Daily Archives: May 20, 2007

Thoughts on Newbery: Animal Fantasies

Kids love animals; ergo, there are lots of children’s books centered around animals. And many kids also love fantasy, ergo, there are lots of children’s books with animals sounding and acting like people.

So when are such books great? When are they not? And why?

Let’s take a brief gander at one I think is not great. Now, if it was eligible for Newbery this year, I’d have to do better than I’ve done to date. That is, I have tried several times to read Brian Jacques’ Redwall and always have given up a few chapters in. I find nothing at the sentence-level of the writing impressive enough to want to read more of it, the setting bores me (Camelot with rodents), the characters seem stock and simplistically developed (Cluny is BAD, Martin is GOOD), and the plot (as least in those first few chapters) is tedious (war! battles! swords!). Yet, these books are beloved by many children, go through waves of popularity, and are often well-reviewed.

Recently on child_lit there was an interesting thread about the works of Tamora Pierce; were they good or great? Cheryl Klein commented (and then reposted the comment on her blog):

I draw the distinction between great and good based on a work’s depth — the emotional and thematic/philosophical levels it strives for and succeeds in reaching. Tamora Pierce and Eoin Colfer are entertaining and good; Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling are not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) — and therefore great.

I think this is a brilliant distinction and one I hope to keep in mind when thinking about potential Newbery contenders. For I’m not looking for a good book, but a great book.

But returning to my topic, if Redwall is arguably “entertaining and good” what is an animal fantasy that is “….not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) — and therefore great.”?

Charlotte’s Web, anyone? Let’s see:

  • “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” You want tension? You want to keep the pages turning? The more I read and reread this book the more I consider it the great American novel. I mean just look at this sentence — the whole theme of the book, life and death, is right there. That ax. That breakfast. Fern. A mother. Love. Absolute perfection.
  • Character development. It is gorgeous. Wilbur’s growth from selfish baby pig to the wise pig of the barn for evermore. Or Fern’s growth from little girl looking into her small world of the barn that includes Wilbur to older girl looking into a bigger world that includes Henry Fussy. Or those at the other end of life, the sheep and, of course, most of all Charlotte. Remarkable, remarkable, remarkable.
  • The plot. A quest. A journey. A comedy in the Greek sense. About the biggest questions of all — and all for children.
  • Style. It is beauty itself. The exquisite language, descriptions of the seasons coming and going, of children at play, of animals doing what animals do, of Americana circa 1950, and on and on. The master of style is in his element here. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself:)

So, it didn’t get the Medal, but the Honor in 1952. Whatever. It is THE American animal fantasy in my most humble opinion.

So, now I’m done. What about all of you, dear readers? What do you think about animal fantasies? Is there one out this year that you think is particularly strong (or weak)? Have your say in the comments!

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Thoughts on Newbery: Wha…?

“What the — I’ve never even heard of the book.”

“Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!!!!”

“Jeez; another book adults love and kids won’t touch.”

“Oh, it only won because it is so popular with kids.”

“My class is going to be thrilled; it was their favorite book this year!”

“My class is going to be so upset; it was their most hated book this year!”

“I knew it! As soon as I read it I figured it was the winner!”

 

In January, the 2008 Newbery Committee of which I’m a member, will select a winner. Some of you will be elated, some miserable, and still others will be totally flummoxed. I mean, for all the carefully constructed terms and criteria, there is just no way everyone is going to agree on the best book of the year anymore than the best Broadway musical of the year, the best bagel in New York City, or whether Melinda Doolittle deserved to go. You’ve all got your own personal ideas as to what makes something great just as I and my fellow committee members do.

But that isn’t stopping us, as we read, from thinking hard about what the particular qualities are that make a children’s book distinguished, considering carefully what makes this one special and that one not, and wondering what it means for us former children to be reading books meant for an intended audience that we no longer are. It is a daunting and elating journey, one we have only just begun.

To help me along my own particular Newbery road, I planned on using this blog to work out my ideas about what a great book really is, more specifically — what a great American children’s book really is. I thought I’d do this with eligible books, but the recent controversy about award committee members blogging has me skittish; therefore, I’m going to use older books instead —- previous winners and honor books, other books I think perhaps should have won or been considered, and just any older book I admire and think is distinguished. However, even if I don’t write about eligible books in these Thoughts on Newbery posts, you can certainly write about them in the comments. Please, please do —- your thoughts on this year’s books will be incredibly helpful to me as I continue on my perhaps quixotic quest to find the best children’s book of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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