The Plot Thickens
I am very surprised that The Hunger Games was third on your personal Newbery list last year. I enjoyed it very much, as did a number of my middle school students, but not because the writing was particularly distinguished. The plot is memorable and compelling, sure. I agree that "somebody has to represent for the fantasy [and science fiction] readers" but there is truly distinguished writing in these genres, better than HG/CF.
Laurie’s response to THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE is rather common, but I find it slightly unsettling. But first I want to be sure that we are speaking the same language. When I see the word writing in these conversations I am assuming that it is interchangeable with style which is merely one of the Newbery criteria–one of six, to be exact.
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
If the word writing is used to mean everything but plot, if it used so that it encompasses more of these Newbery criteria than style, then I think we need to better strive to articulate which criteria are not being met. Regardless, I find it unsettling because we are suggesting that style should be weighted much more than its fair share and that plot should be weighted much less.
Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.
Now during the picture book discussion, I suggested that a text need not be distinguished in every single element, but Nina disagreed with me, citing and emphasizing the second sentence here. While I understand her interpretation, I’m still not completely sold on it, primarily because so many Newbery Medal and Honor books are merely average in one or more of the criteria. But if Nina is right then it only strengthens my argument that there is no justification for privileging any one of the Newbery criteria over the other.
So why, then, do so many of us do it so consistently?
For me, a Newbery has to be enjoyable along the way — with interesting characters, events and narration that hold me riveted and reward my return to them time and again. Even after I know what happens.
I am going to explore several factors that might answer my question, but I believe this is the answer that, to my mind, most closely approaches the truth. Style and theme (rather than plot, character, and setting) are the elements that stand out in repeated readings of a text. It might not be fair, but it’s the truth. Shakespeare did plot, character, and setting like nobody’s business, but that’s not why he’s endured so long. Nope, he’s endured because of style and theme.
However, I’m not sure that this is the only factor at play here.
I’d agree with you that CF probably has a more "distinguished" plot than CALPURNIA, with quotes because I don’t really think it’s distinguished at all; and I also wonder if it’s better to have a plot that isn’t (IMHO) carried off well than to have very little plot in the first place.
Not only do I strongly disagree with Wendy, but this seems to be the type of attitude that Philip Pullman railed against in his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech for THE GOLDEN COMPASS.
In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship.
So I wonder if we might not say that this second factor is an attitude about plot that we have inherited from adult literary fiction (and I’m certainly not suggesting that Wendy inherited this attitude; I’m merely noting the similarities in order to pose the question).
I think a third factor worth exploring is possible gender differences in reading preferences. Generally, speaking I think men tend to be more plot-driven readers, while women tend to be more character-driven. As I said, this is a generalization and is probably not very meaningful in a conversation like this, but then I have to wonder because . . .
On the one hand, two of the more plot-driven novels last year, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and THE HUNGER GAMES, failed to make the shortlist of Nina’s mock Newbery. On the other hand, when I see what did win Nina’s mock Newbery–THE PORCUPINE YEAR, AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER, and ALVIN HO–what I see is three character-driven novels that are pretty average in terms of plot.
Coincidence? How would you explain it?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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