At Heavy Medal Jonathan and I strive for discussion of books within the confines of the Newbery criteria. Use in curriculum? Doesn’t matter. Breadth of popularity? Doesn’t matter. “Importance” of theme or message? Uniqueness to the canon? Comparison to books of other years? Doesn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t matter. This is not to say these things don’t matter in the world, but when the Newbery committee sits down to discuss literary merit in children’s books of this year only, that is their sole focus. Practice discussion sessions, both formal and informal, over the year help them prepare for their final deliberations in January, and that practice is important, as it’s not “natural” for many of us to set aside certain considerations.
P.S. BE ELEVEN is a perfect practice book for me. It is a book I “lo-o-o-o-ve”, by an author who I greatly admire. She has been honored by the Newbery committee before, and her title this year is a sequel to that book. This title is very different in theme, scope, and arc-shape than Williams-Garcia’s ONE CRAZY SUMMER, though it does share a quality of rooting the reader firmly in a near-past time and place. Is it better? Not sure yet. Is it different? Surely is.
Ok. The above doesn’t matter. I will pull out one comment above though, that P.S. BE ELEVEN does a remarkable job of rooting the reader firmly in a past time and place, and that is something I think it does at a “distinguished” level, especially in comparison to other titles this year (to be compared: NAVIGATING EARLY, which does a very good job in this respect, but not really on par with PS, in my opinion). Williams-Garcia’s novel feels equally an homage to early 1970s Brooklyn as it is to the three sisters: Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern. The story is gently episodic; some very light narrative threads: the pending 6th grade dance; the father’s new fiancee and letters between Delphine and her mother back in Oakland; the emergence of the Jackson Five as a catalyst for an “old” and “new” ways of being correct in the world, symbolized in the tug of power between Big Ma and Miss Marva Hendrix. All this might seem light plot for some readers; but Williams-Garcia remarkably crafts a narrative that *feels* action packed, even if it is not. The action is happening at the character level, and is delivered in a lively voice with a keen sense of detail and of humor.
Now, the perennial “sequel-discussion” question. Term #3 in the Newbery guidelines states that “The committee in its deliberations is to consider only the books eligible for the award, as specified in the terms.” This is generally understood to mean that the committee discusses only eligible titles, and compares them only to each other. There is a difference in opinion as to whether this term also implies that book from a series, or otherwise related to ineligible titles, must “stand alone.” That is, at the Newbery table, discussing P.S. BE ELEVEN, must we assume that even though the book is intended to be read as a follow up to a previous title (and therefore that readers will bring some knowledge of character and plot to it), that the book must achieve all of its distinguished characterics as if there were no prior knowledge, no prior book? Or, can the committee assume that–as a sequel–this book depends on a certain amount of prior knowledge, and that it can be judged in that context?
This is more of an issue for titles that depend heavily on previous plot and character threads (such as Megan Whalen Turner’s work. Who was here for CONSPIRACY OF KINGS?). P.S. BE ELEVEN, having such a different arc than its predecessor, does a pretty good job of standing on its own, and catches the reader up handily in the first handful of pages. I think that it does a remarkable job in characterization, in interpretation of theme or concept, and in appropriateness of style…whether or not the reader is already familiar with the three sisters. However, I suspect that is does a *better* job it if the reader *is* familiar with them…and “better” does matter in the final deliberations, if titles are neck-and-neck in discussion.