Wednesday, January 28, 2009

2009 Newbery Award: Indies vs. Blockbusters and the F Factor

The other day I came across an article on the Internet about which Academy Award winners for Best Picture shouldn’t have won over the years. Jonathan Crow wrote, “Like the Supreme Court and the College of Cardinals, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an exclusive and obscure deliberative body that is prone to its own brand of weirdness. The Academy loves to reward actors who play endearing lunatics and actresses who hag it up for a part. It throws trophies at lavish historical epics and anything about the Holocaust” (“Oscar’s Worst ‘Best Picture’ Picks,” Oscar Blog, 1/21/09).

It took me a second to realize why this sounded so familiar. Then I thought, oh yeah, this guy took a page straight out of the recent kerfluffle over the choices made by the Newbery Committee, a debate which began with Anita Silvey's infamous School Library Journal article questioning the relevance of the award. I read more of the ensuing dialogue (or perhaps slugfest—although, do librarians even have fists?) in children’s book blogs over the weeks that followed and eventually concluded that the whole thing was a matter of indies vs. blockbusters, a question that constantly dogs Academy Awards picks.

Back when I was young, I remember being surprised to hear that Chariots of Fire had won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I had loved the movie myself, but I hadn't thought anyone else would care about what seemed like an obscure little film. Since then, I have become wiser in the ways of the Academy, and it no longer surprises me when an indie or at least a "quiet" film kicks the stuffing out of a blockbuster (Titanic aside, but then, Titanic had indie pretensions, despite its high ticket sales—historical fiction seems to be inherently appealing to Academy voters). In fact, take a look at this year’s Oscar race: The Black Knight is arguably brilliant, but it lost out early, at the mere nominating stage, to a movie with underdog and indie appeal, Slumdog Millionaire.

I wasn’t around for the travesty of the heart-warming How Green Was My Valley stealing Best Picture from Citizen Kane back in 1941, but I do recall Forrest Gump beating Pulp Fiction in 1994. As a fantasy fan and an English major, it’s easy for me to picture this kind of warfare—whether about films or books—as the righteous ivory tower types wielding their artsy, intellectual swords against the crude attacks of pop culture troglodytes. I'm hesitant to go there, however, because I prefer to think of the battle itself as being very useful.

Unfortunately, left to their own devices, purists tend to go to extremes. In the children’s book world, this means forgetting that the works in question aren’t required to be the equivalent of somber, sobering grown-up novels, only with prettier jacket art and shorter main characters. The Newbery Committee may not need someone like Anita Silvey to remind them that the books they review are intended to be read by still other short people, but I would say that the historic, ongoing struggle between intellectuals and pop culture in this and other fields forces the former to think in richer, more dimensional ways.

I did finally get my hands on a copy of last year’s winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. It’s arguably an obscure book from the point of view of fans of photobiographies of the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, but I have no problem admitting that Schlitz’s creation is brilliant. I mean that as a reader, a poetry person, and a writer, as well as a teacher. One goal of the Newbery Committee is to select books that will stand the test of time. They have certainly made their share of successful choices: we need only look at Holes (1999), The Giver (1994), and Maniac Magee (1991) for some shining examples. Sure, the committee has missed a few here and there, but considering the pressure they’re under—and the gazillion books they have to evaluate—they actually hit the mark surprisingly often.

Which brings us to this year’s winner, The Graveyard Book (see my review dated 1/10/09). Why did this book win, and what makes it such a wonderful choice? If Newbery Committee members were truly bound by the fairly predictable concept of a Merchant/Ivory-type children’s book, they would have chosen Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, Helen Frost’s Diamond Willow, or maybe Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath (all terrific books, to be sure). But this is the same team that chose Holes a few years back, so let’s give them some credit for thinking outside the box.

After all, it’s a given that the winning book must be well written. That means there will always be a solid group of strong contenders at the top, any one of which would be a good choice. In that case, did Shlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village win in 2008 because it offered us a nice history lesson? Nope. The book had the F Factor, and so does The Graveyard Book. That would be the Freshness Factor, and thank heavens for it! I suspect that far from being out of touch, the Newbery Committee has made some truly innovative choices over the past decade.

Think back to the works that have changed the field of children’s books: Where the Wild Things Are and A Wrinkle in Time, for starters. The best books don’t just please us with their beautiful language and capture us with their appealing characters, they surprise us. I can’t say that every Newbery winner, every single year, has been stunningly fresh, but I believe that the best of them have been. A fresh book is one that is intriguing. It is not necessarily experimental in the sense of being avant garde, but it feels new. (An example of a fresh film would be The Sixth Sense—remember how its plot twists revived jaded audiences?)

I’ll confess that while I love books as much as I ever did, I’ve gotten to the point where it takes an amazing book for me to truly lose myself in wonder. Only two books I read this past year really swept me away—one was Alabama Moon, which I finally read, and the other was The Graveyard Book. So when I heard that the Newbery Committee chose Gaiman’s book for the medal, I felt such a rush of happiness. Their choice was the perfect rebuttal to all of the commotion about the committee’s work: a book that is not only well written in terms of language, characters, and plot; a book that not only gives us encounters with tenderness, humor, and fear; but a book that surprises us with its fresh, strange beauty.


Gerb said...

I'm not up on the arguments for or against the committee, but I will say that I recently began to listen to Neil Gaiman reading THE GRAVEYARD BOOK on his site and it's even more enjoyable with his humorous voices and inflections. I'd say the committee did quite well this year with their selection!

Em said...

Neil Gaiman is definitely the coolest author that has ever won a Newbery. I just loved his blog and twitter reactions to the news! :)

Anonymous said...

I just went and looked up Neil Gaiman's blog and twitter reactions--very funny! Yes, he is the essence of cool. And he's one of us! (Um, us meaning children's book people. What else matters?)

Lisa Jenn said...

I appreciate this discussion and your identification of the Freshness Factor! One of my thoughts amid all the Newbery hoo-ha is that besides sheer literary quality, what makes a book "distinguished" is being, well, *distinguishable* from that which has come before. That means fresh, that means different, and sometimes it means a little weird or obscure (e.g., Good Masters, Sweet Ladies). As for The Graveyard Book, I'm reading it right now and enjoying it muchly!