Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Newbery Watch

I had an extraordinary reading experience at Elliott Bay Books today. I went there to read some of the easy readers that are being talked up on Heavy Medal. This is going to make me sound like a mooch--I REALLY DO spend money at bookstores usually--but I also went to finish Wonderstruck, which I'd gotten halfway through when I was waiting there for Laurie once. I'm on hold for it at the library, but I'm never, ever going to get it. I was loving Wonderstruck when I stopped. I almost bought it, but it is not an inexpensive book, and I seldom buy books I haven't read, so I am waiting. If I buy it, I promise to buy it from Elliott Bay. If I don't buy it, I promise to buy whatever I do buy from Elliott Bay, EVEN THOUGH I get triple points on my online bookstore-linked credit card if I buy books THERE. I have approximately 72 nieces and one nephew, so I buy a lotta books.

I read three Elephant and Piggie books. I was not impressed with them as Newbery Hopefuls. In a way, the discussion about them (and especially the reading experience) reminded me of how sometimes people tell me things like "you're such a good nurse, you should be a doctor!" I don't want to be a doctor. I'm happy being a nurse, which was pretty much always my dream. I try to be the best nurse I can be. The Elephant and Piggie books are great at what they are: marriages of text and illustration. Why try to shoehorn them into an award that's primarily for writing? I think it almost devalues the foundation of what makes these books good. Let them win the Geisel and let it go.

Secretly (oops) I don't think the Elephant and Piggie books are THAT great. I didn't think any of the three from this year were as good as We Are In a Book (also read for the first time tonight) or I Will Surprise My Friend (which I read with surprise and delight during my first year of ALA-awards-fandom), but none of them strike me as great literature. But that MAY have been influenced, tonight, by the fact that I reread Where the Wild Things Are first. In a recent discussion on Heavy Medal, I suggested delicately that it is not the text that makes WTWTA a perennially best-loved classic. I still feel that way (see "marriage is the foundation of our society" or whatever it was I was talking about above), and I think most adults remember the pictures and not the text. But the text is GREAT. I read it three times in a row. I was blown away. That is good stuff. The Elephant and Piggie books paled in comparison. Especially the ice cream one, which seemed overly didactic, and very like the filmstrips we used to watch in first grade that were supposed to teach us social skills but clearly had no effect on most of my generation. (I read a blog post or an article or something recently about those film strips and the theme song I've never forgotten, "The most important person in the whole wide world is you!" The author pointed out that this is not something first graders need to be taught.)

I also picked up No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko, which is one of my personal Newbery picks. I read it long ago so haven't been able to defend it well. I flipped through the first chapter and was immediately sucked in. The first chapter alone SCREAMS Newbery quality to me. It is everything that we want all these other novels we're discussing to be.

But I still have not gotten to the extraordinary reading experience.

I picked up Wonderstruck, and also happened to see Drawing From Memory by Allen Say, a book I have seen mentioned in passing as an unlikely Newbery contender because of too much dependence on illustrations. I hadn't bothered putting a hold on it because it wasn't getting any airtime. (Why is it accepted that we can toss away books for older kids because the illustrations are too important, but if we imply this about easy readers and picture books, we are being closed-minded? Hmm?)

After a few pages of Drawing From Memory, I gasped. After I finished half the book, I stopped and texted my brother-in-law and told him to put it on hold immediately. By the end, I'd held back tears twice.

I got up and returned Wonderstruck to the shelf, unread, and went home, so that nothing would interfere with thinking about Drawing From Memory, hopefully ever again.

This is a book that will be enjoyed equally by my seven-year-old niece and her father (they are both Japanophiles; the book takes place in Japan) and my mother. Think of that, three generations of moved, delighted readers at once.



Brandy said...

I agree with you on the Elephant and Piggie books. I love them. I read them to my three year old. He loves them. But I don't think the text holds up to Newbery criteria.

I need to spend some quality time like this in a bookstore. I've bought several of the books up for discussion but there are lots my library doesn't have yet.

I answered your question about which winner I despised so much in my blog comments and I explained. Short answer: The Hero and the Crown.

Sondy said...

I also agree with what you said about Elephant and Piggie. What is brilliant about them is the combination of words and pictures, not the words alone.

You know, I have an ARC of Drawing from Memory, but haven't read it yet. You have convinced me I need to do that ASAP.