Lifting the Veil
So we’ve had some back and forth on Peck’s Season of Gifts this week. Jonathan’s heading out of town, but I don’t think he’ll mind me stirring the pot a little, at least to collect some of the great thoughts that have popped up in the comments.
Jonathan suggests I’m making a moral argument about the book, and straying from the criteria. I can’t pretend that I don’t have moral feelings about the content of the book, and I don’t try to hide it: I think the best way to effectively critique a book is to recongize exactly what your personal feelings are, so that you can figure out when they are informing, or, getting in the way of, your critique. I have to work on this with every book I read…as much as with books I "love" (When You Reach Me…still thinking about it) as with those I don’t.
I recognize that many of the scenes in the book regarding the "Kickapoo Princess" are hurtful to readers. Native readers, mostly, but also other children and adults who are discomforted by the hurt, and, well, generally put off and embarrased by what Peck’s done.
Personally: I think that’s bad.
As a librarian: it gives me qualms about the book. But I also recognize its strengths, and I have everyone’s reading interests in my community at stake, so I’m willing and bound to have the discussion about it.
Putting on a Newbery hat and looking it from those criteria, I see that the hurt and discomfort disengage Peck’s audience. This is what makes it not distinguished. I’m considering these criteria specifically:
Interpretation of the theme or concept
Appropriateness of style
Excellence of presentation for a child audience
I also think that by making racially insensitive remarks without adequate context for his readers, he’s falling down on "presentation of information." Yes, this is a work of historical fiction, but it’s only accurate to a twisted viewpoint that he presents to be understood as perfectly straightforward. That is: he suggests to the reader that it’s a goodness and a kindness to dig up another culture’s remains and bury them in a Christian ceremony. The entire success of his emotional, narrative and characters arcs depend upon reading the funeral scene in this way. Many of his readers won’t. I’m intrigued by Wendy’s comment to Jonathan’s post:
"While I get that you don’t find this book racially insensitive, will you take this question–if a book is racially insensitive does that affect its distinguishedness?"
Because I can picture the picking up of my argument above: "Does the Newbery winner have to appeal to everyone? If it’s distinguished to some people doesn’t that do it?" There are clearly Newbery winning books (like the ones Jonathan and my own committees recently selected, he coyly points out) with narrow audiences. And this isn’t stated in the Newbery criteria, but I think it’s a fair assumption based on the ALAs concerns for equal and unbiased access to libraries and materials…shouldn’t the audience for the Newbery–whatever its limits may be in taste–not exclude readers by culture?
In my last post, I asked people to:
"Please think about it for a minute. Picture a funny historical novel in which the bones of a Jewish ghost are dug up to create some advertising for the new local Methodist Ministry (but "all in good fun" of course)….and tell me there’s not something a little un-distinguished going on here."
A couple of commenters noted that the Jewish parallel doesn’t work. Well, you’re right, it doesn’t, because it’s loaded. The point is to pick any other real or imaginary culture with a non-Christian-belief-system that has been decimated by another culture. To, indeed, as Anon1 called it "Please take everything out of context for a minute." Anon1 later rescinded many of his/her remarks, but this one is apt: that’s exactly what I am asking people to do. Sometimes taking things out of context is what it takes to see things from a different perspective. When you can see beyond the veil…then re-enter the context of the argument, with a little wider point of view.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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