Saturday, December 10, 2005


Earlier this week, child_lit was discussing how we define good books, who gets to decide what makes a good book (especially a good children's book, considering the critics and the intended audience are often completely different), the qualities of a good book, etc. This was obviously too tempting for me to resist, so I wrote a post that articulated a lot of things I'd been thinking about vaguely for a while. There is more to say on it, but this is my beginning:

I'd like to say a word here, since I think about this problem daily in the manuscripts I consider for publication and the books I edit. I've mostly set aside my concerns about being an adult judging materials for children -- I just start from this perspective, every day:

I think good fiction books (good art in general) create a deliberate emotion in the person experiencing it -- "deliberate" meaning it's the emotion the author of the book set out to create, so well as that intention can be discerned by the reader. The emotion is achieved authentically through immersing us in the character's lived experience, not through cheap manipulation. This is most often accomplished through well-crafted prose: prose where every word has been considered carefully by the author and belongs in the work; prose that communicates clearly what the author wants us to see and know, so that we can see it too and (again) be immersed in the character's experience or the narrator's perspective. Think of Lolita, where against one's will one is seduced by Humbert's genius, his creativity, his fever for Dolores, so that one understands his passion intellectually and possibly even sympathizes with it emotionally . . . It's a morally horrifying but artistically incredible feat.

And while every reader's interaction with a text is different, in great books, the emotion the author intends -- what I think of as the emotional point -- is experienced by the vast majority of the people who come in meaningful contact with the work. Otherwise the author isn't achieving what he or she set out to do.

In good children's books, the emotional point of the book will speak to or expand the child's own emotional experience -- usually at least partly through their identification with the main character -- and will be appropriate for a child.The Newbery winners usually excel at creating emotion, especially sad ones; I well remember my grief reading Bridge to Terabithia, A Single Shard, Out of the Dust, even Because of Winn-Dixie, and how transported and elevated I felt by that emotion. It's the classical (Aristotelian) model, where great sadness equals moral elevation equals great art.

But kids don't always WANT to experience great sadness -- and who can blame them? And so they love Captain Underpants and Goosebumps and Artemis Fowl and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and all those books that make them feel more pleasureable emotions, humor or warmth or excitement or "safe" (controllable) fear.

I think Harry Potter is such a tremendous success because it succeeds at creating emotion in readers almost instantly; its characters are all realistic (I know Rons and Harrys, I occasionally AM Hermione) in an unrealistic but fascinating setting; and it provides a wide range of emotions that echo the wide range of emotions in real life . . . You grieve over the loss of a friend, but you also laugh at Fred and George, you crush on Ginny Weasley, you squabble with your best friend, you struggle with homework -- and that range is much more realistic than being in a constant haze of misery (a la more than one Newbery I can think of).

On a wider scale, I think we can make critically-agreed-upon lists of Great Books because we all experience the same emotions in reading a certain book; we then agree that those emotions are good for other people to have, and we recommend said book. Things get interesting when we can't agree on the emotions that should be experienced, especially by children (cf. Newbery winners vs. Goosebumps above) or teenagers (cf. people who want to ban The Catcher in the Rye, no matter how beautifully it speaks to the teenage search for meaning). . . .

And the discussion goes on from there.


  1. What did you think of the most recent P&P; to my knowledge, the fourth?

  2. Cheryl, your texts have enriched and influenced my writing in ways only you could.

    Thank you.

    Spencer Quinn (the 'privet is a hedge' person ;).

  3. I am an aspiring writer and I simply couldn't read this without saying thank you. I heard about you on PotterCast as "Hott Cheryl" (lol) and should I ever submit a manuscript through your agency, I'll be sure to add the word 'chipotle' in honor of John.