April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Give Riordan a Chance? Popularity IS “Quality Presentation”

magnuschaseAt the end of the Newbery Criteria document, there is a Note:

“The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity.”

(I have always wondered what propelled the addition of this particular statement to the Manual.)

We have already addressed (in posts and comments) the “didactic content” portion of the note on Heavy Medal last month. I hope we have reached some level of clarity that a Newbery Committee member is not to evaluate a book by the author’s chosen theme, but to examine whether the author has “qualitatively” presented the theme.

As to what “literary quality” and “quality presentation” mean?  There are no real guidelines or definitions.

How about the proclamation that the award is not for popularity?  What does this imply?  Does it seed the notion that if a book has already been enjoyed by many young readers, it should not be considered seriously for a Newbery medal?  Is the implicit notion that since adults know better (and thus children “know worse”) when it comes to literary qualities, the widespread appeal of any particular book denotes its “lesser literary quality”?

Since “quality presentation” is open to interpretation, I would like to posit the idea that without some level of popularity, a children’s book cannot be considered qualitatively presented since this literature is defined in part by its intended readership. The unique skill set of a children’s book author that makes their works appealing to millions of young readers should weigh heavily in favor of the book’s “literary quality.”

This is why I nominated The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan.

One of the frequent complaints I heard from adult readers is that Riordan is not a “great writer” on a sentence level.  It seems to translate to the fact that his writing is not lyrical or nor is it too concerned with complex sentence structures.  Would Magnus Chase be waxing lyrical as the narrator of his own story?  He is perpetually 16, was once homeless, and has experienced great loss of loved ones.  Much of his observation is subjective and limited, although he is open minded and would learn a great deal through his friendships with a diverse cast of characters. As many teens would, Magnus uses humor and cynicism in times of grave danger or serious encounters.  And there is definitely a very healthy dosage of irony all throughout the narrative.

Magnus would say,

“I waited for the other shoe to drop, even though Njord did not appear to own any shoes,” (p. 117) or “I hoped the eagle in front of me would morph into a small, easy-to-defeat giant, preferably one who used Nerf weapons.” (p. 301)

He self-identifies as “Magnus Chase from floor nineteen, Hotel Valalla,” and when he finally gives the traditional hero’s speech in this epic tale, he attempts to sound grander by using a few “elevated” words like “triumphant,” or “in the midst of thousands.”

No wonder young readers resonate with this particular character who sounds and behaves so much like them, even if his circumstances are drastically different – being a “dead” hero and having to battle giants and confront the super villain Loki.

Young readers also react favorably to the tale’s pacing – something fresh and gripping always awaits in the pages ahead.  In The Ship of the Dead, all the events and experiences culminate to Magnus’ final realization of what his particular advantage is — as a healer, a devoted friend, and an optimist.  This is the major theme of the book — and how these “soft skills” could bring about the final triumph in the face of callus and ugly world domination power struggles.  Riordan presents and delivers the theme beautifully by bringing young readers along on the journey of self-discovery and camaraderie based on kindness and mutual respect.

So, I would reiterate that in the case of The Ship of the Dead, its popularity is part and parcel of its “quality presentation” for young readers. Not to mention the abundance of humor (yes, sometimes a bit cringe-worthy but that’s also so entirely fitting – for the characters and the book’s readers.)

I’ll just leave you with a few chapter titles to appreciate (or not) Riordan’s brand of humor:

2. Falafel Sandwiches with a Side Order of Ragnorak

16. Spit Man Versus Chain Saw.  Guess Who Wins

24. I Liked Heartstone’s Dad Better as a Cow-Abducting Alien

29. Don’t Ever Ask Me to Cook My Enemy’s Heart

46. I Win a Fluffy Bathrobe