Decoding the Newbery is a monthly column in which Newbery Medal winners are examined and deconstructed by regular contributor and author Catherine Faris King.
It is a truth pretty widely acknowledged, that award-winning children’s literature must include a tear-jerking death. Why, though? Why is this such a reliable trope? Why does the Newbery Medal honor this trope so regularly? Heck, why must we even have awards for books?
Catherine Faris King discusses this question and more in her column as she reads through Newbery Award Winners, examining each award winner against what she has dubbed The Newbery Formula.
The Newbery Formula
Our book opens in a Small Town, or perhaps a community that is isolated for some special reason, like the crew of a boat, or the ghosts of a graveyard. We swiftly meet our protagonist, a Kid Hero, who is trundling along, feeling lost. Perhaps our protagonist has big dreams, or perhaps their world is limited to their dusty town. Either way, they are more or less a blank slate, and the arrival of a Doomed Catalyst will turn their world upside down.
The Doomed Catalyst may take several different forms. There may be a tough but cute Animal Friend, there might be a person with a Wise Soul, usually someone marginalized and outcast in society. Check for disability, advanced age, and racial or cultural minorities – or just an oddball. You might even have both versions, with the Animal Friend teaching patience, responsibility, and fun, and the Wise Soul teaching our hero the grown-up truths you won’t find in a textbook.
Our hero will run into perils in their town, small as it is. The tiny size of the community means that conflict – whether Person versus Person or Person versus Society – is inescapable. Usually there is some pressing Social Issue that drives the action, such as racial or cultural conflict. Our hero might find solace in nature, but frequently she or he takes up some Hands-on Activity that is described with the clearest action verbs of the book. And the landscape isn’t entirely grim: if your protagonist is male, there is a fifty percent chance of them encountering their own sort of Romance, even if it’s just blushes and a first kiss. If your protagonist is female, the chance of a Romance plotline occurring rockets up to around ninety percent.
But don’t expect blue skies and happiness – somewhere along the line, usually at the halfway point or three quarters’ mark, the penny drops, the shoe falls, the blow you’ve all been waiting for. Alas for the Animal Friend and/or the Wise Soul. Death By Newbery Medal collects its grim quota.
Why? Because the book has got to end, but growing up is so damn complicated. There are leaps in maturity followed by regressions. There are uneven strides in different areas of life. It’s a solitary journey, and the boundaries of adulthood are murky (and seem to get murkier all the time). Adolescence takes a decade, but innocence can be killed with the stroke of a pen.
The Death by Newbery Medal throws the Kid Hero into maturity with one fell swoop, as they learn about the cruelty of the world, the circle of life, the power of love, possibly a little something about the afterlife, and finally emerge as a stronger being with the power to endure capricious fate. You know… character development. And hopefully, the reader has imbued these same lessons, without the inconvenience of actually losing someone dear to them in real life.
The narrator uses their camera of words to pan over the same Small Town where we started, now with a new light of understanding shining on it. Our hero is ready to step over the threshold into adulthood. “The End,” and blank pages for whatever comes after. Close the book, the story is done, the formula played out.
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