Grappling with Greatness

The bestowing of awards and honors always raises the issue of greatness. As soon as the latest American Idol is revealed, the league’s Most Valuable Player celebrated, or the Newbery medal announced the debates begin — were these winners truly great?

When I was a distance runner it seemed pretty easy to determine greatness in that sport — someone like Greta Waitz who won nine New York Marathons would have been easily agreed upon. In the higher echelon of overall sainthood-level greatness, few would disagree with, say, Nelson Mandela. But what about books and their creators? Are there any that most of us rabid readers would agree are great? And does it matter if it we are adults determining this for an audience of children?

To me it doesn’t matter. In fact, I’m generally wary of placing too much value on child response. (Sorry, kids!) I’ve had fourth graders who were familiar with a lot of books (usually because they were avid readers themselves, but sometimes because they had been read to a lot), thoughtful readers and listeners and valued greatly what they had to tell me about the books they read. But I’ve also had fourth graders who had not yet read widely, who were just becoming readers, and had simplistic notions of greatness who still were very comfortable telling me what made one book great and another not (“boring” being often the kiss of death — more likely I suspect a synonym for “too hard” not that they’d admit that.).

Quite a few of my students right now, for example, if asked would call Eragon a great book. Why? Some (the avid readers) would give reasons related to their engagement with the story, the characters, and the world Paolini created. But others (for whom this may be the first book of this length they have ever read) have spoken to me of their admiration of it because the author was sixteen when he wrote it, because they made it into a movie, and — most significantly — because it is popular.

Popular. This issue is quite the sticking point when it comes to book awards and the bestowing of the crown of greatness. This year I’ve watched Eragon read by children who would otherwise read realistic fiction, prefer sports stories, and who would otherwise never take on such a long book. These readers work their way through it proudly — for them simply being able to do so and then become part of the crowd that read the book is what makes it great. Illogical? Perhaps, but this is the way of the classroom, the way children often make decisions about what to read and what is great. In other words, popularity often rules among children.

And that is to be expected. The social issues of childhood —- popularity, inclusion/exclusion, best friends (anyone see the latest episode of Monk?) cliques are front and center in the lives of these books’ intended readers. And if that is the case, all things being equal they may well gauge greatness by popularity. As do many adults who work with children, understandably. That is, how great can a book be if only a few kids like it?

Pretty great, I think. “When we are confronted with a delicate, odd little novel, that pretends to no encyclopedic knowledge of the world, that offers no journalistic signposts as to its meaning, that is not set in a country at war, or centred around some issue in the papers, we seem to have no idea how to read it.” writes Zadie Smith in her wonderful Guardian article, “Fail Better.” Last year’s Newbery winner Criss Cross anyone? It is the fact that we can’t fall back on our tried and true ways of reading, that we are challenged to create new maps for reading, that I am made to think beyond the immediate scope of the book — these are some of the reasons why I think Criss Cross is great. Popularity has nothing to do with it.

And despite all our fervent belief in choice, in the individual, in personal viewpoints, Smith points out that we are mostly reading by system. That a particular ur novel comes into being and then there are bunch more just like it — once we know how to read a particular one, all is copacetic. I think here of A Series of Unfortunate Events. That snarky intrusive narrator (new to child readers if not to adults familiar with Sterne, Dickens, and their ilk) is now quite common (dare I say popular?) in children’s books — having read Snicket it is easy to read others in that system— A. N. Bode’s Anybodies say or M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales. (Oddly enough, Snicket’s a case of popularity being damning. Oh how inconsistent we adults can be — dismissing Criss Cross for its small child readership on the one hand while dismissing A Series of Unfortunate Events for the opposite reason.)

Coincidentally, cartography is also referenced by Deborah Stevenson in her September/October 2006 Horn Book article, “Finding Literary Goodness in a Pluralistic World.” Notes Stevenson, “….that just as one learns writing by writing, one must learn reading by reading. We each of us have an individual map of literature, constantly being redefined on multiple axes every time we read…. A new book gets slotted into the constellation according to its relationship to what’s already there, ‘good’ is a book that’s in some ways like the books of its kind that have already been judged good, and not so much like books of its kind that have been judged lacking….” (p. 514.) Stevenson both recognizes the experienced adult reader and the importance of the intended child reader in her article. “…the adult-child gap, though, isn’t so much the forgetting as the additional knowing, the broader awareness of literature and art as well as the inuring through repetition to many life events (using the potty is no longer a cause for household celebration once you’re an adult, and really that’s just as well.” (p. 517.)

I’m running out of steam here, but this is a topic that is going to be at the front of my mind as I read a lot of children’s books this year, try to figure out which one I think is the greatest, and then try to persuade 14 other people to agree with me.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Grappling with Greatness

  1. Criss Cross is, I think, a great example. It’s beautifully written and funny and poignant, but I’m not sure it IS a great children’s book, because it truly does move too slowly for the average ten-year-old, even the average ten-year-old who reads widely and well. As far as I’m concerned it’s a pretty great grownup novel featuring children.

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  2. This is a really interesting train of thought. I love the anticipation of the Newbery for many reasons–what do I think is the greatest book? what new surprise can I find in the book the committee chooses? Can I figure out why they chose it? Having taught lots of grades, I agree with your thoughts about kids reading the books. Many don’t yet know how to read a book for depth. But, I have had classes who LOVE Single Shard and others who just aren’t ready for the literary brilliance. When Kira-Kira won, I had a 5th grader share her thoughts about why the committee had chosen it after a very intellectual read. I think kids and adults read for lots of reasons. And the Newbery is about a great book–not necessary a popular book for kids. Can’t wait to read more on your thinking here. As teachers it gives us lots to think about too. Thanks!

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  3. Ilemma–why should “the average ten-year-old” stand for all of “children’s literature” in the definition of a great children’s book? And who’s “average”? Even within my city of Oakland CA, the reading levels and interests of “average” ten year olds vary dramatically depending on economic class.

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  4. This thread reminds me a bit of some of the Newbery predictions I read. There were some out there who openly hoped that The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing would not win. Folks commented that while it was a brilliant book, it was hardly one they expected most kids would actually want to read and enjoy. Many reviewers wanted books were “fun” and really spoke to kids. I have only read one of this year’s lot, so I can’t speak to fun or interest level of kids, but they all seem like challenging reads.

    By the way, if you haven’t read Oz and Ends entry on The diversity of the 2007 Newbery Honorees, you should.

    Regards,
    Tricia

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  5. Very interesting post, Monica. Something I think about all the time! You’ve got your work cut out for you :) But you’re more than up to the task!

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