My quest to track down the Newbery began a long way from this country. I had been asked to speak at the Mubarak Library in Cairo to a group of Egyptian writers on “The Heartbeat of Children’s Literature.” A gentleman named Yacoub el-Sharoni, one of Egypt’s most famous writers of children’s books, was waiting for me after the program: “You have in your country a Newbery award,” he said in his halting English. “What in your opinion is at the heart of such an award? What makes a Newbery book different?”
It reminded me of a librarian friend who once said to me, “I can always tell a Newbery contender. There is just something about one.” There was that hint again at something unique, almost mysterious, about a Newbery winner.
A swim of Newbery Medal winners passed in front of me: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Bridge to Terabithia, Maniac Magee, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Holes, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Tale of Despereaux, Sounder, Missing May, A Single Shard — to name only a few.
But where to begin? I scratched the answer out that night in the notebook that I keep by the side of any bed I sleep in: “At the heart of every Newbery is a remarkable character,” I wrote.
Not just a character who carries the weight of story, but a character original in voice, in spirit, in ideas, perhaps even in looks! Certainly original in imagination.
“What a character!” we often say about someone totally original, the phrase laden with both admiration and uneasiness. In the Newbery Honor-winning The Great Gilly Hopkins, Gilly (or Galadriel, as she prefers to be called), entering her third foster home in three years, makes us more than a little uneasy. She is fresh, sassy, stubborn, guarded. The social worker begs her, “Gilly, give Maime Trotter [her new foster mother] half a chance, OK? She’s really a nice person.” But Gilly is done with nice. “Nobody wants to tangle with the great Galadriel Hopkins. I am too clever and too hard to manage.” She says to herself, “Here I come, Maime baby, ready or not.” What a character!
Or Summer in Missing May, Cynthia Rylant’s Newbery winner, who is in some ways like Gilly. An orphan, too, Summer is sent to live with Aunt May and Uncle Ob in their West Virginia trailer home after her mother dies. But her attitude is totally different.
Home was, still is, a rusty old trailer stuck on the face of a mountain in Deep Water, in the heart of Fayette County. It looked to me, the first time, like a toy that God had been playing with and accidentally dropped out of heaven. Down and down and down it came and landed, thunk, on this mountain, sort of cockeyed and shaky and grateful to be all in one piece.
These words tell us as much about Summer as they do Ob and May’s trailer, because Rylant didn’t give you a description of Summer’s character; no, she gave you Summer herself, thinking, remembering, dreaming. Starting out, then, the reader knows a sweet girl, a girl who knows what it is like to be loved, a girl capable of loving and a girl who is grateful to be living where she’s living. About Summer, you might whisper, What a character.
One of my all-time favorite Newbery characters is Stanley Yelnats in Louis Sachar’s Holes, who is just plain bad-luck Charlie, and he knows why. It is because of his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather” who had stolen a pig from a gypsy who then put a curse on him and all his family. Not that he and his family believe in curses. Even so, Stanley blames his pig-stealing great-great-grandfather for just about everything. No wonder, then, that when a pair of sneakers falls on Stanley from the sky, he decides to take them home. How could he know that they were the famous baseball player Clyde Livingston’s stolen sneakers? But the police know; Stanley is judged guilty; and off he goes to Camp Green Lake where, as punishment, he is ordered to dig holes — five feet deep and five feet across — all day, every day, in the desert sun. That darn “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather” and his curse!
There is nothing else to say about Stanley except, with exasperation and some amazement, What a character!
I was able to have tea with Yacoub el-Sharoni the day after my Cairo speech and share my thoughts about Newbery characters with him. I knew I was only scraping the surface. It was walking through the streets of Cairo afterward that I said to myself: It’s not enough. It’s only the beginning. Characters as rich as Gilly and Summer and Stanley need the right stage.
And that is my second certainty. The stage of a Newbery book is key. It has to be right for the hero or heroine, because it is his or her world. Yes, as in Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage.” Gilly’s world is the quirky home of Maime Trotter, which she totally disrupts in her determined search for her mother. Tree-ear of Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard has the twelfth-century world of a nascent Korea as his stage. Summer performs in the isolated West Virginia mountain world of May and Ob. Avi’s Crispin comes alive in a feudal fourteenth-century English world where lords still rule the land and where serfs of all ages — including Crispin — do their bidding. Brian in Gary Paulsen’s Newbery Honor book Hatchet is an ordinary kid flying in a small plane to meet his recently divorced father when it goes down, stranding Brian in the Canadian wilderness, his stage!
Rich, textured, fascinating worlds — stages on which wonderfully original characters can play. And live out their usually most unusual lives.
Why, place can be so integral to the story that it becomes a character in its own right! Newbery authors seem to know this secret.
And richly wrought, place can also assure the reader of the authenticity of the story. Consider the detail of the castle in The Tale of Despereaux; the detail in the hard-core cityscape of Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee; the windswept prairie of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall; the three trailers in Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, soldered together so tightly that “not even a mouse would be able to find a crack or an opening anywhere.”
Despereaux, a most particular mouse with an artist’s sensibility and an Arthurian heart, lives in a most peculiar castle where Chiaroscuro the rat is allowed to rule a nether world and where a queen is so smitten with soup that she insists that it be served at every meal.
[Despereaux] spent his days as he wanted: He wandered through the rooms of the castle, staring dreamily at the light streaming in through the stained-glass windows. He went to the library and read over and over again the story of the fair maiden and the knight who rescued her. And he discovered, finally, the source of the honey-sweet sound.
The sound was music.
The sound was King Phillip playing his guitar and singing to his daughter, the Princess Pea, every night before she fell asleep…
“Oh,” [Despereaux] said, “it sounds like heaven. It smells like honey.”
Did Kate DiCamillo leave her hero behind in order to describe so authentically the parts and contents of her wonderfully wacky castle? Not at all. She wove her hero into the place; both hero and castle rising before us, as the brave little mouse discovers “that gilded thing”: music. You get to know both hero and place at the same time.
Character and place are inextricably linked in a Newbery book. However, I have created a still life. An interesting character, a fascinating stage on which the hero can act — but unacceptably a still life. Because a major characteristic of a Newbery winner is that it moves, sometimes exquisitely. The author meets the character somewhere and sends her, flies her, lets her run, from here to there. At the beginning the hero may be an orphan, an outsider, adrift, alone — pick the nowhere spot the hero finds himself in — but invariably we feel the wind in the wondrous wings of Newbery characters as they move through their story.
I like the image of a story arc. Perhaps because it reminds me of a character leaping, through time and space, through tests of one kind or another, taking on the challenges of his or her story in arcs of internal and external action, finally arriving at the highest (or nearly highest) point in the arc, the climax.
I think of Salamanca in Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons searching nationwide for her mother. Tree-ear in A Single Shard determined to take his master’s delicate, perfect piece of pottery to Songdo, encountering robbers who break it, but retrieving the single shard and moving courageously to the ancient city. I think of Beetle in Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice, who is determined to find her way up and out of the isolated, lonely, smelly dung heap into the world.
Arcs of action. Powerful beginnings that draw a line in the sand for the character, rising middles created by a hero or heroine faced with more and more demanding choices, and turning-points and climaxes, moments of decision, that at their peaks may well contain “the catch in the breath” that becomes something like reality itself. A storytelling arc. But not just through outer action: not just a run to Songdo, or delivering a baby. Not just hijacking the water truck and escaping Camp Green Lake. This is all outside action, physical action, essential and fascinating, and driving the reader through the pages.
But at a great book’s heart is what Aristotle in his Poetics called praxis. Something driving the character like an arrow: a question, a need, an obsession. Gilly Hopkins obsessively wanting not just a home but a mother. Summer passionately wanting Aunt May, surrogate mother, to come back from the dead. Despereaux determined to woo and win the Princess Pea, as unlikely as that is. Abilene Tucker in Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest desperately trying to understand why her rail-riding father left her alone in Manifest, Kansas.
No question: one of the surest marks of a Newbery is its last moments of story. Last scenes. I think of Sounder by William H. Armstrong. Seeing his master whom he adored, mistakenly and cruelly imprisoned, enduring the months he is gone, then, finally, seeing that master come home:
Suddenly the voice of the great coon hound broke the sultry August deadness. The dog dashed along the road, leaving three-pointed clouds of red dust to settle back to earth behind him. The mighty voice rolled out upon the valley, each flutelike bark echoing from slope to slope…
Sounder was a young dog again. His voice was the same mellow sound that had ridden the November breeze from the lowlands to the hills. The boy and his mother looked at each other. The catbird stopped her fussing in the wilted lilac bush. On three legs, the dog moved with the same lightning speed that had carried him to the throat of a grounded raccoon.
Sounder’s master had come home.
Armstrong pulled out all the stops. In his simplicity, he used images that were all his own, like “three-pointed clouds of red dust” and “flutelike bark echoing from slope to slope.”And he used authentic dialogue that we could believe. “Lord’s mercy! Dog days done made him mad.” And he used poetry when he needed it: “His voice was the same mellow sound . . . the catbird stopped her fussing in the wilted lilac bush.” Because poetry in prose is how a writer gets to the heart, and those Newbery writers know it.
What is it about this scene and scenes like it? Jonas escaping downhill on a sled in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Lucky in The Higher Power of Lucky facing the memorial service with the urn of her mother’s ashes, Palmer in Jerry Spinelli’s Newbery honor book Wringer, looking up into the sky, watching, heart beating, as his pet pigeon Nipper floats down toward him into the silvery-clouds of the killing field.
Newbery authors need everything they have to create moments like these: they need rich original images, they need the beat of their own hearts, they need their senses — what they see and smell, what they hear, what they think. Perhaps now you see why I am so comfortable with the word stage. Because as surely as a playwright comes to the end of his play, looking for the rhythms, the lighting and pacing, the magnitude of his or her last moments, a writer does the same.
There is something about a Newbery, the librarian said. “Just something about it.”
I discovered that the American embassy in Cairo has translated almost twenty-five years of Newbery novels for Egyptian children. It suddenly became clear to me why. Not out of arrogance — showing off our good books to those “less fortunate” Egyptians; not to provide facts about life in the United States. I am convinced that the embassy selected these books because they are powerful stories of humanity behaving humanly on powerful stages. It is our culture at its best that we want to share.
Good Newbery Novels
Sounder (Harper & Row, 1969) by William H. Armstrong; illus. by James Barkley
Crispin: The Cross of Lead (Hyperion, 2002) by Avi
Walk Two Moons (HarperCollins, 1994) by Sharon Creech
The Midwife’s Apprentice (Clarion, 1995) by Karen Cushman
The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003) by Kate DiCamillo; illus. by Timothy Basil Ering
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Atheneum, 1967) by E. L. Konigsburg
The Giver (Houghton, 1993) by Lois Lowry
Sarah, Plain and Tall (Harper & Row, 1985) by Patricia MacLachlan
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Atheneum, 1971) by Robert C. O’Brien; illus. by Zena Bernstein
Island of the Blue Dolphins (Houghton, 1960) by Scott O’Dell
A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001) by Linda Sue Park
Bridge to Terabithia (Crowell, 1977) by Katherine Paterson; illus. by Donna Diamond
The Great Gilly Hopkins (Crowell, 1978) by Katherine Paterson
The Higher Power of Lucky (Jackson/Atheneum, 2006) by Susan Patron; illus. by Matt Phelan
Hatchet (Bradbury, 1987) by Gary Paulsen
Missing May (Jackson/Orchard, 1992) by Cynthia Rylant
Holes (Foster/Farrar, 1998) by Louis Sachar
Maniac Magee (Little, Brown, 1990) by Jerry Spinelli
Wringer (Cotler/HarperCollins, 1997) by Jerry Spinelli
Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) by Clare Vanderpool
From the July/August 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. This essay is adapted from a speech titled “In Search of the Newbery,” delivered at the Highlights Children’s Writers Workshop at Chautauqua in 2008.