Considering Sequels for Newbery

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!

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Considering Sequels for Newbery

  1. This, for me, was one of the more challenging aspects of serving on the Newbery. While other award criteria (say Carnegie) allow you to consider books outside the year of eligiblity, Newbery does not. So you are stuck looking only at the book at hand and trying to convince others of its worth without referencing the previous volumes. Jonathan did a great Horn Book article on this a couple of years ago and has been incredibly convincing on Heavy Medal about sequels. If anyone could convince a Committee I think he could. But it is hard, hard, hard and I think it is indeed, as Jonathan describes it, a form of prejudice. I did a blog post on this my Newbery too: http://medinger.wordpress.com/2007/11/03/thoughts-on-newbery-what-about-sequels/

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    • fairrosa

      I know you posted this on your year — and I think we don’t always agree on this. I think one can argue that the “not standing alone” can be viewed as one of the strengths of a sequel; same as my thought on “not having the characters developed through the story” for certain genres when the genre calls for heavy plot-development vs character development (and I personally believe that many well-developed or “changed by the events in the book” characters are less than realistic or convincing. Humans simply don’t always change that drastically EVEN after some huge incidents in one’s life.) Often I find that we judge different kinds of books with the same measuring criteria because we are limited in our own specialties or vocabularies due to lack of exposure or critical evaluating abilities on certain, less familiar genres. Take evaluating poetry for example: even if it is verse novel, the emphasis really should be on imagery, use of words, rhythm, etc. for the chosen genre. If it tells the good story, then, it’s an added bonus. Same as when you read a great mystery, evocative language might not be a bonus AT ALL. If it is a great mystery in all other aspects, then it will get my vote. “Measure the books according to their own merits” is my mantra. But then… haha.. how do you measure them AGAINST each other? That’s the job one must do and it’s just not that simple!

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  2. Oh, I don’t disagree with you at all. Jonathan and you have absolutely convinced me, but what about the criteria you are working with? How do you convince others on your committee when you cannot reference books published before 2012?

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    • fairrosa

      See, that’s kind of my point: they should not consider the previous books. If the new readers are “confused,” they just have to trust in those other members who have read the series as to whether this book works well within the context of the series or not. Then, perhaps, they can overlook the frustration and start just enjoying the current book and find merits in the telling in front of them? I know that’s really hard to do, but I have done it — and I know plenty of young readers who didn’t realize a particular book is book THREE in a series and they are pretty good at picking it up and understanding the story from that point forward. In fact, if you think about it — EVERY book is a “follow-up” on some previous events/background/character development prior to the first chapter/first sentence of a book. And we as readers always have to figure out (with the help of authors) the context of the story that unfolds before our eyes.

      Am I making sense or am I crazy?

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      • I understand you completely, but in my experience it is very hard to convince others. I also did find it difficult to fairly assess a book that was part of a series without having read the previous books. Seems to me they are meant to work together and not being able to take that in to account (by reading all the books) seems unfair.

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      • fairrosa

        In a way, I’m proposing a way to assess — that the puzzling and confusion, instead of being always viewed as a negative, could some times be treated as a “positive.” Just a thought.

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  3. Hmm….I’m not sure I agree then. I think the ability to enter a world midway is not something everyone and especially young and less experienced readers can easily do. And is the confusion and puzzlement the point of the book, the reading experience for that book? Do you find weaker readers also comfortably jumping in this way? I suspect to succeed at convincing other committee members (and me, their standin of sorts:) you will need to provide ample evidence of this.

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    • fairrosa

      Very true and I doubt that I will be able to convince anyone — however, I simply want to challenge the unofficial and readily accepted “rule” of a book in a series needing to “stand alone” in order to qualify for being distiguished. I don’t want a book in a series to be quickly dismissed just because it has strong ties to the previous books or that it takes a little effort on the reader’s part to understand some back stories. (As I said, EVERY book starts with plenty of back stories that the author has to reveal one way or another to catch the readers to the current point where the characters stand.) I’ve definitely heard enough young readers (and they are not all the most “accomplished” or practiced readers) who claim that they went back to book one after they read book 2 or book 3 of a series by mistake because they are amply intrigued by book 2 or 3 and wanted to read more about the characters or know more about the “before” stories. I’m definitely going to test some of the series out and I will be reading sequels in the coming year — and I’m going to make sure that I personally don’t dismiss a book just because it is a sequel and it does not quite stand alone. Make more sense now?

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