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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Peccadillo vs. Fatal Flaw

In our discussion of TEMPLE GRANDIN, I made the assertion that this criteria–Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization–ought to be applied to fiction just as rigorously as it is to nonfiction. Eric disagreed, citing one of our criticisms of OKAY FOR NOW last year.

A fiction book even a realistic one has no need to keep every instance as true as possible. Why does Joe Pepitone in a novel have be the same as Joe Pepitone the person? Why does a fictional New York Yankees schedule have to be identical with the actual schedule that we know existed (in our world, but not necessarily the world of the novel, no matter how similar those two worlds may otherwise appear)?

I believe that Eric has taken the wrong approach to this criticism. It’s not that what Schmidt did in that instance is not a flaw. It’s just that in the holistic assessment of OKAY FOR NOW it’s so insignificant that it doesn’t matter; it’s a peccadillo. In other words, that one thing cannot negate the interpretation of the theme or concept, development of a plot, delineation of characters, delineation of a setting, and appropriateness of style–especially when these elements were clearly among the most distinguished of the year–to say nothing of the presentation of all the information that was historically accurate. It’s not about nitpicking a book to death (although we certainly did that to OKAY FOR NOW), but about weighing the weaknesses against the strengths and then weighing that holistic assessment against other books. Thus, OKAY FOR NOW didn’t quite crack my top three, not because of this problem–or even the accumulation of several minor flaws–but rather because I simply esteemed other books to be slightly better.

No book is perfect and, indeed, many winning books often display these peccadilloes. Referencing Eric’s comments, Mark and Sarah have discussed accuracy in fiction on their blog starting here and here. In the course of their conversation, they recalled the geography faux pas that we noted in ONE CRAZY SUMMER, a book that went on to secure a Newbery Honor regardless.

In a recent Calling Caldecott discussion, Roger Sutton stated that, “The first printing of Grace Lin’s WHERE THE MOUNTAINS MEET THE MOON was crawling with typos, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Newbery Committee.”

Shortly after DEAD END IN NORVELT won the Newbery a couple of goodreads reviews noted that (a) the price of Girl Scout cookies in 1962 is incorrect and (b) since the original Norvelt settlers were in their 20s and 30s there is no way they could be dying off in time for DEAD END. I don’t know that either of these complaints have any merit–and quite frankly, I don’t care.

Why? Because I don’t read OKAY FOR NOW to learn about baseball schedules. I don’t read ONE CRAZY SUMMER to learn about Oakland geography. I don’t read WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON to practice my proofreading skills. And I don’t read DEAD END IN NORVELT to learn the price of Girl Scout cookies in 1962. That’s what Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube are for.

But, by the same token, I don’t read nonfiction to accumulate trivia either and I would be just as forgiving of minor inaccuracies in nonfiction (e.g. video cameras as opposed to film cameras in WE’VE GOT A JOB). I suspect I may be in the minority, however, as many people seem to take the contrary view that inaccuracy in nonfiction is very much a fatal flaw. I think many people see the primary purpose of nonfiction to teach information, and if I took that view of the genre, then I might agree with them. But since I read nonfiction for many of the same qualities that I read fiction, I don’t feel that I can give more weight to this single criterion of presentation of information at the expense of the other criteria. Morever, I find nothing in the Newbery criteria to justify such a position.

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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. Mark Flowers says:

    First, thanks for the shout-out, Jonathan. Second, I just finished reading one of my all time favorite history books: AFTER THE FACT: THE ART OF HISTORICAL DETECTION by James Davidson and Mark Lytle. The purpose of their book is to show that history is not simply “what happened in the past.” Instead, history is an active process of selecting evidence, analyzing documents, using a variety of political theories, and more. I think looking at history (and nonfiction) in this more holistic frame helps when we’re confronted with some of these minor “pecadilloes” in Jonathan’s term. The purpose of a good historical work is not to simply convey the exact facts of everything that happened in the past (if it were, then nitpicking individual errors might be more important) but to provide a framework and theory for understanding how and why those things happened, which I think all of the nonfiction books we’ve been discussing so far (TEMPLE GRANDIN, BLACK HOLE, WE’VE GOT A JOB) do in spades. For me, at least, this makes it easier to forgive small errors of fact, unless they play an inordinate role in the historian’s explanations of the how and why.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    If all six Newbery criteria pertain to a book and we assign each criteria equal weight in our evaluation then they would each account for 16.6% of a book’s overall score. Presentation of information is further broken down into three subcriteria–accuracy, clarity, and organization–which means that accuracy alone accounts for 5.5% of a book’s overall score. Even in a problematic book there are probably 10-20 accurate things for every one that is not. So . . . maybe a 1% deduction on a book’s overall score for even a handful of peccadilloes?

    Of course, not all criteria pertain to each book. Since character and setting do not apply to BLACK HOLE, for example, each of the remaining four criteria account for 25% of that book’s score with accuracy rising to 8%. To my mind, in order for inaccuracy to be a fatal flaw presentation of information must be the only thing that applies to the book–a dictionary, maybe, or some other reference work.

    We all love to point out the peccadilloes–almost with a sense of schadenfreude. I’m reminded of Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie, the young boy in EDWINA: THE DINOSAUR WHO DIDN’T KNOW SHE WAS EXTINCT. In the end, it didn’t matter that Reginald was right, that dinosaurs were extinct, all he really wanted was for someone to listen to him show off how much he knew. I think that happens a lot in committee. We talk up these peccadilloes, but I’m not sure that we really expect them to convince anybody. We just want to show off how clever and smart we are. Lest anyone become offended that I’m talking about them, I’ll talk about myself to illustrate my point . . .

    In THE SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS, one of the characters is Angel. Angel purportedly comes from a Portugese background. Now I can’t vouch for Portugese, but in Spanish Angel is a boy’s name and would never be used as a nickname for Angela, Angelina, or Angelica. I’m also not really buying “O Jesus querido” a phrase which translates roughly to “Oh, sweet Jesus!” but is not used in Spanish (in which those particular words mean the same thing in Portugese). Obviously, I’d have to do some more fact-checking, but my initial suspicion is that the cultural representation does not ring true. Would I play Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie at the Newbery table and bring this up? I would, but more because I want people to acknowledge how incredibly smart I am and how wide the vast stores of my knowledge are. Of course, I don’t believe that THE SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS is a strong contender, but that has nothing to do with Angel and her Portugese-ness and everything to do with how it compares to the other books on the table in terms of those other criteria: plot, character, setting, theme, and style.

  3. DaNae says:

    Got to love a Von Hoobie-Doobie reference!

  4. Sandy D. says:

    I think peccadilloes bother me more in nonfiction, especially if they’re easily checked (especially with the Internet these days, it’s not like they have to trudge to the library and check numerous different books or journals!), because I feel like the author was sloppy. And I suspect they might have been sloppy in their research or in other ways.

    In fiction, it sometimes bothers me, and I sometimes can’t help pointing out the error somewhere (there should be a forum somewhere called “The Nitpicker’s Guide to the Newbery Awards for just this purpose!) but as Mark points out on his blog, if I don’t feel like it’s really important information, or it serves a purpose in the plot, I’m way more willing to let it slide.

    Great topic again.

  5. Wendy says:

    As it happens, Jonathan, I speak Portuguese (though it’s Brazilian Portuguese, and both slang and proper names are some of the most likely places for it to differ from European Portuguese), and can set your mind at ease: Angel is a common enough girl’s name in Brazil, and “Jesus querido” is a thing. Did you ever buy the Portuguese aunt in the first place, though? I kept expecting that to be revealed as some elaborate fantasy slash lie.

    Repeating what others have said, really, as well as myself on Mark’s blog, what really bothers me are errors or inaccuracies that are philosophically untrue; I don’t care much about bald facts. So the thing about the price of Girl Scout cookies didn’t bother me, but the fact that DEAD END IN NORVELT’s Girl Scout was supposed to be selling cookies to make money for herself and her family did. Jonathan and I both objected to the Eagle Scout project in MOCKINGBIRD, because it would not have been a viable project, and much of the book hangs on the idea of his Eagle project and his sister finishing it after he dies. Actually, for a good part of the book I thought the brother was also a kid with special needs, because in certain cases a project like that might have been approved–but he wasn’t. I didn’t care at all where Joe Pepitone was the night of the play or anything about the baseball season, but when it was shown to me that Joe Pepitone was, shall we say, not the most likely person to attend opening night of a musical of Jane Eyre, that meant a lot more.

    As a nurse, I like to think that I have a sense of the real truth of any medical issue in a book–whether it is authentic. If I’m not buying it, I try to talk myself down if it doesn’t really matter in the long run. If others aren’t buying it, I can be relentless in telling them “actually that is really how it is”. There are a couple of other areas where I like to think I have specialized knowledge, too. I try to recognize when that knowledge, or perceived knowledge, is making an issue bigger than it truly is.

    I could go on about this topic for a long time–it’s a favorite one with me. But I will stop, except for pointing out one thing. Jonathan mentions that a lot of people here give a lot of weight to these errors in fact. But how often is it mentioned regarding a book that someone really loves, or even likes? It happens sometimes, but it seems to me like most of the time we are hoping to trounce a disliked title by pointing out sometimes-small errors.

  6. As a science writer, I would caution against judging a book inaccurate based on an internet search. Just because something is repeated 10,000 times doesn’t make it factual. For example, I once interviewed a Siberian tiger researcher who told me that virtually every piece of popular writing about Siberian tigers overstates their maximum weight. Another example: Virtually every piece of writing on mountain gorillas (scientific or popular) gives the wrong first name for the German who first reported the gorilla’s existence, based on an inaccurate decades-old plaque up in the Virunga Mountains. And most published information on “biggest seahorse” lists one species, but the most reliable scientific resource says it’s a different species…

    Probably the best thing for a writer when they face this situation is to write a note in the back matter to alert fact-checkers. But not every author may do this.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I expected a bit more resistance to my assertion that accuracy counts for very little in the evaluation of a book. I think most of us are probably on board with the idea of letting it slide in fiction, but I’m surprised that nobody has taken me to task for proposing that accuracy counts for very little in a nonfiction book.

    I have proposed that each criterion should be weighted equally, but should they? Don’t our expectations of each kind of book allow us to weight the criteria differently? In an adrenaline book we might weight the development of plot more while in an emotions book we might weight delineation of characters more and in a landscape book we might weight the delineation of setting more, allowing each book to play to their strengths–and our expectations. Can’t we expect to hold nonfiction books to a higher standard of accuracy because . . . well, this is what we expect from them–isn’t this sort of like a contract with the reader? And doesn’t a peccadillo undermine the authority of the author (as Sandy just suggested), making my claim that inaccuracy should only marginally count against a nonfiction book just a little bit suspect?

    I’ve been thinking about that entire presentation of information criterion. It is a strange little criteria indeed. I think it’s only applied in a negative fashion. For example, in fiction it’s an invitation to henpeck a title that you dislike; sling enough mud and something will surely stick. But do we ever say that a strength of fiction is its presentation of information?

    What about LIAR & SPY? I just reread Roger Sutton’s interview with Rebecca Stead in which he praises her inclusion of the taste test, particularly for how organically it’s integrated into the plot . . . Isn’t this presentation of information? Accurate? Clear? Organized? I think so. And yet when we think about the reasons why LIAR & SPY is distinguished we don’t think about the book in terms of presentation of information. Indeed, most of us probably see that as something that applies more to nonfiction.

    On the other hand, when I think about what makes BOMB or MOONBIRD the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, I don’t think in terms of presentation of information either. That book is so accurate, I just want to pin the Medal on it! Oh, the clarity of that text is just amazing! How I wish every nonfiction book were organized so well! Man, Sheinkin and Hoose–they *really* know how to present information!

    So, you see what I mean? Presentation of information isn’t something that helps either fiction or nonfiction move from the realm of distinguished to *most* distinguished. It’s the “literary” criteria that do that.

    In both cases, then, don’t the “literary” criteria trump presentation of information?

  8. Carol E says:

    I really like that last post Jonathan because I think it captures how we use the criteria to support our own emotional reaction to a title.

    There’s a wonderful little recognized book by Linda Urban called “A Crooked Kind of Perfect” that I think applies. It’s not in it’s perfection that we come to admire or respect something, it is in it’s flaws and failures that love comes about. It’s true for people and for books I think. Because — drum roll— there are NO perfect books. None. Anywhere. People are imperfect and by that very fact, the books they write are imperfect as well.

  9. Eric says:

    Jonathan great post! Lots of things to think about here. I think what it really comes down to is trust.
    In terms of fiction books, we have to ask ourselves whether the mistakes or inaccuracies in the text lead us to stop trusting the narrator? I think the way in which the story is told changes the way we look the importance of accuracy for a specific title.
    I don’t think anyone has a problem when an intradiegetic narrator is untrustworthy and inaccuracies from these (often first person) narrators can be seen as purposeful on the part of the author (See LIAR). When an extradiegetic narrator places inaccuracies in the text I feel that most readers consider these mistakes as mistakes of the author. If there are too many inaccuracies by these extradiegetic narrators we as readers lose faith in the narrator and with that the narrative as a whole.

    I’m not sure how this works for nonfiction texts. In narrative nonfiction texts such as BOMB the voice is that of an extradiegetic narrator, in A BLACK HOLE however it seems more like the author is speaking (lecturing?) directing to the reader. In the ladder case I feel like some mistakes or inaccuracy would cause me to lose faith/trust in the work as a whole. In the case of a more narrative driven piece of nonfiction (BOMB, CHARLES AND EMMA, etc) I feel like I’d give more leeway to the narrator. [this is probably unfair on my part]
    Did the mention of video cameras in WE’VE GOT A JOB lead me to lose faith in the information provided, no. Did it momentarily take me out of the story? Yes.

    As Wendy points out above, as a nurse she is particularly sensitive to medical inaccuracies. I assume anyone with an area of expertise is going to be sensitive to mistakes regarding this area. (I remember last year those with considerable knowledge about New York theater made some statements about whether Doug could act without being in the theater union, or something). My graduate school work was done in area of film history so I find myself cringing when characters refer to films or film technology that doesn’t quite jive with the academic research on these matters even though it might match perfectly with the popular understanding of the time period.

  10. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, I have to say the whole “equal weighting” of criteria idea seems dubious at best. First of all, those criteria are immediately followed by the “Note”: “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.” Secondly… I can’t imagine how it would be useful in the process to do this. Surely even within genres, some elements are more important than in others. There are some fantasy novels that are more dependent on plot, and some on character. etc.

    The question I ask myself with an inaccuracy is whether it undercuts the impact of the book. If the cultural representation of a character rings untrue to the extent that the whole character rings untrue, then that character’s part in the book is undercut. So the next question is how essential that character is to the book’s overall impact for the ideal reader. In nonfiction, I’m with Sandy D above… inaccuracies that either seem sloppy, or deliberately misleading, then force me to question the entire narrative. One small sloppy mistake on a side issue won’t do that, but many…

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The idea of equal weighting of the criteria is not only extremely dubious (as I noted in my earlier comment), but it’s virtually impossible to do if we’re talking about a genuinely holistic evaluation. Equally dubious, however, is the other extreme which, as Carol noted, allows a committee member to weight the criteria to which they most respond. If I don’t read nonfiction and I don’t like nonfiction and I don’t really even understand how to evaluate nonfiction . . . if I can simplify everything to a matter of accuracy or back matter or design or whatever then I really don’t have to grapple with the aesthetic qualities of nonfiction.

  12. Wendy says:

    Jonathan, I think much of the nonfiction that’s been praised here in the past has been praised due to the quality of the presentation. That’s actually one of the primary things I look for, one of the things that I like best in the nonfiction I like best. I disliked THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE a couple of years ago in part because I felt it was muddled and unclear. On the other hand, this year’s TITANIC: VOICES is wonderfully clear and organized. LINCOLN AND DOUGLASS is well done, too, whereas one of my few criticisms of WE’VE GOT A JOB is that I felt the timeline of events wasn’t always clear.

    My point: I disagree that presentation of information is still lesser than the “literary” criteria in nonfiction. Which, I suppose, might be why Jonathan and I are both partial to nonfiction, but often not the SAME nonfiction.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    To my mind, development of plot and presentation of information in regard to organization are essentially the same thing because plot is the arrangement of events in a narrative. I also think clarity falls under appropriateness of style (at least for nonfiction). So, for me, accuracy is the only thing under presentation of information that is not redundant. I see accuracy as kind of a baseline, something you need in order to be seriously considered, but those other things are what elevate you to excellent and most distinguished. So, I guess I would consider clarity (style) and organization (plot) as part of the “literary” criteria.

  14. Wendy says:

    Hmm, I don’t think of “clarity” as falling under “style” at all, so much so that I’m not even sure how to explain why. I mean, there’s a clarity of prose that is a stylistic choice whether a book is fiction or nonfiction, but I think that’s different from what I mean here, which is more like “is the information clearly presented?” It doesn’t matter how straightforward or simple the language is if the structure and design are messy or less than coherent.

    Likewise, I think there are parts of organization that could fall under “plot”, but there are also nonfiction books that really have no plot; they don’t tell the story of a series of events. And even in a book like MOONBIRD, which does have a plot of sorts (a couple, really), one of the things I liked in the book was the structuring of the sidebars, so that every time I had a question or doubt about something in the main text, Hoose seemed to anticipate that and pop up with a sidebar answering my question. It was very satisfying, and, I think, a triumph of organization separate from plotting.

  15. Mark Flowers says:

    I’m going to agree with Wendy and say that organization does not equal plot and clarity does not equal style. One problem with this discussion is that the types of nonfiction books we look at for the Newbery tend to more closely correlate with fiction. When we look at a less narrative book, like BLACK HOLE, we see that “plot” isn’t really relevant at all. Or to take a mixed example – much of the power of Jill Rubalcaba’s EVERY BONES TELLS A STORY comes from the macro-organization of juxtaposing four different accounts of archaeological finds. But I think even with the more narrative nonfiction books, organization is not simply “plot” – it is things like the sidebars Wendy mentioned, the presentation of source material, footnotes, indices, etc. I might even be moved to argue that the with these narrative nonfiction books, we should discard the notion of “plot” and *only* talk about organization of information, but I won’t go that far right now.

    As for clarity vs. style, I think Wendy is again onto something when she talks about the messiness or clarity of thought vs. simplicity or complexity of language. Explaining to a young audience the concept of Einsteinian physics and how it applies to a black hole is not simply a matter of using words and sentence structures that children understand, it is also about the overall “clarity” of the way these concepts are presented. In this case, I might be moved to argue that we should be discussing clarity of information more often in fiction works than we do, rather than subsuming that discussion into style.

  16. Laurel says:

    What about “character?” Could a brilliant nonfiction book win without developing character?

  17. Mark Flowers says:

    @Laurel – sure! Again, BLACK HOLE is a great example. Also, Jim Murphy’s books don’t tend to do much character development.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, I still agree with myself. ;-)

    We often use plot and story interchangeably, but plot more specifically refers to the arrangement (i.e. the organization) of events within the story. Thus, HOLES would have an entirely different plot if the story was told in strict chronological order rather than with all those flashbacks. So, it’s the order of the events in the story as much as what happens that makes the plot of a book. Another key feature of plot is causality. Remember, it was E.M. Forster who said: The King died and then the Queen died is a mere succession of events in time; the King died and then the Queen died of grief is a plot. Thus, plot is also about a logical progression of events (or ideas). BLACK HOLE does have a plot because DeCrisfofano made key decisions about how to organize the material so that they unfolded in a logical and orderly progression. I’m not sure we disagree, Wendy and Mark, as much as we are quibbling about semantics, but it’s important for me to couch the discussion in these terms so that we all understand that novelists don’t have a special skill set (e.g. plotting) that nonfiction writers do not have. They have the same tools; they just use them differently.

    I think I am taking a broader view of style. Sure, we most often mean the sentence-level writing (i.e. the prose) when we talk about style, but I think it also encompasses paragraph-level writing, too, at the very least. I think it’s not just which words are being used to tell the story, but how those words are being used. Does this shade over into plotting/organization? Probably, but don’t all the literary elements meld into each other?

    Theoretically, a book with no characters can win Newbery recognition. VOLCANO was the last book to do so but that was 25 years ago. BLACK HOLE seems like the most likely candidate this year (unless you count MOONBIRD). From a purely, emotionless standpoint BLACK HOLE should be a shoo-in for Newbery recognition. It’s so vastly different from not just a novel like LIAR & SPY and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, but also from other nonfiction (being that it is primarily an expository text as opposed to a narrative text). It truly is an apples vs. oranges dilemma. There is no way to truly do a head-to-head comparison. If you do that then you end up picking what you personally like the best (probably a novel).

    Is this a better example of an orange or is that a better example of an apple? Well, the gap in quality and accomplishment between LIAR & SPY and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS is not very great; ditto for BOMB and MOONBIRD. At least, not relative to BLACK HOLE and the next best expository texts like CASTLE or ISLAND or OCEAN SUNLIGHT. It’s a much wider gap, and I would argue that BLACK HOLE is a more outstanding example of what it is than virtually any other book published this year. But it’s appeal is primarily intellectual, and that will make it very difficult to build consensus around.

  19. Wendy says:

    Oh, I don’t think we’re quibbling semantics at all–I think it’s a genuine difference of opinion–and I think defining “plot” more broadly actually makes it more difficult to discuss quality. Why insist that all books have a plot? Why not just use terms like “organization” and “presentation”? I don’t think trying to discuss BLACK HOLE in the same terms as LIAR & SPY makes them any easier to compare and contrast. I much prefer to talk about books in the terms of your last paragraph–whether it’s a problem novel, literary fiction, humor, biography, expository. Is it the best example of what it is? Eventually, of course, you do get to the point where you have to choose between BLACK HOLE and LIAR & SPY. (The thing is, I wasn’t remotely enamored of BLACK HOLE and I don’t really get what the fuss is about.)

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A couple addendums to my previous comment–

    I would actually say that DARK EMPEROR is the last book without characters to win Newbery recognition.

    I think quite highly of OCEAN SUNLIGHT, ISLAND, and CASTLE but they are pitched to a much younger audience and have heavy illustrations.

    And a response to Wendy–

    But I’m not defining plot more broadly at all. All writers make decisions about the text, not just what to include but where to place things. I really don’t care whether you want to call it plot or organization. I find “presentation” a fairly meaningless word without further clarification.

    What’s your favorite piece of expository nonfiction this year?

  21. Sandy D. says:

    ::Jonathan mentions that a lot of people here give a lot of weight to these errors in fact. But how often is it mentioned regarding a book that someone really loves, or even likes?::

    I think I’ve pointed out errors in fact in Newbery winners (or contenders) that I’ve reviewed and loved – but I usually make excuses for the errors. For instance, in “Every Bone Tells a Story”, Rubalcaba and Robertshaw note that scientists didn’t believe that Neandertals contributed to modern human genetics – unfortunately, right before some ground-breaking research reversed agreement on this.

    This kind of error is going to be inescapable in some science books. But shoddy research that could have been easily researched (like putting Native tipis in the Northeast U.S.) is the kind of thing that is really inexcusable now.

    To be fair, many scientists (especially archaeologists and anthropologists) write so very….well, badly for their peers, it can be hard to extract the meaning, let alone the subtlety in articles, dissertations, etc.

  22. DaNae says:

    Thank you, Jonathan, and everyone, for this illuminating conversation of which I have learned much and have little to add.

    A friend who served on a long ago Newbery committee did confess to me that her year’s personal frontrunner didn’t stand a chance once the internet came abuzz with a geographical discrepancy in the book regarding the New York Subway system. There may have been other reasons that the committee overlooked that book. Looking at another year, It would have been a shame if ONE CRAZY SUMMER, had been passed over because of geography that would only give pause to the Oakland cognizant.

    This reminds me of a time I suffered children’s-lit vertigo. I have read one particular chapter of RAMONA THE PEST so many times I hardly need the book to recall it. When I finally found myself in the real Klickitat neighborhood and discovered the position of Ramona’s house, her school, and the, then under-construction, grocery store was all wrong for the story to work. Once my head quit reeling and I quit trying for force streets to bend in a shape that put Henry Huggins on the right corner to rescue Ramona from the mud, I realized that the literal intersection of a fictional book mattered not at all to the effectiveness of the story.

  23. Wendy says:

    Jonathan said: “What’s your favorite piece of expository nonfiction this year?” You’ve got me there. I don’t know as I’ve read any others. Certainly some of the other non-fiction titles I’ve read this year have expository sections, but whole books? No. If you’ve got any to suggest, I’d happily read them.

  24. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I can’t even think of any others we’ve discussed over the past several years (purely expository books, that is), but that alone should suggest how distinguished this book is. I can’t find any on my starred review list–unless I go down to the picture books (ISLAND, OCEAN SUNLIGHT, and CASTLE: HOW IT WORKS) which fight against three biases: nonfiction, illustration, and brevity of text.

    The problem with this book–and you’ve put your finger on the problem–is that nobody is *enamored* with it, at least not to the point where they are going to put it in their top three. I think it’s an instance where this book has done everything that the Newbery criteria have asked of it, but it’s still not enough . . .

  25. Wendy says:

    What’s even more troubling is that the Sibert is also short on expository titles (though I’d probably have to futz around with the idea of “what is expository” for a while to say definitively). The year I was on the judging committee for the Cybils for middle-grade/YA nonfiction, one of our books was Written in Bone; I’d say that and the Bodies From The books have been some of my preferred expository books of the last few years. I do really enjoy books about other branches of science when I come across them, but since it’s all I can do to keep up with what people bring to my attention, I haven’t been seeking them out.

  26. Eric says:

    Should the Newbery committee be at all concerned that BLACK HOLE will become almost immediately dated? New discoveries abound in field of astrophysics, I don’t have a copy in front of me but I seem to recall DeCristofano actually mentions how the field is always changing. I know it’s not in the criteria but it seems kind of silly to slap a medal on a book that will might need to be weeded in only 3 or 4 years as additional discoveries expand our knowledge and correct some information about black holes.
    More narrative nonfiction such as the Scientist in the Field books take a look at specific problems or experiments are less likely to lose their value over time. I am trying to get a hold of BLACK HOLE again because when I read it this summer it did not stand out as very distinguished in my mind. I thought the voice was odd and there were some instances where DeCristofano’s language falls a bit flat. Trying to remember one particular instance where he vaguely refers to (I think it was) Einstein a paragraph before identifying him. I really wish I had a copy to look at, sorry. Anyway my main impression was that I could have learned more or at least as much by watching an episode of Nova on pbs. I know I keep bringing up BOMB but I thought that Sheinkin’s explanations of nuclear reactions and atomic bombs (especially the difference between uranium and plutonium bombs and the University of Chicago experiments) were way more distinguished examples, even at the sentence level, of distinguished writing which explains scientific processes. I’m just now sure how BLACK HOLE is much of a contribution to the canon of children’s literature.

  27. Mark Flowers says:

    @Eric – wow, that’s really interesting question that had not occurred to me, regarding the changing in the field. So I really don’t mean to diminish it at all, but at least theoretically, isn’t this possible for many types of nonfiction. I mean, presumably no one should be reading the Pulitzer Prize winning GUNS OF AUGUST for an accurate account of WWI anymore. So, how do we decide how quickly a nonfiction book is going to be supplanted. And, does it even matter for the Newbery which is about *literary* excellence? I have no idea.

  28. Jonathan Hunt says:

    It is a good question, Eric. If BLACK HOLE wins Newbery recognition (guaranteeing it a much longer shelf life and multiple print runs) then I’m almost certain that Charlesbridge and DeCristofano would amend the text to reflect any signifcant discoveries. I believe this already happened with the Caldecott Medal book, SO YOU THINK YOU WANT TO BE PRESIDENT? which included George Bush (and may now include Obama?).

  29. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I also hear you about preferring to watch a science documentary to learn about black holes. I think many of us, especially children of the digital age, would prefer that. The nice thing about a book, however, especially one with challenging subject matter is that the reader controls the pace of information, reading slowly or stopping to reread.

  30. Wendy says:

    THE STORY OF MANKIND itself was revised after it won the award. I don’t think it matters too much whether a book quickly grows outdated–we could probably cite a number of books in the canon that are outdated, whether because of new information or changing attitudes toward race or politics–but I suspect that it HAS mattered, historically, when it’s come to making a choice. The author of BLACK HOLE is a woman, by the way, Eric.

  31. Eric says:

    Apologies to Ms. DeCristofano, let’s chalk that up to an exhausting week of ITBS testing shall we…
    I thought about both the David Small as I wrote the above comment but I’m not sure it’s fair to continue to call a book Caldecott winner if the contents are revised/updated. Who is to say that the committee would approve of the art in the new pages? It certainly isn’t the same book that they awarded.
    Same goes for THE STORY OF MANKIND, I’ve only ever read (and LOVED!!!) in an edition that preserves the original text. I’m not interested in reading an update to the story. It seemed very clear to me that van Loon was telling the story as it leads to the then modern time, simply adding more recent history to the end of the book without dramatically changing the preceding 700 pages seems like a foolish exercise, which would rob the book of it’s STORY. And again I wouldn’t consider any revised or updated versions of this book as newbery winners as they contain text that the original committee didn’t consider when they made their decision.

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