Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Why Hugo Cabret is going to break my heart

Ask me what book I want, more than anything, to win the 2008 Newbery Medal. Go ahead, ask me.

Susan, what book do you want, more than anything, to win the Newbery Medal?

Answer: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. It's a brilliant fusion of pictures and text. It's a masterful work, full of mystery and intrigue. I think it's a major contribution to the field of children's literature.

Question: Will it win?

Answer: No. Regrettably, tragically... it probably won't win.

Question: Why not?

Answer: Take a look at the Newbery criteria:

"The Medal shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in English in the United States during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work."

Let's check Hugo Cabret against the criteria:
  • Most distinguished contribution to American literature for children? Yes, in my humble opinion, I think it is.
  • Published in English in the United States? Yes.
  • No limitations as to the character of the book. Excellent. That leaves the door open for any genre to win.
We're okay so far. (That is, if you agree with me that the book is the most distinguished, and the majority of mock Newbery committees and Best of the Year lists do agree with me.)

What does distinguished mean? Let's check the criteria again.

"Distinguished" is defined as:
  • "marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement." Yes, it's definitely distinct, eminent and a significant achievement.
  • "marked by excellence in quality." Absolutely.
  • "marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence." Yes, the excellence is conspicuous. It pours out of the book.
  • "individually distinct." Definitely. There's no other book like it.
We're still okay. But then, right at the bottom, is the paragraph that destroys all hope for Hugo Cabret to win the Newbery:

"Each book is to be considered as a contribution to literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other aspects of a book are to be considered only if they distract from the text. Such other aspects might include illustrations, overall design of the book, etc."

And, there we have it. Game over. The Newbery committee judges the text, not the illustrations. Take away all of Hugo Cabret's illustrations, and you're left with a shell of a book. And, alas... that shell isn't strong enough to win the Newbery. The book is, rightfully so, completely dependent on the pictures. That's what makes it so incredible.

But, wait! If the pictures are so amazing (and they are), couldn't Hugo Cabret win the Caldecott? Here you have an award that's all about illustration.

Okay, worth a shot. Traditionally the Caldecott goes to a picture book, but the eligible age range is much larger than you'd think. Let's take a look at the Caldecott criteria:

"'A picture book for children' is one for which children are a potential audience. The book displays respect for children's understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered."

So, according to that, Hugo Cabret would be eligible. It would be a dramatic departure from tradition, and a huge deal if the Caldecott went to a non-picture book. It's happened in the past, but not that recently. So, maybe, just maybe....

Wait a minute. Look at the bottom of the criteria:

"Each book is to be considered as a picture book. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children's picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc. "

Argh!!! The Caldecott committee judges primarily on illustrations, not the text. If you take the words away from Hugo Cabret, you're left with an empty shell again. Not as empty as if you removed the pictures, but certainly a far less poignant work.

Sigh. So there you have it. A book that is a combination of illustrations and text doesn't really stand a chance for either award. And I think that's too bad, but that's the way the awards are structured. Sorry, Hugo.

Despite all that, if I were Brian Selznick, I'd be waiting by my phone on Monday morning. You never know....

Update: The Invention of Hugo Cabret won the Caldecott Medal! See this post for my reaction.


  1. I know it's no consolation, but you've convinced me that I have to get my hands on Hugo Cabret before Monday.

    I posted awhile back about the audio version of HG--how did they do it, do you think?

  2. Actually, Anamaria, that's a huge consolation. It makes me feel that writing this post was worthwhile. I hope the book lives up to all the hype I've given it!

    I am incredibly curious about the audio version of Hugo Cabret. Has anyone out there listened to it yet?

  3. I've ordered the book, too. I'm frustrated with the criteria of both awards (esp. the Caldecott). Child appeal is definitely not one of the requirements, and unusual books in which visual and text are intertwined get the shaft. I'm sick of beautifully illustrated Caldecott books that have no readability as picture-books. Gripe, gripe, gripe. Thank goodness for the Cybils.

  4. I haven't listened to the audio yet, but I know someone who has and they said that the parts where it's illustrations are done with music and sound effects so you can still tell what's going on. It sounds really neat!

    And yeah, I'm sad it probably won't win anything, too... maybe an Honor something? And we just got the Odyssey, so maybe there's hope for a "Graphie" or something for graphic novels...

  5. Alkelda- I agree. My feeling is that in a perfect book, it is essential that the pictures and text work together. It's always seemed very odd to me that the Caldecotts and Newberys separate the elements.

    Abby- Thanks for the description! I also found a post at Read Roger that talks about the audio book. Interesting.

    My guess is that one day there will probably be an ALA award for graphic novels, but I hate to see books like Hugo Cabret marginalized and only honored in specific categories. It would be so much better if it could be a contender for the whole shooting match.

  6. It's a crime, that's for sure. But a great book that is finding its way into the hands of readers, so there's that.

  7. MotherReader- you're right, obviously... the important thing is that kids are reading the book. But a Newbery would bring likely lots more readers to the book over a longer period of time. Sigh.

  8. I love this book and sure do hope it manages to squeak through with an award. I'm reading it to one of my 4th grade classes, and they've asked for extra times during the week so they can continue from the initial reading in Library Class. Several of them have gone to the library and the book store for their own copies.
    We all anxiously await Monday morning.

  9. Anonymous- I'm so glad that kids in your school are enjoying Hugo Cabret! I love the book too. I have my fingers crossed that it will manage to win an award, despite everything I've written in this post.

  10. I'm adding this book to my must-read list...the pile is getting higher and higher. Thanks for the great review.

  11. Thanks, Jill! Definitely let you know what you think of the book once you've read it.

  12. My family absolutely loved it. My son is just 5 and although he loves being read to I was not sure he would be up for this big of a book. I picked it up at the library and started reading the car on our way home, as my husband drove. Once home we continued reading outloud and dearr hubby even started reading outloud to give my voice a rest. We finished the book in 2 days. We loved it so much I recommended it everyone, even people whose kids are much younger - as something to look for later.

    I think it is a stellar book that has gone overlooked by lots of people.

  13. It's a happy happy day!

    I haven't even read this book yet but fortunately the library copy is on my desk at the moment. Very fun!

  14. Well. How about that Caldecott result? Amen.

  15. Quinn- how wonderful that you read it to your five year old and he loved it! I couldn't put it down either. =)

    Joyce- You're absolutely right. It's a happy, happy day!

    Motherreader- I couldn't be happier to have been wrong.