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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Girls vs. Boys

There are some boy protagonists in the Newbery-potential lineup this year.  But they tend to be non-genre reads.  Where is the “boy” equivalent of PALACE OF STONES, or THREE TIMES LUCKY?  What’s the male equivalent of the “spunky girl” kind of novel?

N.D. Wilson’s THE DROWNED VAULT doesn’t make even near my top ten for the year, but if the two titles mentioned above (which don’t either) are going to be on the table, then so should it.  Plus: it’s a much higher caliber of writing than THE LIGHTNING THEIF or HARRY POTTER, while achieving the same punch.   It’s the second in a series, “The Ashtown Burials,” following THE DRAGON’S TOOTH from last year. It does not stand alone, or try to, but that might have to be a different discussion.  Cyrus and Antigone are a 13 and 14 year old brother-sister team, more or less orphaned, and suddenly indoctrinated into a secret society they never knew their parents were a part of.   They are taken for James-Bond-like training at an estate that seems a conflation of Hogwarts, The Da Vinci Code, and Indiana Jones, to spectacularly exciting effect.   There’s an evil madman, ethically divided transmortals, powerful relics, and great action.  Wilson can write an action scene that makes you feel like you’re wearing 3D glasses, and he doesn’t hold back (as they flee the estate under siege, Cyrus forgets his boots and you will fell every torn toenail in detail on the way to the seaplane).  At the same time, Cyrus and Antigone have a complexly drawn orphaned-sibling-relationship, and the side characters are all fully developed. (When a new side character is introduced on page 210: we meet her waking up a minute before her alarm goes off at 4:30am, and follow her thoughts until it does.  In that one page, we know about her what most other writers would need thirty pages to get to). Plot, character, setting….all of it stands up admirably to most of the “girl” reads on the “Newbery 2013″ Goodreads poll.

Why do we tend to forget to consider books like THE DROWNED VAULT?  I know that I wouldn’t have been drawn to it in a pile except for the fact that I know Wilson to be a great writer (LEEPIKE RIDGE, 100 CUPBOARDS, etc.)…   but neither was I drawn to THREE TIMES LUCKY or GLORY BE, and I read those because you all mentioned them.   The Newbery committee strives for diversity in its ranks…yet if you get 3 men out of 15 members that is a red letter day.   It may be too easy to chalk it up to gender…there’s likely some genre-bias going on here too, and in general some “profiling” that committee members must do in wading through their stacks.  At the end of the day though, it’s hard for me to see that that wide “middle ground” of really good books that gets discussed in public Mock Newbery circles reflects far beyond the reading tastes of those talking.  Ladies?

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. THE FALSE PRINCE probably fits in here too as another male equivalent to the “spunky girl” novel but I see it more as a “poor man’s” Megan Whalen Turner novel. Not a newbery contender but a nice breezy book worth reading if it’s a genre you typically enjoy.

    UNFORTUNATE SON is next on my to read pile and I’m hoping that this one might fill the void you’ve brought up.

  2. Such a great question. How about Stefan Bachmann’s THE PECULIAR? Or Geoff Rodkey’s DEADWEATHER AND SUNRISE? Sadly, some from this year that I really liked are not eligible: Caroline Lawrence’s THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS or Garth Nix’s A CONFUSION OF PRINCES.

  3. Two biggest hits with my male students this year are THE SHADOW ON THE MOUNTAIN and BOMB. They are also quite liking LIAR & SPY.

    Nina, it is something I struggle with every year. My reading list is fairly long for my Newbery club students. I capped it at sixty this year eschewing the Riordan, Mull, and Kinney options for the first time. This cut out the books that were sure to be read regardless of requirement. I require that they read a minimum of five books.

    Eric, I like your assessment of THE FALSE PRINCE. It is such a shallow echo of Turner but it is getting much love among both the girls and boys in these parts. UNFORTUNATE SON, which I thought was wonderful, is being held captive by a slow but determined reader. Once he finishes I hope to get it into more hands.

  4. Nina, I’m not clear on exactly what lack you’re talking about. Is THREE TIMES LUCKY a genre read? Can you clarify for me what the lack is if it’s not just boy protagonists?

    I like THE UNFORTUNATE SON very much, although I smile ruefully because one reason I liked it so much more than I expected was that it was more broadly appealing than I thought it would be from the cover, which looks like an action movie.

    There’s WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS, if we’re looking for genre fiction starring boys.

    A quick, unscientific look at the eligible novels I’ve read so far this year show 13 books with either a male or a dual male/female protagonist, vs 20 books with a female or dual male/female protagonist, which doesn’t seem too bad to me when I consider my own reading preferences. And as usual, men have an edge on the non-fiction side.

  5. Nina Lindsay says:

    I think that THREE TIMES LUCKY qualifies as a genre read since it’s got mystery and suspense….though it’s not hardcore genre.

    I’m having a hard time defining this myself…but, for instance, WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS and CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOES, both of which I like quite a bit, are certainly “boy” books…. but they don’t hit hardcore “boy” interests of high paced detailed action, etc. Whereas we do have books to discuss that hit hardcore “girl” interests of romance, etc.

    Part of the reason that I have a hard time defining this is that I hate these generalizations…

  6. Since you hate these generalizations, what about using the terms Jonathan was talking about a few weeks ago and call them emotion versus adrenaline books? With the exception of horror most of the emotion genres are those that stereotypically appeal to girls (romance, relationships, gentle reads) while the adrenaline genres are stereotypically boy (adventure, thrillers, suspense).

  7. When I start thinking “adrenaline” versus “emotion” rather than “girl” versus “boy”, I start to realize how infrequently the adrenaline books are given awards. Obviously no book is purely one type, but in thinking about books that I would categorize primarily as an adrenaline read, I couldn’t come up with one off the top of my head. Even THE GRAVEYARD BOOK I think is primarily more an emotional read (a lot of it deals with Bod’s relationships and growing up, and even the scary bits are more horror than fear.)

    “Off the top of my head” is clearly not a comprehensive search. Can someone else think of a good candidate for a book that is primarily adrenaline, versus landscape, emotion, or intellect?

  8. Nina Lindsay says:

    Alys, “adrenaline” and “emotion” are probably useful for us to stop thinking about the gender, but they were also generalizations that I was having a hard time with….which I why I didn’t get into that conversation. There’s a lot of emotion, for instance, in DROWNED VAULT, having to do missing parents, sibling rivalry and bonding, and boy crushes on older girls. Even so: better terms to start using here. Thanks.

    I think the best books DO have a combination…(HIGH KING; THE THIEF; SINGLE SHARD; WESTING GAME; HOUSE OF THE SCORPION; JOEY PIGZA, etc….. all have some of both); but that we’re used to putting “emotion” in a value hierarchy over “adrenaline.”

    (Come to think of it, looking at the list of winners….some of the titles that best tap my adrenaline are the nonfiction ones, which is what Jonahtan was getting to. CLAUDETTE COLVIN; HITLER YOUTH…)

  9. YES! YES! YES!

    Okay sorry…but I’m so happy that you wrote this post Nina as THE DROWNED VAULT is in my top 10 reads of the year. Of all the books I’ve read, not just the ones for Newbery conversations. I think that it is Wilson’s best work so far. I hadn’t brought it up due to the whole sequel-stand-on-its-own thing. There is so much done well, the characters and themes especially. And yes, Wilson is one of those authors who can convey so much with few words. Not that I see it as being completely flawless. There are some pacing issues here and there.

    And yes, it balances adrenaline and emotion quite nicely.

    I am also interested in the broader question you asked by posting this. Honestly, I would far prefer to be reading more books like this, but that is my own genre bias. I prefer fantasy. There have been times this year in trying to keep up with the Goodreads Newbery list and the titles people were posting here that I just found myself glaring at my TBR pile not wanting to read anything in it. There is room for a little more balance, but history tells us these aren’t the books that win and so I think they get ignored or not brought up at all. I really really hope the actual committee isn’t doing that.

    I also find it interesting how many of the books brought up are realistic fiction (many of them very average in my opinion). I think most of the fantasy mentioned so far this year is only mentioned because former Newbery honorees wrote them. (Hale, Schmidt, Lin)

    So while we are discussing it I would also like to throw out that I think ABOVE WORLD by Jenn Reese is another gem from this year that is distinguished in terms of setting, character, and theme and has that balance of adrenaline and emotion happening.

    Also I loved PEACEWEAVER by Rebecca Barnhouse.

  10. Get out of Town, Rebecca Barnhouse has a new book. How did I miss that?

  11. Nina Lindsay says:

    …and Monica mentioned THE PECULIAR which also taps the Fantasy readers and has some noteworthy writing, though, in my opinion, more flaws.

    See: here is why generalizations don’t work. I’m a “fantasy reader” but I like character/setting-driven fantasy (Ursula Le Guin, Robin McKinley), and don’t read it for plot or action. And I think of “The Ashtown Burials” series as more “adventure” than “fantasy,” and appreciate it for that. It makes me think of some of my favorite action/thriller movies that have good stories behind them: Twelve Monkeys, the very first Matt Damon Bourne, etc.

  12. Yes DaNae! And it’s the companion novel to THE COMING OF THE DRAGON, a true companion novel as they end in the same place but the last couple chapters of the two books are the only overlapping there is. I actually liked this one more than the first. (There’s going to be a third one coming out Dec 2013.)

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think the lukewarm responses to THE FALSE PRINCE prove Nina’s point. Yes, it’s reminiscent of THE THIEF (and THE HUNGER GAMES somewhat), but why are we so dismissive of it? Whereas THREE TIMES LUCKY stands in the shadow of MISSING MAY, WALK TWO MOONS, THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, BELLE PRATER’S BOY, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, HATTIE BIG SKY, ad nauseum. They’re all just variations on a tired old theme. And those are only the ones in the Newbery canon. So why is it that we can so easily dimiss THE FALSE PRINCE and fail to see THREE TIMES LUCKY as the same old, same old? Why, people! Why!?!

    I don’t think a boy main character is enough to make something a boy book. There are several other factors, too, including length and pacing. I remember when RIVER SECRETS came out, Shannon Hale wrote on her blog somewhere about how she approached writing a male main character with an eye to writing for a more male audience. I can’t remember what all she wrote, but the book is the shortest of the Bayern books (nearly 100 pages less than GOOSE GIRL and FOREST BORN, in fact); it’s also my favorite. I would say the same thing of CHICKADEE by Louise Erdrich which features boys as the main characters for the first time. It’s 50-60 pages shorter than BIRCHBARK HOUSE and THE GAME OF SILENCE (I can’t remember THE PORCUPINE YEAR very well, and I may not have read it), it’s funnier, and the narrative develops a better sense of suspense as it switches between various viewpoints. Again, I’ll be damned if it isn’t the best book in the series.

  14. I’m pretty strongly opposed to dividing books up by gender (especially as a male who read many many “girl” books as a child – and as an adult for that matter), but I nevertheless think that Nina and Jonathan are onto something. I especially like Jonathan’s last post about the quick dismissal of THE FALSE PRINCE vs. THREE TIMES LUCKY (or whatever other book you want to put in that category).

    The problem I have is when I hear about allegedly “boy” books that I should be recommending to readers that turn out to be just terribly written – my current case in point (having just reread it for my library’s bookclub) is THE LIGHTNING THIEF, which is just an atrocious piece of prose. Fast paced, adrenaline, funny, whatever traits you want to put here – none of them have to be mutually exclusive of good prose. Witness (as Monica mentioned) CONFUSION OF PRINCES, or any Orson Scott Card.

    Having said that, I wonder if sometimes our perceptions of “good prose” are blunted by the substance of the book. Do we just expect a fast-paced thriller to be poorly written, and a meditative small town book to be well written? That’s the only reason I can come up with for last year’s Printz winner.

  15. Well, I think (as I just said elsewhere) that THREE TIMES LUCKY is better than Jonathan is giving it credit for; I’d put THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK in there myself, maybe. I liked THE FALSE PRINCE but thought it was heavier on the tropes and cliches than THREE TIMES LUCKY. Respectively. I guessed that the at-times-great similarities to THE HUNGER GAMES might have been more coincidence than anything else. Anyway, I’m dismissive of it because I don’t think it’s distinguished enough, just as I am of–well, the majority of books that come up. I think most of us are. I’m interested in discussing THREE TIMES LUCKY as sort of the “Miss Congeniality” of the competition, but THE FALSE PRINCE didn’t seem to me to have that much discussion material. Happily willing to be proved wrong.

    Jonathan, I don’t think CHICKADEE is better than THE PORCUPINE YEAR (which is for a slightly older audience), but I thought she pulled it off pretty well, too–much as Laura Ingalls Wilder did with FARMER BOY.

  16. Sara Ralph says:

    Lack of hype might be a reason; this post was the first I have ever heard of The Drowned Vault. Thanks to Harry Potter, the fantasy genre is the most bloated genre of children’s literature; it seems impossible to keep up-to-date on all its variations.

  17. In talking about books that have “both” I find myself thinking now about books that have adrenalin, but a girl MC, and in a lot of cases, a historical setting. Like Miss Malone or Lions of Little Rock.

    I don’t like the girl/boy division either, but I wonder– Hunger Games aside– if a boy MC doesn’t make a book a boy book, does a girl MC keep it from being one?

  18. Thank you Wendy for saying what I wanted about THE FALSE PRINCE. It wasn’t THE THIEF similarities that cause me to write if off, it was it’s predictability and cliches and shallow characterizations that left me indifferent. I find that with my students none of those things matter, which is why Riordain will continue to clog my shelves. I’m sure there are many possibilities in the genre and I’m interested to give the Wilson book that Nina mentioned a shot.

  19. Sara and Danae, yes, the bloating is a big issue. But I’ve always felt that way about MC books. 😉 A head’s up to anyone who does try this one for their readers…you really do need to read the series in order. And it’s got its own cliches, but some fiber to go with them.

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I completely disagree about the literary merit of THE FALSE PRINCE. I think it’s more predictable to the reader who has read THE THIEF, but we can’t assume that every child reader has done so. I also don’t think it has shallow characterications. It may have shallow characterizations for the emotions/character-driven/girl reader, but for the adrenaline/plot-driven/boy reader I think the characterization is quite good.

    Can we talk more about predictability? THE SCORPIO RACES is another book that kind of played off the HUNGER GAMES’s only-one-of-them-can-win motif, but it was quite obvious that the girl–being the Katnis stand-in (i.e. desperate and determined)–would win, yet we got four-hundred pages of molasses-slow plotting with gobs of setting and character. The book went on to win a Printz Honor among other awards. Double standard for predictability? You betcha. Girl books can be predictable because they play to emotions and characters? Whatever.

    Can I pick on DaNae here just to make a point? Your three nominations on the Nominations thread were SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, THE SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS, and THREE TIMES LUCKY. You actually have LIAR & SPY and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN rated higher than those last two on the goodreads poll, but you freely admitted you were being strategic. Now both IVAN and LIAR have more boy appeal (although again I don’t think character is the main draw for them). So your three nominations are pretty solidly girl books. Now we know you well enough to know that you are open-minded enough that if we could get you to our mock Newbery in Oakland that we could probably change your mind a bit, and those nominations were probably not indicative of what your final vote would be anyway. But it doesn’t camouflage the fact that your natural inclination is to these girl books. Moreover, and I think this is the point that Nina was making–you have no problem putting that bias out there in the public discourse.

    Now back to Nina’s provocative question that nobody has addressed . . . Let’s pretend we have two males on our committee. One of them gravitates toward boy books–and only boy books. He’d rather have BOMB and THE FALSE PRINCE win, but he’ll probably end up throwing his support to LIAR & SPY because consensus dictates that this is his best option. The other male displays no bias whatsoever; he likes BOMB but he also likes THE SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS. He’s a wild card, able to vote for a wider range of books. The other thirteen members of committe are female. Let’s pretend they display a similar 50-50 split. That is, let’s say six of them prefer girl books, while seven of them are swing voters just like our second male, able to vote for either boy or girl books. So the committee make-up looks like this . . .

    1 member who will only vote for a boy book

    8 members who are swing voters (who can vote for a boy book or a girl book)

    6 members who will only vote for a girl book

    How does this affect the final outcome?

  21. Jonathan your question kind of gave me a headache as I don’t tend to like theses “what if…” scenarios. My educated guess would be that the majority of nominated titles would be “girl” books” and one of those would be the easiest to build concensus around unless your lone male was really persuasive and able to win not only the swing voters but some of the other “girl” voters as well. I think it would depend greatly on the personalities involved. That’s why guessing at stuff like this is hard. Plus I’ve never seen how the actual committee operates.

    I have something to say about predictablity too but must take my daughter to swim team practice. I’m living my life without a smart phone so it will have to wait until I return home.

  22. Nina Lindsay says:

    Honestly, in my experience, the real committee manages to “transcend” this issue as it approaches consensus….that is, among the books with multiple nominations or that really seem to stand up in discussion, there’s plenty of variety. I do think you end up with a bunch of single-nominated “outlier” titles that *can* sometimes reflect the reading tastes of those at the table. Not necessarily. Sometimes those titles go somewhere, sometimes not.

    But I think the dichotomy more strongly influences the public buzz around the around the award. For instance, I don’t think there’s a “Newbery Type” of book, but a lot of people do.

  23. What about Bud Not Buddy? Plenty of plot and action, great characters and a wonderful theme. Is it a boy book? Emotioon versus adrenaline? I hate these false ideas that the people on the committee can’t distinguish the writing no matter what kind of book it is. I think they can, and I think they do it rather well. Drowned Vault is below midpoint on my radar and I read it with high expectations, but the clumsy pacing did it in for me, besides it really is not individually distinct. There are tons of titles that are on an equal level in terms of quality writing.
    My hidden gem recently discovered is “Sons of the 613″ by Michael Rubens and it has plot, character, theme and is absolutely hilarious. But it will never never win, despite being about a twelve year old about to turn 13– becaus it is irreverent, gross, and funny. What I find uproarious, others will be disdainful of.

  24. Regarding Predictability:
    I have been seeing that word used a lot lately in the negative sense. It has me wondering because in my opinion the majority of books are predictable. When you read as much as we do they can’t help but be. We have read it all. More than once. The one book I have read in the past 10 years that I can say truly surprised me was THE THIEF. When I read I don’t mind the predictability, it matters to me what the author does with the predictability. Less experienced or savvy readers might be completely surprised by THE FALSE PRINCE. For me knowing what was coming shed a different light on how I read Sage’s character and I think Nielsen intended this. If you don’t know you will get the surprise, if you do it adds dimensions and depths to Sage because you can see his confusion and struggles. (I don’t think THE FALSE PRINCE is a strong contender, I have other issues with it.) The same goes with LIAR & SPY. I figured that one out 3/4 of the way (I was pleasantly surprised that the mother was not terminally ill.) Others might enjoy the shock, but if you know its coming you can focus on what Georges does once the moment of truth has arrived. How does it grow or change his character?

    On the other hand the predictability of THE SCORPIO RACES didn’t work for me, not because it was predictable but because I didn’t think the characters were fleshed out enough for me to care. I knew where it was going and it was taking forever and a lot of atmospheric language to get there and it mattered to me not the tiniest bit.

    My point with this lengthy comment is that for me the word has lost all effective meaning. Like didactic or “Mary Sue”. I’m guilty of using it and not explaining myself well enough for sure, but it is one of those that I now have at the front of mind never to just toss out there.

  25. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Touching on multiple points in the conversation . . .

    1. If we’ve arrived at any conclusion in this thread (Girls vs. Boys) and a previous one (Emotion vs. Intellect), it’s that books have a complex appeal and readers, too, are equally complex. While these dichotomies help us reflect on the way that we respond to books, the danger of oversimplification is easy and obvious. I do think many committee members spend a good part of the year reflecting on these kinds of things. Even though they never get introduced into the formal discussions, these mental gymnastics can help them consider different perspectives.

    2. Nina said that we are used to placing emotion/character in a value hierarchy over adrenaline/plot and I think that is accurate. If I could revist the FALSE PRINCE/THREE TIMES LUCKY comparison. I think THREE TIMES LUCKY takes the character round, while FALSE PRINCE takes the plot round. THREE TIMES LUCKY has a more ostentatious setting and style, but I’m not sure they’re better. Theme? Dunno. I suspect a big problem with adrenaline books is that they suffer in comparison to other books when it comes to the Newbery criteria of style and theme. So I do think the bias is written into the criteria, but we enchance it with our reading preferences.

    3. I also agree with Nina that the public discourse about the Newbery is quite lopsided in favor of girl books, but that doesn’t really hold true in the committee’s nominations. Now does gender inform voting behavior? I’m sure it does, but so do a dozen other factors such as race, class, region, job type, and personal experiences. I personally could care less whether there’s an imbalance of boy/girl books in the canon, but I do get annoyed by the public discourse, and I probably get overly sensitive to perceived slights.

    4. Looking back over this, I hope I did not offend you, DaNae, and I apologize if I made you my straw man in this whole thing. I could have singled out numerous goodreads votes to illustrate my point about individual voting behavior. I also could have pointed to several mock Newbery groups. I remember looking at the shortlist for one during my year on the committee and it included every single girl book. It was clearly the work of a bunch of women. Would the canon look very different if there were 11+ men every year. Hmmm. Probably, not significantly. Maybe more nonfiction.

    5. Some reader, somewhere is always going to guess the ending or a certain plot point. It’s always going to be predictable to someone, but if the author has done a good job of making us care about the characters then we want to know how it happens, even though we already suspect what will happen. There can be great satisfication seeing that played out.

    6. The more I think about it, the more I don’t think I read THE PORCUPINE YEAR. I did, however, roll my eyes when I saw that it had won the Oakland Mock Newbery because I didn’t care very much for the first two books. Maybe I’ll have to revisit it now.

    7. I don’t think a girl main character excludes a book from having boy appeal, but I do think she needs to be tomboyish, and the book needs to have other boy appeal factors. Again, it’s kind of hard to talk in generalities. So I think THE GOLDEN COMPASS and THE HUNGER GAMES are good examples. But, then, when the TWILIGHT movie came out, I had a bunch of fifth and sixth grade boys reading the series, so go figure . . .

  26. I’m not in the least offended. Although I did a little flinch every time the terms “boy books” and “girl books” were mentioned. I spend a lot of time trying to convince my students that there are no such things, although secretly . . .

    The one thing my association with Heavy Medal over the years has taught me (beat it into my tender little head) is that bias needs to be looked directly in the face. I agree that in a committee situation my opinion would greatly be swayed away from my personal bias to more closely align with the pack as a whole. If you were to go back and check my GoodReads Newbery lists from the past few years, which I tweak right up to the very day but never change after the announcement, you will find an heavy Heavy Medal influence. Although I don’t think this blog mirrors an actual committee in every way, as some voices hold more influence here than others, it is the committee I choose to hang with each year. Each year the discussion gets deeper and more illuminating.

    As far as THE FALSE PRINCE goes I’m thrilled to have this book in my collection. It has tremendous kid appeal. I liked what Brandy had to say about practicability. As a mystery reader from way, way back I get a smug satisfaction from figuring out the endings long before the big reveal. With TFP however, I mostly felt irritation that it was so obvious. I also don’t find it near the caliber of distinction as SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS or LIAR & SPY, or many of the other books we have delved into here. Bias may be playing a role, I don’t know.

    And one final note, Jonathan, I was happy to see Eric show up in your hypothetical committee. Oh, if only. Someone that can be both passionate about BOMB and SUMMER OF GYPSY MOTHS deserves a seat.

  27. (I’m not sure what that word is that I had Brandy talking about. Obviously my spell check has gone rouge.)

  28. mslibrarian says:

    It seems to me, though, that books whose strongest merit being “great kid appeal” are often scoffed at by educators (teachers/librarians) who seem to believe that “If most kids love it, it must not be of high literary quality.” Here’s The Thief vs The False Prince — I’d say for every one child that appreciates the former, there are about 5 or 6 who recommended the latter to each other enthusiastically. So, my constant question is: If Newbery is set up to honor the special skills of authors who write books that are meant specifically for children, then, why are we adults so enamored with The Thief (not that I am not one of those) and its sequels and so dismissive at the chances of winning a Newbery of titles that showcase the author’s connections to their young readers: The False Prince, the Percy Jackson books, Origami Yoda series, etc.? (This is really a question about the following terms: “The book displays respect for children’s
    understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” and “The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity.” — Does “Quality Presentation for Children” ever take into consideration of whether the book appeals to children? Or since the word “popularity” is in the “not for” addendum of the terms and criteria document, a wildly popular book will never have a chance to win the award?

  29. @ mslibrarian – I disagree with you on just about every point. I don’t think that any of us think that popularity automatically equals poor literary quality. In fact, I constantly hear teen librarians (my own community) trying to come up with literary excuses for why they like TWILIGHT or whatever, when in fact, they just like the plot and the romance. In cases where books are dismissed, I think it is because we have read them and found them lacking. I just reread the first Percy Jackson, and I don’t care how many kids like them (that’s not true – I deeply care that kids like them and I am happy to recommend them to kids) but they are very very badly written. Like, cringe-inducing. And that’s aside from their obvious ripoffs from Harry Potter (another series which adults have been at great pains to defend on literary merits despite the fact that the prose is only average at best – and I say that as a fan).

    What the Newbery committee is looking for is not books that “showcase the author’s connections to their young readers” but books that have both 1) high literary merit and 2) respect for the understanding of children. If the high literary merit means that a lot of more popular books fall by the wayside, that’s just how things work.

    Another point: of course a popular book can win – it just has to be written well. A didactic book can win too – and many have. The point is just that those are not criteria to be taken into consideration. But if the most popular book out there is also the best book out there, then of course it can win – I do not believe for a second that any Newbery committee is dismissing books because they are popular. Please note, after all, that popular books like HOLES and THE GRAVEYARD BOOK have won the award.

    Finally, I’ve made this point many many times (probably on this very site) but I’ll say it again: what would be the point of an award that was routinely given to the most popular books? We *know* what the most popular books are. Those books don’t need an award – they already have readers. The books that need an award are those that are well written but less buzzed and less well known. If the Newbery went to a wildly popular book every year, I would say it would be time to look at whether we even should have it anymore.

  30. mslibrarian says:

    Mark, thank you for disagreeing with me so vehemently :) I am not saying that the award is for the most popular book. And I remain firm on the idea that the book was established to specially highlight the very distinct, and special skills that children’s authors have which IS “connecting with child readers” — on many levels, literarily, emotionally, etc. Otherwise, we really don’t need to have this separate award for children’s literature. My desire is to see these very special authors recognized (Dan Gutman, Andrew Clements, Suzanne Collins at Gregor time, etc.)

    I’d like to know why you feel Riordan’s prose is cringe-inducing and how did he “steal from JK Rowling” while both of them were just following a classic trope of hero’s journeys.

    I guess what I tried to say (but failed to explain well) is that “literary merits” should also encompass the book’s ability to “speak” to children directly — without the interferences or assisted interpretations from their adults.

    I do agree with you that HOLES was a great Newbery choice that has strong merits all around. But, even though personally I love The Graveyard Book, it does not seem to warrant a “popularity” label, not among non-Gaiman fans and/or non-adults. (I CAN think of others, though: Tale of Despereaux and Bud, Not Buddy, From the MIxed-up Files, and Westing Game came to mind.)

    Your sentiment about certain books do not need that extra help to make themselves known since they are already popular is not uncommon. I am not championing for Newbery to award books based on their popularity — but, I want the committee members to not discount any book just because it is already popular. Each book, even the popular ones, should be examined based on their merits and the suspicion of popularity should cease. Do you not agree?

  31. mslibrarian says:

    ah… “the book was established” should have read “the award was established”…

  32. What makes you think the committee is suspicious of, or discounts, books that are really popular?

  33. @mslibrarian – first, thanks for taking my somewhat cranky comments so well.

    As for Riordan – here’s how I see his stealing from Rowling: his main character grows up believing himself to be an ordinary human untli he is 12 at which point he discovers he actually has magical abilities. He is whisked off to a special school for others with similar abilities, a school which is divided into houses based on what types of magical abilities the residents possess. He befriends a brainy girl and a dorky boy and the three of them go off together to solve a mystery well beyond their capacity. I know that not all of this is unique to Rowling (Rowling herself was accused to stealing from various sources), but where I’ve always defending Rowling is in her ability to combine the various sources she used in a particular way, and it is that combination that I think Riordan took wholesale from Rowling.

    As for his prose – I don’t have a copy on hand (lent it to a teen – they do love it!) so I can’t quote as I would like to, but I can say that I found myself over and over again being stopped short by infelicities in the language, awkward phrasing, colloquialisms that didn’t hit home as those of a 12 year old, and more. If you read it different, more power to you. I think Riordan has a great sense of plot and pace – the rest of the Percy Jackson series is much more his own, and I quite like the first 39 clues book – and I happen to think that his use the Greek myths as the basis for his magic is much more inspired than Rowlings somewhat hodgepodge sense of magic – so if you and others (and of course all the kids and teens out there) have a different sense of his prose (or can overlook it) I think that’s great. Seriously.

    I will concede on THE GRAVEYARD BOOK in favor of DESPEREAUX for my example of a popular book.

    “Each book, even the popular ones, should be examined based on their merits and the suspicion of popularity should cease. Do you not agree?” – I absolutely, 100% agree. My point was just that if we somehow lived in parallel universe in which literary quality was rewarded in direct proportion by popularity, there would be no need for awards of this nature. But of course, there are always popular artworks that are also of high artistic merit (says the lifelong Beatles fan).

  34. @Mark-I am completely with you on Riordan’s cringe inducing prose. My eight year old daughter recently discovered the Percy Jackson books and, knowing there was some discussions I wanted to have with her on some themes, I’m currently reading the first two to her. And oh my it is so much worse when you read it aloud.

  35. Nina Lindsay says:

    For the record, there’s plenty of Riordian and Rowling in Wilson’s series. But I don’t think any of the themes were that original to begin with. Which is fine with me: we like tropes for a reason! Just nicely executed ones, please.

  36. Re: THE FALSE PRINCE and predictability. (I’m not a fan of the book, especially in relation to Newbery criteria, and I am a fan of THE THIEF, just to get that bias out of the way). I think what bothered me wasn’t that I could predict the twist, but that being able to predict the twist didn’t heighten the book in any way. It didn’t make me feel proud and accomplished and observant, which is how I usually feel when I manage to predict a twist or guess the solution to a mystery. Also, I like to occasionally doubt my guess, and that never happened here. So predictability can be good, and twists don’t have to be guess-proof, but the book needs to offer something extra to the reader who guesses it.

  37. mslibrarian says:

    Wendy: I am not saying any specific committee or committee member is discounting any book due to its popularity — but I do think there is a general sense in the field as a whole that the gatekeepers know better than the intended audience. Of course, given the experiences we all have as decades-long and thoughtful readers, we do KNOW better. The question is: what do we value more?

  38. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Many of us have heard KT Horning talk about presentation for a child audience. The example she uses is the literary allusion in NUMBER THE STARS (Little Red Riding Hood). It’s not the most stunning use of literary allusion, but in her discussion with children she came to the conclusion that it was distinguished for a young reader.

  39. mslibrarian, I agree with you at a level, and here’s my take. I don’t think there’s a pure bias against popularity. I do think that we as gatekeepers think we know more than the readers…and moreover, I believe we DO know more than them. But between those two points is a moment when our pride in our knowledge can obscure our observations of how children come to the books themselves…and I think that’s what you’re getting at. To be smart about children’s books, we have to be humble about our reactions.

    Another example after Jonathan’s NUMBER THE STARS is TALE OF DESPEREAUX…which is chock full of familiar tropes and almost overdone metaphors of light and darkness. Overdone for an adult who’s read it before, that is. It took me several reads, and some convincing from a third grade teacher, to come to an understanding of how truly distinguished it is for its audience.

  40. Jonathan, is it possible to link to KT’s presentation? If it is in writing.

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