Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Winner's Circle: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, by Laura Amy Schlitz (2008)

First things first -- I listened to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! as an audiobook. I'm trying to give audiobooks more of a try, and this one seemed like a good candidate, given that it's a set of dramatic monologues (and two dialogues), written specifically for performance. This proved to be a good choice. The cast (Christina Moore and several others) is excellent, and the production and incidental music is tasteful and professional. If you have the opportunity, I'd highly recommend giving it a listen.
As for the book itself, it's quite good at what it does. Laura Amy Schlitz wrote it to be performed by students in her class who were learning about the Middle Ages, and the brief dramatic pieces put a human face (or faces) on a time and place that's more than a little foreign to a modern reader. It's excellently researched, with extra notes where applicable, and the way that several of the stories intersect, with specific events narrated from the points of view of more than one character involved, is a nice touch.
It was something of a controversial Newbery choice, however, and looking back on it with four years of perspective, I remain unconvinced it was the right one. Several excellent books were published that year, the best of which aimed for something both more universal and more personal. Schlitz stated up front that her reason for creating the book in the first place was to avoid putting on a school play that only starred one or two children, and the result of that when taken as a whole is that it's pure tableau; there's no central character or group of characters to hold one's focus. It's egalitarian, and it allows for a broad survey of what was going on historically, but the structure makes the book somewhat difficult to engage with emotionally. The work fulfils its own ambitions, but it doesn't transcend them.

As for those other titles, the Honor books in 2008 were Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis; The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt; and Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson. Elijah won most of the other available awards (the Coretta Scott King, the Scott O'Dell, the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children), and the Schmidt title has a near-fanatical fanbase. My personal favorite of the year was Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, by M.T. Anderson, which has a combination of humor and emotional nakedness that's intensely rare in a children's title. Now, that one was the third in the Pals in Peril! series, and sequels can be a tough sell, but I also had strong positive feelings about A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban (wonderful characters!), and Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R.L. LaFevers (thrilling adventure!). And all of this leaves out Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was probably too visual of an experience to be a fair Newbery choice, but which was still fantastic (and Caldecott-winning).

As a side note, Rachael makes a passionate argument that Schlitz deserves the Newbery -- but the 2007 award (which would have been for A Drowned Maiden's Hair), rather than the 2008 one. I haven't read that book -- and I note with a bit of surprise that the professional reviews of it at the time were somewhat tepid -- but I know that she's not the only one who feels that way. (We'll come back to this discussion whenever it is that I get to blogging about The Higher Power of Lucky, or whenever Rachael decides to write a full blog post on her love of ADMH.)

One has to commend the committee for looking outside the usual Newbery box, and as the only work for the stage ever to win the award, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was hardly a predictable choice. But, while it's certainly good, I still think there were better options.


  1. Hi Sam, I got turned onto your blog last week and I love it! Now, I don't necessarily think this is the greatest Newbery winner ever or anything, but remember that in the terms/criteria it does say that the book doesn't have to be distinguished in every single criterion, but it should be good in every one that applies to it. With that in mind, I think you could make a case that GMSW *is* distinguished in the Interpretation of the Concept/Theme, Presentation of Info, Delineation of Setting, and Appropriateness of Style, and not so distinguished in Development of Plot and Development of Characters. But, as the terms/criteria state, it wouldn't have to be distinguished in the areas of plot and characters since those two arguably don't apply.
    -Sam Bloom

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and for the interesting comment!

      I think you're absolutely right in GMSL being distinguished in Interpretation of the Concept/Theme, Presentation of Info, and Delineation of Setting. I have some questions about Appropriateness of Style; one of the common criticisms of the book seems to be that the individual voices of the characters don't seem to be all that different. I think that affects the Development of Characters critereon also, though I do agree with you that Development of Plot doesn't so much apply.

      I guess what I come back to is that GMSL *is* a distinguished book -- but that some of the other books published that year are *more* distinguished. (The more I think about it, the more I wonder how A Crooked Kind of Perfect didn't even Honor.) It's not the worst choice ever, or even very close; I just think it doesn't quite reach the heights of some of its competitors. But that's just me :)

  2. I agree with you, Sam - I don't think GMSL was the most distinguished book of that year. Honestly, I can't remember what books I especially thought got robbed that year (maybe Patricia Reilly Giff's Eleven? Was that from that year?) but I remember the incredulity I felt when GMSL was announced as the winner. But I'll tell you, once you get 15 people in a room for all that time, who have read all those books... well, you never know what will happen!

    Good point, by the way, about the saminess of the voice affecting the Devt of Characters criterion. It's been too long since I've read the book to really comment on that one way or another, but I can see how that would adversely affect that point (and Appropriateness of Style, for that matter).