George and the Question of Didactic Intent
Given our conversations so far, I think GEORGE is the perfect next book to discuss because (a) it is indeed serious work, and (b) it is also didactic (an issue we’ve been exploring in our discussion of ECHO).
Now the Newbery Medal is expressly NOT given for didactic intent. Throwing the D-word at a book, however, isn’t necessarily grounds for disqualification. It’s akin to labeling a book as YA, and thinking you’ve said enough to disqualify it. A book can be didactic and win; the didactic intent just cannot be the reason that it earns the award. It earns the award because it fulfills the enumerated criteria. The D-word is further complicated because in addition to the pejorative connotation, it means different things to different people.
I’ve quoted Brock Cole on this issue before on this blog, and I’ll do so again to help you understand where I’m coming from. If you want to articulate a different meaning of didacticism then please do so in the comments below.
There’s a great deal of pressure in young people’s literature to produce works that are tailored to meet certain ends that have nothing to do with literature. They’re political ends; they have to do with cultural values. I don’t feel that literature for young people should shape the reader in any particular way, any more than it should for an adult. That’s propaganda. I don’t want to write that. If you’re skilled you can express any ideas you want, but I think it’s a mistake for a writer to try to shape people or teach them lessons. Writing means being concerned with particular incidents in particular people’s lives. I want to write books where no one can generalize, no one can tell me what the moral is. I don’t want to be preachy or educational, but I want my books to ring bells with readers.
I think of literature as a kind of meditation on the nature of life and what people confront. I want people to be thoughtful when they finish a book of mine. I want them to have experienced, in some faint way, what other people have gone through in life. You can’t learn how to act from that experience, necessarily, but you can learn how to think.
GEORGE is doing both things, of course. It is a reflection on the nature of life and what people confront, but it is also trying to shape young readers in a way that feels heavy-handed at times. To my mind, this is a flaw, but not a fatal one. It can be overcome if the strengths of the book are strong enough. I should also add another caveat before we start our discussion of the book. While it probably appeals to a broad range of readers, it is a book that is crafted with the needs of a child who is ages 8-10 (we said the same thing of ECHO). Some of my complaints about the book are probably mitigated by the needs of this younger audience.
The third person narrator refers to George as she; the characters in the book refer to George as he. This was an inspired choice that really communicates the dissonance between George’s reality and everybody else’s perception. George cringed every time this happened, and as the book wore on these bits became much less effective for me because I felt they were too contrived. I also felt like many of the characters were stock, and that they didn’t necessarily feel, think, and act as real people would. Rather, they were chess pieces moved around the board to make various points throughout the novel.
And yet. And yet there is still something that gives me pause about throwing in the towel completely here, and it is this: the audience. The transgender kid who reads this book and sees a mirror of themselves, who may not get any support or affirmation on their journey. I get that Gino is writing for this kid, and is equipping them with a paradigm for understanding something about themselves. I also get this is a great windows book, too. That it takes a challenging, but timely topic and presents it in a very kid-friendly way that generates empathy. While GEORGE seems like a significant milestone in transgender children’s literature, it doesn’t seem like a Newbery book to me. Would you care to disagree?
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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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