What The Newbery Award Is Not: A Set of Rigid Criteria

I have been thinking about the Newbery criteria day and night for quite some time now… as I read and think about books, and as I read about others’ thoughts on 2012 children’s books.  Over the years, many have tried to unpack what truly marks the “most distinguished” literary contribution to the American children’s literature.  Just yesterday, Nina Lindsay wrote about her thoughts on “The Art of Writing” at Heavy Medal.

Many of her thoughts coincide with my own reactions to literature — for children and adults alike.  Here’s my own attempt at explaining my own set of criteria beyond what’s displayed on the official Newbery manual document.

But first, let’s see what literary elements are highlighted in the official Newbery Manual:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

These criteria are purposefully vague to leave room for interpretation by each year’s committee and to allow for flexibility of different kinds of books to be considered fully and on equal footing.  Note that the document does not call for “A group of fully developed characters that are three dimensional and have gained insights and grown by the end of the story” — instead, it just implies that the committee members should consider how successfully (appropriate to the book at hand) the author has “delineated” the characters; it also does not call for “A strong plot that follows the successful formula of storytelling, containing clear exposition, exciting rising actions, meaningful and gripping conflicts, a satisfying climax, and a solid denouement.”  Because, yes, perhaps, most books (be they fiction or nonfiction) will succeed by having this kind of structure, some other books simply don’t rely on following the conventional definitions of “a good plot” to make them Great or Distinguished.

The set of criteria also allows for different kinds of books to be considered: nonfiction, fiction, poetry, easy readers, picture books, etc.  And the six entries serve as a solid foundation as we read and consider books for their distinguishing qualities.

I have discovered that, for myself, the consideration of plot, setting, character development, clarity, accuracy, and organization serves best when determining whether a books gets an “above average” rating and warrants a spot on my monthly suggestions list.  However, these elements are not all that I consider and especially not when I start putting together arguments for “most distinguished” titles of the year.  Indeed, if these are the only aspects we focus on during our deliberation come January 2013 in Seattle, the discussion hours will become tedious quite quickly and will never rise above mundane exchanges.  To reach the level of exhilaration and enrichment, we will have to delve into the more elusive, and possibly more subjective aspects of literary works. This is when the whole business of “interpretation of the theme or concept” and the “appropriateness of style” comes into significant play.  I already expressed my thoughts on the Thematic Presentation in another post, so my focus here will be on Style.

I am grateful for our charge to consider the “Appropriateness of style”  because the word “style” allows for such wide and diverse interpretations.  Due to its vague nature, Style has always been something messy to convey or explain and it encompasses many many literary aspects: from mood, to tone, to employment of specific devices, to word choices, to rhythm and word sound, to pacing, to the use of/or lack of figurative language, etc.  I sincerely hope that when we sit around the conference table as a team of 15, we will be talking a lot about each book’s style and how that distinguishes some books from others.

That is when I can present sentences or scenes from beloved books to showcase the craft of a skilled author: the ability to find fresh turns of phrase; the dexterity in writing a sentence that paints an image vividly or conveys the internal struggle of a character without spelling blatantly out for the readers; the expert and consistent use of a particular narrative device; the talent in crafting a satisfying but not too-predictable ending; the successful employment of humor, or irony, or pathos; and many many other literary aspects that are not plot, character, setting, facts, or organization.

As I continue reading and re-reading nominated books, the most wonderful challenge will be to find concrete examples from the texts to illustrate the more conceptual aspects of the authors’ literary achievements. Thanks to the non-prescriptive and non-rigid nature of the criteria, the Newbery Award deliberation will maintain its vigor and freshness year after year.

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