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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Heavy Medal Finalist – Princess Cora and the Crocodile

Long List Tiprincess coratle:  PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE ( (Titles on our long list will be included in our online conversation and balloting, alongside the short list titles.)

PRINCESS CORA received three starred reviews and made one “Best Books of 2017” list (PW).  It’s been mentioned here on Heavy Medal, but not extensively.  I’m certainly glad to have it on the “First Chapter Books” shelves at my library because it’s accessible to the target audience for that collection and more interesting and original than most books in that very popular section.  But is it Newbery worthy?

The style seems just right.  The plot revolves around the crocodile pretending to be Cora while she escapes the castle, and it’s managed with restraint and a light humorous tone, rather than big jokes.  The theme is similar in many ways to HELLO UNIVERSE:  Cora needs to find her voice and be seen for who she really is by her parents.   

The interplay between Cora and the crocodile works quite well in terms of that theme.  When they’re apart, we see the crocodile acting out as Cora might have wanted to, but going much farther (chewing on the King, for example).  Meanwhile, Cora’s outdoor adventures are pretty tame, but clearly exciting compared to her typical boring days.

When the two get together again, that Cora’s reaction to the crocodile and her own adventure lead to changes.  She’s angry at the crocodile’s bad behavior, but at the same time empathizes with the reasons for the biting:

“You bit them!’ said Princess Cora.  “I told you not to!”

“I forgot,” said the crocodile.  “But don’t worry.  They’ll get over it.  Your nanny shook her finger at me -”

“Ooh, I hate that,” said Princess Cora. “but you shouldn’t have bitten her.”  [p 55]

Cora recognizes that she needs to be less rebellious than the crocodile, but still sticks up for herself enough to get more freedom (though only half of what she wishes for).  And the crocodile gets more cream puffs in the end.

Very satisfying, and successful in terms of character development, plot, style, and theme.  None of these are developed as deeply as most other fiction on our long list, but they shouldn’t be.  According to the Terms and Criteria, committee members “must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.”  In the case of PRINCESS CORA, that audience is fairly narrow:  younger readers just ready to read chapter books on their own.  And I would add, younger children ready to sit through a shorter chapter book read aloud.  For those kids in particular, a case could be made that this book reaches the level of excellence.

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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 *adore* this book. It’s hilarious—I laughed out loud several times—and funny is hard. It’s well-written and has a great voice. The pictures do add a lot, but I think the text is still really strong without them.

    I think a lot of kids can relate to the overscheduled thing. And I like that it shows parent-child conflict, but everyone involved is well-intentioned and comes to a compromise at the end. I like that a princess/queen in this world is supposed to be smart and strong. And I think it has a reasonable amount of character development as Cora becomes braver and learns to stand up for herself.

    And, I mean, a crocodile! This is definitely one of my favorites of the year.

  2. If you look at the text, this is some of the strongest writing in my opinion. Eery word serves a purpose. Maintaining that light tone and creating characters quickly with such economy. I found it delightful and think it’s appeal would be beyond the age of the usual “First Chapter Book” reader. I know that I read it aloud to younger kids who were entranced. Ages 6 and 4. The crocodile is a real draw and so fun to say.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    I appreciate Schlitz’s writing as always and am not sure why I am not advocating this more. I think my reservation is that, this being essentially a didactic fable, the book’s “delineation of characters” is questionable. It’s almost true to assert that each character seems defined by exactly one thing. (And unlike HELLO, UNIVERSE, I don’t think there’s as much of an argument that Schlitz is doing a deep-dive into that one thing.)

    I like the descriptive writing and the writing about Cora’s feelings. But the writing about Cora’s situation and what the adult characters do and say were a bit too blunt for my taste. Also, I guess this is a mirror book and readers are supposed to relate to these, but the over-scheduled child is kind of a 1% mirror. I think THE PRINCESS IN BLACK AND THE MYSTERIOUS PLAYDATE has all the strengths of this book (humor, absurd but relatable situations, excellent writing) without the weaknesses.

    • Is there anything wrong with it being a fable? I think in any way that it is didactic, it is against the grownups, not the kids, so that doesn’t bother me. It’s an ally for the kids if they happen to have that sort of parents and if they are reading it with them.

      I like Princess in Black too, but I definitely prefer Princess Cora. I think there is a lot more character development and depth in Princess Cora. Princess in Black doesn’t really need character development, but if we’re comparing, I think Princess Cora wins in that department.

      Leonard, your 1% idea is interesting and I’ve been thinking about it, but I don’t think I agree. Even though I’m the one that brought it up first, now that I’ve thought about it more, I don’t think it’s really about being over-scheduled. It’s about your parents wanting you to do things that are good for you and you wanting to do things that are fun instead. The things in the book are very everyday things–taking baths, doing homework, exercising. I think any kid can relate to that. Although I also agree with Sondy that it’s about absurdity and I don’t think it needs to be a mirror for that to work. Maybe most fundamentally it’s about role reversal and making adults suffer the indignities of childhood, which I think is always very satisfying to a kid.

  4. To me this book was practically perfect. I would argue that the economy of language necessary in a beginning reader makes the one-note characterization perfect. In fact, it adds to the humor. The fun in them not recognizing the crocodile isn’t Cora – is slightly absurd and very funny. So are their respective obsessions. This isn’t supposed to be a novel. As a beginning reader, it is positively brilliant.

  5. Oh, and I didn’t think of it as a didactic fable at all. To me, it’s a joyfully funny story fun for anyone to read – but especially delightful for someone just learning to decode print. I didn’t need to see it as a mirror to enjoy it.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Sondy, here are some lines that contributed to my view of this book. They are examples of what I suggested reflected a specific sub-culture of parenting, which led me to question how broadly relatable the whole premise is. The second example I offer as something that seemed intended to work as a mirror for a reader of a specific experience (who is presumably intended to react, “that’s how I feel!”) Anyway, I think such lines come near to failing the “show don’t tell” dictum. I think the first one could have been omitted completely. And I think somehow page 10, from which the second example comes, could have been shorter. I suppose for an easy reader, the book actually felt like too many words to me…

      That said, my reservation about the book is really on the level of individual lines such as these: those that “took me out of the book” and felt didactic and prevented it from being, for me, a wholly, “joyfully funny story.” Unlike PRINCESS IN BLACK, I did feel there was a clear moral here, leading me to call it a fable, and that undercurrent of Cora’s resentment and suffering and her parents’ and nanny’s inattention and neglect (which is specifically why they don’t immediately see the crocodile) prevented it from completely delighting me. Still, I sound more negative than I am. Other than lines like these, I really did think the book very good.

      “They stopped thinking she was perfect and started worrying about what might be wrong with her. By the time she was seven years old, there wasn’t a single minute when Princess Cora wasn’t being trained.”

      “Princess Cora wanted her parents to be happy. She worked hard at being clean and strong and wise. But deep inside, she was angry. . . . These thoughts scared her, but she couldn’t stop thinking them.”

      • Leonard, the undercurrent of resentment you point out is very interesting. It’s actually a positive for me–I think it’s what makes me feel like Princess Cora has a lot more emotional depth than Princess in Black (again, not that an early chapter necessarily needs emotional depth). And that also seems very relatable–doesn’t every kid resent their parents sometimes?

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I actually think the passage Leonard quotes from page 10 works well. Chapter one is used to introduce characters and set up the conflict, and yes there is some telling vs. showing. That fits for this type of book. We quickly learn how the parents see Cora, how she sees herself, and get a a few examples. It ends with a hoped-for solution (the dog). Then the dog wish results in a crocodile and both Cora and the crocodile try out some different behaviors, and we see how it all plays out.

    I really like the line: “These thoughts scared her, but she couldn’t stop thinking them.” That seems to capture exactly what an overprotected child might feel, and also looks ahead to the main action of the book: what would happen if she acted on those thoughts? Cora’s behavior ends up being less extreme than she imagines in chapter one (because more extreme would be scarier). And the crocodile’s behavior, standing in her place, goes farther than she imagines in chapter one (she never thought to harm the grown ups). And she winds up with an in-between level of freedom, and though she gets the dog she wanted, she also keeps the crocodile.

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    Steven, I’m a bit conflicted about the example I chose on page 10. I like each sentence on its own, including the one you liked, so I’m not sure what my problem is, except maybe to fall back on suggesting that as a whole it’s somehow too many words. So there may be a balance issue or issue with flowing from one short sentence to the next (always a tricky business in a book for younger readers.) Maybe it’s what Mr. H suggested about HER RIGHT FOOT: that shorter texts need to be pretty perfect to compete for the Newbery, and I think I can point to (small) imperfections on almost any page. Still this is one of those texts I think I could be convinced to vote for, especially on Heavy Medal where PRINCESS IN BLACK isn’t competing.

    I confess I was at work and didn’t have the book on me when I wrote the post so had to rely on a first chapter preview for quotes. I have the book now, and here are some other points.

    “He had teeth hanging down from his top jaw and more teeth poking up from his bottom jaw (16)”

    I felt something like this was a bit unnecessary given the illustration on the facing page. As already broached in graphic novel comments – part of excellence in such genres is navigating the text/illustration divide. Going back to my “too many words” impression, I feel Schlitz’s excellent prose is a bit too “complete.” It almost felt like she writes just what’s in the illustration and the illustration shows just what is written, whereas in the best collaborations, the two partners bolster each other more.

    The first halves of chapters 3-5 are devoted to the crocodile’s interactions with the grown-ups. Chapter 5 begins with the action with the King. At the end of the chapter, the crocodile then tells Cora,

    “And then I told your father I didn’t want to jump over that stupid rope, and he asked me if I was being a good girl. It was the way he said it. Anyone would have bitten him. But he wasn’t even fun to bite. He’s the wrong kind of chewy. Your family’s horrible. I don’t know how you put up with them. (56)”

    And then in chapter 6 her dad tells Cora,

    “‘Oh, Princess Cora,’ groaned the King. ‘A wicked crocodile chased me and tore my pants–no, don’t look!’. . . . That crocodile tore a hole in my pants!’ (64)”

    And then in chapter 7, the Kings says again,

    “The one who tore a hole in my pants, and chewed on my rear end, and got crocodile spit on my behind? (67)”

    So what happens between the crocodile and the King is “shown” to us at the beginning of chapter 5, then “told” to us three more times in recaps after that. So the same action is represented 4 separate times. And I get that Schlitz is a great writer and I understand the purpose of each instance and what each adds or does differently, but collecting enough of such little things together brings me back to my overarching wish that this “first chapter book” text were a bit tighter.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I agree that the interplay between pictures and text is not a strength here, even though both are strong in themselves. As Roxanne mentioned in her post about I’M JUST NO GOOD AT RHYMING: “The pictures for Princess Cora do not have to exist at all. There are no instances that the text does not stand alone.” The crocodile/King interactions that you mention is a good example. I actually think the variation of those three textual parts might work better without an illustration, leading readers to focus on the different contexts of each situation, without a specific visual image.

      This could be a situation we might apply this part of the Criteria: “Other aspects of a book are to be considered only if they distract from the text. Such aspects might include illustrations…” Not because the illustrations are poorly executed, but because text and illustrations don’t complement each other strongly enough.

      • Don’t you need some redundancy between the text and illustrations in a beginning reader (as opposed to a picture book) to support the reader?

        I get a bit confused in the various levels in early grade. Does anyone know where exactly this fits in? Is this targeted towards the same level reader as, for example, the Princess in Black series? Or is it the next step up, transitioning out of early chapter books and into full middle grade novels?

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Good point, Katrina, about the different way illustrations work in a short chapter book. Reinforcing the action as an aid to new readers is appropriate. As for intended audience, this seems to be a bit more advanced than Princess in Black. CORA has 5,000+ words and PRINCESS IN BLACK books are in the low 2,000’s according to TeachingBooks.net (they don’t have the latest PIB yet), with a similar number of pages. Sentences are more complex in CORA, too. So it’slikely a bit more daunting to beginning chapter book readers. Another reason why CORA readers maybe can use the illustrations to help with the challenge of a longer book than they’re used to.

  8. Reading this discussion has confirmed that this is a mostly perfect book. It does what it does and doesn’t waste time on what is unnecessary. Like LOVING VS VIRGINIA and VINCENT AND THEO it won’t appeal the whole Newbery age range of readers, but meets more perfectly the age group at which it is aimed. There will be many more 4 to 8-year-olds who will devour it than 14-year-olds who will flock to the other two.

  9. I just thought I’d share that this book is very popular with my third and fourth grade students. Many of them are reading below grade level, but want fun, adventurous stories they can relate to. This book seems to have hit the spot for them. I had originally shelved it with my beginning chapter books, but it’s getting much more circulation when shelved with more middle grade books.

    • What I mean by this is that I don’t think the target age group is as narrow as it might appear at first glance. I see this appealing to a fairly wide age range.

      • That’s very interesting, Mary. I’d been thinking that it seems like a book that could read both up and down and have a pretty wide age range, so that’s nice to hear that it’s true!

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