In two weeks and a day the 2009 Newbery awards will be announced. There will delighted cheers, shocked silences, and polite clapping at the press conference. Criticism will be cautious as, of course, no one will want to insult the winners or the hard-working committee. But that criticism will be there, I’m sure. Is there ever a winner of any sort of award without it?
And as we get closer to that announcement, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the thornier aspects of the Newbery, “child appeal.” As a member of the committee, you read all year long considering how a book speaks to you as an adult reader even as you also consider how it would speak to a child reader. And since you are a far more experienced reader than any child, you may well be fussier about this sort of appeal. A book may have a lot of child appeal and you may like it too, but through your experienced-reader-lens, it also may not feel as distinguished as others for a myriad of reasons. (Before going further, I should quickly point out that this is all before the actual meetings. Once you begin them the justifiably-much-lauded process takes over and it is all about figuring out what is most distinguished. While child appeal, being part of the criteria, is significant, what appealed to you is not and the result might well be a book that did not initially speak to you personally, but definitely does by the time you walk out of the room for the last time.)
This afternoon Nina Lindsay and Sharon Mckellar will be running their Mock Newbery at the Golden Gate Library. Having followed their path to this point on their blog, Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog, I can’t wait to see what they end up selecting. Myself, I’ve been a bit skittish about saying what I’d like to see them and the actual committee select, but what the hell, here are some in no particular order that appealed to me personally this year.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is definitely a favorite. I’ve read it several times, read it aloud to children, and discussed it at length with adults. The more I read it and think about it the more I admire it. It is a book that appeals to me as an experienced adult reader and seems to equally appeal to child readers. Sort of an instant classic. The one worry is that it may be determined ineligible because one of the chapters was previously published in a short story collection. Nina wrote about this here and I see that she decided not to include it on her shortlist. Of course we will never know if it isn’t tapped for an award or honor if this was the reason as such a decision is totally confidential.
Kathi Applet’s The Underneath was an ARC that sat in my house for months before I finally read it. Here’s my response and another post in which I wrote about atmosphere which is what truly distinguishes the book for me. This one isn’t the crowd-pleaser that Gaiman’s is. That is, it elicits far more polarized responses of the “I loved it” or “I hated it” kind. And so it is definitely one of those that appeals to a very specific sort of reader, adult or child. The repetitions that I loved drove other experienced readers crazy. The harshness is not easy for all to take. As for child appeal, I can’t say I know first hand. It just seemed a bit beyond my fourth graders so I not only haven’t read it to them, I haven’t given it to any of them to read either. However, Sarah, a 6th grade teacher, did read it to her class and wrote about it here. (And I should say that if this book had been published last year that I would have probably taken the risk and read it aloud to my own class to get a firsthand sense of child appeal. Just so people understand that committee members do work very hard to get a sense of this.) I can imagine any discussion of this book would also address the Grandmother Moccasin storyline as did Nina in her post about the book (and do read the comments as they are really informative and thoughtful).
I loved Louise Erdrich’s The Game of Silence and think The Porcupine Year is as good if not better. On goodreads, after reading it, I wrote, ” Engrossing. Builds slowly and beautifully. As elegantly written as the previous book.” And in a comment at this post about it I wrote, “It would seem to be one that would be more able to build consensus around than others so I too am surprised there hasn’t been more buzz about it. I should have written more about it myself, but I was lazy. I did give it five stars on goodreads (and I’m fairly stingy with those stars, but not as much as you are). I do agree with you wholeheartedly on tone. What was the old thing for some movie? Makes you laugh, cry, etc. I’m wowed by Erdrich’s character development, ability to switch gears so ably (from a light scene of amusement to one of incredible pathos). I thought the ending of The Game of Silence was extraordinary, but there are moments just like it in this book.”
I bet that if Polly Horvath’s My One Hundred Adventures takes the gold that there are likely to be questions about the broadness of its child appeal. I liked it very, very much and was delighted to hear from a friend that her fourth grade daughter liked it too. This would have been another I would have definitely read aloud to my class if I was on the committee to get a sense of child appeal.
I’m a fan of Sid Fleischman’s biographies and adore Mark Twain and so was completely delighted with The Trouble Begins at 8. Fleischman’s voice is as distinctive as Twain’s and just pulls you in. Nina wrote of some reservations here; I’m not sure they would be enough to do the book in for me, but if I were on the committee I’d certainly go back and take a good hard look. But I’m not so I won’t.
I also am a huge fan of Candace Fleming’s scrapbook biographies and her latest, The Lincolns, is really wonderful. I just love the scrapbook approach, lots of small and fascinating tidbits to pour over. Reading doesn’t always have to be linear and this book encourages a dipping in and dipping out approach. You can read it through quickly and then go back to parts of greatest interest, look at the photos, the letters, or other stuff. The research is impeccable, the writing lively and engaging; a very, very impressive work of nonfiction.
Like many I could not put down Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games; I found it an exhilarating read. And talk about child AND adult appeal, this one has it in spades. It is a hard one to compare to some of the others though. It definitely is a page-turner more than a book to savor in terms of poetic language. How to compare a book that seems to excel in pacing, drama, edge-of-the-seat action to one that excels in sentence level elegance is a challenge. One question that I don’t have is whether it is too old. It is absolutely not. The Newbery is given to a book for children through age 14 and this is very, very accessible for kids that age. I’ve had several fourth graders reading it. The violence is very carefully handled in a way that is appropriate, I feel, for the Newbery age group. One problem is that invariably people give these books to kids of all ages. While this is a book for kids at the upper end of the age range, it is certainly not for the younger ones.
There are tons more books I like very much and would be delighted to see honored as well, books on Nina and Sharon’s list and many others. Or the winner may be one I have yet to read. Or it might end up being an outlier like Jon Scieszka’s Knucklehead (as humor is, as many have noted, hard to agree upon) or Highway Cats, one of the odder titles that I like. I have to thank Nina for encouraging me to give it another look and of all the books on their final Mock Newbery list, this is the one I’d most love to hear discussed.
Appeal is appeal is appeal. What one bunch of kids loves may not be what a few others somewhere else like. And what an adult working with kids loves is most likely what those kids are going to like too. (I can’t deny that my students fell for The Graveyard Book partly because I did first.) At the end of the day while we all can hope that like every Newbery Committee, this year’s will honor a book that has broad appeal, it matters not a whit if it doesn’t. The book they select will be a book that is very, very, very, very, very good, A distinguished book. And that’s appealing enough for me.