Monday, August 17, 2009

Back from Paradise

Oh, it was bliss to spend a weekend at Lake Dillon with four dear writer friends. All I want to do now is write, write, write! Well, maybe also to read, read, read!

On Friday evening we discussed this year’s Newbery Award winner, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. As I predicted, it ended up scoring in the bottom third of the Newbery Award books we’ve read together over the past seventeen years. Three of us reported that we had found it difficult to force ourselves to continue reading it, but two of us enjoyed its action and adventure. So on that we differed. We also spent time pondering whether it was fair to discount the book because it was so clearly a retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Why should this be a problem? Don’t authors give us fresh presentations of classic works all the time? Why, in this case, should we have felt tempted to shout at Gaiman, “Write your own blankety-blank book!” We decided (or I think we did – the discussion was lively, and I’m not sure consensus was reached) that part of the problem was that every time we found some problematic element in The Graveyard Book (that whole long extraneous bit with the ghouls), we then realized (well, realized because Marie pointed it out to us) that the scene was there to mirror a similar scene of Kipling’s. That’s when a story moves from inspired homage to slavish imitation.

As we always do, we read aloud the Newbery Acceptance speech, printed each year in the July/August issue of the Horn Book. The speech did have some good lines in it: “You are almost never cool to your children” and “I was, and still am, on the side of books you love.” And of course, how could any children’s book writer not cheer at the line “Children’s fiction is the most important fiction of all”?

But we had a hard time getting past the colossal display of ego in the speech. Breaking with Newbery tradition, Gaiman thanked nobody: not the ALA committee, not his editor, nobody. Rather than congratulating his fellow honorees, named as Newbery Honor Books, he all but sneered at those who had won Newbery Honors, noting that when he received The Phone Call, he thought “Oh, Newbery. Right. Cool. I may be an honor book or something” – but then realized that the committee wouldn’t have sounded so excited if it had only been an honor book. He reported, almost wearily, how often readers approach him to tell him that his books have changed their lives, that they have even had his words tattooed on their bodies “as monuments or memorials to moments that were so important to them that they needed to take them with them everywhere.” When these things happen, Gaiman sighed, “as they have, over and over,” his tendency is to be polite – but to remember that he didn’t write his books for his readers, he wrote them for himself.

Oh, and he commented that he had been surprised to win a Newbery, not because he thought it was such an amazing and important honor of which he was unworthy, but because “I had assumed that awards like the Newbery tend to be used to shine a light onto books that needed help, and . . The Graveyard Book had not needed help.” Thus devaluing all previous winners as pitiful charity cases. Ohh!

To cheer ourselves up, we then read aloud the Caldecott Award acceptance speech by Beth Krommes, for The House in the Night. What a difference! She called the other honorees “my heroes, my role models, and my inspiration.” She thanked everybody under the sun. She shared her creative process and creative journey. She made us proud to be part of the community of those who make and love children’s books.

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