If you check the official Newbery Terms & Criteria you will find that voice is not among them. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is out of bounds, just that it isn’t something explicit for us to consider or discount. But what the heck is voice anyway? It has been on my radar already, but thanks to Judith Ridge, I’m thinking even harder about how to factor it into my search for the most distinguished American children’s book of the year. For a book she is currently reviewing, Judith writes “The defining quality of the novel, for me, is the narrator’s voice.” She then goes on to ask for help in defining voice in narrative fiction; you can bet I’ll be following that conversation closely.
Now, one question for me is: how much of it is taste? I’m a big fan of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux; there is no doubt in my mind that it is that narrative voice, a highly defined one in this case, that brought the book to a higher level for me. Yet that same voice that I adore is equally detested by others; whereas I find the intrusive narrator amusing and witty, they find it annoying and pedantic. Or let’s take another book I admire greatly for voice — Catherine Thimmesh’s Team Moon. Yes, the topic is interesting and the book is full of well-researched facts, but it is the author’s palpable enthusiasm and excitement for the subject that comes through and makes the book a wonder for me. But even as I jump up and down with enthusiasm, others have complained to me that the voice is overwrought and irritating.
I think that for me, a strong voice has to have integrity. I have to buy into it and know that it is there for the story itself and nothing else. If there is even a whiff of instructional-here-is-what-I want-you-to-think, I’m gone. I’ll take a neutral omniscient narrator (such as the one in the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books) over an intrusively didactic one (like the one in Lewis Carroll’s Nursery Alice -gag!).
Of course voice alone won’t make a book distinguished. It still has to have characters that speak to us, a plot that keeps us turning the pages, a worthy setting, and so much more. But, done right, that elusive thing called voice can just maybe be what makes all the difference.