Tina K. Russell

February 10, 2009

The Newberial Ground (or, “what’s in acclaim?”)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tina Russell @ 2:40 pm

(I’m linking to the TV Tropes wiki again, so don’t click any links if you have anything to do today…)

Death By Newbery Medal – Television Tropes & Idioms

“The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.”
Wallace Wallace, No More Dead Dogs
“Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism. Most of the rest deal with tough social issues.
Valerie Strauss, Washington Post.
“The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children’s publishing.”
John Beach, associate professor of literacy education at St John’s University.

There’s a Slice Of Life story about childhood (or adolescence) and coming of age. The main character has a best friend (can be animal, but usually is another child) or family member who is a source of joy or wisdom or understanding in his or her life. As a bonus—also, An Aesop—this friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more ‘special’ than the main character. Physical and/or mental disabilities are common among human versions, while animals will be scruffy and/or temperamental.

The twist leading to this trope is that, at the end of the story, this Very Special best friend or loved one is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus Ex Machina (a favorite trick is to have the death happen entirely offscreen). Sometimes, someone had to Shoot The Dog. In another common variant, a pregnancy will result in a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Unless the mother was raped. Basically the more horribly poignant the tragedy the better.

All this is generally accompanied by lots of ‘end of the innocence’ angsting from the main character, along the lines of “That was the day my childhood ended…” Really, it’s just the author’s way of having a child character suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy. Yeah, Growing Up Sucks.

The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to novels written for middle schoolers. Bridge to Terabithia won a well-deserved Newbery for its handling of the topics embodied by this trope. Thirteen years later, Shiloh may have actually won its medal because it didn’t go for the easy win by killing off the dog at the end. Still, most books for “young readers” (and similar movies) deal with these issues in a fairly Anvilicious fashion, and are obviously bucking for critical acclaim or recognition by killing off a beloved character in a children’s book.

Here’s the rub: It works. Apparently medal awarders are morons. This trope is so pervasive, some readers expect that the most lovable character won’t get to see the end of a critically acclaimed work of fiction.

Be warned: merely reading the titles listed below could result in spoilage, although the medal on the cover comes close.

Compare Oscar Bait, which often employs the same principle.

Holy—! That’s straight out of my childhood! I specifically avoided books with the Newbery medal, as a child, for exactly this reason. You don’t need to read the book; you already know everybody dies because how else would it have gotten a Newbery medal? (I also hated Where the Red Fern Grows. And Bridge to Terabithia. And Hatchet. And The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: For Kids. The last one I might as well not have made up.)

(Just so you know, those worried about spoiling childrens’ classics, at least one of those books I mentioned above doesn’t involve a death ending. In that case, it’s just you being bored to tears because the writing is achingly, and unnecessarily, verbose; stretching a thin strand of content into hundreds of pages of dry exposition, and passing it off as seething internal drama, seems to be an alternate route to the Newbery. In any case, I want those hours of my childhood back.)

I would like the people who award the Newbery medals to be aware of this: the medal was like a warning light to me, as a kid, not just that everybody dies, but this is the kind of work adults want us to read but would never read themselves. If you would read it only as a sort of masochistic emotional catharsis, maybe you shouldn’t give it the award.


  1. You hated A Bridge To Terabithia? You must have a mass of black mold where your heart should be! The kids’ relationship reminds me so much of me and my best friend that when I reread it 2 years ago, I finished it at 2am in my kitchen, bawling my eyes out. I remember that book giving me more confidence as a weird kid than any other (except Weirdos of the Universe Unite, which was kind of the premise of the book). The author wrote the book because her son had his best friend die when he was that age.

    Comment by Hannah — February 10, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  2. Hunh. Maybe I was just a cynical kid. I thought of it as cliché and soppy.

    Comment by Tina Russell — February 11, 2009 @ 12:41 am

  3. Mom Blogs – Blogs for Moms…

    Trackback by Anonymous — February 11, 2009 @ 5:27 am

  4. Great post Tina.
    I hate the concept that art should have social relevance. In totalitarian countries, art is supposed to strive for Party relevance but I’m getting off topic.

    The most influential book in my life is Jean Craighead Georges, “My Side Of the Mountain”. A Newbery Award Book. It was just a plain fun book about a kid that runs away from home to live in the woods. It was written back in the 50s before my generation infused everything with social relevance.
    The concept of books being superior to TV is that the reader has choice. In following someone else’s list, you give up the freedom to follow your muse and curiosity. That is if you have not already let society shoot your muse.

    In my rooms filled with books, I doubt that I have more than 2 New York Times Best Sellers and it would only be because of coincidence. My Muse keeps me well away from the heard of lemmings.

    Comment by John — March 28, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  5. Whoa! I had totally forgotten about that book. I loved it when I was a kid, and so did my friends.

    I think, if you follow your own muse and do what’s inside of you, your art will have the most important kind of social relevance of leading by example.

    Comment by Tina Russell — March 29, 2009 @ 9:01 am

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