One of the hardest thing for a Newbery committee member to consider is how to fairly and effectively evaluate a new book that belongs in a series. The traditional wisdom passed down unofficially from year to year is: whether the book can “stand on its own (merits).” Meaning: if a reader coming to this book without prior knowledge of the characters or plot development progression, will he or she be able to fully appreciate the book at hand. If the reader does not need the previous books to be fully immersed in the present title, then, it has a better chance to be considered seriously for the award. If, on the other hand, one feels somewhat lost or disconnected due to unfamiliarity with the whole series, the book’s chance for being a top contender is slim to none.
This leaves me wonder, though. In a way, isn’t the success of a sequel sometimes marked by being quite “dependent” on the previous volumes? The complexity of the characters and character relationships might make a new reader puzzled but it is exactly what an old acquaintance of the series looks for to deepen an already rich experience. Intense plot lines that were left unresolved at the end of the previous volume should not need a whole chapter of “recalls” to set up the scenes for this current volume. Such recalling passages, forced on the author who just wants to continue developing a complete story line, can be tedious and obstructs the flow of the tale. So, in a way, “not standing on its own” should be considered a merit to a book that is a sequel as part of a grand tale. I am reading a sequel to a story that has been told in previous four volumes. I find the book deeply satisfying — love to see old characters referenced, love to see new potential conflicts developing based on old relationships and events, love to see the storytelling tone that is unique to the series being picked up again and so consistent with the rest of the series. At the same time, I keep wondering: how would someone who’s never read a single volume of this series react to the information revealed on these pages? If I suggested this title, will it be a delight for most of the other 14 members or will it be an unwelcomed burden? And — do I care either way?
There are fifteen people on the Committee, with vastly different tastes (some love fantasy and sci-fi, others would not touch these without some seriously coercion,) and usually only a few would have read the previous titles of any series. How should we then proceed with a suggestion or even nomination of a book that is part of a series and unfamiliar to many? Should we all read and catch up with the previous books in the series so to judge whether this new volume fits beautifully with the whole picture? Should we insist on the book’s “making complete sense” to a brand new reader of the series? Do we trust the few committee members around the table to tell everyone how the book fit with the grand scheme of the series? Do we ignore them because they are already “biased” and probably are considering the whole series and not simply the book at hand (which is our charge)?
It has been a conundrum for ages and I imagine will be for eternity (in Newbery Land.) As for me? I’m going to finish this wonderful sequel that has kept me engrossed the moment I started reading the book and I won’t be able to tell the world whether I suggest it to my committee or not. Just you know that either way it is going to be a tough decision!