Peccadillo vs. Fatal Flaw
In our discussion of TEMPLE GRANDIN, I made the assertion that this criteria–Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization–ought to be applied to fiction just as rigorously as it is to nonfiction. Eric disagreed, citing one of our criticisms of OKAY FOR NOW last year.
A fiction book even a realistic one has no need to keep every instance as true as possible. Why does Joe Pepitone in a novel have be the same as Joe Pepitone the person? Why does a fictional New York Yankees schedule have to be identical with the actual schedule that we know existed (in our world, but not necessarily the world of the novel, no matter how similar those two worlds may otherwise appear)?
I believe that Eric has taken the wrong approach to this criticism. It’s not that what Schmidt did in that instance is not a flaw. It’s just that in the holistic assessment of OKAY FOR NOW it’s so insignificant that it doesn’t matter; it’s a peccadillo. In other words, that one thing cannot negate the interpretation of the theme or concept, development of a plot, delineation of characters, delineation of a setting, and appropriateness of style–especially when these elements were clearly among the most distinguished of the year–to say nothing of the presentation of all the information that was historically accurate. It’s not about nitpicking a book to death (although we certainly did that to OKAY FOR NOW), but about weighing the weaknesses against the strengths and then weighing that holistic assessment against other books. Thus, OKAY FOR NOW didn’t quite crack my top three, not because of this problem–or even the accumulation of several minor flaws–but rather because I simply esteemed other books to be slightly better.
No book is perfect and, indeed, many winning books often display these peccadilloes. Referencing Eric’s comments, Mark and Sarah have discussed accuracy in fiction on their blog starting here and here. In the course of their conversation, they recalled the geography faux pas that we noted in ONE CRAZY SUMMER, a book that went on to secure a Newbery Honor regardless.
In a recent Calling Caldecott discussion, Roger Sutton stated that, “The first printing of Grace Lin’s WHERE THE MOUNTAINS MEET THE MOON was crawling with typos, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Newbery Committee.”
Shortly after DEAD END IN NORVELT won the Newbery a couple of goodreads reviews noted that (a) the price of Girl Scout cookies in 1962 is incorrect and (b) since the original Norvelt settlers were in their 20s and 30s there is no way they could be dying off in time for DEAD END. I don’t know that either of these complaints have any merit–and quite frankly, I don’t care.
Why? Because I don’t read OKAY FOR NOW to learn about baseball schedules. I don’t read ONE CRAZY SUMMER to learn about Oakland geography. I don’t read WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON to practice my proofreading skills. And I don’t read DEAD END IN NORVELT to learn the price of Girl Scout cookies in 1962. That’s what Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube are for.
But, by the same token, I don’t read nonfiction to accumulate trivia either and I would be just as forgiving of minor inaccuracies in nonfiction (e.g. video cameras as opposed to film cameras in WE’VE GOT A JOB). I suspect I may be in the minority, however, as many people seem to take the contrary view that inaccuracy in nonfiction is very much a fatal flaw. I think many people see the primary purpose of nonfiction to teach information, and if I took that view of the genre, then I might agree with them. But since I read nonfiction for many of the same qualities that I read fiction, I don’t feel that I can give more weight to this single criterion of presentation of information at the expense of the other criteria. Morever, I find nothing in the Newbery criteria to justify such a position.
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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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