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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Far, Far Away

FarFarAway 200x300 Far, Far Away

We broached The Age Question in September when the NBA longlist was announced. Having just finally finished Tom McNeal’s FAR FAR AWAY, I can’t think of a more interesting title to challenge the question.

Here we have a ghost narrator who establishes a tone of other-worldliness while setting us firmly in a very normal (-seeming) contemporary small town.  (At least mostly contemporary. No mobile media).  The ghost–that of Jacob Grimm–becomes as important a character as the young teen protagonists, central to the plot, and to the novel’s emotional resolution (in fact, the emotional resolution of the book depends upon the ghost’s).   This perspective lets the reader shift between feeling settled and unsettled, sure of the world and unsure…this hesitation very important to the story’s moving forward, and to the emotional development of the characters, who are in that teasing no-man’s land of adolescence.

What I find remarkable  is that when the story descends into darkness, the tone keeps that slight remove of an “old-fashioned” story (through the ghost’s perspective)  just enough that the reader can control their emotional footing.   This is a truly frightening book–much more so than DOLL BONES–yet it doesn’t go to the gruesome or violent depths it could have easily (and to which many mature minds will leap).  And its romance is very tame, though teasing enough to please the older reader.

The discussion of whether this book is YA or not is all over the place.  This summer, Jonathan Eric and Monica discussed it in comments to Fuse #8′s Newbery/Caldecott Predictions post,  placing it “firmly middle school,” and “maybe too YA” for the Newbery.  But despite the character’s ages, I found their sensibilities fairly young.   Meanwhile, more recently at Crossreferencing, Mark and Sarah Flowers debated some of the plotting weaknesses in the story (I agree with them, but to me, at the moment, they are balanced by the story’s strengths) wondering if the book is “too young” to be YA.  (If anything, this may not be either a fully successful children’s OR YA book, as the ghost’s sensibility is very, very adult, and a significant layer to the story’s success is his.)

I think the book succeeds differently to different audiences.  As a YA novel, it offers a chillingly real insight into the deceptions adults can practice by presenting themselves a certain way in their communities; into the dangers of small-mindedness, and the power of staying open to “impossibilities” you thought you’d given up with childhood; into the varieties of passion that can redeem individuals, and the responsibility of choosing one’s path. As a children’s book (children as defined by the Newbery terms) it offers a richly layered plot and set of surprising characters (is there a Conk fan-club yet?), lots of age-appropriate romance, and a story in which readers can lay their memory-scapes of the Grimm tales over the real world in a way that lets them deliciously tempt a fantasy fear-scape within the safety of a well-crafted novel.  Call it the 12-year-old’s Where the Wild Things Are.  Whichever box we try to put it in or take it out of, however it succeeds it each, I think it’s hard to deny this is firmly within Newbery territory.

 

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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. I don’t agree at all that it fits within Newbery territory as I think it is firstly YA for the reasons you articulated. That younger kids can and will read it in without that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. You could then say that about all sorts of books — that kids will read only what they are ready for. The issue here for me is what is the theme, the point of this book and to me it is the YA perspective, making it outside of Newbery in my opinion.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Hm; okay, I don’t disagree that it has a YA theme. But I think it also has a theme for children. Why can’t a work do different things for different audiences? This is also my argument re CANNING SEASON. You might say the book succeeds “better” as a YA book….but that wouldn’t be a Newbery consideration. In fact, whether or not it is a YA book is not a Newbery consideration. The consideration is: how does it work for a child audience, and does it do so in a distinguished way?

      • But I don’t think it has dual audiences. In fact, we could then say that about most books then. That kids read where they are at and go past what they aren’t ready for. That happens, but does that mean the book is for them? I just don’t think so. And this one has some major stuff going on that is going to be either above their heads or absolutely scare the heck out of them.

        Contrast it to Gidwitz’s THE GRIMM CONCLUSION. This year kids in my class told Roxanne they thought it was too scary for her to read to them. So for some it isn’t the book for them, but it IS a book for most middle grade kids. Those kids will read it in total — they won’t bypass or miss themes that are too old for them.

        A book that has themes that kids are not ready for, that or directed older, that they will miss when reading it —that isn’t a book that is really for them, in my opinion.

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Monica – can you say more about what you mean by “YA perspective”? I don’t really understand this as a term.

      As far as I can tell, this book is pretty much perfectly designed for 12-14 year olds, making it perfectly eligible for the Newbery. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that I’d be more than happy if the Newbery would somehow change their criteria to be 0-12, but since they’ll never do that, we have to keep looking at books that are written for 14 year olds.

      That said, obviously, I have many problems with the book, and I certainly do not think that it works as well for its audience as (for example) IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE (or for that matter a dozen or so other books) does for its.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        I’ll just ditto Mark, that this book seems clearly suited to 12-14 year olds. And is an older perspective than Gidwitz’s, but still a child audience. The fact that Gidwitz is “for most middle grade readers” and the McNeal is not is not a determination of whether this can be called a Newbery book. I think there are plenty of 12-14 year olds who will get the themes in McNeal, and in a distinguished way.

      • I think Leonard further down did an excellent job of describing what pushes this beyond the Newbery range for me. That is the sort of YA perspective I mean.

  2. I’m not surprised we have different opinions here as I also don’t feel THE CANNING SEASON is properly Newbery either:)

  3. Anonymous says:

    I found the book absolutely terrifying. Maybe it struck a nerve with me because of some fragment of personal history, but the sadism of the villain seemed so intensely real to me that the book became unbearable. I felt it wasn’t a book for children–not that there aren’t terrible villains in children’s literature, but because the psychology of the villain was so intimate, so true to life, and therefore beyond the scariness of a Lord Voldemort.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that the young people in the story–unlike Harry Potter–don’t fight back. They can’t. They’re tied down and starved and poisoned, at the whim of the baker. When they try to stick together, and keep up their spirits, it backfires. Most children’s books are reassuring, or empowering–whatever phrase you like: children are encouraged to believe that no matter how bad things get, they’ll get better if you can hold onto your courage and your decency. But the young people in FAR FAR AWAY are unable to help themselves; their one chance is of being rescued. It’s the thing that makes BLUEBEARD so much scarier than MR. FOX.

    There was much I liked and appreciated about the book. It was skillfully written and I loved the ghost, and the ghost’s relationship with the protagonist. But the book seems unbalanced to me, because the torture of the children is so much more vivid and detailed than anything else around it. In order to balance the evil of the villain, I would have had to connect more vitally with the protagonists and the setting, which both seemed vague–whereas the evil in the book was concrete and specific.

    I think this book is YA. Teenagers can often read books that are too dark for either children or adults. They are drawn to them, because one of the tasks of adolescence is to see around the painted scenery that has been erected around them by kind-hearted adults. For teenagers, there’s an exhilaration in discovering the darkness in the world–and their empathy is sometimes underdeveloped, so they can handle it. But for adults (who can imagine real-life parallels all too easily) or for children, FAR, FAR AWAY, may be too, too dark.

  4. Alys says:

    Lots of SPOILERS in my comments!

    I think it’s interesting that so many people were terrified by this book. I was not ever scared for one single second. I saw the main villain a million miles away, almost from the first time he was mentioned. He kept being described as nice and jolly and generally in such a way that it immediately made me suspicious. I knew the moment he left to “bring the boy to a college far away” that he was really kidnapping him, so that was not a surprise at all, though it clearly was supposed to be. Perhaps seeing through this basic plot point very, very early in the book made the book less scary and creepy to me, since it was less an unknown menace and more one that I was well aware of and simply needed everyone else to catch up with? One touch I did especially like (and which was also a giveaway) was that Jacob rarely if ever refers to him as Sten Blix, instead constantly calling him simply “the baker”.

    The torture passages were unpleasant, but I did not for a moment believe that any permanent harm was going to be done. When Frank Bailey showed up alive and relatively unharmed, I knew immediately that the author was not going to be willing to take us all the way and actually kill one of the teens. I was annoyed when it turned out that Possy was alive after all that time. It’s implied that he killed every other kid he kidnapped, so why not Possy? There’s a part of me that thinks its because Possy is the only kidnap victim outside of the main three whose story we have been invested in. Killing off the nameless hordes doesn’t make as much impact as finding out that the missing boy is definitely dead. Possy being alive at the end of the book, along with all of the main kidnap victims being physically unharmed so that none of the named victims are damaged other than psychologically, that created too much of a happy ending for me.

    I thought the ending was too happy and cliched. I knew from the moment that the oven was introduced that the baker was going to end up dying within it, and was not particularly surprised when he killed himself, though I thought that was remarkably out of character. His entire giving up was out of character.

    I also thought the book was much too long. The entire Uncommon Knowledge bit could have been cut right out without losing much. It’s only real contribution was to show how moral Jeremy is, and I think that could have been gotten across more subtly.

    • Alys says:

      Edited to add that psychological damage can be extremely debilitating, and I did not want to imply that it was not. But even there, the three main characters all gave me the impression that they were going to be okay, in the same way that they were physically harmed by the starvation but would get better with treatment.

  5. Mary says:

    The work of the Brothers Grimm made it very clear that many folk tales and so-called “fairy” tales were not happy stories about jolly families, but scary narratives incorporating cruelty and violence.

    So to me MacNeal’s book was honoring that literary truth by anchoring the story with an evil character who subjected the good characters to great peril from which they ultimately escaped (surprise!), and then he was duly done away with.

    How many of the Grimm or Andersen fairy tales have you actually read to your young/primary-grade children? Some of them still make me shiver.

    I therefore think this terrific book is more appropriately YA (though fifth and sixth graders do have a high threshold for horror…)

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    It’s not so much the content as the “graphic” nature of McNeal’s prose that puts this out of the Newbery age range for me: the detailed descriptions of the kids’ physical privations, the sickening descriptions of the food they are given, that the baker actually murders the kids by poison (fine, they don’t die, but the act is described as well as the effects on the kids), and then commits suicide through self-immolation, these crossed the threshold for me. I think of it like a movie — content can be presented in different ways to put it on either side of PG-13 depending on how graphically things are shown. In this case, McNeal’s vivid prose made things too graphic for me.

    Actually, where I really think this book is “too mature” for the Newbery is not these scenes, but the presentation of Ginger. Again, McNeal’s writing style renders her, I think, too sexualized for a middle grade book, even though nothing “actually” happens. First, there’s the bordering-on-illegal feelings of the deputy for her. Second, she’s repeatedly described in terms of her physicality: her legs, or her scent, or putting her hair in her mouth. Third, even if “nothing happens”, it’d be hard for a reader to understand what’s going on if it went over their head that the townspeople thought something *did* happen when Ginger sleeps at Jeremy’s. Fourth, as I remember it, the swimming scene is a bit beyond your average middle grade first kiss scene. It’s all in the presentation — like the opening of Lolita (before anything actually happens) — a movie director can take a girl in a bathing suit and present her in a way anywhere from G to R-rated. For me, it’s McNeal’s writing, not the content per se, that puts this on the wrong side of 14.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Leonard, the exact parts that you mention…the way the violence and the romance were depicted…were exactly the parts that seemed tame to me. I think teens would feel almost patronized by these parts.

      • Really, the violence? I can buy the romance being tame, but the violence didn’t seem at all.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        I must be of a more innocent age than today’s jaded youth :)

        But when you say teens, what age range do you mean? I agree that the YA audience may have that reaction, but that doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for younger readers.

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Jonathan said much of what I wanted to say below, but I want to add that I see an interesting confusion in Leonard’s argument between “middle-grade” book and “Newbery book”. Perhaps I am wrong here, but I always assumed when we librarians discussed MG books we meant the famous 9-12 demographic.

      Leonard admits he may be of an older time, but are we seriously trying to claim that todays 13 and 14-year-olds don’t know about/care about/think about sex? Over in the Printz discussion some people are talking about Andrew Smith’s WINGER, which features a 14-year-old narrator who basically does nothing but think about sex. I have lots of problems with that book, but I haven’t heard anyone question the reality of that type of 14-year-old behavior.

      The same goes for the violence. There are 14-year-olds in gangs. There are 14-year-olds that have been abused. (much younger in both cases). (Some) 14-year-olds know about violence. That doesn’t mean we should give this book to every 14-year-old who walks in the library. Again, according to the Newbery criteria, it is perfectly fine if a book is “not appropriate” for younger readers, as long as it *is* appropriate for some 14-year-olds and is “most.” distinguished.

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Several points . . .

    1. The Newbery goes up to and includes age fourteen. I myself completed my entire 9th grade year before I turned fifteen. Thus, when we speak of high-end Newbery titles, we’re talking about grades 7-9. I find that FAR, FAR AWAY falls squarely in that range, especially since books do not have to also appeal to younger readers, too.

    2. One of the things I hate about this conversation is the subtext. When you lead with age as your strongest (and often only) argument, then what I hear is this: “I don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to argue against this book using the other literary criteria. I’m intellectually overmatched by this book.” I know that people in this particular discussion who are questioning the age limit may not have had the opportunity yet to voice a host of other concerns, so my comment isn’t directed at any particular person. Rather, it’s just a general close-minded feeling that I get when we have these discussions year after year.

    3. I’m also bothered that my continual response to this issue is the very same thing that I would say to would-be censors. This book is too (fill-in-the-blank) for your children. Fine. But must all children read the book the way that your children do? Must they all be as terrorized and titillated as your children are? Must they?

    • Martha says:

      Very well said, Jonathan, thank you.

      The upper-age limit component of the criteria seems to be one of the hardest things for people to wrap their head around. Also letting go of the idea of an ideal child reader for the Newbery — which idea, of course, does not exist in the criteria.

      I’d love to hear this book discussed on its own merits. I wonder if we could go with a hypothetical situation (since this is basically all hypothetical, given we can’t know what’s happening with the actual committee): assume there exists a 14-year-old reader for whom this book is suitable. It’s on the Newbery table. What would you then say about it in terms of Newbery criteria? Is it distinguished?

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nina quoted this in her original Age Question post, but I think it needs to be here too for easy reference–

    In some instances, award-winning books have been criticized for exceeding the upper age limit of fourteen.

    If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible. Questions for committees to consider include these:

    * Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?

    * If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?

    * If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?

    A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee feels that

    * it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book; or

    * it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership; or

    * it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.

  9. Leonard Kim says:

    I guess I am asking how does one determine the “suitability” of a book for a certain age like 14. And I guess I am arguing that there does exist a broad American societal consensus about this reflected in the similar-to-each-other ratings systems used in other media (movies, television, video games.) And yes, those ratings may be conservative. Many perhaps most 13-14 year-olds watch R-rated movies and play M-rated video games and watch TV-MA-rated shows, and have thoughts and lives to match, but does that mean these ratings assessments are inaccurate and useless? I’d say no. The language of content rating in other media explicitly isn’t absolute or censoring but throws around terms like “caution” and “some material might not be suited.” The Newbery manual uses the same word, “suitable.” As Jonathan says, the act of consumption is a personal decision, and I agree. And kids can and do consume media not “suitable” for them as judged on broad social norms, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and they may do it with their parents’ blessing, but that doesn’t somehow transform the media into “suitable.” If a 14-year-old reads something like, oh, THE SHINING (and many do), does that make Stephen King Newbery-eligible? I think there’s no way a TV version of FAR, FAR AWAY gets anything less than a TV-14 rating, though I agree it’s close (which is why reasonable adults are splitting on this). The fact is, I liked the book, but following the Newbery manual, I’m not sure I could argue that it is “so distinguished, in so many ways” to overcome the narrow age range. Am I naive to think if you stuck this book out in a general “recommended books” display in a middle school library, you’d get flak?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Jonathan, I can’t speak for everyone who’s writing in today, but I have no doubts about my intellectual “wherewithal”–though I prefer the term “prowess.” Perhaps a hearing test is in order? If this were a discussion of the Printz, I could happily argue the literary merits or deficits of this book. But this is a discussion of the Newbery, and it seems to me that it is entirely pertinent to begin with the question of whether or not this is a piece of children’s literature. And it seems to me that it isn’t.

    I read CATCHER IN THE RYE at fourteen, and loved it. Because of the conversational narrative, it was easier to read than AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND, or THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, both of which were children’s books–but CATCHER IN THE RYE isn’t a children’s book; its sensibility is YA or adult. I also read SILAS MARNER at fourteen; loved it, too, but neither is it a children’s book. Adults can get something out of all four books, because they are rich and multilayered. But I don’t think either SILAS MARNER or CATCHER IN THE RYE ought to have been eligible for the Newbery Medal. They aren’t children’s books.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Anonymous, your intellectual prowess was never in question as your comments were both lucid and insightful in speaking to why you think the book is too old. Let me see if I can better articulate what bothers me about leading off the discussion of any book with concerns about the age.

      I understand that many of us classify the audience for a book with a gut reaction, one that is borne of the experience of reading numerous books and interacting with numerous children and/or teens about said books. I do respect differing opinions here, and understand that they come from a valid place, but I also think that too often this age conversation devolves into a discussion of semantics, especially since words like “children’s books” and “YA” seem to have loaded meanings above and beyond what is explicitly stated in the Newbery criteria.

      Our conversation here has evolved differently than it probably will unfold around the Newbery table, where members will almost certainly open with positive comments about the strength of the book, before moving onto the negative comments. Some chairs might even want to consider the age issue after the negative comments, so that the discussion doesn’t get hijacked by a single topic. Regardless of when the committee considers this question in the course of their discussion, they will likely refer to the questions posed above, which I am posting down below with what I think our answers might be.

      IS THERE ANY 14-YEAR OLD FOR WHOM THIS BOOK IS SUITABLE?

      I would answer yes, and I think you would answer yes, and Monica, and Leonard, too. The question asks if there is *any* 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable. It does not ask if this book is suitable for all 14-year-olds. Big distinction, no? (The key word here isn’t suitable; it’s any.)

      IF SO, IS IT DISTINGUISHED ENOUGH TO BE CONSIDERED?

      I would answer yes, and I think you would, too, and Monica and Leonard have both praised the strength of the writing, too.

      IF SO, EXACTLY WHAT 14-YEAR OLDS WOULD RESPOND TO IT, AND WHY?

      This is the first open-ended question and answers will vary, and they will be informed by the perceptions of young readers that committee members have consulted with. This discussion is not likely to produce a consensus on the issue, but it might provide insights that help sway some members in one direction or another.

      A BOOK MAY BE CONSIDERED EVEN THOUGH IT APPEALS TO A FAIRLY SMALL PART OF THE AGE RANGE IF THE COMMITTEE FEELS THAT–

      IT IS SO DISTINGUISHED THAT EVERYONE OF THAT AGE SHOULD KNOW THE BOOK; OR

      I can’t make that argument for this book. I don’t think anyone can.

      IT IS SO DISTINGUISHED, IN SO MANY WAYS, THAT IT DESERVES RECOGNITION FOR THE EXCELLENCE IT PROVIDES TO A SMALL BUT UNIQUE READERSHIP; OR

      I’m not sure that this one necessarily convinces me either, but “small but unique readership” is the phrase here that seems to convince me as much as anything.

      IT IS EXCEPTIONALLY FINE FOR THE NARROW PART OF THE AGE RANGE TO WHICH IT APPEALS, EVEN THOUGH IT MAY BE ELIGIBLE FOR OTHER AWARDS OUTSIDE THIS RANGE.

      This is one that convinces me because that last phrase seems like code for the Printz Award. This seems to refute the whole Printz-as-consolation-prize line of reasoning. I understand that some people will answer this last question differently, and that is fine now that we have considered the positives, the negatives, and the age question. Saying this book is too old at the end of the discussion after all the evidence has been weighed feels fair and just unlike opening the discussion with that pronouncement which feels unfair and judgmental (or I believe I said close-minded). Asynchronous online discussions tend to have these kinds of problems in general when it comes to discussing the Newbery criteria, and I think if we were all around the table having a face to face discussion this wouldn’t be a problem at all.

  11. Mary says:

    When did a YA book with signficant sexual or explicitly violent elements last win a Newbery? Somewhere in the 80s? The Printz has taken over this literary territory (and expanded it….)

    This book strikes me as a latter-day fairy tale, with all the sexual innuendo, cruelty, and psychological trauma of Grimm-era tales, which were intended as much for adults as for children before their 19th-century bowdlerization.

    So who is the audience for a fairy tale, anyway?

    • Mark Flowers says:

      When did a book intended for 0-3 year olds last win the Newbery? (hint: never). Does that mean that we should ignore the Newbery criteria, which explicitly begin the age range at age 0?

      The Printz hasn’t “taken over” anything. It’s criteria are entirely different than the Newbery’s, not least because non-Americans are eligible.

      Unless and until the Newbery changes its criteria, the committee is obligated to consider books intended for, or appropriate to, 13 and 14-year-olds.

  12. Leonard Kim says:

    You know what, I concede. It’s suitable enough for 13-14.

    Character — I still had problems with the writing of Ginger, who is repeatedly described using the same words (“coltish”) and didn’t seem much more than the dream girl/object of desire (including for a creepy adult) with the possible detail of her childlike praying as an exception. (Actually, there’s an argument that Ginger is a YA-representation of a cliched Madonna-whore-type character). Actually, the other major female character, the deus ex machina waitress who’s name I’m forgetting right now, isn’t that much better, playing an essentially similar role to Jeremy’s dad.

    From the standpoint of atmosphere and plotting, I found the writing very good — sensuous and vivid and suspenseful as I alluded to earlier. The immediacy of the writing is one reason why I think this doesn’t work as a fairy tale (where the words create some distance to events). I also thought the ghost narrator is effective here — it fits the horror vibe where you helplessly and powerlessly watch events unfold.

    Theme/concept/setting? Is there one? Seems to me that this basically shows a struggle to get by in an essentially awful, nihilistic world with bad people where kids have no agency to help themselves. Even the supernatural have little to offer and seem generally at an existential loss. Again sort of akin in mood to some modern horror? Another reason this seems less than fairy tale-like to me (where universal if unpleasant themes are embedded.)

  13. I definitely don’t think the Newbery is for the masses or for all ages. At all. This book just seemed dark at the end in a way that seemed YA. I’ve had some kids read it and like it, but these are kids who also are reading Kant (really:), Cervantes (one just told me today he is loving it), and so forth. So what I struggle with is when is a small cohort of typical 14 year olds versus a small cohort who read at a precocious level? I admit I struggle with this almost every year with one book or another.

    I do want to say this has nothing to do with my opinion of the book itself. In fact I very much liked it I thought the author managed the Grimm narration especially well. Loved the character — sad, witty, wise, he is great. In fact, if you want to compare — it succeeded for me as Ghost Hawk’s narration did not. Initially I was wary, but I quickly completely bought into the Grimm brother as the narrator. Overall, I thought the character development and articulation was well-done. Some characters are more nuanced than other, but that seems appropriate for a quazi-fairy tale. Setting and plot were well done too.

    Theme — and here is where I’m still struggling with the age. It just seems dark and built around stuff that is older than 14. I mean, if someone could convince me otherwise, this is a book I could even get behind. I thought it highly original.

    • I know we could’t bring this up if we were at the Newbery table, but that last part makes me think of such dark fairy tales retellings as Robin McKinley’s Deerskin or even Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Monica and Leonard, thanks for bringing back the discussion to the book’s literary merits. If we were ourselves at the Newbery table, and I nominated this book, we’d have to have this discussion. Once each of us determines whether/how this is distinguished for someone up to age 14, then we can talk about how this measures, fits, or doesn’t fit among our possible contenders.

      To try to respond to each of your comments about theme…. yes, it certainly got very dark at end, and violent. Monica, I meant that to me the graphic representation of the violence, and the type of violence, seemed “tame” though I was being provocative using that word. I kept on waiting for it to turn gory or sexual and it never did. Not to discount psychological violence and death by starvation. But I think it is “easier” on the surface.

      The way in which the children are saved draws upon the theme winding through the book, to see and take people as they are, to keep an open mind to people and to the world. Jacob was provoked to action because Jeremy enters/shares his dream. He finds a way to provoke Jenny to action by knowing her well enough (by having paid attention enough) and by being desperate enough. Jenny is able to bring people along because she’s not afraid to be who she is… and is open enough to be the one person who could hear Jacob. All this is in opposition to the small-mindedness of the others in the town, which is conveyed very archetypically as if it were a fairy tale village. This whole theme–of paying attention to the world and to the people in it, to being willing to be changed and to be proven wrong about people, about stepping up when called by others, or just listening when called—is very approachable, suited for, and appreciated by a 12-14 yr old audience.

      • A few points.

        First of all, in defense of those of us grappling with the age issue — that is what Nina started out with in her post so that is what I responded to right away as it is something I’ve been grappling with. Also, because I like the book and so am very open to being convinced. But it is tricky. When I was on the Committee I talked a lot to our 4-8 Middle School psychologist to help me with the audience issue for books like this one. I’m still not sure what ” A SMALL BUT UNIQUE READERSHIP” looks like. Does it include the kid I know who is happily reading Kant? Precocious readers, I’d term those like her. (And she loved FAR FAR AWAY.) Can someone help define this group better? And perhaps tell us what is clearly YA and not for a 14 year old? Sorry to fixate on this, but I think it would help not just me.

        Secondly, I’m interested in the tame issue. Yes, there isn’t graphic violence, but I found the emotional violence horrifying. Also, kidnapped and imprisoned and all (I don’t do well in confined spaces at all)— scary as all get out for me! But then I’m not a horror fan at all . (After seeing the remarkable trailer for Kulbrick’s movie The Shining I was dying to see it, but knowing how scared of horror movies I am I figured if I read the book first it would help. Well, I was in and out of the lobby for the last section anticipating dreads that never came, much amusing the concession workers. I’ve read little King because he’s too scary for me:) So I suppose someone who likes horror or is familiar with horror tropes would indeed find this tame. But can someone give me a sense of how explicit horror is for this age group? Not being a horror fan I have to admit a lack of familiarity.

        Thirdly (tied to the previous point), Jonathan, I did find this similarly incredibly dark in an ominous way as in the sensibility of Tender Morsels and Deerskin.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Monica, I know that not only were you responding to Nina, but that we had started this conversation earlier on Betsy’s blog. This same thing happened last year in our discussion BOMB here (which was so different from our face to face discussion in Oakland) because the asynchronous nature of the discussion here and on other blogs is more chaotic and less structured.

        Why do we even need to discuss what is YA and what is not? The criteria tell us very specifically who children are (up to and including age 14) and it gives us a very specific checklist to guide our discussion, which I have posted above so that people could respond accordingly. The way I read those last three conditions is that a book need only satisfy one of them. While I do think FAR FAR AWAY has a small, but unique readership, I think the last condition, that we can’t fob this book off on the Printz committee just because we think it appeals only to ages 12-14, hits the nail on the head. Do you disagree?

        You seem to be suggesting a couple of reasons why FAR FAR AWAY is beyond the scope of the Newbery. One of those reasons is that most children cannot adequately grasp and appreciate the themes of the novel. (We’ve covered this territory before, but I’m not sure that most adults even grasp and appreciate the themes of the novel on a first read either; hence, the need for rereading by committee members). In our discussion of HOKEY POKEY some people posited that the themes of that book could only be appreciated by people who had left childhood, and that thus it was a book that appealed to teenagers and adults, but not to children. You were fairly delighted to find a child reader who not only read the book, but got what Spinelli was trying to do on a thematic level. That’s great, but how do I know that your HOKEY POKEY reader isn’t just as much of an outlier as your reader for FAR FAR AWAY? Why do you value his response to the former book more than her response to the latter? Doesn’t she have just as much of a right to be the “ideal” child reader as he does?

        The other reason you suggest is the graphic nature of the horror in this book. I think I have also addressed this point. I get that this is too scary for fourth grade Monica, ninth grade Monica, and quite possibly the entire Dalton student body with the exception of Kant Reader, but I didn’t find it scary nor did several other commenters here. Must we all be held hostage by fourth grade Monica’s reading of the text? Must we? Moreover–and I know this is not something I would ask around the Newbery table–what makes this a YA book and THE GOLDEN COMPASS a children’s book? They both have tremendous violence (Iorek Brynison tearing Iofur Raknison’s heart out and eating it is about as grisly as it gets, I’m afraid), kidnapping (much more kidnapping to the point that it becomes an ominous threat for Lyra and friends), and torture (the severing of child from daemon). For me, both the physical and psychological horror of THE GOLDEN COMPASS exceeds FAR FAR AWAY, but I dare you to tell me that THE GOLDEN COMPASS is only suitable for ages 15 and up.

  14. One thing I’ll add to this conversation is that my young readers club discussed THE GRAVEYARD BOOK this month and even the youngest, most timid of them loved it. (She’s eight and a year ago she was too afraid to finish Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES.) The point is, it still shocks me sometimes how much kids love a truly scary story. I listened to FAR, FAR AWAY and the audiobook was magical. I almost entirely believed the narrator truly was Jacob Grimm. If this wins Newbery gold, I would be very surprised, but I would be pleased. I think it has a better shot at the NBA.

  15. Benji Martin says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. As an elementary librarian, I can’t think of any books that have won the Newbery, at least recently that I wouldn’t be comfortable having in my collection. I’m still wavering about this book. My gut and all the reviews tell me that I shouldn’t purchase it. (admittedly I haven’t read it yet, I am up to my ears in middle grade novels) Has anyone out there seen this book in an elementary school library? If it did win an honor or the Newbery, it would be the first that I can think of that isn’t elementary appropriate.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      While I think intermediate students (i.e. 4th-6th grades) and high school students will read and appreciate this book, I think it will have a far greater audience in middle school/junior high (i.e 7th-9th grades), and I have no problem with it not being in an elementary library collection, especially if budget is a consideration (as it is in most school libraries). I know some people have been suggesting it for the Printz, and while it certainly qualifies for that award, I agree with Mark that it seems awfully young for a Printz book. I look forward to seeing if and how a parallel discussion of FAR FAR AWAY evolves on Someday My Printz Will Come.

  16. Nina and Jonathan, I’m glad you’re taking this stand. More than any other book this year, FAR FAR AWAY challenged my preconceptions of the Newbery age range.

    I think it makes us uncomfortable to imagine 12-14 year olds thinking about certain topics. More uncomfortable than those topics make the actual 12-14 year old readers.

  17. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    A general reply to some great comments… Monica, and all, you are correct that I centered the post on the age question so shouldn’t have sounded surprised at where the comments went, and I didn’t mean to chastise, but I get frustrated when the age question becomes one of “what is appropriate for my general readership” or “what am I comfortable using with my entire classroom.” This is a legitimate question in purchasing and use discussions (as Benji brings up above), but I get worried when–in a Newbery discussion–we start shutting the door to 12-14 readership, (or, 0-3 readership as Mark asks) just because the book is not in our comfort zone.

  18. Jonathan,

    While I do agree “that we can’t fob this book off on the Printz committee just because we think it appeals only to ages 12-14,” I’m still unclear about that small unique group of kids and how they are differentiated from kids who are reading up at that age. Rachel, on goodreads, notes that she was reading V.S. Andrews and Stephen King at that age. I was reading adult stuff like crazy by age 10. Roxanne and I see loads of kids like that in our middle school. But I still am struggling to see why their doing so makes this a book for them rather than a book they are reading up to as they do with King et al.

    HOKEY POKEY is a good one to consider here. I was actually completely convinced by Nina and others that it might well be for kids leaving childhood and thus outside of Newbery range. I’d have to explore more those kids who like it within it, why they do. The ones I have encountered are the same precocious readers who appreciated FAR FAR AWAY and much older stuff than that. So all it makes me think is that both are questionable for the “up through 14″ crowd.

    The horror actually isn’t graphic which only makes it worse for me. But as I’m definitely not a horror reader and never have been one, so I totally concede on that ground. You and others who have a better sense of horror for this age group may indeed say it works for them.

    I like this book way more than many other popular Newbery-potentials. As I wrote upthread, I could certainly see myself get behind it if I was comfortable about the age thing. What are other books (not adult ones like those of Andrews and King) that would be for the 12-14 reader who goes for this?Maybe I would get a better idea knowing some titles. Or is this a true original for this age group?

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Monica, I think I understand what you’re saying – how is a children’s book (or Newbery book) different from an adult book that 14 year olds are reading? I still think it is very unproductive to use the term YA, since that is a term of art which refers to 12-18, and therefore clearly overlaps with the Newbery award.

      But to your specific question about other books, I can’t say I’m much of an expert on children’s horror stories (I myself was one of your precocious readers going for King and Koontz in 6th grade), so you made need to help me triagulate with some other books:

      Are the scary parts of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS significantly less scary for your than FFA?

      What about the various children’s books that interact with the Holocaust or slavery? Does it matter that those are touching on real life events.

      And what about those fantasy books Jonathan mentions – not just GOLDEN COMPASS, but many of the later Harry Potter books, for example get quite heavy–the dementors, the cruciatus curse, and more. Do you see something substantially different about those books?

      Or, to look at it from a different angle – are the horror elements of FFA really more psychologically difficult *for a 14 year old* than say the death in A BRIDE TO TERABITHIA *for an 8 year old*?

      I promise, I’m not trying to put you on the spot here – just trying to see what the parameters of the question are.

      • Yes, I realize I shouldn’t use the term YA when it is the upper end of the “up through 14″ group I’m wondering about. Perhaps this is true — I didn’t see those books you mention as being nearly as dark by the end as this one, but that is me. Again, it seemed way closer to Tender Morsels in tone than The Golden Compass. Especially with the lack of agency of the young people that someone mentioned here earlier somewhere above. (The Bridge to Terabithia question doesn’t work for me as it seems there are plenty in the “up through 14″ age range who will be ready for the death and it doesn’t matter if it isn’t for an 8 year old as long as it works for an almost 15 year old, and it does.)

    • Monica, that’s a good question. I agree that V. C. Andrews and Stephen King were clearly writing for an adult audience, and child readers are outliers for them – I just brought them up to question the idea that scariness automatically relegates a book to YA.

      So what makes FFA a children’s book? Think think think… (I always feel at a disadvantage in a forum like this where you have to think on your feet in order to keep up with the discussion…)

      Well, for one thing, I think the way the violence and romance are dealt with are more in the style of juvenile books than YA or adult. You have the distancing provided by the ghost/adult narrator, as well the civilizing influence of his old-fashioned point of view. I think this could be a YA book if told from one of the children’s perspectives – particularly Ginger, who is clearly having some sexual feelings (feelings of which we only see the barest suggestion).

      I agree with Nina that the themes, at least some of them, are juvenile as well. The characters learn that adults can’t always be trusted, and that the trustworthy ones are not always who they appear to be. They begin to experience, for the first time, that push-pull of home vs. “far far away,” but in the end, they return home, at least for now. That reminds me of Rat in Wind in the Willows, and his yearning for the sea. A YA version of Rat would have to leave home eventually, wouldn’t he? And an adult novel Rat would know that he can never really go home.

      • Rachel, the bit about Rat is incredibly helpful. Also I do very much agree with you, Nina, and others about the juvenile aspects of the romance. And I think I’m slowly being talked down off the ledge as to the final horrific bits being appropriate (so to speak:) for the upper end of the Newbery age.

  19. Alys says:

    What do people think about the ending? I thought it was too cliched and happy – every named character that was kidnapped is saved, even Possy, the ONLY named previous kidnap victim, who also happens to be the only other survivor (I know I’ve mentioned that before, but it really bugs me.) On the one hand, looked at quickly it falls in with the stereotypical fairy tale arc, that everyone who is good is rewarded and everyone that is bad is punished. But I thought part of the book was talking about how life *isn’t* a fairy tale, that you can’t tell immediately who the bad guy is going to be, that people surprise you. And Sten is never really punished in the traditional sense of being judged and given correction by outside forces. He has control over his actions and the ways in which people respond to those actions right up until the end.

    • It has been months since I read it, but think it worked for me as it is more or less a fairy tale. In fact, that happy ending may be something that makes it for the “up through 14″ crowd:)

      • Mary says:

        And I had the same reaction. But (as the presence of Jacob Grimm makes explicit), fairy tales are not just for children.

        Whatever all of you decide about the appropriate audience for this book, the intensity of the discussion indicates it is probably not going to fall through the cracks during awards season!

  20. Leonard Kim says:

    To the notion that the ending is happy, this is specifically addressed in the book when the baker explicitly reminds everybody, You think this is a happy ending? What about all the other (unnamed) children I killed? To me it is still the details of writing, not the content per se, that make this book problematic. I may be in the minority here, but I think such blatant nihilism, which again I think is akin to the ethos of modern adult horror, is something best left to the over-14 crowd. (Nina, I disagree with you about the theme, but that’s just my personal reading.)

    Last night, I asked my wife, who was a voracious reader, what kinds of books she was reading at 14. By coincidence she mentioned the exact same books as Rachael in her blog: Stephen King, Flowers in the Attic, et al. My wife made the point that 14 is simply the age when you start to read adult books and specifically seek out books with sex etc. But to me it destroys the age discussion if 14 is to be generally considered the lower end of suitability for any book whatsoever (and arguably it is.) The first “question” posed in the Newbery manual is almost meaningless, because what book *isn’t* suitable for *any* 14-year-old? (It’s also unclear whether the third question’s “if so” follows from the first or second question, and that makes a difference.) At any rate, my interpretation of the manual’s language is that if a book is considered barely “age appropriate” it is *not* on equal footing with other books. The later text on whether the committee can consider such a book use extra intensifiers: “so distinguished, in so many ways” (not just “distinguished”), “as well as or better than other, younger books.” To me this implies extra justification is needed for such a book to overcome the marginal age range. If Far, Far Away is not clearly better or in the same class as the cream of the younger books, I think it is consistent with the Newbery manual to pass it over.

  21. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Leonard, there is much that I do not agree with, but I think you’ve gotten it right in your last sentence, and the preface to those questions in the manual echoes your last line precisely–

    “If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible.”

    Since my first three October nominations were THE THING ABOUT LUCK, ERUPTION!, and WHAT THE HEART KNOWS, and since IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE has locked up one of my November nominations, I clearly think there are at least four books for younger readers that do what they do for their audience better than FAR FAR AWAY does. I admire many things about FAR FAR AWAY, and my quibbles were so minor that I’ve now forgotten what they were. I can jump on the bandwagon for this title, but I’m clearly not driving it.

  22. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I do think this is a “relatively” happy ending, and the cliche that annoys Alys seems to me part of the beauty of it…that even the ending has that feeling of being real/not real…just like a fairy tale, but believable enough for the real world. There’s enough evil wrought, and enigma at the end, that it is not fully happy… yet is an emotional arc that makes me feel if falls solidly in the child audience range. (I don’t have the book anymore, so I can’t go back to look… but I wanted to review the stories that Jeremy tells while they’re imprisoned… is there something about him picking just the one’s with the happy endings? I can’t remember.)

    It sounds liike I like this book better than Jonathan does . Whether it’s in my top 3-5 I don’t know, but I’d certainly rate it in my top 10 at this point. I feel that the skill and quality of the prose was of high quality and so much better than many we’ve discussed so far. I’m betting that a re-read will make this book tip for me one way or the other… if I start to see holes, and the prose looks shallow or less purposeful than I’m remembering, it’ll probably sink out of contention for me. But it felt to me like one of those books that might just get better, and richer, on a second read. For “mythic” effect, I might lay it side by side with TRUE BLUE SCOUTS and see what I think.

  23. Allison says:

    I don’t know if it’s a Newbery book, but I can say that I would definitely put this in the YA section of the library. One of the things that I disliked about this book is that the fairy tale tone seemed incongruous to the actual events. He sets up a magical, fairy-tale tone (which I loved), and fairy tale allusions are scattered throughout. But the story is one of a serial killer. Was I the only who kept waiting for magic to come into play?? When I finally figured out that it was all real, that nothing would magically save them, that this was just some sadistic old man… I was horrified. At a certain point the book I thought I was reading turned into a different book. I almost want to say that it’s misleading. It comes off as one kind of children’s book at the beginning, but gets much more mature down the line.

    That said, I could tell from the first page that McNeal knows how to write. He’s skilled with language. And the idea of a fairy tale, but real, is so interesting. So on the one hand I thought the book was kinda weird and incongruous, and on the other I thought it was clever how McNeal has drawn a parallel between a realistic event (variations on which do happen in real life) and fairy tales of old. So I didn’t really like the book per say, but I thought it was well done, inventive, and thought-provoking.

    • Mary says:

      There are “Grimm” fairy tales and there are “Perrault” fairy tales.

      Grimm fairy tales have stepmothers abandoning young children in the woods in the hope that they will die, which children are then tricked by a witch, who puts one child in a cage, starves him, and almost succeeds in roasting both of them alive so they can be eaten. (Hansel and Gretel). Or have a young stepdaughter taken out to the woods to be murdered (with her heart to be eaten by her stepmother as proof that she is dead) (Snow White). Or mothers having to give away their babies (Rumpelstilskin (threatened) / Rapunzel(actual).

      Perrault fairy tales have beautiful stepdaughters exhausting themselves with housework but marrying a handsome prince quite promptly, (Cinderella), or beautiful daughters loved by strange creatures who are actually princes in disguise (Beauty and the Beast), or beautiful daughters taking unscheduled very long naps before being rescued by handsome princes (Sleeping Beauty).

      FAR FAR AWAY is a Grimm fairy tale, of course, and the plot fits right into the “grim” fairy tale meme. There is no reason to expect the plot to be anything but fearsome.

  24. rds says:

    I find it fascinating that The Graveyard Book has not been held up as a comparison yet in light of the ” is it too scary, too old” discussion. My memory of the first chapter of that book was that it is far more chilling than Far, Far Away, and after rereading the first chapter of Graveyard just now, I still think that’s the case. A murderer with a knife, wiping that knife clean, leaving the bodies of the parents on the floor, searching for a baby whom he will kill next . . . one can argue that the rest of that book has a tone of love and concern for the child that makes up for the shock of the beginning, but then I would argue that the same is true for Far, Far Away, just that the structure is different so that the kinder, gentler parts of McNeal’s book are in the first 3/4 of the book and then at the end. Fear may be as subjective as humor, but to me, this book is well within the range of scary but not too scary that we can deem appropriate for Newbery age. And think of books like Wait Till Helen Comes, Jane Emily, The Wicked Witcked Ladies in the Haunted House (not to mention Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, etc) that, while not Newbery caliber in their writing, were solidly aimed at and widely read by the beloved 9-12 range, and here we are discussing whether this book is right for 14 years olds. There was a preschooler on my block trick or treating in a Mike Meyers costume last night (not that I’m saying this is appropriate), and at this time of year there are hundreds of scary and gory images aimed specifically at kids, even quite young ones. And as others have pointed out, the character arcs and emotional situations that the kids in the book are dealing with are the issues of childhood and early adolescence, not the issues of our teen years as adulthood looms closer. In light of all this, I find it very difficult to support an argument that Far, Far Away is not solidly in Newbery territory when it comes to the age criterion.

    Age aside, I find the other aspects of this book very distinguished indeed and think they absolutely put it in Newbery territory. The few small quibbles I have are along the lines of the ones Alys expressed, and to me are not enough to take it out of contention.

  25. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    You know, the more I think about this (and remember it) the more I like it. I did mention that THE THING ABOUT LUCK is currently my favorite because of the fact that it overcomes a lot of my natural inclinations against liking the book, but if I compare that book with FAR FAR AWAY from a more objective viewpoint, I think FAR FAR AWAY is strong in all literary elements and is more well rounded. My concerns involved pacing and perhaps some of the things that have been mentioned, but they were very minor reservations. So looking ahead to my November Nominations in another week or so, IF YOU WANT TO BE A WHALE has one spot locked up, and for the second I would probably pick from FAR FAR AWAY, GHOST HAWK, and THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP.

  26. ken says:

    Was anyone else thinking there was a connection between the prince cakes and the murders? The baker kept talking about how they were only baked on special occasions, and was hinting that more would be coming soon as the kids appeared to be nearing the end. I kept expecting some sort of reveal where we learn that the cakes are made from the bones of the missing children or something grizzly like that, which would totally have been in tune with a Grimm fairy tale.

    I can understand the arguments about Goosebumps and Scary Stories. However, for me those books were never scary as a kid. It was easy enough to realize there was no real danger from supernatural baddies. Far Far Away succeeded in scaring me in ways those other books couldn’t in the fact that the villain is the totally normal guy next door. It went even further when we’re shown just how unhinged Sten Blix really is. By the time the baker figures out the code Jeremy tried to put into his letter, all bets are off. This isn’t Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo where those meddling kids will easily outsmart the wicked adults before anything truly bad can happen.

    My quibbles are the same minor ones as everyone else, though I feel a bit more strongly about the “happily ever after” ending. No one goes through that level of trauma without some major issues that will last a lifetime. That being said, I absolutely loved the writing in this book. I totally see it as a contender, but I shudder when I think of the parents who think Newbery Honor=appropriate for every 8-yr-old.

  27. Alison says:

    The comments about fobbing a book off on the Printz committee really annoy me. The Printz is for ages 12 to 18. A book that is for 12-14 year-olds is definitely in Printz territory. (I have served on the Printz Committee FWIW)

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      But Alison you’re seconding my point. We would never tolerate the argument that the Printz committee should not consider a 12-14 book because the Newbery committee could/should recognize it instead, so why is it acceptable to argue the reverse?

  28. Sam Bloom says:

    FINALLY read this one, and so I FINALLY allowed myself to read this post and the comments. Whew! You guys kept me up past my bedtime! But I’d like to add myself to the bandwagon here… I’d use a nomination on this in a heartbeat.

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