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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

More Splendors & Glooms

This was my Holiday re-read treat.  We posted Jonathan’s and Nina’s takes way back in September, when the world seemed new. Between then and now, SPLENDORS & GLOOMS has been used in many discussions as a comparative work…a sort of default book that exhibits a high standard of sentence-level writing, and of overall craft.  In my re-read, I’m again blown away by Schlitz’s ability to establish character, setting, and mood with a rich yet natural storyteller’s voice. She has a nicely ranging vocabulary that keeps her prose from being overburdened with adjectives or adverbs. She has a sense of the dramatic, and comic, that add to the mood…moments dropped in here and there to re-establish or deepen character.  For instance, at the beginning of chapter 22, as Parsefall wakes from their previous evening’s feast:

p.151 (ARC) “He shifted, sat up in bed, and swallowed hard. Parsefall detested being sick. It wasn’t the sour taste he loathed, or the mess; he hated being forced to part with anything that was rightfully his.”

She takes two full paragraphs to set this up, ones that might not seem to necessarily add to the plot, but which we are happier for having spent the time with.   Reading SPLENDORS & GLOOMS is like being at at feast where you sample a little bit of everything, despite yourself, because it would be shameful not to.

And yet, I never sensed that anything here was unnecessary, or overdone.  Every moment held a sense of the deliberate; as deliberate as some of the clearly shaped nonfiction narratives we’re looking at, including NO CRYSTAL STAIR and BOMB. This deliberateness is purposefully less subtle than in LIAR & SPY; Schlitz uses the puppet motif to her advantage, reminding the reader that she is “pulling strings”:

p.163 :”Lizzie Rose clasped the letter to her breast. She felt as if she were living in a play. In the theatre, legacies arrived during the fifth act, when everything was at its worst.

p.258 “How do you know we ain’t in a story?”

By being overt, her strong-handed narrative is more effective than in, say, ONE AND ONLY IVAN, where the author tries to disappear behind “real” characters.  In SPLENDORS, the author’s voice is as real as the characters, and both are understood to exist equally.

Is the ending rangy?  Is the pacing…Victorian? Sure, but the more I compare this work with others this year, the less I feel its weaknesses drag it down.  Knowing that no work is perfect, if I have to look for a title that answers the Newbery Terms call of “distinguished,” this is one.

3. “Distinguished” is defined as:

• Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement. 
• Marked by excellence in quality. 
• Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence. 
• Individually distinct.

It does what it does so well, and to a degree matched by maybe only a handful of other titles this year, and sets a clear standard for literary quality in children’s books.  On the actual committee, with a final discussion list and only weeks now until the deliberations, while keeping an open mind I’d be assembling possible “likely” ballots in my mind and making sure I could defend them.  This one always makes my ballot.   Yours?

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. Always makes mine. A thought about the pacing — I suspect taste is involved. That is, I don’t think it is at all a weakness of the book as much as something that works for certain types of readers more than others. I delighted in every moment of the book partly because of the lush prose such as the excerpts you provide. When reading them, especially those of the more intentionally-melodramatic sort, I think of that hilarious scene where Lizzie Rose and their landlady do a scene, completely with stances and such. Then there is Schlitz’s wonderful descriptive abilities say Lizzie Rose’s bedroom or the lovely evening out the two children have.

    And so I just think there are readers who will enjoy every bit of this and not find any of it slow while other types of readers will see it differently. I would guess one thing those of us advocating for this book on the committee would need to do is make this distinction clear to the other members of the committee. So prove that this is not a pacing issue at all.

  2. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    So MOONBIRD has pacing problems, but SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS does not?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Well, I don’t think Monica or I’d posted about pacing on MOONBIRD, at least not this round yet. But there is a kind of circuitous logic going around… I don’t find pacing/dragging issues, really, with SPLENDORS, or MOONBIRD, or NO CRYSTAL STAIR. SPLENDORS, I think, is supposed to dawdle here and there, as Monica suggests. MOONBIRD *requires* that southern journey. That’s the point of the story…it’s nonficiton about a bird’s migration. I want to see the whole thing, and I don’t need it to have a narrative arc as in fiction. In NO CRYSTAL STAIR, I hear plenty of people saying it drags because of ineffective voices, and I keep on trying to see it that way…but I hear the story as an oral history, deliberately presented in this clipped and sometimes “artificial” sounding episodes (“artificial” literarily, without its usual negative connotation)…a sort of staged biography. I’m seeing several very very strong books that ask readers to approach them in a certain way… and I think the crux is whether they ask it clearly enough. Because a sizable portion of the Newbery committee would have to come to agreement on any one of these for them to rise to the top.

  3. Just dropping in quickly to sigh and agree with Monica and Nina. Nothing can shake this from the top of my list short of splitting the atom. (or not)

  4. Sheila Welch says:

    I just told my daughter that she will love SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, and I am sure she’ll enjoy choosing passages to read when she book-talks it to her 7th and 8th graders. It’s swept past every other book I’ve read that’s eligible for the Newbery this year. And although I haven’t read as many as I’d like, this one would be extremely hard (impossible?) to beat. I agree with Monica, Nina, and DaNae. I’m not actually making a list but will be hard pressed to accept anything else as the #1 winner of the real Newbery. Not only is the writing a delight but Schlitz manages to create characters who come alive.

    She certainly pulled my heart strings, and, like Clara, I loved being moved.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    In my considered opinion there are a half dozen books in any given year that are worthy of the Medal, and I certainly think there is ample evidence within the pages of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS to build a solid case that this is one of them. With that in mind, consider my arguments below not as attempts to dissuade anybody from voting for it, but rather my own personal justification for not doing so.

    There is a special kind of alchemy that takes place between the reader and the story that makes the latter become a living, breathing thing. That never happened for me with this particular book, and so I’m afraid that I’m simply not the reader for this book. This is the crux of the problem: I didn’t care for any of these characters, but since I’m a plot-driven reader, I don’t need to care for the characters, provided the plot holds my interest, and it does hold my interest here, but for the pacing. While there is a matter of personal taste regarding the pacing, I do think it is a weakness, but not necessarily a significant weakness, not one that would make it unworthy of.the highest accolade.

    How is it possible that I can find the characters uninteresting when so many others found them just the opposite? I freely admit that the characterization here is superb, that is, that these characters talk and think and feel and behave as real people do. My problem is with the character development, that is, the way that characters grow and change over the course of the story–and sometimes the character doesn’t grow and change as much as perception of that character does. Not every character is going to be Charlotte Doyle, after all.

    To be sure, there is character development here–the parents soften, the children become close friends–but it is unsatisfying given the heft of the story, especially in contrast to our other shortlisted titles where it is much more pronounced, say, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN or STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY to name just a couple.

    Another problem area for me is development of theme. Can you talk to me about how it’s distinguished? Because right now I’m not seeing it, especially in relation to NO CRYSTAL STAIR or LIAR & SPY or THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. In fact, I think it’s one of the weaker shortlisted titles in this regard.

    Since I didn’t fall under the spell of this book, the leisurely pacing coupled with the slight character development and lack of theme undercut my overall appreciation of the book. Since you did fall under the spell, the formidable strengths probably compensated for my real and/or perceived weaknesses.

  6. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I actually found the development of theme to be at least as strong in this as in IVAN or LIAR…just less obvious than in the former, and less narratively shaped than in the latter. Here, the theme is laced throughout…grossly put, I guess it’s about the acceptance of death, and how to live with both death and joy/love, side by side. We see it most obviously in Clara and her family (coming to terms with living with and despite The Others), and Cassandra (who fails at the lesson until she’s released from her curse….p.357 I knew what I was passing on. A wasted life, a fiery death. I didn’t care. I’m telling you the truth: *I didn’t care.*”); but also in Parsefall and Lizzie, who both cling to their pasts and resist changing their most integral personality, and give way just enough to allow for each other to become a family.

    I don’t think the theme is *developed* in a way that we’re used to in children’s books; it’s kind of presented wholly developed from the get go, and every scene is a variation on it, through to the end. I find it suits the tone and pacing of the novel perfectly.

  7. Drat! I wish I had a copy handy. If I’d been asked about theme for SPLENDORS I would of unhesitantly said “pulling the string for your own destiny”. I can’t back this up with documentation as I don’t have the source at hand, but I remember the thought that each key player is required to step away from what is safe and known and risk the unknown in order to find a happier reality. Once I get back to school and can swipe back my copy I will reread and see if I’m correct.

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Hmmm . . . Thanks for your comments on theme, Nina and DaNae. While I mull this over, I will say that BENEATH A METH MOON is also about accepting death and balancing that with joy or love, but in an entirely different context obviously, so that’s another one I’m inclined to think is as good or better than SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. And as for the destiny theme, does any book do that better than JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS? I think not. I’m open to the idea of Schlitz developing her themes in an unconventional manner, but I’ll probably need some more convincing to get there.

    Would anyone like to discuss the character development in SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS? Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are the lead characters in this ensemble cast, but they seem to change so little as a result of the events of the story. I see greater development in Cassandra, Clara, and her parents, but only marginally so. They all advance inches whereas many other characters–oh, just consider Laurel and Jepp since I mentioned their books in the last paragraph–advance in feet.

    Is it really so unreasonable to expect better development of character and theme, especially in a 384 page book?

  9. Nina Lindsay says:

    Huh, I found the theme in JEPP to be totally flat and obvious. I liked the book a lot, but that I thought was the least polished aspect.

    The character “development” is similar to theme “development.” You’re right that they inch along…but I think they’re supposed too. They become more themselves throughout the whole book. Do we have to have leaps and bounds in every book for children? Does anyone is Mr and Mrs Bunny “develop?

    Danae, you aee right too about the pulling of strings….

  10. Jonathan says: “Would anyone like to discuss the character development in SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS? Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are the lead characters in this ensemble cast, but they seem to change so little as a result of the events of the story..”

    Character development is not synonymous with “character changeadvance.” Character development is the creation of characters who are ideally suited for their part in the specific novel at hand. No more; no less. And by this definition you may see that sometimes two-dimension characters are desirable (consider THE WESTING GAME, or Beauty in Robin McKinley’s BEAUTY). Again,S&G is a quasi-Victorian novel. I refer again here to Sara Crewe in A LITTLE PRINCESS, or Oliver in OLIVER TWIST. The movement of the novel is about the character change, but about how they get to a better place in the world (the classic Victorian plot). Are Lizzie and Parsefall appropriate for their roles? Do we care about them, believe in them, want better lives for them? These are the correct character questions for this novel.

    (I see that Nina has just said much the same thing.)

  11. …. oops, typos galore, but the worst is that I mean to say “… the movement of the novel is NOT about the character change, but about …”

  12. Not only is Jepp’s character developmental obvious it’s written right in the title. Both Laurel and Jepp’s stories cover a significant span of time, which may allow for a more dramatic growth in character. In Laurel’s case her situation demands an upward trajectory or complete stagnation that would leave readers with a complete lack of motivation to return or recommend her story.

    Jonathan, I don’t think you would argue that Schiltz’s characters are not layered and well constructed, what I think you are pointing out is that they don’t alter greatly throughout the book. At the end Parsefall is still a puppet-obsessed, grimy, schemer more concerned with his own comfort and opportunities than with the greater world. Although he has set his own interests aside from time to time to rescue Clara and connect with Cassandra. Lizzie Rose is a Jane Bennettesque darling who’s goodness may be more of a hindrance than an asset. Although she does have to set aside her ridged moral code more than once to save herself and Parsefall. Her over-the-top goodness is not rewarded until she finds acceptance with Clara’s mother. Not a lot of change in either but plenty of development.

  13. Nancy’s response came in while I was typing mine. I could have just commented: “what Nancy said.”

  14. This is off the subject (I never seem to find much to say about SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS; I like it, but it doesn’t lend itself to analysis for me), but I am surprised by the choice of THE WESTING GAME for two-dimensional characters–that’s one of the main points of the book, that no one is two-dimensional. Beauty, too–she is the multi-dimensional character in a somewhat two-dimensional world.

  15. Sheila Welch says:

    I started a long post but after reading the comments from Nancy, Nina, and DaNae, I don’t see much point in finishing it. They’ve said what I was trying to say.

    On theme: There’s a strong thread throughout the novel concerning control and manipulation — whether these are the constraints imposed by society, a magic gem, a puppet master, or parental grief. Over the course of the novel, each character breaks free to some extent. ( Even Grisini in the end is free of life and the witch’s power over him.). In some ways, the controlling factors actually help the characters understand and appreciate their degrees of freedom. Clara exemplifies this development the most obviously. At first, she is a stiff child, a self -controlled puppet, attempting to act out the role she’s been assigned by her mother and society. She wears a practiced face, “a neutral expression, a coy mask of a smile.” When she accidentally laughs inappropriately, she’s horrified and, to the other children and her parents, she’s become uncontrollable. But when she’s turned into a puppet, it’s the loving, caring control and manipulation by Parsefall that helps her come truly alive and learn to dance.

    One more thing that endears this story to me: the dog doesn’t die. :-)

    • I’m about to lead a discussion group for a Mock Newbery and the theme I plan to explore with them is much like you, Sheila, suggest: It’s about being trapped. Each character is trapped in some way and I’m hoping to get the librarians to talk about that as a rather sophisticated theme.

      • Sheila Welch says:

        I’m pleased to learn that SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS was selected as an honor book. I’d really like to know how your discussion group, Marie, reacts to the “trapped” theme. I thought it was handled so well and carried throughout the novel.

  16. “…I am surprised by the choice of THE WESTING GAME for two-dimensional characters–that’s one of the main points of the book, that no one is two-dimensional. Beauty, too–she is the multi-dimensional character in a somewhat two-dimensional world….”

    Maybe this speaks to individual taste. I do not find a single character in THE WESTING GAME convincing as a real person. They’re cogs in the wheel of the book. But I must also freely say that it’s not a book I like or admire. As to Beauty, that’s a book I do love, but again I do not find Beauty herself (or anyone in the book) to be three-dimensional. She’s a fairy tale heroine to the backbone, with the addition of a love of books. The book is nonetheless wonderful.

  17. I also want to add that Parsefall, Lizzie Rose, and Clara are great, well-developed characters, especially with the “change” issue out of play. I found them well-drawn, convincing, and just as carefully crafted as the novel’s other elements.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. If the theme in JEPP is pretty flat and obvious, a child reader will nevertheless be able to identify it, whereas with S&G I fear they may feel like they are looking at the Emperor’s New Clothes when it comes to theme. Indeed, I myself thought that–until Nina, DaNae, and Sheila pitched in with excellent comments. I’m still mulling this over, and if I’m not necessarily convinced yet that theme makes this book most distinguished, neither do I think it is virtually nonexistent (as I thought before your perceptive comments).

    2. Wikipedia, that great bastion of authority and supreme arbiter of literary definitions, describes character development as being synonymous with character arc or the change in characterization of a dynamic character, who changes over the course of a narrative. My usage of the term is not only consistent with this (and, I believe, with the way the term is commonly used), but I also included this definition in my comments so that others would know exactly what I meant by character development.

    3. But I don’t mean to split hairs because I do agree with Nina and Nancy that we must judge a book against the conventions of the genre that the author is writing in, and I thank Nancy for providing A LITTLE PRINCESS and OLIVER TWIST as very helpful examples of Victorian literature. Prior to her comments, I had been thinking about A CHRISTMAS CAROL which, of course, is a wonderful example of character development in Victorian literature. GREAT EXPECTATIONS fits more neatly into the mold of finding a better place in the world, but again the character development of Pip is one of the novel’s great strengths. Once again, I’m carefully considering your arguments, and I’m inching in the right direction, but I don’t know if it’s enough.

    4. In the beginning of THE WESTING GAME all of the characters are stock, but the genius of Raskin is how most of them transform over the course of the novel, becoming three dimensional by the end. I’m not sure whether I agree on BEAUTY specifically, but I do think that some fairy tale novels retain a simpler characterization, and that’s certainly the case with STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY which presents an interesting foil to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS because the characterization is weaker, but the character development is stronger.

    5. If we are going to say that Schlitz’s character’s do not need to evince a great degree of character development because she is writing a classic Victorian plot, then we must also excuse the weaker characterization in STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY because Lin is clearly writing this in the style of fairy tales, a genre characterized by flat, two dimensional characters. We must also acknowledge and excuse the limitations of the secondary characters in NO CRYSTAL STAIR. And so on–for each book on our shortlist. So rather than helping me see how the delineation of character in SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS contributes to making it the most distinguished contribution (relative to the other distinguished contributions), I find that this paradigm simply muddies the picture.

    6. I believe that is one of the hardest parts of the whole process: trying to respect and acknowledge the strengths and limitations of each contribution while finding a way to compare them head-to-head, since *most* distinguished is a relative measure, after all, rather than an absolute one. We can all be A students; we can’t all be the valedictorian.

    7. Nancy’s questions–Are Lizzie and Parsefall appropriate for their roles? Do we care about them, believe in them, want better lives for them?–are helpful, but not definitive. I am much closer to seeing Lizzie and Parsefall as being appropriate for their roles–and I do believe in them as characters. (Was it not I who said that the characterization is most distinguished?) But–and here is the subjective part–I do not care for them and thus I am ambivalent about whether they have a better life. Rather than sticking with my original, lazy answer–this book is boring–I have attempted to describe my reaction in terms of literary elements (which all committee members must strive to do). The events of the story do not seem to change the characters (weak character development?) and the events of the story do not change me, the reader (underdeveloped themes?), but neither of those would matter quite so much–I would be willing to forgive them as a reader–if the pacing wasn’t as leisurely. (Consider the Victorian children’s novels of Joan Aiken and Leon Garfield. for the sake of contrast: kids seem to be able to find a better place in the world a whole lot quicker.)

    8. As I have hinted all along, you may yet convince me that this is the most distinguished middle grade novel of the year, quibbles notwithstanding, and yet because my definition of American literature for children is more expansive and inclusive than most, I can probably go old (NO CRYSTAL STAIR), young (TWELVE KINDS OF ICE), or nonfiction (BOMB, MOONBIRD, etc) to find books to vote for that are as distinguished, if not more so.

  19. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, re #5…I don’t think this muddies the picture, I think it clarifies it! That is, what should characters be doing in each particular book. Not excusing them from straying them from Wikipedia’s arc, but examining them in context. I do think that comparing characterization straight across the board in different books is a limited exercise. I’d rather take the whole book together.

  20. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, I am going to withdraw my arguments about character development in light of the examples Nancy provided, even though I still think character development has a place in Victorian literature. Still mulling over my objections to pacing and theme.

    I don’t have a problem looking at books holistically, but I think we need to take into consideration the fact that SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS is twice as long as most of the books on the shortlist. Pound for pound, is it the best book on the list? Better than such spare offerings as LIAR & SPY, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, BENEATH A METH MOON, and NO CRYSTAL STAIR?

    What if we compare SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS to books of similar length? Say, SERAPHINA, JEPP, or THE BROKEN LANDS? Sure, these all fall on the YA side of the fence, but are still well within the Newbery field, especially in comparison to CODE NAME VERITY. Can’t we make good arguments for each of these books being as distinguished as SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS?

    I have no interest in doing so. I can possibilly jump on those bandwagons, but I cannot drive them, and I don’t think I would pick any of them for the Newbery over SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS not because I think they are not necessarily inferior to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, but because I think they are inferior to NO CRYSTAL STAIR. If we’re going to have a YA book recongized this year, then it ought to be that one..

  21. >>>I’m about to lead a discussion group for a Mock Newbery and the theme I plan to explore with them is much like you, Sheila, suggest: It’s about being trapped. Each character is trapped in some way and I’m hoping to get the librarians to talk about that as a rather sophisticated theme.<<

    Marie — another way to get at this theme would be to discuss puppets and puppetry; the idea that you are being controlled by forces outside you, and how to do you take charge of yourself? It sees to me that S&G is asking to have its themes discussed within the puppetry framework.

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