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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

2 Brothers, 6 Stars, and 454 pages

Vincent and theoI’m Steven Engelfried, one of the new Heavy Medal bloggers. Besides being an avid reader of the blog since it started, I’ve served on the Newbery Committee a couple times. I was on the 2010 Committee (When You Reach Me) and was chair of the 2013 Committee (The One and Only Ivan).

I’ll jump right in with a book that’s solidly in my top three so far: At 450+ pages, Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo is a long biography. And kids at my library aren’t exactly lining up for new material about the Van Gogh brothers. But it has six starred reviews, won the Boston Globe – Horn Book Award for nonfiction, and this book shines in just about every area of the Newbery Criteria.

The style is especially distinct, creating a reading experience that’s different from any children’s biography I can think of. Mainly third person present tense, with smooth shifts into past tense where appropriate. 121 short chapters with varied length, pace, and styles. Many have the feel of sketches or impressions, each one getting us just a bit further into the characters’ experiences and emotions, gradually building until we really get to know them. There’s an easy, almost conversational flow to the narrative. As if we’re talking about these guys together, learning and wondering as we go.  

Heiligman peppers the book with several recurring motifs that help build our knowledge . The most prominent is the image of the two brothers at the windmill: sort of an idealized vision of their potential futures.  When Vincent is near death, late in the book, Heiligman doesn’t even have to mention that windmill, but we know she’s referring to it when she writes: “Theo does not leave Vincent’s side. Two brothers, a walk together, a pledge, a promise, a shared path.” (377) 

She carefully repeats or varies phrases, sometimes for powerful effect. The chapter on Vincent’s death ends: “Vincent dies in Theo’s arms.” (378). Then she uses almost identical phrasing (taking care with her tenses) when Theo dies: “Vincent died in Theo’s arms. Theo dies alone.” (402).

These are just a few examples of the extreme level of skill and care that Heiligman puts into this book. Her style strongly supports the themes and content, and in ways that readers from the upper end of the Newbery range will follow and fully appreciate. Some reviewers put the age level at 14 and up, likely because of the length and subject matter (it touches on mature issues such as mental illness and venereal disease). In Committee discussions, an advocate for this book would need to highlight the many excellent elements, but also be ready to make a strong case that it fits within the Newbery criteria’s definition of children as “persons of ages up to and including fourteen.” 

I think it fits in that range just fine and fully meets the criteria of “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”  It may still not out-circ Who Was Princess Diana, but for the readers in the 12-14 year old range who do give it a try, it seems “distinguished” to me.  Is it the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children?”  Well, we’re just getting started….

 

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. I guess at this point I have a question. What is the line you draw with what is too old? What level of sexual description is too much? Or are there any other topics that would make something too old for Newbery consideration? I admit that I am from a conservative mid-western town and I know that I probably don’t have a good handle on what is appropriate for what age in other places. I don’t want to cause trouble, but I admit to wanting to know your perspective a little better. I also thought this book was excellent, but I thought it was for someone older than 14.

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    The questions of where to draw a line and what level is too much are good ones. The Newbery criteria provide the age range (“up to and including 14”), but it’s up to each year’s Committee members to figure out which books meet that. And they may, and often do, disagree.
    With Vincent and Theo, I look at it in terms of two questions: Do those mature topics need to be in this book? And if so, does the author present them in ways that are appropriate for that “up to and including age 14” reader? Take prostitution as an example. I don’t think you can write a biography of these two, with this level of depth, without acknowledging it. Both men struggled often with temptation and guilt. So how does Heiligman deal with it? She does not define what it is, so she’s assuming her readers know. A pretty easy assumption for over 14’s…but I believe it’s a solid assumption for 12 and up too. It also tells us that younger readers who don’t know that word are not her intended audience. She mentions prostitution in context with the brothers’ mental and emotional struggles, where the topic is relevant. She doesn’t provide details, and in fact, some of it is speculative: “[Theo] likely sought solace and comfort – not in religion, but in prostitutes” (84). I feel like she mentions prostitution when it impacts the brothers’ actions and emotions. But gives us no more than is needed.
    So I look at the topic of prostitution as one that could move a book outside of the Newbery age range, but in this case I thought it was handled with consideration of that 12-14 year old potential audience. But if I was on the committee, I would expect that it could be a challenge to get enough of the other 14 members to see it this way too. I’d love to hear from others who have read V and T…do you think it meets the Newbery age criteria?

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    My middle son is 12, and I gave him this book after completing it twice myself.

    I think the presentation of the major themes of this book, those of personal relationship and artistic formation, is well-aimed at the Newbery child audience. I actually think it might work better for the 10-14 crowd than for over-14 and that it has more spiritual kinship to middle grade coming-of-age/relationship novels than “YA”.

    I think it’s a pity that just the few mentions of prostitution trigger (justifiably) the Newbery Age Alarm, especially as I think it might have been possible to leave out explicit mention of prostitution without significantly changing or harming the book.

    For example: “Then he does something else that goes against his parents’ values. We can’t paint a complete picture because he doesn’t, but Vincent has gotten into trouble, and he needs help. . . . it’s common for young unmarried men to visit prostitutes. Perhaps Vincent is short of money because he paid too many prostitutes. Maybe he caught a disease. Something . . . he has done something” (57).

    In addition to the passage you cited, that is another example where the frequenting of prostitutes is raised speculatively. To my mind, this one is dubious, and Heiligman could have left this mention out. Would visiting prostitutes really get Vincent in so much trouble he can’t tell his family and has to get out of town? I can think of other possibilities.

    But given that the mentions are there, I don’t think they disqualify this book. As you say, the mentions are matter-of-fact, without detail, and not dwelled upon. The attitude is actually somewhat similar to what most middle graders readers already know: sex exists and adults do it, but it’s not (yet) terribly important. I don’t think Heiligman’s book is going to make anyone grow up too fast or learn anything too soon.

    (Along those lines, I *do* think THE PEARL THIEF is too old for Newbery consideration, and I only read enough of THE HATE U GIVE to feel strongly that it is also too old. I am well aware of the portion of the Newbery manual that could be interpreted that any book is eligible as long as there is a single 14-year-old out there who could read it. I agree that is a possible interpretation, but it is not mine. Anyway, I do feel strongly that VINCENT AND THEO *is* eligible, and it is currently my top pick for this year’s Medal.)

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I suppose the passage that Leonard quotes that ends “he has done something” could have been skipped. We don’t really know what Vincent has done, and if she had stopped at “and he needs help…” it would be okay. So that could be a way to avoid possibly offending younger readers. But I still like the choice she made. The speculation that follows is consistent with the approach of the rest of the book, where she often presents facts, then follows up with questions and speculation based on what we know. I guess I feel like once she’s made the decision to mention prostitution, she’s acknowledged her audience’s level of age and maturity, so if it seems like it might be relevant, I’d rather she didn’t avoid it, as long as it’s done consistently, supporting her style and themes.

  5. Hi, Roxanne here — chiming in a bit about my own take on Vincent & Theo here. Steven, I see all the merits that you wrote about in your post and totally agree with you on the author’s consistency in her style choice for the narrative tone/device. However, this consistency also might be the reason why I found myself pause at times and thought, “Hmm… I can see what she’s doing here — the metaphor of a gallery, of the mezzanine, of the sketches, portraits, etc.” It both gives me a lot of pleasure at seeing the building blocks that form each of the chapters and at the same time almost takes me out of the actual “story” and relationship of the two brothers because I did pay attention quite often to the “design.” It does not make the book less distinguished but I do find the design element slightly distracting for me as a reader.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Interesting point, Roxanne. I guess I can see how her style could seem overly purposeful and deliberate to some readers. Do you think child readers will have the same reaction?

  7. I think kids who are into this topic and book* will enjoy the clever structure and that it will add to the pleasure of the reading. (Have to admit that was the case for me and I read an ARC so didn’t get the full experience:) And I agree with all that has already been said above about this title as a strong Newbery contender. I reviewed it for Horn Book and thought that immediately.

    * That is, I’m not thinking this is one of the more “popular” sort of book, but for kids who love art, biography, history, nonfiction, and/or are fascinated by this artist especially because of his art and story etc are going to relish it.

  8. Steven, good call on child reader. I would concede that perhaps I am more critical to narrative devices than most and possibly many young readers. I will get into my “device obsession” in future posts since it gives me great pleasure in noticing and analyzing them and I believe that it is a crucial component in appreciating and distinguishing literary qualities. I believe that young readers need to be reminded of the “designs” that are in the books they encounter. That said, some readers will definitely revel in the overall artistic and literary designs in this title for sure, as Monica pointed out.

  9. I think this book is perfectly suited for readers 12 and up. I agree, this isn’t going to be one of those books you can’t keep on the shelf, but the quality of this biography has merited book talks to my older elementary students, and it was certainly an enjoyable read for me as well.

    The pacing of this book is fantastic, so even at 454 pages, it still felt like a quick read. Honestly, the 3rd person present tense didn’t work for me, but I think that’s more a matter of taste than a fault. YA readers will most likely appreciate the conversational tone over the more formal tone of the biographies I love.

    The artistic metaphors, attention to detail, and research put into this book are all outstanding, so this is a title I think the committee and this group will be revisiting quite a bit. It’s not my top pick, but certainly in my top 5.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I would propose that the third person present tense, which I can find problematic in other books, works beautifully here. How do we naturally describe what’s going on in a painting? Third person present. It’s one of the reasons Heiligman is able to pull off the stylistic feat of creating a literary analogue to a gallery of paintings. Rather than subjects of a biography, it is as if Vincent and Theo are subjects of paintings and drawings being explicated to us, and 3rd person present is perfect for that (and past is used appropriately when needed to explicate what is past as far what is represented “in the painting” is concerned.)

      I was slow on the uptake that people were introducing themselves in the intro post. I am Leonard Kim. Just a dad of three (15,12,8) in New Jersey. I love Heavy Medal and have always been grateful for how welcoming everyone is here even to non-professional commenters like me.

      • Wow, fabulous articulation of the power of the third person present in this work.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Thanks, Leonard, for the excellent insight into how Heiligman’s choice of third person present works so well. That’s the sort of comment that helps move us to the level we really need to be by the time Midwinter discussions/voting occur. Not just identifying an author’s choice, like what tense she used, but developing a deeper understanding of why it works (or doesn’t) and how it functions within that particular book. A comment like this might show up in a Committee members official nomination or in the discussions at Midwinter, and could really change the way another member views the book.

      • And with that comment, Leonard, Vincent & Theo moves up on my To Read list. Thanks, as always!

  10. Sara Coffman says:

    I’m curious every year about the number of books under consideration that “won’t fly off the shelves” and our seeming dismissal of that issue. I agree that we should not reward a book for excellence in writing based merely on popularity among children (if we did that, our Barbie easy readers would have to be contenders!), but I wonder about the frequency with which we give an award to a book written for children even though it is adult readers who are the ones enjoying it – and most children are not. What are some previous winners that are both excellent and might “fly off the shelves”? What makes them unique? Is there a level of accessibility that should be considered?

    • Sara – you and I both! I have some thoughts on this and will devote considerable post space on exactly this topic in the weeks to come. However, I would like to know from you of titles that you thought were both accessible, popular with students and also Newbery award worthy, say, in the past five years. And what titles do you find fitting this description this year?

      When I was on Battle of the Books, I kept insisting to bring Rick Riordan’s books into the fold — they are wildly popular and they introduce great literary traditions from mythologies to kids and he really knows how to write FOR young readers.

      As to your other question, I would propose that most if not all of the Newbery winning titles have been extremely well received by young readers in my school and I have had many chlidren proclaiming that these are the BEST books they have ever read: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Crossover, Flora & Ulysses, The One and Only Ivan, When You Reach Me, etc. What are your thoughts on these titles?

      • Sara Coffman says:

        I agree completely that Flora & Ulysses, The One and Only Ivan, and Crossover are accessible and engaging and wonderful. Though I so appreciate Kwame Alexander’s work, I didn’t love Crossover nearly as much as my students do, and I remember being very surprised at its winning. I do think The Girl Who Drank the Moon is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and my children loved it (the audiobook is amazing!), but I don’t see it circulating as widely. I also agree with Erin below that a book shouldn’t be dismissed because it will have a smaller audience. I guess I’m just admitting it is complicated, and I wonder if or how much we should continue to weigh the issue as we consider the medal-worthiness of the titles. Some of this year’s possible contenders that are also beloved by my students are Short, See You in the Cosmos, and I anticipate them loving Patina (based on how much they loved Ghost). They also love Hope Larson’s Knife’s Edge (follow up to Compass South). Of this group, I think See You in the Cosmos hits the most marks: unique narrative voice and structure, amazing plotting, beautiful content, and accessibility to a wide audience.

    • Hello Rosanne Parry, here, I’m an author of MG novels but I tend to participate here as a teacher in the Masters in Book Publishing program at Portland State and an indie bookseller. I’ve also been an elementary teacher a few years back and I’m the mother of 4 avid readers. About the popularity of Newbery titles, I happen to be in the shop now and it’s a slow night so I can look up numbers on Newberys that have flown off the shelf and not. I find the results surprising. Some of the slower sellers are newer. All our strongest sellers have been on the shelf a long time. The data I’m looking at is total sales in paperback. We are a medium-sized, indie, general bookstore in Portland, Oregon.

      I pulled a fourteen newberys off the shelf.

      The lowest sales by a considerable margin: Tale of Despereaux
      Lower sales: When You Reach Me, A Year Down Yonder, The One and Only Ivan, The Crossover, Brown Girl Dreaming (technically an honor book but also won the NBA), One Crazy Summer
      Moderate sales: Maniac Magee, Caddie Woodlawn, A Single Shard
      Strong sales: Mrs. Frisby & the Rats of Nimh, From the Mixed Up Files of Ms Basil E Frankweiler, and But Not Buddy.
      Strongest sales also by a considerable margin: Holes
      NBA winners with sales comparable to Holes: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Penderwicks.

      The main conclusion I draw from all this is it’s hard to predict what will sell well. And I suspect if you compared to library circulation numbers you might find a different story when folks are reading but not buying the book.

      • Thanks, Rosanne, for this fascinating stats. These are stats from an independent bookstore, correct? I’m thinking that certain titles are classroom books so the teachers have bought them from different sources and thus make these titles not family purchases. For example, our teachers use When You Reach Me, Brown Girl Dreaming, and The Crossover in their classrooms and they would not buy these titles from a stand-alone bookstore. Once the books are owned by our students, they also won’t have the need to buy the titles from bookstores. I guess what I am trying to say is if we wish to use statistics as indicators of trends or preferences, the data definitely has to be complete.

      • That is fascinating! Some of the titles surprise me more than others. I was not the biggest fan of THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN so naturally, I’m not surprised by that. I could say the exact same thing about TALE OF DESPERAUX. I use WHEN YOU REACH ME in my classroom so I personally look to it as one of the best but am not surprised that it doesn’t fly off the shelf.

        It’s refreshing to see some of the classics, maintain popularity. MANIAC MAGEE, BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, RATS OF NIMH.

  11. Apparently, I was a little slow on the uptake as well. I’m Erin from the Seattle area, public children’s librarian, mother to a teen boy, and a long time reader of Heavy Medal.

    I want to clarify that even if it’s not “flying off the shelf,” that in no way means kids aren’t enjoying the book. Some books simply have a smaller audience, and that’s okay, especially when that audience says it’s one of the best books they’ve ever read. It’s magical when the committee finds a book that is both accessible to a large audience and also highly distinguished (The One and Only Ivan), but that shouldn’t mean books are dismissed based on how many kids can/will read the work. In fact, I would argue that the Newbery award highlights books that may often be overlooked by kids and parents.

    Leonard – I love your explanation for the author’s use of 3rd person present, and when I reread it later on, I’ll remember to keep your perspective in mind. On initial read, it was jarring for me. But I will agree that Vincent and Theo felt more cinematic than biographical, and Heiligman’s ability to create a moving picture rather than a dry retelling is superb.

  12. Brenda Martin says:

    I would like to circle back to the age question. Honestly, I don’t think this book should be seriously considered for Newbery. There are many passages in V & T that read very much more teen (or even adult) to me than Newbery. (p. 127: “the ostensible reason for the letter…” p. 235 “Vincent has always been an autodidact…”) However, I do think this fits squarely as a front runner for the YALSA Nonfiction Award. As much as I appreciate Leonard’s anecdote about his 12-year-old son, it is a reaction to a book from a child of an expert on children’s lit. That doesn’t invalidate it, of course, but I do think it should be considered as such.

    In general, however, it’s not the vocabulary or the prostitutes or the syphilis so much as the sweeping, complicated relationship that Heiligman has drawn between V & T that I think pushes this above the Newbery range. She does a wonderful job portraying the depths of their fraternity, their mental illness, their codependency, their times of friendship and times of frenemy. All of these are plumbed by the author with a care that I believe a person of a certain age will better understand.

    But then again, last year’s Sibert went to a book (March, Book 3) that I felt read well-beyond its age range, so what do I know?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      It’s funny that some of the things Brenda mentions in her second paragraph are things that make me feel this book is a better 10-14 book than an over-14 one.

      As Steven pointed out, it is up to each committee to decide whether a book is too old, and I am not aware of any guidance in the Criteria or Manual on how to make this judgment. (The Manual does have a frequently cited section on how to weigh the “worthiness” of a book that might be too old, but not how to decide whether a book is too old or not.)

      The question of age appropriateness might be divided into two areas: reading difficulty and mature content/sensibility. The book is long, and as Brenda pointed out, uses a large vocabulary. On the other hand, the chapters and paragraphs are short, and I feel the sentence writing is exceptionally clear and to-the-point. Just for fun, I typed the first chapter of VINCENT AND THEO into Word and had it calculate the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. It came up with 6.8. (In contrast, what I’ve written up to this point translates to grade 10.6) This doesn’t prove anything of course.

      As for mature content/sensibility, I agree in the end we all decide this for ourselves. I think I personally have a low tolerance; I am an adult who chooses to read children’s books after all, and I don’t like YA. I argued against McNeal’s Far Far Way here back in 2013, and as I already mentioned, I think this year’s THE PEARL THIEF is too old, though I think it’s a very good book. This is how I would characterize my personal “smell test.” The notion that a book can be too old for someone suggests that a “children’s book” maintains at least some protective illusions. In contrast, a book that is “too old” offers no illusions, no refuge, and I think many adult and YA books make a particular point of this. Reading a book that is “too old” forces the reader to grow up in a way you can’t come back from. The writing tactics of someone like Stephen King, for example, a gateway writer for many approaching 14, seem single-mindedly intent on offering no protection. Another example: in the author’s note to Challenger Deep, Shusterman wrote, “the sense of fear, paranoia, mania, and depression are real.” To me, that’s an over-14 sentiment. I think one could write an over-14 book about Vincent Van Gogh like that, even without a hint of prostitutes, if the focus were on getting into Van Gogh’s head and heart and experience of privation and insanity and suicidal ideation. But that’s not what I got from Heiligman’s book. My main takeaways were 1) an intense, difficult, and loving sibling relationship and 2) a true story of artistic aspiration and growth. These themes felt familiar to me as a reader and lover of under-14 literature. And Heiligman’s painstaking clarity of explanation gave me a strong sense she had “children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations” fixed firmly in her mind. It’s why I felt like a not-terrible parent giving it to my 12-year-old. He can discover Stephen King on his own.

  13. Eric Carpenter says:

    First surprise of the season has to be VIncent and Theo’s absences from the just released National Book Award longlist.
    The list skews more YA than usual but i think the three three titles on the list that fit the 0-14 age range (Orphan Island, Clayton Byrd, and The Hate U GIve) are very strong newbery contenders that I look forward to reading about and discussing here in the coming weeks and months.

  14. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Brenda’s comment that the elements of the brothers’ relationship “are plumbed by the author with a care that I believe a person of a certain age will better understand” is excellent. I don’t think she’s saying younger kids can’t understand it, but they may not understand it as fully as the ideal reader, who would be older. I was so impressed by the ways Heiligman took care to make those complex elements accessible to younger readers: vocabulary, reminding us of facts mentioned earlier, short, impressionist chapters, and more. And I think she succeeded. But do those most distinguished elements fully resonate for that child audience? Under “presentation of information,” I’d say yes, distinguished for ages 12 and up. Under “interpretation of theme and concept,” though, I think there’s room for argument that it’s the 15 and up readers who will most fully grasp and appreciate the complexities.

    If I were on the Committee, I would still likely nominate “Vincent & Theo,” but would be thinking a lot about the age range, writing about it in my official nomination and preparing to discuss it in the discussions that lead up to voting.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Steven or Brenda, could you give an example where Heiligman’s interpretation of Vincent’s and Theo’s relationship is more ideally suited to an over 14 reader? Thanks

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Leonard, I don’t actually have an example because I do feel the author conveys their relationship in a highly effective manner that is accessible to under 14s. Which is quite an accomplishment. But it’s possible that the subtleties of a relationship that unique and complex will be more fully grasped by older readers. I say “it’s possible” because I’m still struggling with the question myself…

  15. I apologize for being late to the conversation but being as I’m currently reading this title (though only halfway through) I felt compelled to chime in with my two cents:

    My gut reaction is that this is too old for the Newbery and that has nothing to do with prostitutes or syphilis. It has to do with it being a biography. (I’m sure what I’m about to get into is going to come out clunky. Forgive me. It’s one of those instances where I have a well intentioned idea in my head, and the delivery is probably going to really stink. If I put my foot in my mouth, please call it out and give me an opportunity to re-explain…)

    I think biographies as Newbery contenders are tough sells. History would support this since the only biographies I can remember winning or honoring were about Abraham Lincoln, the Wright brothers, and Claudette Colvin (a child). Outside of Colvin, we’re talking about some pretty massive historical figures that children learn about at a somewhat young age. The “topic” of Lincoln and the Wright brothers show up in Social Studies textbooks in elementary school so their major accomplishments in and of themselves are very child appropriate. Lincoln is the most popular president ever. The Wright brothers made an airplane! Outside of an art teacher showing students The Starry Night, why do my 5th graders NEED to know about Vincent Van Gogh? What is it about his life that made Deborah Heiligman want to detail it in a book for children?

    I took an art elective class as a sophomore in college and had to read a book on Van Gogh. It was the first time I remember learning anything about him other than that he painted The Starry Night. I was 19 years old. I remember learning about his ear but I don’t remember learning about prostitutes. Maybe it didn’t stick with me because it wasn’t jarring as a college student. Again though, I ask, what about Van Gogh’s life struck Heiligman as “child appropriate” or necessary for a young reader to learn from? It surely can’t be the prostitutes or the social quirks or the depression and anxiety. I’m not even sure if it’s the “art” because I’m halfway through the book and we haven’t really even gotten to Vincent the artist. It had to be his relationship with his brother that stood out to her. But is this kind of bond, in the way she presents it, really something that even 10-14 year olds can understand? The troubles Vincent and Theo experienced and supported each other through are not situations that children are going to fathom.

    Van Gogh’s life isn’t something that is going to interest most 10-14 year olds and for that reason, I don’t think it’s appropriate for children of this age range. They don’t know who Van Gogh is the way adults know who he is, therefore, the impact of Heiligman’s story and his bond with Theo is not going to reach them the way it is adult readers. It’s also close to 400 pages long! Is that appropriate for a child audience? Am I making sense?

    Did Heiligman approach this topic in a way that is appropriate for children? Sure. I agree with those arguments above. But is this really a book FOR children? That I’m not sure of. There’s not even a single child character in it! If the whole reason you’re writing a book about a man’s life is because of things he experienced internally as an adult, I’m not sure what a child reader is going to be able to relate to.

    Note: I’m not trying to say that kids shouldn’t read books about people they’ve never heard about. Not at all. Claudette Colvin would be a perfect example… I would bet a lot of kids haven’t heard of her.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m THOROUGHLY enjoying the book. I LOVE Heiligman’s style and third person narrative and am overall fascinated by the story and bond between the brothers. 5 stars, easy! But I’m a 35 year old adult. In the Newbery arena, I can’t support it. It’s too old. I can’t think of a 5th grader I’ve had in my classroom in the last 3 years that I could hand this book to.

    Now, I’m going to look like a hypocrite if we ever discuss LOVING VS. VIRGINIA. Because I could get behind that title for Newbery despite it leaning older. Maybe it’s a matter of importance, in that I see that book as a more important book therefore, it’s topic is more relevant and relatable, even to a child, whereas I’m not sure VINCENT & THEO has themes that appeal to children therefore, no matter how much she tries to present it to children, it just doesn’t work for them… But that doesn’t sound fair, now that I type it out. I guess coming back to my initial idea of biographies being hard Newbery sells, I might be trying to say that a biography aimed at a child audience better be written about someone that children KNOW and presents a theme that is important or relevant to them as children so that they can relate to it. Otherwise, in my opinion, the child appropriateness argument is always going to come into play.

    I can be done for now. It’s late. Was any of that coherent? Someone set me straight!

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      But that’s the thing about the newbery you don’t have to be able to think of a 5th grader in your classroom to hand this book to. You just have to imagine a child age 14 or under that would find this book. The newbery isn’t for 5th graders it’s for any child. I hope someday in the future a board book will win a medal or honor. I wouldn’t expect that you’d hand said board book to a 5th grader so why do you insist that this book match the needs/interest of one of your fifth graders.

      Your point about “importance” doesn’t match anything in the criteria. Only the accuracy of a book’s content is relevant to the discussion not the topic of the content.The Newbery is for the telling not for what’s being told. If the committee finds a novel the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature we don’t assume that they’ve done so because they “like the story”, but instead because they found the telling of the story (as defined by the criteria) to be excellent. It should be no different for biographies or other nonfiction titles. The topics, subject, or themes shouldn’t matter only how they are delineated.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Eric, I hope the committee seriously considers Willems’ WELCOME. I think a strong argument could be made for it, so maybe this will be the Year of the Board Book! (That said, I’d happily hand WELCOME to a fifth-grader. This is an all ages book.)

      • I guess a couple things…

        One, I’ve never “bought” the whole idea that just because one 14-year-old somewhere in the country could handle the material, should the book be qualified for the Newbery.

        I still think “importance” falls under the appropriate style (criteria) and children’s literature (definitions) headings… The fact that Heiligman is writing about an adult that I don’t think children will know or relate to, or necessarily need to, I am arguing that she’s not displaying a respect for children’s understandings or appreciation. Sure her word choice is appropriate and the way she approaches some adult themes is more delicate than if this were squarely aimed at adults or young adults, but the topic of Van Gogh’s life in general just doesn’t scream child appeal to me. Does that make sense?

        My other knock is about appropriateness of style… I am reading this book, feeling like I’m walking around an art gallery with Heiligman while she’s describing Van Gogh’s life in a series of portraits. It’s a great voice. I mentioned above, personally, I think this is awesome and creative. However, is this a style that a child is going to appreciate?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Mr. H, (sorry Jordan, you will always be Mr. H to me),

      Your opinion and those of others do make me reconsider the age question, and as a result I dropped this a few places in my Goodreads ballot. I may have been too optimistic going down to 10. I still think this is a book FOR under-14, but could be wrong.

      It seems we all agree that Heiligman’s treatment of the brothers’ relationship is crucial to this question. If we look at the first chapter (don’t have the book on me, but this chapter is available on-line), what does Heiligman choose to tell us?

      1) The brothers drive each other crazy: “[Theo] needs a break from Vincent’s gusts, his squalls, his constant talking and lecturing. And to make matters worse, lately Vincent has been furious at him.” (4)
      2) They have opposite personalities: “[Theo] loves his brother’s brilliant mind, his gregariousness, even his fiery temperament. Vincent can be a good antidote to Theo’s own inwardness and tendency to melancholy” (4)
      3) They are close. They have a close family. They are close personally. They are best friends. “Theo has been valiantly living up to that prayer. He’s been Vincent’s best friend for most of the last fifteen years, ever since they made a pledge to each other on a walk” (5).
      4) They help each other. Theo supports Vincent. Vincent gives Theo a social life: “He’d been lonely in Paris, so lonely, and now, even though he doesn’t have a wife and family, Theo at least has a circle of friends through Vincent.” (6)

      Does Heiligman really ever move beyond these parameters of the relationship? I think instead she patiently and meticulously illustrates and re-illustrates these facets as the brothers progress through life. Aren’t these sorts of facets exactly how countless middle grade and middle school friendships and sibling relationships are framed and portrayed? I think Heiligman deliberately chose to present the relationship on terms like these precisely in consideration of a young audience.

      Look at THE WARDEN’S DAUGHTER. If you switched the introvert and extrovert, are Vincent and Theo as portrayed by Heiligman substantively different than Spinelli’s portrayal of best friends Cammie and Reggie? I would say getting inside Cammie’s head requires as much maturity as being in Vincent’s, and I’d be surprised if anyone invoked the Age Question for THE WARDEN’S DAUGHTER.

      So I still believe VINCENT AND THEO was written *for* under 14s. But Mr. H, I also agree with all of your concerns about whether any substantial biography of Vincent Van Gogh can be “for” children. I think one of the truest differences between us mock-Newberyers is our interpretation of what it means for a book to be “for” children. Personally, I believe the Newbery is primarily a “literature” award, and I believe that reading literature is primarily a taught skill. If a book is so difficult that a strong appreciation is not possible from a child, even with guidance, then yes it’s too old. But I think VINCENT AND THEO is written so that many children can deeply appreciate it. And even those who would never read or appreciate it on their own can come with guidance from a teacher or librarian or parent to appreciate almost everything there is to appreciate about it, and hence the book is for them.

      • The comparison to THE WARDEN’S DAUGHTER is an intriguing one, as that is a book I didn’t necessarily enjoy, but found to be extremely well-written. I’m going to do some thinking on that…

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