Winning the Newbery Medal: What Does it Take?

Newbery Medal winners are generally destined for a long shelf life, heaps of attention from libraries, teachers, and parents, and are often deserving of the lauds and acclaims.

What does it take to write a Newbery Medal winner?

Well, you can take a peek at the criteria here. But I’m also going to break down said criteria in relation to our mentor’s own Newbery winning novel: The Graveyard Book.

According to the Association for Library Service to Children’s website, committee members need to consider the following criteria when looking at a potential Newbery book:

1. Interpretation of the theme or concept.
The theme or concept isn’t assigned – this element speaks toward the question: Did the writer creatively and consistently interpret their own themes/concepts? Well, I’d have to say that The Graveyard Book, in its exploration of death, violence, friendship, and family did a whopping good job of it. I personally think it’s one of the more creative and well-executed ideas I’ve come across in a while.

So you have to have some kind of meaning integral to your story. What are you trying to get kids to think about? How is that shown in your work?

2. Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization.
A thumb-and-half up on this one. There’s an awkward ‘Interlude’ in the middle of the book that doesn’t really explain much…and in fact left me a bit confused for a few pages after…then there was the weird cave/tomb raiding bout toward the end…but considering the handling of the graveyard scenes, the presentation of time passing, I think that Gaiman did a decent job.

You have to make sense. And The Graveyard Book is also full of historical references – all of which seemed pretty darned accurate to me. I think this is important because when kids read – and to a lesser extent adults – the accuracy of information is necessary. What if this is the only book a kid reads on this subject? Or what if it’s the first thing they’ve ever read on this subject and you flub up? Are you willing to take responsibility for a kids saying that Pluto is a planet still? In front of the whole class?

3. Development of a plot.
There definitely is a plot.

Please, please, please. For kids – give them a story! (This doesn’t apply to poetry, which can also win Newbery Medals.)

4. Delineation of characters.
Each character played their roles well. I never got lost as to who was who (even with a strange passel of Mad Jacks popping up). I think that here is where Gaiman would’ve impressed the committee. Even the side characters have interesting contributions to the storyline – an accused witch without a headstone, a man buried beside his first and second wives…yeah, poor, poor dude, right?

I could see these characters clearly in my head. I loved how they worked together (plot-wise). Make sure your characters are distinct and that they have reasons for doing what they do – it helps individuate them.

5. Delineation of a setting.
And here is where I think Gaiman won. No one could beat this setting. Hogwarts is probably the only thing that could ever come close.

Make your setting count. Details. Rules. Metaphor. Setting can elevate your story to all kinds of heights.

6. Appropriateness of Style.
While I’d be a little concerned for kids younger than middle school grasping everything Gaiman throws in here, it’s still definitely a kids’ book. The illustrations added a child-element that was helpful to the overall feel, I think. (Considering, however, that illustrations can only be considered when they hurt a book, I think it was a gamble! But it worked, so the book wasn’t penalized.)

Make sure kids can read the book. Don’t through million dollar words in there (without definitions). Don’t start quoting obscure historical events (again without explanations). This is not an opportunity to explore feminism in the late twentieth century via dissertation. Tell a story in the way a kid would want to read/hear a story.

Have you got what it takes?

Thursday Reviews!: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

British authors must have some kind of secret to writing scrappy orphan stories.

Not being opposed to books that start with a creepy man breaking into a house, murdering the family who lives there, and being thwarted by an infant and his ghost protectors…I thought this was a great book. The opening is certainly dark, but I can’t imagine a coming-of-age-in-a-graveyard book opening with sunshine and happy little gnomes.

The creative concepts in this book really caught my attention. How would one raise a living child in a graveyard? If the ghosts can’t leave, how do you get food? How do you educate the kid? How do you teach him to protect himself? How do you make friends? The answers Gaiman comes up with are soooo very interesting. Plus, it’s all a very interesting take on the ultimate human question: What happens when you die?

Nobody Owens, Bod, is one of those characters that you want to cheer for. He works hard to do what’s right, whether it’s getting a headstone for the dead who long to be remembered or defending his fellow students from the classroom bullies. When he’s told that he is kept in the graveyard for his own protection, Bod’s reaction is to say that it’s the man Jack, the man who killed his family, who should be protected – from Bod.

I love a can-do attitude.

The good news is life in the graveyard carries a story a long way. The only problem I had with the story was the reasoning – the ‘why’ – of the man Jack’s assault on Bod’s family was explained away in a sentence or two very close to the end of the book. The bad guys just seemed too simplistic, which was disappointing after so much mystery had been built around their ‘society’. With the well-explained good guys balanced against the less-explained bad guys, the weight of the story shifted strangely, if that makes sense.

All in all, though, it’s pretty darn good. I’d recommend it for middle school and up – and not because the opening is dark (which it is, no lie) but because there are a multitude of literary and historical references that I’m not sure younger readers would appreciate. There’d be a lot of blank stares unless there’s an adult around to explain.

View all my reviews

How to Avoid Being Too Dark?

On Monday, while discussing young adult literature, I utilized a ‘bedroom’ dark metaphor. The argument being that you can see in the dark if there is some light trickling in.

In my opinion, all young adult literature – all good young adult literature – has that little bit of light trickling in, even if it’s not obvious at first.

There is another kind of darkness though: total darkness. The darkness that makes people go blind after too long in an underground cave. There is no hope in this darkness. There is no light for your eye to catch and your pupils can dilate forever, but they’ll never grow large enough to pull light where there is none.

Rest easy. This kind of darkness doesn’t exist in kids literature at all. Editors just won’t let it happen. No way are you going to subject a kid to rape, torture, war, drugs, and murder without some kind of redemption in there.

However, let’s say that you’re writing a kids book, you’ve got some super-dark themes going on, and you’re concerned that the reason no one is picking up the book is because it’s Cave Dark.

For the Answer to Avoiding Being Too Dark, we shall look to our mentor, Neil Gaiman and The Graveyard Book for some pointers:

1. Humor helps. And not just humor, but where you position the humor. For example, in The Graveyard Book, you’ve got the man Jack creeping all through the house with a knife in his hand. You’ve got three dead bodies. DARK. Then, as you read the next couple pages, you discover that there’s a mischievous baby (Bod) who has jumped his crib, lost his diaper, and is gleefully crawling up the street naked. Not so dark. You realize that this little kid (who probably gave his parents several sleepless nights) is going to be the undoing of the man Jack…just because of his absolute nerve, even so young.

2. Explain the rules of the darker world. As Bod grows up he is exposed to ghouls, Hounds of God, vampires, and ghosts. For starters. These are the embodiments of most horror stories from the Dark Ages on up to now. DARK. Gaiman negates the spooky power by explaining how things work on the other side. There are still ‘town meetings’, there are days where you have to clean your crypt, there are children playing…but they’re all stuck to the graveyard. They can see in the dark. They can haunt. The problem with being dead, as it’s explained to Bod is that they can’t affect anything anymore. The ‘names have been written.’ Their potential is gone. Once the reader is exposed to the hows and whys of the place, there’s nothing left to be scared of.

3. Make your main character tough enough to handle the problems. No one likes a wimp. No one wants to read a book about a little boy whose parents died and now he’s all alone and being raised by ghosts and all he does is cry at the headstones all the dang day. When Silas – Bod’s guardian – explains what happened to Bod’s parents (they were brutally murdered = DARK), Bod flinches, but he doesn’t break. He gets angry. He wants justice. He may have suffered at this man Jack’s hands, but he is not his victim. That is a very hard distinction to make, and your characters will have to show their toughness in their own ways, but make sure they have some kind of tough.

Those are just a few ways to let the light in. So remember, if you have rape, war, murder, drugs, torture, and teen dating all in your book-cave…you really need to let some light in or your readers will go blind – they might even pluck their own eyes out in despair. That would be bad.

Seeing in the Dark: The YA Novel in General and The Graveyard Book in Particular

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal took a series of hits for this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Her argument is that Young Adult Literature is DARK: “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

A great many people have already gone off on this article and its overarching condescending tone toward today’s young adult literature. For the most part I agree with the bulk of the article’s dissenters, though, and I’m only going to say this so that you guys know where I’m coming from completely, I can see Gurdon’s argument if I look at how the subject matter is treated. Sex is a big deal. Cursing and language and expression are big deals. Violence is a big deal. Books and movies are currently how kids and teens learn to address their world and a blasé attitude towards these things is not to be lightly tolerated. And, quite frankly, I was unimpressed with the ‘gravity’ given to sex in the Twilight books – which millions of teens ate up – just an example, and just my opinion.

That being said, I can’t help but LOVE Sherman Alexie’s response to this article. (He was called out in it.) In his own Wall Street Journal reaction Alexie says that it’s too late to protect the kids. By the time kids read the teen books, the trouble has already hit them in real life. How do you tell a teen mom to not read about sex? Alexie says: “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

Sounds a lot like the G.K. Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reminds me of those fairy tales. Here is the boogey man, come to slaughter a family, and only the chosen/blessed/selected child escapes. Sure, it’s dark. Sure, it’s scary. But I don’t think that anyone gets through life without suffering, without being frightened. By the time kids are old enough to read this book and understand what’s going on, they will have heard about horrible events on the news, they will have experienced fear of something. What’s beautiful about this book is that the main character, Bod, is raised by the very ghosties and ghoulies children fear when they are very young. Bod, a child, is given gifts that make him like them – he can see in the dark, he can Fade, he can Haunt.

And when he is strong enough, he must face his greatest threat – which is not a ghost or a ghoul, it is a man named Jack. A man. A person who is just like Bod. Living, breathing, and violent.

Not to give away the end or anything…but Bod defeats him.

So, as stressful as it may be to be a parent and have darkness facing your child from every bookshelf, it is a necessary thing. There are monsters in the world. That is real. There are problems in the world. That is real. But you always have to remember there is light on those bookshelves too – the dark is defeated, its power is negated.

The darkness facing a parent on the bookshelf isn’t real darkness. It’s like a dark bedroom. When the light goes off, you can’t see anything but the dark. But if you stay, if you keep your eyes open, if you pay attention to the dark, your pupils dilate, growing wider, larger, to capture the light that is hidden – a streetlamp, or the moon, or stars. Then you can make out the shape of the bed, a bookshelf, pictures on the walls. You see in the dark. And the things that were frightening, like the monster in the closet, turn out to be a pile of clothes spilling out of their basket. (I know, frightening in its own right!) There was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.