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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Center of Everything

 The Center of EverythingSpring. After a exhausting fall and winter of measuring the year’s best books against each other; the new publishing year opens and those of us who doggedly follow children’s literature in the peculiar quest of speculating about the Newbery Medal get excited. Very excited. The slate is clean: what book will garner next year’s golden seal?  When will it come?  Will we know it when we see it?

Believe me, the Newbery Committee is feeling the same thing. Though the work of the committee gets brutal late in the year, the early work is no less intense, as the committee tries to start setting its bar.  What makes the most distinguished contribution to literature for children, according to the Newbery criteria, and what exemplfies it?

It’s easy to start with our favorite authors, especially when they garner starred reviews.   According to the data that Travis Jonker is presenting next door there at 100 Scope Notes, it appears that starred reviews are de rigueur for Newbery winners.  Or, maybe, the stars are just symptoms of potential.  Whichever, it makes a good place to start for setting standards.

Jonathan started us off, mosh-pit style, with Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey. Since I’m a risk-averse Virgo, let’s approach Linda Urban’s The Center of Everything circumspectly.

Urban writes solid prose: solid being high praise.  The first thing that I look for in Newbery-eligible books is sentence level writing.  It is not the end-all or only criteria (and I have been guilty of putting too much weight on it in final comparisons), but I don’t think that any book can win the Newbery without it.   Is the writing fluid, so that you forget there is a writer? Are the setting and characters immediately evoked, and do you believe in them?  Does the tone serve the story?  All of these things must be apparent within the first handful of pages.  Otherwise it’s just not Newbery material, and since I’m a slow reader I’d rather save my time for the good stuff.  Urban handily passes this test.  The first chapter (just three pages long) establishes a tone that is both epic, humorous, and ultimately appreciative of the mundane and simple.   We know who Ruby is, where she is, how she’s feeling, where she is heading.   This told in sentences that are graceful, and modest, except where they want to stand out.  Where they stand out  (the end of the chapter, for instance), they are a little bit too much for me, but too much the way a supermarket birthday cake is too much for me…yet perfect for a kid.

I like the pacing and arc of this book.  It’s a small book (in size, and length), so as a reader I don’t feel intimidated by the slow pace, I know I can take my time and be finished before I’m gray.   And the pacing suits the story, the nut of which I think is nicely done: the friendship triangle, and the grandmother grief–two changes happening to Ruby on a day where she can examine them side by side and think about who she is, and who she is becoming.

Unfortunately, I find that Urban overburdens her delicate story.  I love donuts. But.  While the idea of  the circular narrative structure, and torus shaped time, serve the arc of the story (Ruby’s reflection, coming to a realization and so being “transported” without moving), the relentless donut references didn’t add lightness for me, they just bogged down and added one too many layers.  Urban has got a delicate task: taking an otherwise slight moment and imbuing it with enormous significance…and she just went overboard. I know that my tolerance for symbolism and metaphor is lower than for the kid reader of this book, but even a kid will konk out on too much cake.    What is this book about?  It’s hard not to say it’s about donuts, but donuts have nothing to do with the story.

If I look, then, at the Newbery criteria,  this book falls far short for me in “interpretation of theme or concept”/”appropriateness of style”.  While on one level Urban carries these off well, she ends up dismantling her good work.   Other elements of the work are very solid, and yet I just think we can, and will, find better this year.    This is a great middle bar to start with, however; and I’m happy to have that bar set.

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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 ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. DaNae says:

    Oh Heavy Medal, I’m not sure how you did it, but you managed to start off the season with the two biggest disappointments of the year for me.

    I so wanted to like this book, but unfortunately it forgot to be interesting.

    I am the target reader for quirky small town fare but this left me wondering where the hell the story was. The tone rang with clipped sureness. The characterization were hit and miss, a little inconsistent at times. (I shouldn’t mention that because I’m pressed for an example. I need to learn to take notes). I would agree the theme was beat to death until it disintegrated into crumbs. I remember wanting more from this book, thinking the plot could have been just a bit twistier.

    Oddly enough, with THE THING ABOUT LUCK, another quiet story we have on the platter this year, I walked away with a completely opposite reaction. The depth of the setting and characters in that book left me more than satiated even if the plotting lacked panache and rolled to the end with a quiet sputter.

    • TeenReader says:

      “I so wanted to like this book, but unfortunately it forgot to be interesting.” Yes. Exactly. I finished this wondering what the purpose was. And as Nina said, the attempts at plot and theme were really panned out by the end. Overall, the occasional insights weren’t nearly enough to make up for the overall tedium.

  2. Alys says:

    The donut parallels did get a little strained by the end, but I thought the book was generally very well written. The flashbacks, changing narrative perspectives and general structure were complex without being confusing and helped to establish some tension in what could have been a book a little too quiet and thoughtful for its own good. I thought the characterization was strong; I have known kids just like this, and I definitely recognized the relationship between Ruby and Lucy.

  3. I fell in love with this book, so I must disagree that the doughnut motif was too much. I think using an accessible and slightly silly thing like doughnuts (and a whole town devoted to the history of doughnuts) totally adds lightness and fun to the story. Losing a beloved family member and having a falling out with your friend are bummer issues. Urban was smart to layer her story with something that will draw young readers in–something pleasurable (what better than doughnuts?) to balance out the seriousness of Ruby’s predicament.

    Actually, the doughnut stuff reminded me of the science class taste test in last year’s LIAR & SPY (which I also loved). It’s a hook AND it’s connected to the themes in the book.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    First of all, you should know that I’m not the reader for this book so you might want to go read some happy thoughts somewhere in the blogosphere before reading on.

    Second of all, you should know that while I never read A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT, I did read HOUND DOG TRUE, a book that despite its four starred reviews we never featured on this blog, primarily because I had the same problems with that book as I have with this one. Each Linda Urban book seems to have a devout following that believes she is writing Newbery caliber books, and while there is undoubtedly some good writing, my comments will obviously focus more on my problems.

    1. Despite a relatively modest page count, the pacing of this book was so slow that it literally was like that old cliche: watching paint dry on the wall. I do like way the plot is intricately structured and I do understand that this is a more character-driven novel. This is a concern for me, but not the biggest concern.

    2. I don’t believe in the characters, and the biggest problem is that they seem too young to me. They would be more comfortable playing dolls with second grade Billy Miller than with fellow sixth graders Zach, Poppy, and Alice. Why do I feel that way? I’ve worked with this specific age group for the past dozen years and there are many subtle intangible things, things that probably won’t convince anyone else but nevertheless give me great pause. Of course, there are many parts of the characterization such as friendship and grief that resonate universally no matter the age of a child (and you could argue those are really the most important parts of the novel anyway).

    3. But here’s an example of the kind of thing that trips me up. We ran a speech tournament in my previous school district for fifth graders, so I’ve read lots of them, and I have to say . . . a 180 page word limit for a sixth grade assignment? Are you kidding me? This is way, way too easy for a sixth grade assignment. Ruby’s essay is undistinguished and I really don’t know why her teacher chose it. And I’m not sure it was really chosen anonymously since we learn our students’ handwriting, and I seriously doubt everyone did it on the computer. And what kind of teacher picks an essay anonymously when the delivery of a speech is just as important as the writing? This is probably seems petty–and it is–but there’s lots of stuff like this that just builds cumulatively for me.

    4. The theme is so heavy-handed that I want to co-opt a sci-fi term–info-dumping (expository passages that aren’t skillfully worked into the narrative)–for what Urban does: theme-dumping. I even thought some of it crept into some of the dialogue (damaging their credibility for me even further).

    5. While I have serious problems with plot, character, and theme, I will say that the sentence-level writing is lovely enough to make me put aside my bias against present tense narration. The problem is that it’s kind of like an empty vessel by then, isn’t it?

    • DaNae says:

      180 pages, wow your sixth graders are verbose?

      Otherwise, you said what I forgot to remember.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Jonathan, I obviously disagree with you on the pacing, and I think that #3 is trivial enough to be dismissed. But you did remind me that I also thought the characters seemed too young. I’m wondering if anyone else picked up on that, or had readers of that age who responded?

  5. Kate Messner says:

    It’s no secret to anyone who’s read my blog that I loved this book – I think it’s Linda Urban’s best yet – so I won’t go into gushing details on that. But I do want to talk about the age issue.

    It’s always interesting to me where reviewers are from when they say that characters – especially middle school characters – feel “too young” for their age. I taught this age – and kids a year older, in fact – for fifteen years. To me, Lucy and Ruby felt very much like some of the less jaded middle school kids I was lucky enough to know over the years. But then, I live in a pretty rural area – a place where kids tend to grow up more slowly than they do in urban or more affluent places, where a good portion of my daughter’s 7th grade classmates don’t have cell phones yet, and yes…where plenty of girls talk – and think – a lot like Ruby.

    It’s funny – sometimes I read other books for this age group and find myself thinking, “These middle school kids are acting like they’re 17!” But then I realize that I’m coming from only one place – and that middle schoolers come from so many different backgrounds. I love that we have books that reflect all kinds of at-that-age experiences and maturity levels – and I appreciate both ends of the spectrum.

  6. I have to agree with everyone else. I read this one on the trip from Midwinter so it’s been a long time and this one sadly doesn’t stand out to me. I liked it well enough, as I do with all of Ms. Urban’s novels, and I was nicely charmed by it all. But it just fell short in Newbery quality. I agree with Nina’s point of being too bogged down in things. And it hits you over the head at times with themes that it’s just too much and not executed as smoothly as I thought it could be. While I really enjoyed it, I don’t think it holds enough Newbery weight to make it to the finals.

  7. Sharon Verbeten says:

    Interesting to follow all this pre-Newbery talk; have any of you read Paperboy by Vince Vawter? Thoughts? I loved it.

  8. Brandy says:

    Of all Urban’s books to date, this is the one I like best. I know kids who will love it too. Can I make an argument for it being the most distinguished in any of the Newbery criteria? There are parts that I found to be distinguished, but none that I would call “most distinguished. I wasn’t really the reader for this book either. The pacing is slooooow and I hate second person narration, which this sometimes slips into.

    My overall thoughts:
    1. Theme: It was a great theme. But oh boy yes, it was over done. (I like Jonathan’s theme-dump term. That should be a thing now.) I too was sick of hearing about the donuts. In a year when there are so many other books that have treated theme with distinction and more subtlety, I can’t argue for this one. (The Real Boy, Doll Bones, The Lost Kingdom are ones I like for theme. And I can see the arguments for Hokey Pokey too.)

    2. Characters: I liked the characters, particularly Nero. I agree with Kate that whether or not they read young depends on where you are pulling your experience of 6th graders from. In my 5th grade public school classroom, I had kids who would fit right in with these and kids who would think they were immature-and it would depend largely on which neighborhood said kids were growing up in. In my current 4th-6th grade literature class at our homeschool co-op the same would be the case-though there it would depend on the number of older siblings said kid has. The kids struck the right note for me as far as being genuine. There are other characters that have impacted me more this year though and that I feel were developed better. (Oscar and Callie in The Real Boy, Olivia in The Year of Shadows, Billy in The Lost Kingdom, Delphine in PS Be Eleven, and the trio in Doll Bones)

    3. Plot: I like this one for plot, though some of the brilliance of the circular nature was lost in the theme-dump. Still, the way it followed the parade, with Ruby at the center, was well crafted. I liked that element. The flashbacks were well done building up the mystery of Gigi and why Ruby’s friends were angry with her. The pacing is a weakness here. Plot is always the criteria I have the most difficult time analyzing. For any book, and I’m not sure why that is. (But that is neither here nor there.) I do think there are books with tighter plot construction. (Doll Bones and PS Be Eleven come to mind.)

    4. Setting: This is the book’s most distinguished feature in my opinion. The parade is a perfect setting and Urban did a wonderful job blending the slow waiting that is what a parade mostly is with the short chaotic spurts of action that make all those people stand around and watch. This element worked for me and almost made the pacing worth it. Again though, I can’t say it’s the best delineation of setting of the year. (I think PS Be Eleven, Jinx, A Song for Bijou, and The Year of Shadows all do it better. And as much as I don’t like them so do Hokey Pokey and One Came Home.)

    5. Style: It’s lovely and well written, but again I can’t argue that it’s the best.

    I don’t dislike this book. It just isn’t anywhere near the top of my list. One thing typing out this comment has made me realize is how much I really liked PS Be Eleven. I knew I liked it waaay more than One Crazy Summer, but this has made me see how much more and why.

    • DaNae says:

      Brandy, great breakdown. I couldn’t agree more with about PS Be Eleven. I kind of thought my adoration for it was influenced by the certainty I had before opening the cover that I would love it. But it has stayed with me like no other. As far as an author capturing the ages of her characters all I can say is: that is how I remember age twelve.

      (Happy to see you found THE LOST KINGDOM worthy of note. I know I can’t be objective there, so I will allow others to carry the conversation.)

    • Betsy says:

      Exactly, my friend. I agree completely: a great, solid book, but I’ve enjoyed others as much or more.

  9. Benji Martin says:

    I agree with everything Brandy said. I liked it a little bit more then she did, I think, maybe even loved it, but I did recognize a few flaws.

    More importantly, I cannot get any kids to read this book. I’ve tried and tried, and the girls that usually love books like this (even girls that liked Hound Dog True) bring it back after a few pages. It makes me wonder if there’s something about it that turns kids off. I know popularity isn’t one of the Newbery criteria, but it is a talking point, I think. My students are loving Doll Bones, and I think they’ll like the Real Boy, but they won’t touch Navigating Early or Center of Everything, both of which I loved.

  10. Martha Meyer says:

    I loved the writing; it is expert. However, in the end this one is forgettable – except for one thing. The overdone theme reminded me of Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities in its heavy-handedness — and this would make a GREAT book to use in class to discuss theme with Upper El kids. They could underline in colored marker every time a CIRCLE or DONUT shape or idea comes up — so they could watch a (pretty) well crafted novel come together. That’s what we were required to do in HS, so we carried around a fistful of markers when we read The Tale of Two Cities. This book is simpler, a quick read and it won’t be forgettable for those kids learning about crafting and sniffing out theme for the first time!

  11. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, Nina, clearly you liked this one more than I did, and I’m glad you beat me to posting on it because I fear mine could have devolved into a smear campaign. I’m not sure that we disagree that completely about the pacing. We rarely mention the pacing in a book this short, but you and I both did. Obviously, the book is slow, but as we’ve seen in the past whether that is problematic or not is largely very subjective. I do like the structure of the plot and I’ve acknowledged that excessively character-driven books are not always my cup of tea. By itself, the pacing isn’t an issue, but in tandem with other things, I believe that it is.

    I also agree that my third point is the kind of thing that last year I described as a peccadillo more than a fatal flaw. My argument is that there is an accumulation of peccadillos that ulimately undermine various parts of the book for me. I’m not going to delineate them all here because I think that would take this discussion into the aforementioned smear campaign that I’d like to avoid.

    I taught fifth, sixth, and seventh grade–and have worked as a K-8 librarian, too–in urban, suburban, and rural areas here in CA, so I think I have a good handle on the the diversity and range in these students. That Urban’s characters fall so far outside the range of what I personally have experienced with this age group gives me a difficult time with this book. I do understand that others will have had different experiences and that will color their readings accordingly. And we probably won’t be able to convince each other. The thing that I don’t think varies from region to region is the fact that a 180 word essay is not even remotely a sixth grade assignment. In the world of the novel, of course, it makes complete sense and the reader just accepts it. But my problem is that I already suspected that the characters are too young, and then I find further evidence that makes me question if Urban knows what a sixth grader is.

    Here are a couple of illegal comparisons, meaning that I couldn’t make them around the Newbery table, but I’m going to ask for your thoughts here. A big part of this book is grief, how do you think it compares to other grief books in the Newbery canon, namely BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA or MISSING MAY? The latter comparison seems more apt to me, more apples vs. apples. While I was typing this I realized, too, that Urban’s books kind of remind me of Patricia MacLachlan’s work which is also often quiet, understated, and character-driven to the point of plotlessness. MacLachlan, of course, won the Medal for SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL–and this is the kind of book I would actually like to see Urban write: literary fiction for second and third graders, something like a cross between SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and the RAMONA books.

    • Amanda says:

      It’s interesting to me that you’re finding the 180 word essay assignment a serious flaw, when the intention is for it to be a one-minute speech. If 180 words works out to be just about a minute when read aloud properly, then it’s perfectly designed. Certainly Nero or Ruby could write a five page essay on tori and their uses, and Lucy could memorize a five-minute audition monologue, but that isn’t this assignment. This particular essay is meant to translate into a Bunning Day parade speech, and I’d argue that anything longer than a minute would only lose the attention of the crowd. Small-town parades generally aren’t about speeches so much as the marching bands, fancy cars, firetrucks, and candy. Newspapers and magazines in the world outside the book will run the same sorts of contests occasionally, looking for short paragraphs from elementary students. To me, it doesn’t read as Urban underestimating her sixth graders, but another reflection of her detailed understanding of small-town parades and traditions.

  12. Jess says:

    I don’t know if I’m adding anything new to the discussion, but I had middle-of-the-road feelings about this one. I was charmed by the set-up and thought the tone was great, along with a few side characters, but overall the story was unmemorable. The resolution fell flat to me – I liked the build-up but it didn’t go anywhere (more an issue of emotional resolution than plotting, I think).

    I didn’t have any issues with the ages of the characters – I was a ‘young’ 6th grader and it didn’t feel off to me. I agree with Amanda that the essay length was appropriate to the context – it didn’t feel like a normal classroom assignment to me, and a longer speech would be awful at a parade.

  13. laurel says:

    I loved this book. Every word felt perfectly placed to me. I’m a sucker for books that dwell in a character, and I like slower stories, and small moments. I think books like this often suffer in the same way picture books and easy readers do. It’s hard to see what’s been accomplished simply because of the scale. But her tone is clear, and unwavering. Artful, but human. No small task.

    But I also just wanted to write in and say I’m SO GLAD YOU’RE BACK. I can’t wait for more. Super excited to see people draw blood over Ghost Hawk.

    Also can’t wait to hear thoughts on The Real Boy and Water Castle!

    Thanks for all the work you guys put into this blog.

  14. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Within the world of the novel, the speech makes sense (with its word limit and the parade and all), but why not have third graders giving those speeches, since it’s more of a third grade assignment–and since that’s what Ruby and Laura really are. Anyone think they are “too old” to be third graders? Nope? Didn’t think so. I still also think it’s a mediocre speech and wouldn’t be picked in a blind test, but then maybe the students in California are academically superior to those in New Hampshire? Another regional difference?

    I don’t want to get bogged down in the speech because I’ve *already* admitted that by itself its hardly worth mentioning at all and I never indicated that it was a “serious problem” in and of itself. Rather, I said, it was merely one of a dozen or so peccadilloes that cumulatively gave me an impression about Urban’s characterization. I really don’t want to go over all of them here because it’s clear that I didn’t enjoy the book and it would just be mean-spirited to hash it all out. Please don’t egg me on. :-)

  15. laurel says:

    When there’s a question about the age of the main character in a middle grade book, I always wonder if the editor suggested a switch late in the game.

    I don’t mean to suggest that it it changes the issue as far as Newbery goes, but I do always wonder…

    “Does she have to be in third grade? If we age her up a few years, we broaden our potential readership, since kids typically read up, but not down.”

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