Thoughts on Newbery: Suspense

So, what makes a great suspenseful children’s book? One that is Newbery caliber? Here are a few elements I’m thinking about:

  1. Characters that have been developed so completely that I care about them. So much so that they become real to me. Sometimes so real that I become progressively more and more worried about their safety and will look at the end to be sure they are okay. (This is something frowned upon by some, I know. I can only promise authors of eligible books that I don’t always do this. It depends on how anxious I get.) A good example of such a book is the latest Harry Potter book. Boy did I care about those characters! And not because of all the hype or the fans or the movies. I cared about them because Rowling wrote to make me care about them and hope desperately that they had a future.
  2. A plot that I can’t figure out. One of the most amazing writers of suspense I can think of is Megan Whalen Turner, author of the Newbery Honor book, The Thief. She twists and turns her plots so much that rare is the person who isn’t surprised by the ending. Her latest, The King of Attolia, was one of my favorite books of 2006. Not only did I care about her characters, but I read to find out what was going on, what would happen. I had no idea how it would play out at all. (And for some reason I did not feel a need to look early at the endings of any of her books. See, I don’t always do it!)
  3. Minimal violence. The Newbery is a children’s book award. The award can go to a book that is appropriate for a fourteen-year-old (with more violence), but not a ten-year-old (with next to no violence). I admit, I’m squeamish. I don’t care for violence at all. That said, if it is necessary for the story, then I deal with it. There’s some, I seem to recall, in Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion, a book I thought well deserved its Newbery Honor.
  4. Elegance. Megan Whalen Turner’s books are simply elegant. The writing, the plotting, the setting, the characters, just everything. Ideally, a suspenseful Newbery book will have all of this!

So that is it for now. Any recommendations for 2007 suspenseful books for me to consider? Or other aspects of suspense I’m missing? (Probably plenty!)

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: Suspense

  1. Amy

    OK, I can’t resist answering the question. I think you would enjoy my book The Call to Shakabaz. It meets your criteria. Have a look at my website and decide for yourself. http://www.wozabooks.com
    It’s a fantasy adventure with all Black characters that demonstrates the fundamental principles of nonviolence as practiced by Dr. King and it’s a real page-turner–high adventure. Bob Spear at Heartland Reviews recommends it for reluctant readers.
    Amy

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  2. Monica —

    As a high school librarian for a boys’ high school I don’t always know all of what’s been published for younger readers and hence can’t comment on 2007 specifcally. But I’l like to comment on your list.

    1. Characters: Yes! They must be real. You have to care about them and what happens to them.

    2, Plot. I’d say that first of all, it has to grab you in wanting to keep reading to find out “What happens next?” This goes along with #1, of course.
    But I think there are different types of plots, and any are capable of enchanting through style, trough elaboration of interesting detail, through your “elegance.” There’s the classic hero’s journey plot, There and Back Again, where the suspense lies in HOW things will turn out rather than whether, though one of course always worries for the hero. Unexpected plot twists can occur in this type of plot as well as in others.
    Then there’s another type of plot in which the suspense lies in the events of course but also in figuring out the context. “The City of Ember” is a great example of this. You care what happens to the girl but even more you are trying to puzzle out what on earth is going on. The process of discovery is inductive and partly parallels that of the hero(ine) but also adds the layer of the reader’s knowledge of the world. Another example in my last year’s reading was Nancy farmer’s “The Eye, the Ear and the Arm..” Maybe this kind of plot automatically marks a book as science fiction: I don’t know.
    3) On your third element, minimal violence, I agree for children’s books. But this brings up the i nteresting blurring of the line between children and adolescents that the Carnegie Medal does in its choices. I’m curious about the two countries’ different schemes.
    4) I’d ask for beauty, grace, elegance of language specifically, and a good ear for dialogue.

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  3. Nina

    It’s interesting that you cite “violence.” There are many different kinds, of course…and many children face it in their lives, and so are benefitted from finding it dealt with in a book. The Newbery criteria that might apply to this are:

    “Appropriateness of style”, and “The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. ”

    But this doesn’t rule out a book with violence in it. It just requires that the book deal with it in a way that is “appropriate” to a child’s “understanding, ability and appreciate.”

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  4. Monica, after reading all three Attolia books this year, I’m a fan of Megan Whalen Turner’s writing. I agree with your criteria to consider Newbery-worthy books, though Nna does have a point about violence. What about lack of gratuitous violence?

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  5. Thanks everyone for weighing in!

    As for violence, I agree Nina, that we certainly wouldn’t rule it out. But lately I’ve read quite a few books that skirt the higher end of the Newbery age range and one thing that seems to put them over it to me is the degree of violence. And, certainly, we have to determine if it is something a child (up through age 14) can understand and appreciate.

    Emily, I’m not sure how I feel about gratuitous violence even in adult material (but then I said already that I’m squeamish:) I guess it does exist in adult literature and YA (say some particularly brutal Holocaust book).

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  6. Pingback: Thoughts on Newbery: Ten Years On | educating alice

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