What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book Anyway?
A couple years ago, Neil Gaiman delivered the Zena Sutherland Lecture which was reprinted in the Horn Book with this title. Gaiman examined this question by considering his three works in progress. Incidentally, they were all published this year: CHU’S DAY (a picture book), FORTUNATELY, THE MILK (a beginning chapter book), and THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE. The entire article is insightful, especially his comments about the latter.
The third book I wrote is the one that inspired the title of this talk, and is the reason why I puzzle and I wonder.
It has a working title of LETTIE HEMPSTOCK’S OCEAN. It is written, almost entirely, from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. It has magic in it–three strange, science-fictional witches who live in an ancient farmhouse at the end of the protagonist’s lane. It has some unusually black-and-white characters, including the most absolutely evil creature I’ve made since Coraline’s Other Mother. It has Sense of Wonder in it, and strangeness. It’s only 53,000 words long, short for an adult book, but for years considered a perfect length for a juvenile. It has everything in it I would have loved as a boy. . .
And I don’t think it’s for kids. But I’m not sure.
It’s a book about child helplessness. It’s a book about the incomprehensibility of the adult world. It’s a book in which bad things happen– a suicide sets the story in motion, after all. And I wrote it for me: I wrote it to try and conjure my childhood for my wife, to evoke a world that’s been dead for over forty years. I set it in the house I grew up in and I made the protagonist almost me, the parents similar to my parents, the sister an analog of my younger sister, and I even apologized to my baby sister because she could not exist in this fictional version of events.
I would make notes for myself as I wrote it, on scraps of paper and in margins, to try and work out whether I was writing a book for children or for adults – which would not change the nature of the book, but would change what I did with it once it was done, who would initially publish it and how. They were notes that would say things like “In adult fiction you can leave the boring bits in” and “I don’t think I can have the scene where his father nearly drowns him in the bath if it’s a kids’ book, can I?”
I reached the end of the book and realized that I was as clueless as when I began. Was it a children’s book? an adult book? a young adult book? a crossover book? a . . . book?
You’re probably expecting some crazy, but brilliant defense of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE WORLD as a Newbery book. But, no! This is a bait and switch!
WHAT THE [VERY BAD SWEARWORD] IS A CHILDREN’S BOOK ANYWAY: THE NONFICTION EDITION
If the four Scientists in the Field titles are one bright spot in the field of nonfiction this year, then another, less obvious one might be the young adult adaptations of adult nonfiction: THE NAZI HUNTERS by Neal Bascomb, MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS by Tracy Kidder and Michael French, and KENNEDY’S LAST DAYS by Bill O’Reilly. Of course, none of these will win Newbery recognition per the Expanded Definitions and Criteria.
1. Children’s books derived from previously published adult books can’t be considered eligible. The intent of the award is not to see who can successfully adapt an adult book; the award is intended for the original creation of a distinguished book for children.
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, was published for adults in 1998. A children’s version, The Cod’s Tale, was published in 2001 and would not be considered eligible.
Othello: A Novel by Julius Lester, based on the Shakespeare play and published for children in 1995, would be considered eligible.
This part of the manual has always annoyed me because anyone who is familiar with both Mark Kurlansky books would hardly call one an adaptation of the other. They may be based on the same body of research, but that’s where the similarity ends. And don’t get me started on the double standard for fiction.
Anyway, let us pretend for the sake of argument that the reason that more nonfiction books do not get recognized by the Newbery committee is because they simply aren’t good enough. Certainly, each committee that does not recognize nonfiction believes this in a collective sense even if its individual members do not. I’m sure that even members with an unapologetic bias toward fiction would assert that if presented with a nonfiction work of undeniable greatness they would have gladly voted for it, and we’ve certainly all had the experience of reading something, and saying, “I really don’t like these kinds of books, but this one knocked my socks off!” So let us proceed, then, with the assumption that the problem is with the nonfiction that gets published year after year, not with the committee itself.
Since the Newbery Medal was created to encourage distinguished literature for children, we must assume that it was also created to encourage distinguished nonfiction for children, and thus this current model has it all backwards, as it doesn’t encourage our best writers to write for children. Publishers need to approach these authors before their adult books are published, not afterwards. Why not survey your best nonfiction authors and encourage them to publish their research first as a children’s book, then flesh them out more, and publish them as adult books? Both authors and publishers could still capitalize twice, but you can possibly win Newbery recognition (and even if you don’t there’s this little movement called Common Core State Standards that might still make it worth your while).
Mark Flowers and I had a discussion on his blog this past year about why adult nonfiction (aside from memoirs which often tend to read like YA novels anyway) is virtually unrepresented among the ALEX Awards. We couldn’t really come up with a satisfactory answer, but I think deep inside we both know the answer: Teens are just as curious about the world as adults are and any subject that is of interest to adults can almost certainly find an audience among teens. This is problematic for an award committee that is used to looking for red flag features that obviously earmark adult novels as having YA appeal. I would add that children, too, lack for nothing in the curiosity department, although they need some concessions when it comes to their understandings, abilities, or appreciations, but those concessions have nothing to do with depth, breadth, and passion. It’s the rare adult nonfiction book that, like THE STORY OF MANKIND back in the day, can genuinely speak to all ages. If writers and publishers are unable or unwilling to produce the kind of books that win Newbery recognition year in and year out, perhaps the committee needs to start looking farther afield and reconsidering adult nonfiction if there’s any out there that’s suitable for a child 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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