"We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature." -Michael Cunningham, "Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year"
Yes, I'm linking to Cunningham's article again. This particular line jumped out at me because I think it points to one of the quirks of the Newbery process. After looking over the list of winners, I think that most Newbery committees have done the opposite of what Cunningham is saying: they have favored the exquisitely crafted miniature over the grand, flawed effort.
That was on my mind as I read Adam Gidwitz's latest novel. It's a companion piece to his 2010 novel, A Tale Dark and Grimm, which is still my choice for the best Newbery-eligible book of that year. And it is a grand, if highly flawed, effort.
Let's pause a moment for full disclosure, though: I have three great weaknesses in literature. 1. Anything to do with folklore. 2. Anything to do with Victoriana. 3. The grand, flawed effort. I love the Harry Potter books for being a glorious, uneven brew of adverb abuse and brilliant mythological pastiche. I love The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making for boldly using a narrative style so precious that it will make you either gag or swoon. And I love Adam Gidwitz for writing brave, funny, disgusting books.
Unlike A Tale Dark and Grimm, which confined itself to riffing on tales collected by the Grimms, In a Glass Grimmly casts a wide net for its sources of inspiration, throwing in everything from Christina Rossetti to a Car Talk puzzler. Like the earlier novel, it takes a pair of children - Jack and Jill, in this case - and walks them in and out of a series of fairy tales. The stories are unified by an overarching theme/lesson, which is reinforced by the obnoxiously intrusive narrator.
Ultimately, I think that approach was more effective within an all-Grimm universe. By the end of In a Glass Grimmly, it felt to me as if Gidwitz's creation had gotten away from him. The tidy ending seems hastily tacked-on, and the reinforcement of the theme feels forced in some of the stories. That's too bad, because Gidwitz's imaginative vision is grand and delightful, and he's not afraid to take the reader into scary places.
(Really scary places. Like through the digestive tract of a massive salamander. I read that passage while I was eating lunch yesterday, and I wish I hadn't.)
I don't think this one is going home with a medal*, and I don't necessarily think it should. But I do think that we should applaud authors who test the boundaries of possibility in children's literature. Their grand, flawed efforts are renewing the vitality of the genre.
*I should mention, too, that nobody was really sure about the eligibility of A Tale Dark and Grimm, since it relied so heavily on non-original material, and the same questions hold true for In a Glass Grimmly.
Publication in September through Dutton Juvenile.