Daily Archives: March 7, 2010

Thoughts on Newbery: The Design Thorn

Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.  (Newbery Terms & Criteria)

Betsy Bird has just thrown down the gantlet with her spring 2010 Newbery/Caldecott predictions. One on her list is Deborah Wiles’ forthcoming Countdown, a book I’ve already raved about here.  But for Newbery?  Sadly, the current criteria, as quoted above, would make it difficult for me if I were on the committee.  As I read it, committee members cannot positively consider the design and art as an integral part of the book.  Yet it is that very design and art that makes Wiles’ book so brilliant for me.  Instead of telling us about the atmosphere of that time, Wiles shows us in an original and superb way.  And so I agree and disagree with Ed Spicer (commenting on Betsy’s post):

We don’t need to consider the design as design because it is an essential part of the content. The extra material provides the emotional soul of the book that provides young readers with the experience (both visual and textual) that firmly places readers smack dab in the middle of duck and cover days.

While I agree completely that it is “an essential part of the content” I don’t see how the above stated criteria would allow you to not “need to consider the design as design.”  This is the same thorn that bloodied me the year I was on the committee and considering Brian Selznick’s brilliant The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Certainly the Wiles’ book is different from Selznick’s.  For one, it has quite a bit text in the documentary material. But, in my opinion, much of the emotional punch is derived from the design and art. Randomly opening up the ARC I come to a double page spread (pgs, 106-107) all in shades of black, gray, and white. On the left is a photograph of a family in a bomb shelter with the following huge passionate letters below: “FAMILY IN THE SHELTER, SNUG, EQUIPPED , AND WELL ORGANIZED.”  On the opposite page is a “LIST OF MATERIALS YOU WILL NEED” and at the bottom, “THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR!”  (You can see some other examples of the documentary material on Wiles’ blog here.)  It IS about the design.  It IS about the (primary source) illustrations.  To not be allowed to recognize them when considering this wonderful book is like having to eliminate one of your senses when admiring a wonderful restaurant dish.  Yes, it tastes good, but I can’t smell it. Or yes, it tastes good, but I can’t see it.

So, yeah, the story stands alone.  And if it is recognized by the committee for that, great.  But what a shame too.  For it isn’t the text alone that makes this an amazing work.  Maybe the committee will figure out how to get around this thorn without bleeding.  I hope so.

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