As you may have heard, Goblin Secrets just won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Honestly, the first I'd heard of it was when it made the shortlist. Which is vaguely frustrating. It feels like Sam and I have covered a lot of what's out there in terms of Newbery-eligible books this year, and then something like this comes along. PUBLISHERS: STOP PUBLISHING SO MANY GOOD BOOKS! Wait. Strike that; reverse it.
(Apologies in advance for the rambling, feverish nature of this review. I've been up the past three nights with a sick six-year-old.)
Anyway, back to Goblin Secrets. Two minute summary: orphan Rownie lives with a raggle-taggle group of children under the protection of a Baba-Yaga-esque witch who moves her house around at will. In their city of Zombay, where sinister automatons patrol the streets, acting has been outlawed by the mayor. Against this backdrop, Rownie finds himself drawn to a mysterious troupe of goblin performers who may hold the key to the mystery of his missing brother.
It's not a bad book. It's actually quite enjoyable, but when I start to zero in on the Newbery criteria, I don't see a lot of distinction. The characters, aside from Rownie, are not particularly well-developed. The setting is super cool, but again, I don't feel like it's described as precisely as it could be. The plotting is neatly accomplished, but not extraordinarily so.
And then there's the question of whether it stands alone. It's billed as the first in the Zombay series.We don't usually talk about the first books in series in terms of the standalone question, but I think it's relevant in this case. Alexander introduces a lot of elements (the coal-making, the automatons, the peculiar qualities of the masks) that he clearly means to develop further in later books. While that works to pique the reader's interest, it also gives Goblin Secrets a sort of foggy, incomplete quality.
Looking over the list of past NBA winners, it seems that there's been very little overlap with the Newbery Medal. I wonder how much that has to do with who's judging. The National Book Award judges are all authors, while the Newbery committee is primarily made up of librarians. Clearly, we're looking for different things in books. I wonder if a judging panel made up of authors (a panel that includes Susan Cooper and Gary Schmidt this year) gives more credit than we do for ambitious world building - which is where Goblin Secrets really shines - and for ambition and risk-taking in general. If so, good on them. As I've mentioned before, I don't think we're as good at recognizing those more nebulous elements of excellence.
Published in March by Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)