Tag Archives: Newbery Thoughts

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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Second Round of Nominations: Challenges Ahead

A week ago, we all received the compilation of the second round of nominations. Almost 1/2 of the titles from October were re-nominated, receiving more supports this month. Some newly added titles also received multiple nominations — showing how some minds function the same way. About half of the titles on the list only receive one nomination each while some have much higher nomination counts. However, I don’t want to analyze too much based on total nominations received since I simply don’t believe that these numbers tell the whole story or are solid indicators of any book’s winning chances.

There are some great additions and I’m so pleased to see that someone else has nominated particular titles so I don’t need to — there are at least half a dozen of them that I also love dearly. Now they are on the table — and I feel greatly relieved! Was I surprised at some of the nominated titles? Sure I was! But that just shows how drastically different our reading tastes or judgments could be from each other. Which — I guess, should come as no surprise at all. I am sure that at least one if not two or three or all of my nominations have not made it to the top of someone else’s list. The few books that are so low on my rating ladder obviously have been sitting comfortably on someone else’s top spots. Now, my job is to make sure that I re-read these books via the lenses of my fellow committee members, taking into consideration what they have said in their nominating paragraphs and do my best to understand the positive aspects of these books. At the same time, if I continue to find these books not on par with my definitions of outstanding or distinguished, I must find ample textual evidences that support my reservations and present them clearly and succinctly during our deliberation process. In the end, no matter how I personally feel about any specific title, I must consider the whole picture and vote according to the majority will of the committee.

These are the challenges that I find most enriching and that is why serving on the Newbery is such a valuable professional and personal experience. It not only offers me the opportunity to intensely examine a slice of children’s literature but also the chances to hone my skills as a community member under a structured democracy.

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November Nominations: Done!

The second round of official nominations is due today… I finalized the write-ups and emailed the file to our chair at 6:00 p.m.  Two titles are due from each of us.  This time around, I had something that I didn’t have in October: a fairly strong sense of the leanings of the Committee as a whole.  I re-read the nomination paragraphs from my fellow committee members, especially those titles that I am in favor of.  Some books already received multiple supports and I feel quite comfortable to not worry about re-nominating those.  But one of them, I have grown to like so much more because of the experiences I’ve had with the readers’ reactions in my community, because of re-reading passages, because of my fellow committee members’ reasonings, and because of some online thoughtful conversations.  I see more clearly now the merits of this book and understand some of my original reservations as being not on solid ground.  So, I nominated this to add my support and justifications.

Then, there is the second title.  I can imagine someone’s mouth drops, another one’s eyes widen, and someone else’s head shakes: If they ever find out what this second title is.  (Ah, indeed, fourteen other people in the world will find out tomorrow when we all receive the compilation of nominations!!!)  Is this a good move?  Is this a waste of my nomination?  I don’t think so because I do so so love this book, and I do so so want at least to have a chance to talk about it with my fellow committee members.  It deserves a place on the table — even though it might not fit the conventional Newbery Winner Profile.  Who knows… there could always be a surprise!

This has been fun.  One more set to go in December and we will go into re-reading, re-thinking, and strategizing mode!


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It’s November… and we are all thinking about Graphic Novels

At Heavy Medal and at Born Librarian, Jonathan Hunt and Elizabeth Moreau both offer their views on whether a Graphic Novel can be considered for the Newbery (pretty much, yes, it can be considered but the winning chance is slim) and if so, how does one consider and weigh its merits against its intrinsic weaknesses: namely, lack of expository paragraphs, textual settings, other descriptive languages, since most of the text in a graphic novel is in dialog form.

Jonathan’s opinions are closer to mine — that we must judge and examine the text of a graphic novel as what it is and what it does and not ask it to be something else.  Elizabeth’s method of covering up illustrations in graphic novels or typing up just the text to read serves some purposes, but I would say that does not respect the fact that the text is MEANT to be viewed with the illustrations as a whole.  The authors of graphic novels (usually) are the originators of the stories, whether the books are illustrated by the authors themselves or by other artists.  (Traditionally, few graphic novel writers are illustrators.  But Children’s book world seems to be upsetting that tradition quite a bit!)  I have studied the “behind the scenes” process of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (included in the Absolute Sandman volumes.)  Neil Gaiman gives out copious notes of scene directions, settings, “camera angles,” etc. to the illustrators.  I don’t think that’s how all authors work.  But, to think that the graphic novelists only write dialogs and a few text boxes of descriptions of settings is to discount the rich creative palette of the authors.  They have to make the same choices as any prose novelists do: the details of the world the story is set in, the characters that play off of each other: their personalities and voices, the events that unfold to propel the plot and to unveil thematic matters, etc.  In fact, there is so much self-editing and paring down that a graphic novelist must do that some prose novelists can never successfully achieve.

So, I say, do not judge the apple and demand that it should be bursting with citrusy juice and do not demand a lemon to be sweet and crunchy.

When I examine graphic novel texts: I read the whole book as IS.  No covering of any panel illustrations.  No thinking that the text MUST STAND ALONE.  And No demanding that the theme must help the readers to “gain a greater understanding of what it means to be human” (Jonathan’s words).  Let’s just look at how well the text does its job: do the dialogs capture the personalities and voices of different characters?  Does the PLOT engage, move along at the right pace, help the readers grasp the theme and offer clear causal-effect relationships, etc.?  Are the settings clearly defined and serving the story well (yes, we see the pictures, but we also understand that there are “directions” from the creators to direct the artists of the settings): for example, are things always taking place inside a room or events happen all around the story universe: whichever is appropriate to the “story at hand”?

I am reminded of the recent Newbery winner, Good Masters, Sweet Ladies.  The “setting” is done with separate historical nonfiction passages, accompanied by detailed illustrations, while the main body of the text is presented as monologs (or dialogs) that do not even progress with a linear plot line.  The book must have been  examined by that year’s Newbery Committee on its own merits: how effective are the monologs, how accurate and interesting to the intended audience are the nonfiction passages, and how clearly and movingly as a whole the various “voices” bring a medieval manor town to life by the author’s choices of “characters” and their interior struggles and exterior interplays.  I imagine that the members of that Committee found great success in each aspect pertaining to that specific book and not a general notion of “what a good kids’ book should look like.”

I feel that I’ve clarified for myself how I should consider Graphic Novels as a Newbery committee member — but, will the other members (including Elizabeth) consider them the same way?  And will we agree on whether a text is successful even if we do agree on these principles?  Reading is such a subjective experience.  I am more excited than ever to hear other opinions and to convince or to be convinced or to accept that we civilly disagree with each other perpetually!

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What The Newbery Award Is Not: For Thematic Choice

Sometimes, to understand what something IS, one has to think of what something ISN’T.  So, I’m going to write a few posts about what I think the Newbery Award Isn’t — starting with Thematic Choice.

Over at SLJ’s Blogland, Karyn Silverman discusses her reaction to Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, a highly praised book and a National Book Award finalist based on the true story of a young person’s life under the rule of Khmer Rouge. In her post, Karyn concludes how she will recommend this title for its historical significance but not for its literary merits. As to the book’s Printz award winning chances?  She wrote, “the Printz doesn’t care about importance, or message, or history.”  Her final words on the post are, “The Printz is an award for literary excellence, and on that front, this does fall down.”

What Karyn illustrates of the Printz Award is equally true of The Newbery.

In the Newbery Manual, it is stated that:

“Committee members need to consider the following: a. Interpretation of the theme or concept, b…..”

It also contains an additional note: “The committee should keep in mind that the award…is not for didactic content…”

These are the only directions regarding themes that Newbery committee members have from the official document.

What this informs me, then, is that my focus of examination should not be on whether a book is about sibling rivalry, death,  historical events, lunch money, girl power, or anything else that the author chose as the central theme(s) of the book at hand.  What I should care most, then, is how well, literarily, the author interpreted such theme(s).  For example, if I am to choose from the following three (made up) books based on the authors’ skills in theme interpretation, I will probably ask these questions to start (but of course many more aspects will have to be explored):

A. An easy reader about the fun of playing with blocks

Has the author managed to make the fun and joy palpable to its readers?
Has the author successfully employed an appropriate narrative device (such as rhyming) for the audience?

B. A middle grade fiction about the importance of environmental protection

Has the author created a riveting plot line that pulls the readers in and keeps them engaged all the way through?
Has the author created true-to-life characters that the readers care about greatly?

C. A nonfiction about the history of fireworks

Has the author presented the most significant moments clearly for the intended audience?
Has the author expertly captioned all the illustrations to further illuminate the topic?

My duty is not to choose a winner based on which theme I believe as most significant (to me or a young reader) but based on which of the books is most literarily successful after thinking hard about each book, and after deliberating with input from my whole committee.

So, I say,

The Newbery Award is not for the book with the most significant theme.
The Newbery Award is not for the most teachable book.
The Newbery Award is not for the book most likely to change a young reader’s life.

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I have nine books piling next to my…

I have nine books piling next to my work desk that I MUST read — either they’re nominated and I haven’t had a chance to read them, or they are fall/winter book, or they are just highly recommended by trusted friends. I know what I’m doing for the rest of the week/weekend! Oh, the glory of catching up!

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October 16, 2012 · 4:49 pm

100 and beyond Finished book 100 yesterday It…

100 and beyond. Finished book 100 yesterday. It is as fun and enjoyable as the previous volumes in the series and I am looking forward to the continuation!!! I feel like clarifying the number count of these readings: Over the past months, I definitely read more than 100 books — or at least, attempted to read many many more. But, some of them were apparently not at a level to win the Newbery, so after the first few chapters, I simply had to put them down and move on to the next title — just so enough books were sampled. So far, I am feeling all right with “catching” the books worthy of note but still apprehensive — have we, collectively, missed something superb? There are still fall/winter books arriving in boxes. Do we have enough time to get through them all before nominations deadlines in November and December?

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October 15, 2012 · 3:18 pm