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Learning from the Newbery Winners December 7, 2010

Posted by Ronica Stromberg in Uncategorized.

For the past few years, I’ve been reading books that won the Newbery Award Medal or the Newbery Honor. (The award recognizes the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature for the past year, and the honor recognizes runners-up.) I like to try to learn from the best but have discovered what’s considered good literature has changed over time.

I just finished Kildee House, a 1950 Newbery Honor Book. The book follows little of the current writing advice for children’s books. It starts with description rather than action. The main character is an elderly man rather than a child. The first chapter ends with him going to bed (not a cliffhanger by any stretch of the imagination), and the second chapter starts with an explanation of a typical Saturday morning. Instead of action and conflict, much of the book is description and explanation.

Today’s publishers and editors look to authors to maintain a consistent viewpoint in storytelling, usually first or third person. Often, children’s authors will tell a story from one character’s viewpoint. But look at this condensed passage from pages 104 and 105 of Kildee House:

As he laced his boots Jerome wondered what he could take along as a weapon. . . . When they were opposite the scene of the kill Emma Lou shot her light out across the meadow. The carcass of the doe lay in the grass, but there was no sign of the lion. The lion was at that instant swinging along a ridge five miles away. He was alive because he was wary and very careful. He was heading away from the place where he had been spotted by a human being. . . . When they reached the Eppy house Emma Lou gave Jerome the flashlight. She felt just a little bit ashamed of herself now that they had covered the trail and the lion had not been seen or heard.

In just five paragraphs, the reader bounces from an elderly man’s mind to a ridge with a lion to Emma Lou’s feelings. The author is using the omniscient viewpoint (a viewpoint in which the author knows everything), which fell out of favor long ago. The author explains why the lion is alive rather than allowing the reader to figure it out from the story, and he tells what Emma Lou is feeling rather than showing it.

The book also uses passive voice (check out all the was and were constructions) way too much.

So, why did the book receive a Newbery Honor citation? I think the author’s knowledge and descriptions of wildlife won the judges over. This book shows a specialized knowledge that would have made it stand out from others. The author also wrote dozens of books about the American West, and I believe judges sometimes honor a book not solely on its contribution to literature but on the contribution of the author’s entire body of works.

What I’m left wondering is whether such a book would even be awarded a publishing contract today.



1. Duane Porter - December 10, 2010

No wonder I like time travel. It allows me to go where things are as I think they ought to be, rather than as they are.

2. Ronica Stromberg - December 11, 2010

I understand. Sometimes you have to write the book you want to write regardless of the rules or trends.

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