“I Guess I’m Alone in My Principles”

I’ve probably mentioned a time or three hundred that I love book awards. I have a little private goal to someday read all the Newbery books (I just counted, and I have read seven new ones this year, plus three rereads).

Alas, not everyone shares my love for the Newbery; Anita Silvey wrote a post that sparked off a heated debate across the children’s book world called “Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?” It’s an interesting article and full of reasonable points – in the end, it basically says the Newbery has stopped choosing books that will thrill children and turn them on to reading and instead are choosing odd and obscure books that turn kids off to reading. The commenters on this post seem to agree, saying that they never wanted to read a book picked by adults as supposedly “the best” (thanks, Teach5 for this link).

Other people are standing up for the Newbery, saying that the Newbery isn’t a popularity award – kids will read Captain Underpants whether or not it is awarded a medel – and that the Newbery helps books that might otherwise escape notice get the attention they deserve (this is also a great article, sent on to me by Definitely RA).

I certainly agree that some books boasting a Newbery gold seal aren’t really all that awesome. I myself found The Higher Power of Lucky to be completely underwhelming (snore city, frankly), but other Newbery books are absolutely phenomenal – The View from Saturday was one of my absolute favorites as a pre-teen, Number the Stars was one of the first chapter books I read on my own, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry delighted me both as a child and as an adult. My mom read Hitty, Her First Hundred Years to my sisters and me many years ago and I loved it. Caddie Woodlawn has remained a favorite.

The Newbery is a tricky award. It’s supposed to go to the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Guess how they define children? As anyone between eight and fourteen. If you’ve been around any “children” for half a second, you know there is a huge huge gap between the reading abilities and interests of an eight and a fourteen year old. You absolutely cannot pick a book that will interest and be appropriate for all children in every one of those age categories. The Giver, for instance, is not really a book aimed at an eight year old. A fourteen year old may be more than a little underwhelmed by some of the other books on the list.

Also, with directions like “the most distinguished contribution” you could interpret that in any number of different ways. What IS the most distinguished contribution? Is it the best written book? The book with the best story? The book with the most timeless appeal? The book with the most releveant issues of the moment? Who knows? Of COURSE sometimes the book that wins causes a few people to raise an eyebrow!

Finally, when I read articles like Silvey’s and she says things like “with this century’s selections,” I’m inclined to roll my eyes a bit – “this century” is only eight years old and to dismiss an award that is 86 years old because of four books in a row that aren’t particularly popular or memorable seems foolish. The committee has picked uninspired books in the past (the most popular example cited by Newbery-naysayers is in 1952 when the award went to the pretty much universally forgotten The Secret of the Andes instead of the still-beloved Charlotte’s Web (having not read The Secret of the Andes, I can make no comment)) and its gone on to choose spectacular and worthy books since them.

I’m willing to put up with a few lackluster years, since I have faith that in the future the committee will go on to put that famous Newbery seal on more wonderful, fantastic, loveable books.

Am I the only one who has favorite books that also happen to boast a gold seal?

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  • Reply Prudy December 23, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks so much for this post. We have a section in our library that is all Newberrys and Caldecotts and we work our way through religiously. Some of our very best reads have come from the Newberry section and I consider it a reliable award that hasn’t let me down yet, and I can’t say the same thing for Captain Underpants and the ilk. I’ll stick with the Newberrys and hope for the best!

  • Reply heidikins December 23, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    This is such a great post, my mom was obsessed with Newberry books and we checked out a ginormous stack from the library all the time.

    …coincidentally, I actually loved Secret of the Andes, although I didn’t read it the half-dozen times that I’ve read Charlotte’s Web. ;o)


  • Reply TheMoncurs December 23, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I never noticed Newbery only had one R. Weird.

  • Reply Douglas Carl December 23, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    You should apply to be a member of the board. I can’t imagine anyone better.

  • Reply Jess December 23, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I think you’re right. The award is great even if there are a few duds mixed in there.

  • Reply Zillah December 23, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    I loved Secret of the Andes! I think I liked it more than Charlotte’s Web, actually.

    When I was in 6th grade, I read all the Newberry books (my class was pretty boring). There were some pretty boring ones even before we reached the 21st century.–A Brief History of Mankind comes to mind. I admit, though, that I haven’t kept up with the Newberries over the last 10 years because they didn’t seem quite as captivating or solid or interesting as The Giver or The Bronze Bow or some of my other favorites. It seems like the focus certainly has changed to a certain kind of book, but perhaps that’s just a reflection of our society changing. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, or if it just is.

  • Reply teach5 December 23, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    My wife, an elementary school librarian, likes many of the Newbery “Honor” books better than the actual awards. When you teach in an at-risk setting, you sometimes have to almost trick the kids into reading, and some of the other vacuous books while content slim, but bathroom humor heavy seem to help do the job, especially for boys. I doubt that the author of the Junie B. Jone’s series is REALLY sad or feels cheated that she didn’t get a Newbery. I think they are different types of authors with different types of readers in mind. In the end, how wildly popular a book is, probably isn’t a true determinant of it’s lasting value or impact.

  • Reply Elizabeth December 23, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Well, Walk Two Moons is one of my favorite books of all time. My mom and I read it out loud to each other over the kitchen table and it’s a fond memory.
    And it’s listed as one of the least popular books from its decade.
    So you just never know what people might like. I thought Bud Not Buddy was totally unmemorable and I would never read it again, and kids love it, supposedly.
    We should start reading the Newberys together. That would be fun 🙂

  • Reply Saskia December 23, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    I’m looking through the Newbery Awards and I’m seeing so many wonderful books, either as medal books or honor books! Ella Enchanted (1998), A Girl Named Disaster (1997), Walk Two Moons (1995), the Giver (!!) (1994), the Whipping Boy (1987), Dear Mr Henshaw (1984), Dicey’s Inn (1983)..I could go on and on. My kids (when I have them) are going to have a lot of these in their bookcase!

  • Reply Science Teacher Mommy December 23, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    “Wrinkle in Time” and “Hero and the Crown pretty much changed my life.” I LOVE nearly every Newbery pick I’ve ever read. (Jacob, Have I Loved being a glaring exemption.) “Walk Two Moons” is probably on my top ten list of all time. And “A Single Shard” ????? It is from 2001 and divine. Like others, I could go on, but I will not.

    TNY did an article a couple of months ago about EB White’s ongoing fued with the most influential librarian in the country at the time. She hated both Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Her disdain prevented many of the accolades his work deserved. Like any award, politics are a huge part of the outcome. The same arguments (both sides) are used as pros and cons for the Academy Awards.

    And, like the AA, does the Newbery reflect opinion or does it drive it? Good “litrature” will always be very subjective. But the BEST literature, I think, is both literary (and all of the delicious critical elements only improve it) AND timeless. Unfortunately, with an award given just months (or weeks) after a book is published, only the first designation is helpful to the decision-makers.

    Truthfully, I think adult-opinion should help drive the consideration of “best” children’s literature. My mom always says, “Somebody will be in charge at your house; it may as well be you, you are the grown-up.” If it was all based on what got checked out it would be the Wayside school books, Captain Underpants and Goosebumps and Twilight (I know I risk your displeasure here–but if I see one more glowering poster of Robert Pattison I think I’m going to scream loud enough for even you to hear in Vegas.) It is FINE for them to make their millions by mass producing work that kids can’t get enough of. But literature? It has to be more than just putting butts in the seats.

    That’s all. Cool post.

  • Reply Sarah O'Holla December 23, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I read Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins while in library school. It was the first “new” Newbery I read as an adult, and it changed my life in two ways. One- it helped me decided to be a children’s librarian becuase I loved it so much. And two- it made me want to write my own book, becuase I loved it so much. I’ve acomplished both of those things since reading it. So maybe the Newbery is meant for children, but it can change adult lives too, and I hope it stays that way.

  • Reply Kevin and Liz December 23, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    A kind of random comment brought to mind by the mention of Twilight…

    Does no one else find it highly amusing that Cedric dies and comes back as a vampire? He doesn’t remember much of his mortal life, but we all know the truth…

  • Reply Jenna December 26, 2008 at 8:00 am

    I put two and two together at a very early age and realized that most of the books I loved were Newbery award books. The Giver and Island of the Blue Dolphins come to mind as favorites. Maybe I will have a different mindset once I have children of my own reading them though… People who have kids are always going to be more critical about books for kids I think.

    I’m just really easy to please, you know? A good book is a good book for me.

  • Reply Packrat December 26, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    I just read through the Newbery medal winners. I’ve read many of these books not even knowing they were winners. I guess I have to agree with those that like the honors winners better.

    And, as a reading aide for several years, I can truly say that the students in the school that I worked in did not gravitate to these books. The teachers had to either read them aloud or assign them. I will admit, though, that usually once one or two students read one and talked about it, other students followed.

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