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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Some Writer!

 

9780544319592_p0_v3_s192x300In October 1949, he wrote his publisher, Cass Canfield: “My next book is in sight.  I look at it every day.  I keep it in a carton, as you would a kitten.”  Andy spent the year studying spiders.  “In this,” he wrote, “I found the key to the story.”  Andy would not make his heroine, Charlotte A. Cavatica, conform to his narrative; his story would have to adapt to how spiders behave.  For example, Andy learned that some male species of the spider “dance,” so in one draft, Charlotte tells Wilbur, the pig, that her husband was “some dancer.” When Fern listens as Charlotte tells the barn animals how her cousin cast a web that caught a fish, Andy was being true to spiders because in rare cases spiders have caught small birds and fish.  And when Wilbur takes Charlotte’s egg sac to the farm in his mouth, it makes sense because A. cavatica‘s egg sacs are waterproof.

There are many biographies published every year for a child audience, whether in picture book or long form, (including many of the subjects of an artistic inclination).  Most of the time I wonder whether there is inherent child appeal there, and I think this is one of those times when there probably is, when the author does not have the additional burden of introducing the subject to its readers because many will be familiar with CHARLOTTE’S WEB, TRUMPET OF THE SWAN, and STUART LITTLE.  Sweet navigates the basic outline of White’s life, while providing wonderful insight into his creative output as well, as the passage above illustrates.

In our original discussion of SOME WRITER! in the biography section, I questioned whether our feelings about those children’s books color our interpretation of Sweet’s book.  I think it can (especially on the initial read), but not necessarily.  Another concern that people have raised is whether the excellent illustrations and book design doesn’t also unfairly prejudice us in favor of the book.  I don’t find either of these arguments convincing enough to knock it out of the top group of contenders.  For me, it only suffers from not being SAMURAI RISING.  But that begs the question of what excellence of presentation for a child audience–for a younger child audience, no less–looks like.  Just as FULL OF BEANS is a foil for WOLF HOLLOW in this respect, so too is SOME WRITER! to SAMURAI RISING.

SOME WRITER! has already won the Orbis Pictus Award for Nonfiction from NCTE and seems like a good bet for the Sibert, too.  Calling Caldecott has already discussed the book’s merits relative to that award, and now here we consider its Newbery chances.  Needless to say, I think this one could have several stickers decorating its cover in late January.

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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 hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I had feared this book would fall short for the Caldecott (too much text) and Newbery (too much art:). But Robin Smith’s Caldecott post was encouraging as are the Newberys for El Deafo and, especially, Roller Girl (as the text doesn’t stand quite as alone for me as it does in El Deafo). Seems as if committees are really rethinking the ideas of what these two awards honor. Until last year I figured the criteria needed to be altered, but with Roller Girl honored I guess not! Be delighted to see this get honored all over the place YMA-wise.

  2. I adore this book unconditionally. However, it really soared for me in White’s direct quotes. I can’t help but wonder in an award for original writing, how do we separate the weight of source material? I concede the presentation is perfect, although more for an adult reader who love children’s books, than for children themselves.

    • Jonathan Hunt says:

      But is the award really for original writing? I don’t think so. I’m not sure why we tend to have this conversation frequently with nonfiction contenders. None of us would say, you know, RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE resonated with me because of its semi-autobiographical nature; it’s a pity it’s not original writing because then it could really do some damage in the Newbery field.

  3. “The term “original work” may have several meanings. For purposes of these awards,
    it is defined as follows:

    • “Original work” means that the text was created by this writer and no one else. It may include original retellings of traditional literature, provided the words are the author’s own.
    • Further, “original work” means that the text is presented here for the first time and has not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form. Text reprinted or compiled from other sources are not eligible. Abridgements are not eligible.”

    I guess my clunky question should have read: can the committee evaluate on White’s passages or just on Sweet’s prose? I’m confused. Also, I don’t get the RAYMIE comparison?

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Danae, I’m belatedly apologizing for the bitchy tone of my original comment. I hope you can appreciate that we just got done discussing whether SAMURAI RISING is great because of Pamela Turner or because of the source material and, lo, here is the same conversation about SOME WRITER!, whether it is a great book because of Melissa Sweet or because of E.B. White. While I think the question is a perfectly legitimate one to ask, you’ll have to understand why I became prickly at the repeated (though perhaps unintended) insinuation that great nonfiction books are great because of their source material, not because of their writers. We can make this charge, really, about any of the Newbery nonfiction books in recent decades: they all had great source material and cited it repeatedly and often in large chunks.

    One of the conventions of the genre of nonfiction is that you can quote and cite previous writers and thinkers; in fact, you are expected to do so and if you didn’t then your book wouldn’t be worthy of the Pulitzer or the National Book Award or other awards for adult nonfiction. Nobody ever thinks that those books are unoriginal because they rely heavily on sources to build their narratives. Similarly, we would expect to judge a book the the standards of its conventions. If I read a book where a horse flies, for example, then I can say the book isn’t very credible because obviously horses do not fly; it defies the laws of nature. But if the book I wrote was a fantasy book nobody would think twice about flying horses? Why? Genre conventions.

    So I suppose a committee member could try to cite language in the Manual to justify a prejudice against nonfiction, but I think if you read the entire manual the spirit is that “original” and “first publication” are almost synonymous and that all types of literature–fiction, nonfiction, and poetry–have an equal claim on the Newbery Medal.

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