Final Musings on M.C. Higgins

I enjoy watching the Newbery video conversations Mr. Sharp and Mr. Schu have as they read their way through all the Newbery winners. Mr. Schu called M.C. Higgins the Great the hardest Newbery they’ve read in awhile. Mostly, I love his one-sentence review: “Mr. Schu says blah about M.C. Higgins the Great.”

For much of this book, I was saying the same. In the end, it wasn’t a blah book for me, but it was probably the most challenging Newbery I’ve read so far. I am not sure how I feel about this book. I admire it quite a bit. But. There is this big but.

All too often when I read a Newbery Medal winner, I struggle to understand the book’s target audience. Who was this book written for? Who is supposed to enjoy it? I don’t think we really get anywhere by trying to second-guess what kids—in the plural generic—are going to want to read or enjoy reading. So I try to be kid-specific: I shuffle through images of real child readers–the book-mad child I was as well as all the other children I have ever known– and when I can’t find a single young reader from the past or present that I would give this book to, expecting them to read and enjoy it, well that’s a problem for me. I know the Newbery isn’t about enjoyment: it’s about being “distinguished.” But at the same time, the second  criterion for the prize is audience:

 2. A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended 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 books for this entire age range are to be considered.

I read this as implying that children should be able to understand and appreciate the book. Not all children. But surely some children, even if they are only “an intended potential audience.”

About M.C. Higgins the Great, I will say that I found it a tough read—tough to comprehend, tough to analyze, tough to appreciate. And I have a Ph.D. in literature. The Newbery’s upper age limit is 14, but this doesn’t strike me as a book that even a very astute fourteen-year-old reader would get much from. Could they read it? Maybe. Would they want to? Does that question even matter? And can we answer it in any kind of meaningful way?

Probably not. I would be able to read my way through the Newberys more happily if I would quit obsessing over that “intended potential” audience. Or perhaps I’d feel better if I decided that the adults are really the intended audience of the Newbery, not children at all.

But then there are all those poor and very real children, forced, as I was in school, to read their way through assigned Newberys, because if a book wins a Newbery it must be a good book, a quality book, worthy of being read and studied and assigned to children.

I read many Newberys in school, and all but one (The Witch of Blackbeard Pond) was extremely boring to me. And I was, as I’ve said, book-mad. Not your average reader. Willing to read and be bored for the greater good.

The different plot threads of M.C. Higgins do come together in an interesting way in the end: the two strangers visit the mountain and leave without taking M.C. or his family with them or giving them a way to escape, as M.C. believes must happen, but through his interaction with them, M.C. grows up, becomes his own man, leaves childhood behind. Thematically, it’s quite lovely: the outsiders come in order to give M.C. a new understanding of who he is and what’s important to him. Reconciliation of the different plot elements comes not through escape, as M.C. imagined all the way through the novel, but through a literal digging in to the mountain. Instead of leaving the mountain, he claims it as his own: “Not just living on the mountain. But me, living on the mountain. . . . This is my home. I live here, too.” He decides to build a wall to protect his family from the sliding slag heap above their home. Will it work? I don’t know, but the last line of the novel assures us that the wall is rising.

M.C. Higgins the Great is clearly distinguished if we follow the terms of the Newbery:

 3. “Distinguished” is defined as:

• Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
• Marked by excellence in quality.
• Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
• Individually distinct.

And further:

1. In identifying “distinguished contribution to American literature,” defined as text, in a book for children,

a. Committee members need to consider the following:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.

I’m glad I read M.C. Higgins the Great. It will stick with me. And maybe eventually I will find someone I could recommend it to. Even if that someone is not a child.

For my next Newbery, I want to choose something easy. And short. Very short. Are there any of those left?

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