Is This Absolutely Necessary?
When I survey the books suggested on the previous threads, I notice the following–
WILDWOOD (560 pages)
THE APOTHECARY (368 pages)
CHIME (368 pages)
CITY OF ORPHANS (368 pages)
OKAY FOR NOW (368 pages)
THE QUEEN OF WATER (368 pages)
DEAD END IN NORVELT (352 pages)
AKATA WITCH (349 pages)
ICEFALL (336 pages)
THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK (336 pages)
BREADCRUMBS (320 pages)
SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS (304 pages)
Do you see a pattern here? Of course you do. These books all exceed 300 pages. We might be able to classify a couple of them as YA, and excuse the page counts because of it, but most of them are solidly middle grade. I know you can use line spacing and font size to manipulate page counts, but still . . . the blatant fact remains that middle grade books, in general, are growing at an alarming rate.
Here’s the problem: when you write a 350 page book you shift the age of your audience so that it’s older. What could have been much more widely read in elementary school at 250 pages, now becomes a middle school book at 350 pages. But if your characters are elementary school age, then it potentially curbs the middle school audience, too.
This really isn’t a concern for the Newbery committee, however. The only criteria which you might be able to argue about length (which we have euphemistically called “pacing” here on the blog) is this one: The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Long books and leisurely paced books may have a smaller audience, but they still have an audience, and nobody will argue on behalf of those atypical readers more than I will. So my frustration isn’t really with the Newbery committee, past or future, but rather with the publishing industry, namely authors and editors. Why would you want to make your book appeal to less children rather than more?
Here’s an anecdote that Stephen Roxborough shared about George Selden in a recent Publishers Weekly article on colorful characters.
When I was new in the business, young and of an academic mindset, I was editing one of the books in Jerry’s Cricket series. I deleted a chunk of text and wrote a note in the margin: “Is this absolutely necessary?” When the manuscript came back, Jerry had reinstated the deletion, and had written me a note: “No, it is not absolutely necessary. NOTHING is absolutely necessary, but texture is everything. Shithead!”
Too often, I read these big middle grade novels with Stephen’s question in mind: Is this absolutely necessary? I get the texture argument, I do, but 350 pages of texture? Really? I know that some of you fantasy authors are sitting smugly out there in the dark–because your readers, as DaNae mentioned, are not intimidated by long books. But you’re not excused either because nothing you’ve written can touch THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE; THE BOOK OF THREE; or THE GIVER–all of which come in under 200 pages in their original editions. See how silly you look publishing these 400 page monstrosities?
Now, as I’ve said, there is nothing in the Newbery criteria about the length of the book–and that is as it should be. I can name many middle grade books over three hundred pages that I adore–WONDERSTRUCK being the first one off the top of my head–but for every one of them I can name five that I think are bloated to the detriment of the story and its audience.
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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 email@example.com
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