The Center of Everything
Spring. After a exhausting fall and winter of measuring the year’s best books against each other; the new publishing year opens and those of us who doggedly follow children’s literature in the peculiar quest of speculating about the Newbery Medal get excited. Very excited. The slate is clean: what book will garner next year’s golden seal? When will it come? Will we know it when we see it?
Believe me, the Newbery Committee is feeling the same thing. Though the work of the committee gets brutal late in the year, the early work is no less intense, as the committee tries to start setting its bar. What makes the most distinguished contribution to literature for children, according to the Newbery criteria, and what exemplfies it?
It’s easy to start with our favorite authors, especially when they garner starred reviews. According to the data that Travis Jonker is presenting next door there at 100 Scope Notes, it appears that starred reviews are de rigueur for Newbery winners. Or, maybe, the stars are just symptoms of potential. Whichever, it makes a good place to start for setting standards.
Jonathan started us off, mosh-pit style, with Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey. Since I’m a risk-averse Virgo, let’s approach Linda Urban’s The Center of Everything circumspectly.
Urban writes solid prose: solid being high praise. The first thing that I look for in Newbery-eligible books is sentence level writing. It is not the end-all or only criteria (and I have been guilty of putting too much weight on it in final comparisons), but I don’t think that any book can win the Newbery without it. Is the writing fluid, so that you forget there is a writer? Are the setting and characters immediately evoked, and do you believe in them? Does the tone serve the story? All of these things must be apparent within the first handful of pages. Otherwise it’s just not Newbery material, and since I’m a slow reader I’d rather save my time for the good stuff. Urban handily passes this test. The first chapter (just three pages long) establishes a tone that is both epic, humorous, and ultimately appreciative of the mundane and simple. We know who Ruby is, where she is, how she’s feeling, where she is heading. This told in sentences that are graceful, and modest, except where they want to stand out. Where they stand out (the end of the chapter, for instance), they are a little bit too much for me, but too much the way a supermarket birthday cake is too much for me…yet perfect for a kid.
I like the pacing and arc of this book. It’s a small book (in size, and length), so as a reader I don’t feel intimidated by the slow pace, I know I can take my time and be finished before I’m gray. And the pacing suits the story, the nut of which I think is nicely done: the friendship triangle, and the grandmother grief–two changes happening to Ruby on a day where she can examine them side by side and think about who she is, and who she is becoming.
Unfortunately, I find that Urban overburdens her delicate story. I love donuts. But. While the idea of the circular narrative structure, and torus shaped time, serve the arc of the story (Ruby’s reflection, coming to a realization and so being “transported” without moving), the relentless donut references didn’t add lightness for me, they just bogged down and added one too many layers. Urban has got a delicate task: taking an otherwise slight moment and imbuing it with enormous significance…and she just went overboard. I know that my tolerance for symbolism and metaphor is lower than for the kid reader of this book, but even a kid will konk out on too much cake. What is this book about? It’s hard not to say it’s about donuts, but donuts have nothing to do with the story.
If I look, then, at the Newbery criteria, this book falls far short for me in “interpretation of theme or concept”/”appropriateness of style”. While on one level Urban carries these off well, she ends up dismantling her good work. Other elements of the work are very solid, and yet I just think we can, and will, find better this year. This is a great middle bar to start with, however; and I’m happy to have that bar set.
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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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