On the one hand, it was a very good year for children’s books. The number of books that fit the Newbery’s definition of “distinguished contribution to American literature for children” was, to my mind, unusually extensive. What they all had in common was their excellence; in other ways, from genre to format to tone to voice, they were a diverse group. There were novels: elegant, contemporary, and theme-rich (Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy); lush, Victorian, and theme-rich (Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms); offbeat, multilingual — English, Bunny, Fox, and Marmot — and funny (Polly Horvath’s Mr. and Mrs. Bunny — Detectives Extraordinaire!). Louise Erdrich’s Chickadee exemplified child-centered, out-of-the-mainstream historical fiction; Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, the animal-fantasy novel. There were genre busters: was Ellen Bryan Obed’s Twelve Kinds of Ice elegiac autobiography? Or thematically linked fictional vignettes? Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair straddled the line between biography and novel, challenging our penchant for pigeonholing. And then there was the actual nonfiction, which had one of the strongest showings ever this year (surely a harbinger of things to come, given the new Common Core standards), from Jason Chin’s Island to Robert Byrd’s Electric Ben to Phillip Hoose’s Moonbird to Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb — so much so that much speculation centered on whether a nonfiction title would be named the Newbery winner for the first time since Freedman’s Lincoln in 1988.
On the other hand…well, it was a very good year for children’s books. All that choice and variation and diversity must surely have made the Newbery committee’s job even more challenging than usual. There was no frontrunner this year, no Giver or Holes or When You Reach Me. On SLJ’s Heavy Medal mock-Newbery blog, Bomb won by a landslide. Many, many other mock-Newbery programs chose the heart-tugging Wonder by R. J. Palacio (with its “message of tolerance and empathy”); lots chose one or the other of the eventual Newbery books; Grace Lin’s Starry River of the Sky and Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Mighty Miss Malone had their supporters; and at least one mock Newbery honored a picture-book text, Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness. Chickadee won the Scott O’Dell award, which can sometimes auger Newbery recognition (the O’Dell committee’s 2011 pick, One Crazy Summer, was a Newbery Honor Book; last year, Dead End in Norvelt won both). It was a wide-open field, and I didn’t stay up nights making predictions.
With no clear frontrunner, it’s possible that each of the fifteen members of the Newbery committee came into the deliberation room with a different favorite to champion. What went on behind those closed doors? Was it a total slugfest? Or did they congratulate themselves, grateful for the riches they had to choose from and secure from the very start that they’d emerge from that room with a strong, easily supportable, and admirable list? It’s only human nature to speculate about the committee’s deliberations, but ultimately it’s a futile endeavor: as long as ALSC’s ironclad-secrecy constrictions rule, we simply can’t know what transpired. The most likely scenario is a middle-ground one: fifteen individuals sat down together and through intense, passionate, and informed discussion came to a decision.
On the surface, the 2013 committee’s four choices — one Newbery winner and three Honor Books — have little in common: an animal fantasy based on a true story; a Victorian drama laced with dark magic; narrative nonfiction on all things atom bomb; and a Southern picaresque. But without exception, these writers hold their audiences in their accomplished hands, exercising complete authorial authority; readers feel secure throughout that they’ll never be dropped. Each book supports much analysis and deep delving (expect to see them the subject of many a future grad-student term paper).
Take Honor Book Splendors and Glooms, a Victorian gothic novel full of atmosphere and incident, magic and secrets, marked by vivid characterization and evocation of place. Not every reader will find it easy to get into. It begins tantalizingly, though not a little disorientingly: the prologue and first three chapters introduce four different characters, one of whom is an old woman. And it’s dark. Hungry orphans; lonely little rich girls whose siblings are all dead; tortured witches. You definitely have to be in the mood.
But if I’d been on the committee I would have pointed out the richness of the prose and the imagery, the masterful command of a complex plot, and the use of metaphor — perhaps that last most of all. Look at the way author Schlitz plays with the idea of her characters as puppets: kidnapped Clara is literally transformed by the magician Grisini into a marionette, and the witch Cassandra controls Grisini through the power of her fire opal (even making him dance like a puppet in punishment). But that’s just the showy stuff: it goes deeper, for aren’t the orphaned children Parsefall and Lizzie Rose puppets simply by virtue of their status in society? Grisini controls them through intimidation and fear — but also because as family-less, money-less children, they have few other options. Schlitz plays with many other ideas as well, including walls (the literal building and breaking through and demolishing of them; the metaphorical walls built between people and within oneself ) and strings (puppet strings that bind and snap/break; the thread of stories told within the novel and, of course, the novel itself, which in Schlitz’s hands is a multitude of threads woven into a rich and layered tapestry). If this isn’t distinguished literature for children, I’ll eat one of those eel pies Parsefall is so fond of.
Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon survived months of passionate public discussion and scrutiny to be justly named a Newbery Honor Book. It’s quite simply tour-de-force narrative nonfiction, more than living up to its ambitious topic (and subtitle). The scope of the book is enormous (either one of its trajectories — the building or the stealing — would suffice for most authors), and the material Sheinkin covers and synthesizes for his readers is stunningly wide, broad, and deep. And yet Sheinkin never falters in his masterful presentation, starting small, at the edges of the story, and then carefully and impeccably drawing all the pieces together to bring readers to its cohesive, tightly packed, intense core. If you mapped the construction of this book, it would probably look like a mushroom cloud.
Bomb has been praised for its important subject matter, and the subject did give the book gravitas from the get-go, but that’s not what makes it award-worthy. What makes it so is that the subject is complex enough to stand up to Sheinkin’s expansive approach. He needs a canvas large enough to allow him the sweep his authorial voice demands.
Is Bomb truly a book for young readers? Is it more YA than children’s? Yes and no. It will certainly be of interest to young adults (as it is to adults), but Sheinkin distills his information for young readers, leading them carefully through the material, despite its complexity. For instance, he often follows up a quote from a primary source with an explication, a clarification, as when the first test in the desert is successful, and the scientists at Los Alamos are jubilant. “We turned to one another and offered congratulations — for the first few minutes. Then, there was a chill, which was not the morning cold.”Sheinkin follows with his own words: “It was the chill of knowing they had used something they loved — the study of physics — to build the deadliest weapon in human history.” Sheinkin creates such a sense of immediacy and power and import—and makes such a connection with his readers — that we all feel that chill.
Newbery Medal winner The One and Only Ivan is Bomb’s (and Splendors and Glooms’s) polar opposite: spare, focused, with a handful of characters, and playing out on the smallest of stages: in fact, the majority of the book takes place in one 14-foot-by-14-foot space, silverback gorilla Ivan’s “domain” (read: cage) in a rundown circus mall. Yet readers inhabit not just Ivan’s tiny domain but his mind, a space that starts out fairly stunted but grows larger as his consciousness expands, as he wrestles with his identity, allows himself to remember his past in the wild, and comes to an understanding of how wrong and unnatural is his current existence. He — first emotionally and then physically — frees himself from what he eventually sees as his prison, through his art, and on behalf of his new baby elephant friend, Ruby.
Part of Applegate’s considerable accomplishment is the balance she strikes between Ivan as a gorilla and Ivan as, well, a person. She establishes his identity early (“I am Ivan. I am a gorilla”), and contrasts his worldview with that of humans often enough that readers never forget his animal-ness. But the issues he struggles with are the same as ours: how to live our lives; how to be a friend; how to express ourselves. The fact that her novel is based on a true story gives it extra power, but Applegate never uses the facts as a crutch.
Ivan is her unique, imagined creation. The One and Only Ivan has many literary resonances, from Johnny Tremain (Why do we struggle? “So that a man can stand up”) to Charlotte’s Web. In fact, I see The One and Only Ivan as the Charlotte’s Webof our time: a sadder and less-innocent time and world, with the venue shifted from Zuckerman’s prosperous farm to the seedy rundown Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, and with the characters not well-cared-for farm animals but cruelly imprisoned and -treated wild animals. But like Charlotte with her word-weaving for Wilbur, Ivan saves Ruby’s life through his finger-painted art. Like Fern, young Julia communes with the animals and is the only one to understand them (here not through language but through art); stray dog Bob is a more benevolent version of Templeton, a renegade denizen who looks after number one but tells the truth. Charlotte’s Web, famously, didn’t win the Newbery Medal (losing out to Secret of the Andes); it feels right and just that Applegate’s revisioning rose to the top this year.
As the Newbery titles were announced at the press conference in January, Sheila Turnage’s Three Times Lucky was the one I least expected. I’d read the book, and enjoyed it, but it had felt a bit kitchen-sinkish. The Library of Congress lists as its subjects: Mystery and detective stories; Restaurants; Community life—North Carolina; Identity; Murder; and Foundlings. It could easily have continued with Amnesia; Domestic abuse; Friendship; Race-car driving; Mothers; and Hurricanes — not to mention Strangers; Trouble; Lawyers; and Frenemies. Thank goodness the Newbery committee looks beyond labels. That it looks below a book’s surface to see how it works, how the writer’s craft manifests itself. Because here is a book in perfect balance: humor and pathos; internal conflict and external incident. Turnage keeps readers constantly just on the tipping point, whether it be in tone or mood or plot. You think the book’s going to be one of those slow Southern small-town novels content to exploit its eccentricities and hang around the Piggly Wiggly — and then a stranger comes to town, and we’re off. Turnage consistently defies reader expectations. After a while, you expect the unexpected — and yet the funny and earned plot twist at the end still feels like a surprise. And the voice — sincere, occasionally tart, assured — holds it all together.
What can we take away from the Newbery choices this year, and where are we going? It seems to me that the committee acknowledged (without conscious intent) the inroads YA is making into children’s lit. Bomb is for the top of the Newbery age range; it won major awards from both ALSC and YALSA. The committee also recognized the increasing strength and quality of nonfiction: Bomb is without question worthy of all the kudos it received, but it had plenty of company this year. Once again, traditional genres and formats were named — three novels and one work of narrative nonfiction. Two are illustrated, but only tangentially: Ivan with spot art by Patricia Castelao; Bomb with section-opening photo collages. The Newbery rules continue to present some pretty solid roadblocks against a committee choosing a graphic novel (say, Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez’s Little White Duck) or integrally illustrated nonfiction (Moonbird, Electric Ben, Island) or hybrids (No Crystal Stair, Twelve Kinds of Ice).
Yet within the traditional genres and formats, the committee stretched to recognize works of power, ambition, and daring. Once again this year, despite all the Newbery chatter on blogs and listservs, the committee seemed able to maintain its independence and autonomy. And once again its members acted as professionals, looking beyond labels and putting aside personal tastes and prejudices; reading and rereading; looking below the surface at a book’s structure and construction; carefully weighing its strengths and weaknesses. If there is any disconnect between what the committee chooses and what the public clamors for, it can be explained by that professionalism. It’s a happy paradox that the Newbery committee must rise above an amateur’s love for a book, yet its work results in bringing attention to books many other readers will love.
So here’s to the 2013 Newbery Medal winner and Honor Books — along with all the ones that might have been. And here’s to next time, when fifteen book lovers spend a year being professional readers, to the benefit of us all.