Tag Archives: Newbery Thoughts

Newbery Committee 2002: A look back of our winners!

There is an emailing list on my gmail account that is marked “Newbery Committee 2002” — and most members from the group still routinely email each other with news, opinions on new books and award winners, and with “party planning” details to meet up at each and every ALA conference. We’ve been doing that for over 10 years now.

In the meantime, some of us have changed jobs or retired and many have traveled or moved to another place. But there is a strong bond between the majority of the members. We even had a 10-year reunion and were written up in PW.

Last night, as I hyperventilated over how much behind I am in the reading process (I am SUCH a slow reader it’s almost embarrassing — but I’m not really embarrassed to have to sound out every word and to not be able to scan as I read this adopted language,) I had to tell myself: “Hey, last time around, you were dealing with a job, a 2.5 year old child, and the aftermath of 9/11: being displaced from our apartment and moved to three different places from September to February… and you MANAGED!” So, I can do this again now!

That led to a revelation that might be or not be true: Could it be possible that the bond has been so strong because we, as a group, went through something world shattering and life changing in our own separate places with a strong thread that is reading children’s books stitching all of us together? I distinctively remember the solace that reading and putting myself into the world of whatever book I delved into at the time offered me. I also recall heated child_lit debate on what kind of books are more healing — definitely NOT books on disasters or world colliding politics (in my opinion.) Laughters, inspirational friendships, peaceful goals, and saint-like, GOOD human beings definitely made for the best “escapism” for me.

Not saying that these are the reasons why we chose to honor the books we did — since there was definitely long and arduous debate and examination of many many more worthy titles of the year based purely on their literary merits — but look at the three titles we put on the list:

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
Carver by Marilyn Nelson
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

Please take time to read all of them and to share them with your students and young readers — they might not be FOR everyone but they are each in its own right special and incredibly inspiring.

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Agonizing over the first set of three nominations…

Agonizing .. over the first set of three nominations… due in less than a month… which should I submit??? No.. I’m not asking for suggestions… I’m just sayin’… So many outstanding books this year… so many different kinds of books… I want to make sure I don’t waste my precious seven nominations…

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September 18, 2012 · 8:49 pm

Book 89 is a middle of the road…

Book 89 is a middle of the road magical story with an interesting format of alternating voices from two VERY different protagonists.  It actually kind of worked for the most part — although I suspect that if most of the story had NOT been magical or relied on some weird divination scheme, the story would have felt more authentic and convincing.  Glad I got to read this short tale and think that I will be able to find a few happy readers for it.

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September 17, 2012 · 8:11 pm

Tools of the Trade …

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Fall books … Wave two…. I was away from the library for five weeks. This is what I found today and now let the unpacking begin.

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Atmospheric Books

When I hear an editor or a publicist use “atmospheric” when talking up a new book, my initial, gut reflex tends to be “cringe!” I am wary that the book might have nothing else going for it (not fresh and strong plot or great world building or wonderful and vivid characters) but beautiful words that create some sort of ethereal “atmosphere.”  Of course, I’m often proven wrong and some of my favorite books have been quite successfully atmospheric AND complete in their full range of  literary elements.  (Laini Taylor’s and Susanna Clarke’s works came to mind, and of course, Neil Gaiman’s.)

Book 61 is definitely another example of a book that features most notably a distinct atmosphere of nightmarish darkness, danger, and confusion that is not so commonly found in most other books for children.   That is not to say that the readers don’t care about its cast of characters or that the majorly off-kilter imagined world isn’t so vividly drawn that we can not only see but also hear, touch, and smell the place!  I was thinking how reading this story is a lot like watching a Miyazaki movie: consciously you are not quite sure exactly what’s going on and who’s on who’s side since it’s told through the view (although 3rd person) of a somewhat clueless child, but you worry deeply for this child and his friends and want them all to come out on top and subconsciously you DO have a firm grasp on what the big question is and how people should treat each other and that serves as a solid theme beneath the shifting water and sand that are the scenes.

This book lingers, for me.

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Wishing I can actually name the titles here…

Wishing I can actually name the titles here, especially those I truly love and want to promote!

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July 18, 2012 · 8:44 am

Ask a reader: Are you the hero?

The discussion on first person vs. third person narrative POV brought to light for me something that I seldom (actually never) considered: that not all of us are bystanders when we read — some readers are definitely active participants and consider themselves the main or side characters (or all of them) in any story.

After a bit of soul searching and considering, I discovered that I almost never “play” the hero.  I am NOT Lyra in The Golden Compass, definitely NOT Frodo from The Fellowship of the Ring, and was never and will never be any of the first person narrators from Wonder.  (Even though I CAN relate to all of them on certain level.)  To me, reading is to observe and watch and listen to other people’s lives.  Whether the narrator tells the story from the “I” or the “They” perspective, I am always an outsider looking in.  This, I suspect, might have contributed to my preferred type of book discussion: I want to concentrate on the craftsmanship of the author, on how he/she manages the various aspects of the tale, and feel impatient whenever someone else at the book club table starts relating personal stories that either validate or disqualify the characters’ experiences for them.  (” ‘I’ would have never done it!!”  “When ‘I’ was in 5th grade, someone in my neighborhood totally was like that.” “There is NO way that anyone growing up in the 70s, like ‘I’ did, would have felt this way.”)

However, now I started to see that perhaps, for others, reading IS about relating and becoming the main characters and putting oneself in the shoes of them and experiencing the make-believe world created within the covers as if all is REAL.

I really would love to hear from a host of readers in unpacking some of the following questions:

  • Do you read and feel that you are the main character (or side characters) in stories?
  • What kind of stories do you like most — totally fanciful? very realistic? uplifting? upsetting? dark? light? funny? serious? wise? irreverent? provocative? cozy? tender? harsh? (and so many more types)
  • Does it matter to you if the narrator is a 3rd person who sees everything (or only seeing through one character’s view) or a 1st person?  Which do you prefer?  Do you know why?
  • Have you changed as a reader regarding the above questions through the years?  Do you find yourself a different kind of reader now than when you were in middle school or younger? How so?

Perhaps there are other questions and answers… but this is a beginning point… Please share!

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First Person Present Tense

For the past couple of years, as I read Children’s and YA novels, I have noticed an increase in First Person Present Tense narrative style.  I know there are at least two factors here — First Person narrative voice and Present Tense narrative … um… tense.. but since there are so many of the combined two that I’ve read recently, I think of them as one “phenomenon.”

I asked on child_lit:

Has anyone done any research or written articles about this trend?  Is it a trend or just a fluke?  What are some of the reasons that this has become more prevalent?  I am also curious about what people feel as readers of these books and how young readers’ relationships with books might change (or might not) due to this very young-character-centered and very living in the present (no past, no future) mode.

I was pointed to two recent articles that addressed this newish trend: Present Tensions, or It’s All Happening Now by Deirdre Baker for December 2011 Hornbook’s Opinion page and Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense by Philip Pullman for the September 18, 2010 Guardian.uk.

After reading these articles and also some wise observations and opinions from fellow child_lit scholars, I felt that I could grasp this phenomenon a little better and also have some half-formed opinions regarding the use of this particular POV + Tense.

I wrote yesterday on Child_lit:

I am not sure that I totally agree with Pullman’s almost categorical rejection of the actual POV/Tense itself — I think of it as another tool/device that is in the toolbox of any writer and all I am asking is for the authors to consider consciously and carefully of which voice and which tense to use that will help them deliver best the tale they are telling or the events they are reporting.

I don’t think there is any intrinsic worthiness or lack of such of any tense – or POV.  I do reject the blindness that seems to happen in publishing world whenever a new “trend” starts or gets stronger: What I don’t like is sensing a potentially great story or character being handled carelessly and “wrongfully” by writers or editors just because some popular stories are told this way and thus their new story must also be told in this fashion.  I also think authors need to understand their own writing styles and choose the one that fits themselves best, too.  

For example, if the author’s biggest pleasure in writing is to craft beautifully metaphorical sentences that reveal some inner and deeper meanings of everyday life, it’s probably not gonna be very convincing if these sentences are coming from a first person narrator who is a 10-year-old city girl with no special background or personality traits to justify such expert use of literary language.  If the tale would have been richer and more flavorful by allowing the readers to see the main character from more than one angle or to offer events that the main character could not have witnessed, then, a first person narrative voice would have “thinned” the story and reduced its impact.  On the other hand, if the whole point of the tale is to show the consequences of lack of maturity or understanding of the big picture, then a constant close-ups that only allows the readers to see the story from a narrow mindset might enhance the final reveal.

No matter what the writers decided to tell their stories, I simply wish that young readers, with the guidance of great teachers and librarians, have the opportunities and skills to enjoy the “double pleasure” of not only “getting the stories” but also of “figuring out the author’s craft.” I find myself often in the position of begging young readers (or sometimes extremely practiced lifelong readers) to be hyper aware of the narrative devices and hone their literary eyesights and hearings acutely in order to heighten their own reading experiences.

I am still a firm believer that literary criticism can only enhance the richness of a reading exercise.  (Yup, I used this word!) And to unpack and understand the strengths and limitations of First Person Present Tense has given me a lot of pleasure already!  I’m sure more thoughts on this will surface as I read more 2012 Children’s books!

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Reading lots of fiction I am under the…

Reading lots of fiction. I am under the impression that publishers have stopped submitting most of their nonfiction titles since 1) there is the Nonfiction award (Sibert) given by the same administrative body (ALSC) and 2) there has not been ample nonfiction titles given the Newbery stickers (albeit superb nonfictions have been expertly produced yearly from all major and minor Houses) and 3) the shrinking marketing budget at each House most likely prevents automatic nonfiction submissions to Newbery members. I’ve heard great things about a lot of nonfiction and plan on getting them from libraries or buying them or ordering them for the fall in my library… but should I be resigned to the fact that most people still think (and believe) that the most prestigious children’s literature award (since it is among the very few awards that actually greatly affect book sales) The Newbery Medal is equivalent to “The Award for Excellent Middle Grade Fiction Books” (that will mostly please teachers and librarians)?

Disclaimer: I am totally aware of how difficult it is to compare many different genres for different age levels and know that each past Committee and my current one have done and will do nothing short of the most conscientious deeds when comparing and contrasting and voting and revoting and persuading and being persuaded about the quality of each of the final nominated books… I am just wondering out loud!

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July 13, 2012 · 11:13 am

This is why reading fiction can still teach…

This is why reading fiction can still teach one a LOT of “facts” in life: as I pondered the plausibility of a specific animal’s breeding behavior in book 55, I embarked on an adventure of educating myself something that I had never wondered because I thought I already “knew” the facts — it turned out, I was wrong and now I’m one-fact richer than yesterday :).

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July 12, 2012 · 7:43 pm

Those Piercing, Icy, Deep, and Baby Blue Eyes….

I have been paying closer attention to character descriptions as I read the 2012 American children’s books for consideration of the 2013 Newbery award, since it is one of the major criteria that one may base one’s assessment when examining these books. What I have noticed is that blue-eyed characters are still quite prevalent in these books — even when there is little need for detailed physical descriptions of a particular character (be he/she a major or a minor one,) the almost throw-away lines of “piercing blue eyes,” “icy blue eyes,” “pale blue eyes,” show up frequently. In one lovely book by a famous author about family and inter-generational relationship, the characters were not physically described except for one sentence where the reader sees “his eyes sharp blue.”

I must confess that up till that point, I wasn’t assigning a race, ethnic heritage, or skin color to the entire family. I was engrossed in their loving and very warm relationships and the quirky habits of some of the family members — and it did not matter to me what they actually look like from the outside. Books can do that — allowing readers to see inside the characters, bypassing the surfaces and sometimes the assumptions that come with those surfaces. But, with those three words, “eyes sharp blue,” a whole lot of readers just realized that no matter how imaginative or willing they are, they cannot read themselves easily into that story any more.

I’m reading book 49 and liking it quite a bit — liking the easy style and the potential of a soul searching, heart warming tale of a young person…. but even on the second page of chapter 1, the most popular kid in the school was introduced by the following attributes (in order): by height (tall), hair color (blond), eye-color (blue), and then the personality (easy-going) that makes him so well loved.

I’ve also been listening to an audio book of Grimm’s fairy tales — and of course, anyone with golden hair and blue eyes is automatically kind, good natured, and deserving of the best fortune at the end of the tale.

It just makes me wonder… do children’s authors still on this traditional, auto-pilot mode when it comes to describing physical attributes of characters and how these attributed are associated with their status ascribed by their peers? (Any middle school kid is going to swoon over someone with blue eyes, isn’t she?) Do they know that there are many physically attractive young people who are not blond and are not blue-eyed? And do they know that it is all right, sometimes, to not get into detailed and often pointless physical descriptions of their characters — there are plenty of other ways to bring the characters vividly to life, especially by their actions and words? And do they know that according to a 2008 study, only 1 in 6 young Americans has blue eyes (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/18/world/americas/18iht-web.1018eyes.3199975.html) and that their readership is comprised of many different ethnic backgrounds.

If authors are compelled to include detailed physical attributes of characters — perhaps they can start considering that their young readers might want to be reminded and affirmed of the many possible ways, forms, shapes, colors, and unique quirks, that a person can be considered beautiful or attractive. Stop the lazy, throw-away, generic lines and give the young readers what they deserve to read: carefully observed and truly seen and fully presented characters.

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Just remembered that in the late 90s I…

Just remembered that in the late 90s, I, and Walter Minkel, two members of the Association for Library Services to Children (a division of ALA,) were responsible for the design, publishing, and updating of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals’ official web pages. It was such fun getting all the secret information hours before the press release time, gathering all the winning books to scan the cover images, and posting the information for the eagerly awaiting public! Thank goodness the ALSC staff took over the updating of these sites now so I don’t have to wake up super early to work on the pages — but I DO miss that special perk of knowing something before most everyone else does! Now, I am quite content to be just sitting in the crowd and holding my breath to hear the announcements and screaming for books I love when their titles and authors are pronounced.

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June 30, 2012 · 10:27 am

At ALA Annual we had our two four…

At ALA Annual — we had our two four-hour Newbery Committee meetings. Both were excellent — either talking about the procedures or practicing book discussion as a team! I feel so immensely fortunate to be with a group of knowledgeable and careful readers who are also civil and courteous toward each other. It gives me great energy to go forth and keep reading more books coming our way!

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June 24, 2012 · 5:21 pm

Just want to take a moment to say…

Just want to take a moment to say how much I love being on the 2013 Newbery Committee already — simply for the high quality of books published this season and for the variety of suggestions: age range and genres and styles.

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May 6, 2012 · 10:01 am

Today I’m thinking about narrative voice choices again…

Today, I’m thinking about narrative voice choices again. Employing a particular device is like handling fire… Especially when it is an unusual and potent one such as an ignorant, concealing, and unreliable first person narrator. When it is done right, it adds brilliance and life to the tale; but when it is fanned and carelessly left unattended, it will scorch and burn, metaphorically, the pages. The book I am about to finish suffers from just such unskilled fire keeper and, in this reader’s opinion, has been badly and unjustly incinerated. The idea of the tale is a solid and interesting one, but the book is definitely made inferior by the unwise choice of such a narrative device as beyond the talent of the author.

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April 26, 2012 · 9:41 pm

I think a rule of reading at least…

I think a rule of reading at least 1/3 of each book that looks interesting to me but does not seem to be of outstanding or “distinguishing” qualities before giving it up to read the next title probably is a fair one — and will allow me to explore more books from this year.

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April 22, 2012 · 1:16 pm

This is about book 20 It’s a major…

This is about book 20. It’s a major disappointment. It came from a reputable publisher, by a very well known author, with beautiful book making… but the book is NOT charming, NOT funny (at least not to most children, I would imagine,) NOT really clever, NOT thrilling, NOT moving, and NOT able to keep me from putting down the book time and time again — indeed a major let down.

And, it has one of my all time pet peeve: a “device” that the author failed to carry out consistently or logically. In this one, there is no way that the narrator would have put certain things down the way they appear in words on the paper. There is a drastic disconnect between what the “proposed” and the actual narrative voice. Instead of being ingenuous and clever, this device became a totally gimmick — a trick that looks funny on the cover but fails to satisfy its promise. *sigh* I know the next book is going to make me happier!

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April 13, 2012 · 3:48 pm

Spring submission…. Finally.

I have been receiving a couple of books from some publishers here and there since early March.  But, finally, this afternoon… Boxes and mailbags from four publishers arrived at once.  It never gets old.  So so so excited!  Some I have been waiting for and others look unfamiliar but so gorgeous and thrilling!  Yay.

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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!

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