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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book Anyway?

A couple years ago, Neil Gaiman delivered the Zena Sutherland Lecture which was reprinted in the Horn Book with this title.  Gaiman examined this question by considering his three works in progress.  Incidentally, they were all published this year: CHU’S DAY (a picture book), FORTUNATELY, THE MILK (a beginning chapter book), and THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE.  The entire article is insightful, especially his comments about the latter.

The third book I wrote is the one that inspired the title of this talk, and is the reason why I puzzle and I wonder.

It has a working title of LETTIE HEMPSTOCK’S OCEAN. It is written, almost entirely, from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. It has magic in it–three strange, science-fictional witches who live in an ancient farmhouse at the end of the protagonist’s lane. It has some unusually black-and-white characters, including the most absolutely evil creature I’ve made since Coraline’s Other Mother. It has Sense of Wonder in it, and strangeness. It’s only 53,000 words long, short for an adult book, but for years considered a perfect length for a juvenile. It has everything in it I would have loved as a boy. . .

And I don’t think it’s for kids. But I’m not sure.

It’s a book about child helplessness. It’s a book about the incomprehensibility of the adult world. It’s a book in which bad things happen– a suicide sets the story in motion, after all. And I wrote it for me: I wrote it to try and conjure my childhood for my wife, to evoke a world that’s been dead for over forty years. I set it in the house I grew up in and I made the protagonist almost me, the parents similar to my parents, the sister an analog of my younger sister, and I even apologized to my baby sister because she could not exist in this fictional version of events.

I would make notes for myself as I wrote it, on scraps of paper and in margins, to try and work out whether I was writing a book for children or for adults – which would not change the nature of the book, but would change what I did with it once it was done, who would initially publish it and how. They were notes that would say things like “In adult fiction you can leave the boring bits in” and “I don’t think I can have the scene where his father nearly drowns him in the bath if it’s a kids’ book, can I?”

I reached the end of the book and realized that I was as clueless as when I began. Was it a children’s book? an adult book? a young adult book? a crossover book? a . . . book?

You’re probably expecting some crazy, but brilliant defense of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE WORLD as a Newbery book.  But, no!  This is a bait and switch!


If the four Scientists in the Field titles are one bright spot in the field of nonfiction this year, then another, less obvious one might be the young adult adaptations of adult nonfiction: THE NAZI HUNTERS by Neal Bascomb, MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS by Tracy Kidder and Michael French, and KENNEDY’S LAST DAYS by Bill O’Reilly.  Of course, none of these will win Newbery recognition per the Expanded Definitions and Criteria.

1. Children’s books derived from previously published adult books can’t be considered eligible. The intent of the award is not to see who can successfully adapt an adult book; the award is intended for the original creation of a distinguished book for children. 


Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, was published for adults in 1998. A children’s version, The Cod’s Tale, was published in 2001 and would not be considered eligible.

Othello: A Novel by Julius Lester, based on the Shakespeare play and published for children in 1995, would be considered eligible. 

This part of the manual has always annoyed me because anyone who is familiar with both Mark Kurlansky books would hardly call one an adaptation of the other.  They may be based on the same body of research, but that’s where the similarity ends.  And don’t get me started on the double standard for fiction.

Anyway, let us pretend for the sake of argument that the reason that more nonfiction books do not get recognized by the Newbery committee is because they simply aren’t good enough.  Certainly, each committee that does not recognize nonfiction believes this in a collective sense even if its individual members do not.  I’m sure that even members with an unapologetic bias toward fiction would assert that if presented with a nonfiction work of undeniable greatness they would have gladly voted for it, and we’ve certainly all had the experience of reading something, and saying, “I really don’t like these kinds of books, but this one knocked my socks off!”  So let us proceed, then, with the assumption that the problem is with the nonfiction that gets published year after year, not with the committee itself.

Since the Newbery Medal was created to encourage distinguished literature for children, we must assume that it was also created to encourage distinguished nonfiction for children, and thus this current model has it all backwards, as it doesn’t encourage our best writers to write for children.  Publishers need to approach these authors before their adult books are published, not afterwards.  Why not survey your best nonfiction authors and encourage them to publish their research first as a children’s book, then flesh them out more, and publish them as adult books?  Both authors and publishers could still capitalize twice, but you can possibly win Newbery recognition (and even if you don’t there’s this little movement called Common Core State Standards that might still make it worth your while).

 Mark Flowers and I had a discussion on his blog this past year about why adult nonfiction (aside from memoirs which often tend to read like YA novels anyway) is virtually unrepresented among the ALEX Awards.  We couldn’t really come up with a satisfactory answer, but I think deep inside we both know the answer: Teens are just as curious about the world as adults are and any subject that is of interest to adults can almost certainly find an audience among teens.  This is problematic for an award committee that is used to looking for red flag features that obviously earmark adult novels as having YA appeal.  I would add that children, too, lack for nothing in the curiosity department, although they need some concessions when it comes to their understandings, abilities, or appreciations, but those concessions have nothing to do with depth, breadth, and passion.  It’s the rare adult nonfiction book that, like THE STORY OF MANKIND back in the day, can genuinely speak to all ages.  If writers and publishers are unable or unwilling to produce the kind of books that win Newbery recognition year in and year out, perhaps the committee needs to start looking farther afield and reconsidering adult nonfiction if there’s any out there that’s suitable for a child audience . . . 






Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Jonathan, I’m not sure I agree with your notion that nonfiction should be able to rise to the top even among those with an “unapologetic bias” toward fiction. Imagine if the Newbery Committee was stacked with members with an unapologetic bias toward fantasy. It’s true that once in a while such members might have their socks knocked off by a realistic novel, but on the whole we would expect a that fantasy would usually trump realism. An “unapologetic bias” toward something is likely to result in…unapologetic bias.

    Maybe a decent proxy for nonfiction / fiction preferences (or genre preferences, for that matter) is what a person reads for pleasure. A survey of past Newbery Committee members’ reading preferences, and a comparison of which books were selected, might be enlightening. Has this has ever been studied?

  2. Perhaps the nonfiction curse would be more frequently defied if the Newbery didn’t also trend toward work for middle-grade and up. There are some lovely non-fiction titles for young readers this year (WHEN STRAVINSKY MET NAJINSKY is one of my favorites).

  3. Anonymous says:

    At the risk of throwing a big fat monkey wrench into the works, I’d like to make voice two opinions.

    1) Fiction lasts longer than non-fiction. This is sad, but it’s one of the things that a non-fiction writer has to accept–part of the discipline of writing non-fiction. Even the most amazing piece of non-fiction can become outdated as research uncovers new facts and ideas. This is true in the social sciences as well as the natural sciences. Even in biography, where a magnificent book is heralded “the” source (like Forster’s biography of Dickens or Gaskell’s LIFE OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE), that source can be eclipsed. It becomes the starting point for the next new biography.

    2) Fiction is harder to write than non-fiction. Ask any writer who’s written both. With non-fiction, you have a starting point; you begin with the subject; you can react to what others have written about the subject; you have a structure. The art of research is demanding, but it also feeds the writer, and points the way forward. The fiction writer starts from scratch. A lot of the time, s/he has no idea where s/he’s going. Not only is there no recipe, but the writer has to create every ingredient.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t superb non-fiction books: books with exciting narration, exquisite prose, exhaustive research, beautifully balanced arguments, provocative ideas. These books ought to win the Newbery. But the fact that stories last longer–and are harder to write–may account for the bias in favor of fiction books.

    • As a fiction writer, I feel compelled to say that nonfiction would be FAR more difficult for me to write (and write well) than fiction.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    Jonathan, I am quite in sympathy with your views and actually recently had a similar discussion with a friend. As I see it, there are “technically” three things that would disqualify a non-fiction title from Newbery consideration: content, difficulty, and intended audience, and it is only the last that I see as the fatal stumbling block to doing what you propose. Content — especially given that the Newbery goes up to 14, it may actually be easier for non-fiction to qualify, where there are so many topics that don’t have any temptation towards incorporating sex, violence, and profanity, the way fiction may. Difficulty – sure some authors of physics titles introduce their books by saying high school math is assumed in their audience, but again in general many “popular” non-fiction titles are not of a length or style to be problematic. (Again, maybe it’s even easier, as there is less pressure to adopt a more difficult, “literary” style.)

    So the big thing to my mind is the Definition that a Newbery “shall be a book for which children are an intended potential audience.” There is no doubt in my mind that, especially for the upper age range (junior high), reading MONEYBALL (allowing for profanity), SURELY YOU’RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN (allowing for a few allusions to sex), THE MAN WHO ATE EVERYTHING, WONDERFUL LIFE, or countless other non-fiction titles, can be as life-changing, as soaringly written, as transformative a reading experience as the best fiction. Eons ago, as a middle school camp cabin counselor, I gave a bunk talk around William Poundstone’s PRISONER’S DILEMMA, and you could just see their minds being blown. How interesting it would be for a student to react to something like BATTLE HYMN OF A TIGER MOTHER. Something like THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS easily complements the best Newbery-caliber books on race, class, and scientific ethics. The rub is that, although the content and difficulty of these books is appropriate enough, it’s hard to argue such books are aimed at children as even a potential intended audience. This is just a whole different market, a different section of the library/book store. And from a practical standpoint, even if they were “allowable” I think it’s just too much material to sift through. Unfortunately, for a non-fiction book to be “intended” for children, I think there is a real quality drop one doesn’t see in fiction. To the best Newbery-caliber fiction, I react just as strongly as an adult as I do to so-called “adult” fiction, the latter which is often different by virtue of its sex, violence, crudeness, or pretentiousness, but not in terms of quality, ambition, or impact. I’m finishing ERUPTION now, and it’s OK, but there’s a clear “writing down” down to the audience. Sure that happens in fiction sometimes, but that’s a kiss-of-death for a Newbery contender. Who among us isn’t peeved when a book seems patronizing or overly didactic? But that seems a specific, unavoidable feature of non-fiction “intended” for children. I’m not sure what the solution is. I really wish there were a way to get the best non-fiction for so-called adults on the radar of children, but I don’t know the Newbery is the best mechanism for that.

    It’s funny, as I write this I’m thinking about Calpurnia Tate and the Buckminster Boy and what Darwin’s ORIGIN OF SPECIES did for them. The best non-fiction can do that for children, but the best non-fiction is not “for” them.

  5. Nothing to add about the nonfiction, but I’m kind of tickled to reread that bit of Gaiman’s talk, since I read it so long ago that I had failed to connect it with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was not only my favorite book this year, but probably in my top 10-15 of all time.

    (Not a children’s book though, and I think that’s actually more about the elegiac tone than the violence.)

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ve had a very busy weekend, and I’m only now just catching up . . .

    1. Pamela, I’m not sure how you could study–or regulate–the personal tastes of committee members, but I’ve often thought it might be nice if a prerequisite for serving on the Newbery committee is to have first served on the Sibert and/or Geisel so that you have experience with a broader range of genres.

    2. Amanda, it seems like there is some great picture book nonfiction year in and year out. It’s frustrating to me that the Sibert does a much better job of recognizing picture books than the Newbery committee does. That’s always struck me as odd, because conventional wisdom says that the Sibert should court the upper end of their range just as the Newbery and Printz have done.

    3. Anonymous, I appreciate your candid honesty, and I agree with you up to a point. Some fiction certainly does last longer than nonfiction. I mean, what nonfiction books would you consider canonical in the way that you would PRIDE AND PREJUDICE or A CHRISTMAS CAROL, or from a children’s viewpoint FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEIILER or HOLES or whatever? None, that I can think of. On the other hand, those books are few and far between (especially when you consider the total output of fiction over the years). I’m not sure that fiction doesn’t date as quickly as nonfiction does. As to your second point about fiction being harder than nonfiction, I would say that excellence is hard to attain in any genre. (Aside: I once tried to make the argument that book X was harder to write than book Y in Newbery discussions and was rightfully shot down by a fellow committee member because “harder” is relative to each author and has little to do with distinguished. I love fiction as much as the next person, and probably read a half dozen fiction books for every nonfiction book that I read, and I understand that when push comes to shove, people vote with their heart, and their heart lies with the fiction often.

    4. Leonard, I think there is a dearth of nonfiction for ages 10-14. I know that lots of stuff is marketed for this age group, but I think most of it skews younger, and that’s very apparent when you compare fiction books for advanced readers with nonfiction books for advanced readers. Hence, this rumination.

    5. Rachael, since HarperCollins published THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE WORLD as published for adults rather than children like Gaiman’s other two books this year, it makes it very difficult to argue the intended potential issue for this book. Tom McNeal, on the other hand, has published for adults, and this might have passed as an adult book in the market, but the fact that it wasn’t suggests who the intended potential audience for that book is.

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I almost included a mention of “THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT!” by James Swanson. Swanson has done the YA adaptation thing for two of his previous nonfiction books for adults, but this (as the author’s note tells us) is his first YA book that is not adapted for the YA market. Then I found out yesterday that he just published an adult book, END OF DAYS, about the same topic, so I guess this is a concrete example of what I think more publishers ought to be doing. “THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT!” is one of my favorite nonfiction titles, but it only got one starred review. I hope people read it.

  8. Kristine A says:

    Neil Gaiman is a genius.

    And the President Has Been Shot! is tied for my favorite book of the year with Counting by 7s. I love that book so much! So amazingly well done.

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