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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Saving the Best for Last?

mcneal 202x300 Saving the Best for Last?

What follows is the strange and fateful tale of a boy, a girl, and a ghost.  The boy possessed uncommon qualities, the girl was winsome and daring, and the ancient ghost . . . well, let it only be said that his intentions were good.

If more heavily seasoned with romance, this might have made a tender tale, but there was yet another player in the cast, the Finder of Occasions, someone who moved freely about the village, someone who watched and waited, someone with tendencies so tortured and malignant that I could scarcely bring myself to see them, and even now can scarcely bring myself to reveal them to you.

I will, though.  It is a promise.  I will.

We spent lots of energy the first time around discussing whether or not this was appropriate for children.  I’m hoping this time we can focus on the distinguished qualities that this one brings to the table.  Like THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP, I find this one to be easily the most distinguished in terms of sentence-level writing for novels–and I think it scores very high in all the other criteria, too.  Do I think it does what it sets out to do as well or better than the younger novels that are also eligible?  I think it’s as good and I can be talked into better for the sake of consensus.  As with P.S. BE ELEVEN, I find some minor distractions here, but the lean toward the peccadillos rather than fatal flaws.

1.  The Pacing Peccadillo: This was my biggest hang-up on the first read, but I think pacing is such a subjective thing, especially when the narrative is busy addressing all the other literary elements.  You may remember that I had a similar reaction to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS last year.  It took a second read for me to get past my own personal preference for a zippier pace.  I did want more white space in this book, with chapters starting at the beginning of a page (think: TRUE BLUE SCOUTS) as is customary in most children’s books, but I was also surprised to see that FAR FAR AWAY actually has 9,000 words less than SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.

2.  The Hybrid Peccadillo:  You may have followed the recent discussion on Someday My Printz Will Come.  A popular sentiment there is that the mash-up of old fashioned fairy tale and contemporary horror story doesn’t meld together as seamlessly as it ought to.  Clearly, I don’t hold that opinion, but I do understand how it can be problematic for some readers.  Take the setting, for example.  It takes quite awhile to pin down whether it’s actually taking place in the past or the present, whether it’s the New World or the Old.  This kind of ambiguity drives some people nuts, but I think this too is very subjective.

3.  The Ending Peccadillo:  This is closely related to the previous peccadillo and the question about the audience.  Is the ending too happy?  If it’s a children’s book, no.  If it’s a YA book, then perhaps.

I don’t know that I would put this in my top three initially, but it is in my top three novels, so should the committee dimiss my poetry and nonfiction choices, then I’m easily behind this one.

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Fatma says:

    It’s funny. I received this book as a gift- my mother scours the list of best children’s books of the year and gifts me a few off the lists. I was so excited to read this story- a strange and fateful tale of a boy, and a girl, and an ancient ghost. As I was reading the book, I kept wondering to myself: “Why am I reading this? Nothing’s going on!”

    As I am new to writing reviews of books on my blog, I am developing my voice and style. I went back to re-read my post on the book and realized I was vague about my reaction to the book. After reading your recent post, JH, I’ve decided that I liked the book more than I thought- except the ending. I liked that I was under the spell of the storyteller. However, I do agree with you. The story needed to be either more fairy tale or horror story. And I don’t know if children or young adults would be willing to spend the time with the story. I couldn’t think of one child or young adult I would give this book to as a “must-read”.

  2. Katy says:

    When I think about your first point regarding the pacing, I see the pacing as a feature of the sub-genre of the weird tale/weird fiction. It reminds me of stories like Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains Of Madness which starts slowly, with that long trek across Antarctica, until suddenly the action builds and bursts. This pattern isn’t uncommon in works by Lovecraft, Blackwood, and Machen, so I read the novel itself as weird fiction. As such, the lines it crosses between genres that seem to unsettle some seemed natural to me. I don’t know if McNeal intended the book to fall in to this category or it’s just my background as a reader informing my reading of the text – perhaps it’s both. I do adore this book unabashedly, but it speaks to a lot my favorite things (fairy tales, horror, The Weird, etc).

  3. Mark Flowers says:

    I continue to think that the most important problem with the book is thematic–McNeal’s complete misunderstanding of the Grimm fairy tales. This is what I said about it over at my blog:

    “My point was that McNeal . . . seems to think that all there is to a “fairy tale” is that “young person by pluck or luck overcom[ing] malign forces” and that therefore he (McNeal) is doing “something a little more complicated” by changing things a bit in his own version.

    My belief is that the Grimm tales (I won’t speak to the countless other collections of folk tales) do not at all conform to the pattern that McNeal and others think of when they imagine “fairy tales.” And in my view, many of them are far more thematically sophisticated than anything McNeal is attempting. McNeal makes some gestures in that direction (the mention, during “Uncommon Knowledge” of that very strange tale from the first edition which was later expurgated; Sten Blix mentioning that many tales don’t have happy endings), but he doesn’t, to me, seem to take those examples to heart.

    All this, of course, points to [the] idea that perhaps McNeal’s audience is younger, with a younger understanding of fairy tales, but I still don’t think it is fair (again, especially with Jacob Grimm himself as a narrator) to simplify the tales so much. It was Wilhelm, after all, who shaped many of the tales to be more “family friendly” in later editions, and Jacob who was an actual scholar and linguist (btw, not just “knew a bunch of languages” – he discovered Grimm’s Law for cripes sake) who wanted the tales to stay in their (close to) original forms from the folk sources.”

    This is also, I suppose, an “Accuracy” question, since the real Jacob Grimm would have known these things, and known, eg that Wilhelm would never have believed that beauty=goodness, goodness=beauty. Even a cursory examination of two of the most famous tales, Cinderella and Snow White, should be enough to show anyone that beauty is very often evil in the tales. (In the Grimm, as opposed to the Disney, Cinderella’s step sisters are beautiful).

    • Katy says:

      Mark – One of my biggest issues with the book is that Jacob Grimm should have seen all of the things I saw foreshadowed based on my knowledge of fairy tales. I know them fairly well, having read many of them multiple times in English and in German, so he should have seen these things, as well. The book still makes me very happy, but there are issues at hand when it comes to deciding whether or not it can still be award-worthy with those issues.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      Mark,
      Can knowledge of Grimm’s tales be discussed around the committee table? I thought discussion had to be about eligible 2013 titles. If the committee is allowed to bring up knowledge about the different versions of these fairy tales then a committee member should also be able to bring up One Crazy Summer when discussing PS Be Eleven.
      I also think you are assuming an older audience (YA) would have an older understanding of fairy tales.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        The Grimm’s tales should absolutely be brought into discussion here, in two ways:

        As Mark is doing, by examining Accuracy, and Theme. Knowledge of historical time period informs PS BE ELEVEN; knowledge of the the people and events of the time informs GHOST HAWK (which I know you disagree with); etc.

        I also think it’s fair to expect that the ideal child reader for Far Far Away has some basic common knowledge about the Grimm tales, and we can talk about how that imagined basis informs a child’s reading of this book. I find myself conflicted about Mark’s position, specifically when thinking about a child reader… because I agree with Mark, but I also think McNeal was just trying to do something simpler. My question then is does his choice of narrator best serve his story? I think it works, for a child audience, and even more so having finished a re-read. This *isn’t* a complicated story. It has a somewhat complicated plot, but the theme is simple, straightforward, and reinforced throughout the story, and that’s that love wins out, and evil is punished: gruesomely. Whether this is the theme of the actual Grimm tales is very debatable. I do think that this is what most general readers *think* is the theme of “fairytales,” for which all Grimm tales seem to stand.

  4. Eric,I would think bringing background information about the Grimms and their tales would be acceptable, but defer to Nina and Jonathan in case they think differently.

    I had no trouble buying into Jacob for this story. There was enough of the real man to make it work for me. As for the degree of sophistication of the real tales, that varies. It has been almost a year since I read FAR FAR AWAY, but I remember liking very much the way McNeal played around with their tropes, some from the Grimm and some from more recent popular culture variants of them. They are folk tales, after all, not set pieces of literature. The Grimms toyed and tinkered with them, but so did people before and after them including McNeal with this creepy tale of his own.

    What I probably need to do is reread it. I’ve still been so leery of it in terms of the age, but I saw over at Horn Book that it is Dean Schneider’s pick for the Newbery and Dean teaches grade 8 so if he feels it is within their range, I am pretty much ready to concede that issue. (Dean and I were on the 2008 Committee together so I respect him greatly as someone who both appreciates the literature rightly and has a sense of the “up to 14″ age ground.)

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think bringing general information into the discussion should be fine. If one person feels like being the Grimm Scholar, then I think the chair will probably gently nudge the discussion back to the book at hand. McNeal’s Jacob Grimm approximates the real person, but is not–cannot really ever be–the real Jacob Grimm (just like Jack Gantos the literary character is not, cannot be Jack Gantos the real person). I also don’t have a problem with McNeal playing with the source material as it seems entirely within the malleable tradition of folktales. One discussion the committee can have is how FAR FAR AWAY compares with THE GRIMM CONCLUSION . . .

  6. fairrosa says:

    I have no problem with McNeal’s playing with Jacob Grimm as an imagined character, nor I have any issue with his understanding of what is the essence of a Grimm fairy tale. Indeed, I found the creepiness, the unsettling events, and the sinister villain all very much echoing (but in a much expanded way) to some of the darker Grimm tales.

    As I said in my reaction on my blog — reading this book felt like watching a Coen Brother’s film — Barton Fink came to mind. That made me feel, at first, that perhaps this book is for older than 14 to truly appreciate. However, I can be persuaded to believe that many 13/14 year olds will be able to appreciate the nuances the author put into the book.

  7. Molly says:

    In response to both Fatma and fairrosa, I have one 7th grader who is enthralled with this book. I held-off including it in my Newbery Contenders selection until I read it myself to gauge its appropriateness for my community (K-8). After reading it, I added it to our Newbery “box” without reservation and the first student to snap it up (an astute 7th grade boy with strong opinions on matters of book) loves it and is likely to make it his top choice for the Newbery when we ballot next week. So yes I do think there are readers who would find this book a “must read.” I’m pretty sure this student will energetically inform all of his friends that it is a must read. And they would all fall into the 12-14 age range.

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