Friday, October 26, 2012

Individually distinct.

"Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a 'finder,' one who discovers." -Ezra Pound

According to the Newbery Medal terms and criteria,

“Distinguished” is defined as:
• Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
• Marked by excellence in quality.
• Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
• Individually distinct.
 I started thinking about that last definition after writing my most recent post. Which are the individually distinct titles of the year - the ones that aren't Another Folksy Missing Mom Book or Another Victorian Thriller? The titles that are "making it new," as Pound exhorted?
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. Yes, it falls firmly within a tradition of tongue-in-cheek nonsense, following in the slightly unstable footsteps of Norton Juster and Daniel Pinkwater. But it's not quite like anything else, is it? After all, it's translated from the Rabbit. 
  • Starry River of the Sky. As I noted, it's not really like anything else, except for its companion book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Nothing else that I can think of is both folklore and meta-folklore in quite the same way. 
  • The One and Only Ivan. Children's lit is full of animal rescue stories, of course, but I can't think of one that resembles this one in tone and style - that odd, melancholy hybrid of poetry and prose that makes Ivan's voice so memorable. 
And then there are the ones that Sam has read, and I haven't yet:
  • No Crystal Stair. There are other "documentary novels," but not many, as several people have pointed out in their reviews. 
  • What Came from the Stars. It doesn't sound like it succeeds, but it was at least trying to do something new in its blend of science fiction and realism. 
Of course, being individually distinct is not, in itself, enough to win the Medal, but I always give extra points to authors who are clearly taking a risk. There's also an argument to be made that doing a really, really effective reinterpretation of an old genre/style/plot can be just as effective, but that's another post.

For now, what do you think? What titles are we missing here?   


  1. I'm not sure that means what you think it means ;)

    In fact, I'm not sure that particular definition tells us anything at all, since "distinct" and "distinguished" are from the same word (in fact, the OED defined "distinct" as "distinguished") so it seems more than a bit tautological.

    All that being said, yes - a book should stand out from the rest of the pack, but I don't think that necessarily means because there's nothing else like it out there. It could just be because it is so much better than anything else. I'm not a big supporter of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, but I don't think it should be discounted for being "another Victorian thriller" if it happens to be the best written children's book of the year.

    - Mark

    1. I think what you describe in the second paragraph, Mark, comes under the other three of the four Newbery definitions for "distinguished" -- significant achievement, quality, and conspicuous excellence. The Newbery guidelines are pretty clear that a book doesn't have to hit all four, and that just being new and different isn't enough to win, but it's something to bear in mind as we're evaluating books. I didn't think, for example, that either What Came From the Stars or A Boy and a Bear in a Boat were particularly good books, but I tried to appreciate and take into account the fact that the authors were consciously trying to forge a new path. That doesn't count for everything, but it counts for something.

    2. I was being tongue-in-cheek about Another Victorian Thriller (and trying not to pick on the Folksy Orphans). I love Splendors and Glooms - it's one of my favorite books of the year! And I think books often achieve greatness without individual distinction: post to come.

    3. I knew you were joking about S&G - don't worry. But I still think "individually distinct" is not the same thing as "different from anything else." The way I read the words I think OKAY FOR NOW (to take a random example) could be called "individually distinct" in its year because Doug's voice was so head and shoulders above the pack.

      Just to be clear, I think it is totally awesome that Mr. and Mrs. Bunny is so quirky and unique, and I think it adds to that book's many charms.

      Also to be clear, I happen to think that as long and detailed as they are, the Newbery Criteria are about as clear as mud, so if we are going to parse out a particular criteria we're bound to get differing interpretations of what it means. I think that's fine, and what makes it possible to get a lot of different types of books honored.

      - Mark