matter labeling it as “intellect”, rather than the author’s craft is not important because books in the intellect category are not necessarily “especially excellent”. They’re just books that appeal largely to the intellect, versus books that appeal to another aspect of the reading experience. The author doesn’t “get credit” because what sort of appeal the book has is not necessarily related the craft of the book. I have read highly intellectual books that were poorly written, just as I have read highly emotional books that were poorly written. Every category will always have stellar examples, just as 90% of everything is crap, to reuse a previous post’s title.

    And I agree with Sam in saying “Thank you, Jonathan” this really made me think about how I view books. I have recently been struggling with why I have that “Are we there yet?” reaction to some books which I am otherwise enjoying, and yet other books I never seem to notice how far along I am. Being more aware that it’s partially a reaction to the type of book, rather than the book itself, will help me more fully appreciate books that don’t appeal to my primary reading affinities.

  14. This discussion makes me think of Louise Rosenblatt, a scholar who espouses a particular literary response theory involving a continuum with a purely aesthetic response at one and and a purely efferent one (e.g. informational) on the other. She argued that readers danced around sometimes responding both ways, sometimes more one way and less the other.

  15. I look forward to seeing this discussion of emotion and intellect play out as we continue to discuss potential newbery titles. I just read EACH KINDNESS today and i couldn’t help thinking about it within this framework, and it was great to see a book solidly on the emotion side the spectrum could hit me so hard regardless of the level of cynicism I attempted to bring to it.

  16. On a related note, did you all hear the story on npr about attention and reading Jane Austen yesterday?

    Different kinds of reading can basically engage more or less of your brain.

  17. I find this interesting, because I already realized there are two strong sides to me. My first Master’s degree was in Math; my second in Library Science. I love puzzles, and I love books that make me think. But that’s not necessarily the side of my mind that engages when I read children’s books. Or necessarily the part I want engaged. It seems like a bonus when it can do both. Of course, THE THIEF, by Megan Whalen Turner is a prime example of a sort of puzzle on top of the plot. This year’s CODE NAME VERITY is like that, but I think too old for the Newbery.

    I do think SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS had some puzzle elements — How would the girls pull this off? And PALACE OF STONE weaves a lot of threads together, which takes some intellectual work. But I actually don’t think of NO CRYSTAL STAIR as having many “puzzle” elements. Maybe because I thought it a little disjointed? The pieces didn’t really come together for me.

    My comment’s a little disjointed itself. But this is an interesting way to think about the books.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sandy: Very interesting article!

    Sondy: See, I don’t think that “How would the girls pull this off?” moves beyond the typical what-happens-next in any story so I can’t even see THE SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS as one of those mid-spectrum titles that appeals to both emotion and intellect (which of course says absolutely nothing about whether or not it is distinguished). PALACE OF STONE I could put down as one of those, however, both because of the plot and some of the philosophical discussion that Miri engages in at the university.

    I don’t think it’s helpful to think of any book as having only one of these four appeals. I think SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, for example, have a similar amount of intellectual appeal, but they offer it in different ways and in tandem with different appeals.

    With SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS you have the elements of a puzzle-like plot: multiple narrative threads woven with suspense. That suspense is diluted by the landscape and the emotions (both the investment in the characters and the development of a gothic horror mood). If this book were shorter by 100 pages then I’d say that it would also have strong adrenaline appeal.

    THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, on the other hand, has adrenaline appeal with a spare form that allows for a fast pace, but not much landscape appeal (in contrast to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS). It also has a strong emotional pull, almost manipulatively so. For me, the intellectual pull of the novel comes not from a puzzle-like plot, but the strong themes which, to me, push this toward literary fiction (I know I just admitted that I don’t see as a viable juvenile genre, but here is an accessible instance of it). Perhaps not everybody will see these themes as stimulating intellectually, and I have overstated the intellectual appeal.

    NO CRYSTAL STAIR may be another one where I have overstated the intellectual appeal, both because of the themes and the puzzle pieces, but it clearly does not have the same kind of emotional involvement with the main characters in the way the the others we have mentioned in this thread.

    My point here is that a book’s appeal is quite complex, and we risk oversimplifying things if we adhere to closely to any single model or literary theory. I would still encourage readers to take a shot at A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE and ALL THE RIGHT STUFF to acquaint themselves with the far end of the spectrum. With that as a reference point, I think you may redefine where books fall along your own personal emotional/intellectual spectrum.

  19. @Sondy – I think that while the puzzle metaphor is useful, we may be getting a little off track if we just stick to intellectual=puzzle. I see NO CRYSTAL STAIR as fitting Jonathan’s schema of “intellect” because it is primarily focused on giving the reader ideas to think about rather than characters to care about. In fact, that’s how I would sum up the whole intellect v. emotion issue: characters v. ideas (and then we might say adrenaline roughly correlates with plot and landscape very roughly with prose style). That’s what WE’VE GOT A JOB strikes Jonathan (and myself) as an “emotion” read–because it spends so much time with its characters, and reads the story of the events through these people’s reactions to it, rather than something like BLACK HOLE, which is simply explaining ideas, with no characters in sight.

  20. But I want characters and ideas. Even in non-fiction. I’m the reader that needs to attach somewhere to pull me through. If I don’t gain ideas or learn something I despair. BUT– I find the learning about characters absolutely riveting and the human condition in all it’s variety both emotional and entellectually appealing. I’m reading YA this year, but I find the ability to look at yourself and your preferences and somehow rise above to evaluate the book in hand is the essential job of award committees. And absolutely impossible at the same time. This is the conundrum that never fails to amuse and fascinate me.

  21. @ Carol E – of course! We all want it all. And Jonathan did point out that it’s not “helpful to think of any book as having only one of these four appeals”–Nina even said that she found an emotional component to BLACK HOLE. I think it’s just helpful to remember that not all authors are trying for the same combination of these appeals–some authors are highly motivated by expressing ideas, others by creating characters, etc. And it is worth our while to figure out what the author is trying to create, even if we don’t personal like the end product.

  22. Sara Ralph says:

    Very interesting stuff! Since I CANNOT wait for Ruins to come out, I am guessing that my reading appeal lies primarily with landscape, although I do enjoy suspenseful turn-pager type novels such as The False Prince (waiting until March for the sequel will be brutal) and Haddix’s Found series. It is very, very hard to separate yourself from your personal tastes (appeals) and evaluate a book objectively based on the Newbery criteria. I tend to love books, and what is my response when pressed for the reason why? Because I just do! I do appreciate this blog making me aware of nonfiction – when I read nonfiction, I tend to read books written for adults, and when I buy non-fiction as a school librarian, I’m looking for things that have kid appeal or which meet a specific curricular need/reading level. I loved Amelia Lost, a book I would not have read if it weren’t for this blog.

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