Harshing the Medal

There’s a storm a’brewing among children’s librarians and reading teachers across the country. One of them had the temerity to write an article questioning why the selections that the Newbery award committee has made over the last few years don’t appeal to children as much as adults.

ZZZZT!!

In her article Has Newbery lost it’s way? Anita Silvey had been surprised by the discontented murmurings from teachers, librarians and children’s bookstore owners that they hadn’t been purchasing Newbery winners for their collections for a few years. Why, she asked?

“They don’t appeal to our children,” they explained patiently.

I’ve always been extremely proud that the one literary prize that can dramatically boost book sales isn’t awarded in Sweden (Nobel Prize) or overseen by Columbia University’s School of Journalism (Pulitzer Prize). No, the prize with the most clout is run by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). Of course, a well-chosen Newbery winner does more than ring the cash register: it sets the standard for aspiring children’s book writers, provides talented authors with a steady stream of income, and enables editors to pursue their own publishing visions. And over the years, Newbery medalists have often been the first choice of parents and educators in search of trustworthy titles.

But those critical comments made me wonder: Are children, librarians, and other book lovers still rushing to read the latest Newbery winners? Or has the most prestigious award in children’s literature lost some of its luster?

The Newbery selection committee, Silvey wrote, had moved toward selecting books that were literary in nature, and unconventional. Low on the list for selection criteria was popularity for its intended readership:

Book critics and reviewers offered the harshest critiques. “Recent Newbery committees seem dismissive of popularity, a quality which should be an asset,” said one reviewer. “They appear to be hunting for a special book—one with only a few readers, rather than a universal book,” offered another. “They search for a book that makes the committee powerful, because they were the only ones to think of it,” reasoned a critic. When asked what she didn’t like about these titles, one reviewer responded, “There is so little right about these completely forgettable books.”

Book aficionados frequently used the words “odd,” “unusual,” or “unconventional” to describe the latest Newbery winners. It’s possible in an age of sequels that committee members have unintentionally gravitated toward quirky offerings. But valuing uniqueness over universality has often led judges down the wrong road. Case in point? A member of the 1953 Newbery committee, which chose The Secret of the Andes (Viking, 1952) over E. B. White’s masterpiece, Charlotte’s Web (Harper, 1952), confessed that she preferred the former because she hadn’t seen any good books about South America.

It took a couple of weeks, but the nation’s Newbery-supporting librarians responded:

“Why do we care about whether kids like the Newbery books? It’s not the committee’s charge to pick books kids will like,” Librarilly Blonde posted.

Librarian Nina Lindsay blogged:

In my experience, Newbery committee members are not “dismissive” of popularity, but neither do they count it among the “assets” in the criteria for a distinguished book as defined by this award. Committee members are indeed “hunting for a special book,” but whether that special book appeals to a few readers or to the “universal” is not supposed to be a part of the deliberations.

Newbery’s selection terms and criteria explicitly state that popularity is not one of the criteria.

Note: The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic intent or for popularity.

At the Reading Zone, a sixth-grade teacher blogs:

My 6th graders are more than familiar with what a Newbery book is. They can recognize the medal on the book cover. Most have read a handful of winners through the years. What would shock many of you is that very few of my students have ever chosen a book based on the fact that it won the Newbery. You know why? Because they are acutely aware that the award is chosen by adults and given to adult authors. Without ever being explicitly taught the requirements for the Newbery, they know that the award is for great writing and not popularity.

I’m still reeling over the news that Charlotte’s Web was not a Newbery honoree.

I’m the first one to support unboxed fiction.  Good books are not only for adults; children should be exposed to great writing and compelling stories so they can hopefully become lifelong readers.

But it’s troubling the read the dismissiveness of popularity in all these rebuttals (this is a particularly entertaining one.  I wonder if the author realizes that Wicked the Musical was generally panned by critics, and only its, ahem, popularity saved it from a limited run.)  It’s pretty clear that “popularity” in this context means “commercial appeal.” Currently, a great book of children’s literature can’t be both, it seems, though a few critics recognize that there are Newbery books that managed to be popular and award-worthy,  Holes (1999) being one of the few in recent years.

I would hate to think that a worthy book popular enough for perhaps a second print-run was penalized, but an equally worthy book headed to the remainder bin got extra consideration. 

I think it’s okay to question why and how the Newbery committee made certain selections. Why they are dismissive of popularity. Why they feel the need to choose eclectic books. As humans, they’re subject to trends, personal whims and tastes. They are not sacrosanct beings who are the only ones who are able to arbitrate what is Art for the masses. Maybe a book about medieval monologues was the worthiest choice for 2007, but honestly, my kid’s not going to read it unless forced (and to be clear, I’m not squeamish about her being forced to read something outside her comfort zone). But will she love and treasure those books like, say, she loves the Twilight series?

It’s like asking your kids to eat spinach. “But look,” you say. “Spinach has riboflavins, folic acid, and may prevent cancer. I know it looks like glop and smells even worse, but trust me. It’s good for you and when you finish it, you’ll be glad you did.”

“But I’d rather have carrots,” they whine. “Why can’t I eat something that’s crunchy, tastes a tiny bit sweet, and is a veggie I like? Carrots are good for me, too.”

“Shut up and eat your spinach.”

So they eat it. Maybe they even learn to like it. But they are in control of their taste buds. So it goes with books. The Newbery committee elevates certain children’s books above others as being the highest form of literature for that year, but the real arbiters of a book’s longevity is the intended audience. 

What do you think?  Has the Newbery selection committee gone off the rails in recent years?  Or is this another one of those ebbs and flows of literary taste?  Do you know of an instance when a book’s commercial appeal kept it from serious consideration? 

Maybe most importantly, does your kid seek out Newbery books to read?

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About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting post! Yes, my kids know that the Newbery seal means it’ll be a good read, and it is a selling point for them. I used to look for it, too, when it was just me and the preschool Scholastic flier.

    Has Newbery admitted they’d pass by more popular books in favor of books that are more “odd,” “unusual,” or “unconventional”? Because, in my opinion, that would be wrong. Popular books can also be wickedly (ahem) unusual. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which won the Newbery in 1994, was both; but I would say Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, which won in 2003 (I think) was less unusual and definitely became popular.

    At the end of the day, I don’t think a book’s popularity should influence whether or not it’s considered for the Newbery, but maybe the judges should think about whether or not a book has the potential to be widely appreciated. Because the Newbery symbol will surely lead to greater sales–and hopefully widespread reading pleasure as well.

    Thanks for the post, Kath!

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  2. says

    I’ve read a lot of kids’ and young adult books since becoming a step-dad a couple years ago, and for a while Newberry awards were a great guide. And there are, of course, some great, literary books that kids enjoy, too — _The Giver_ is one. But after a while, the Newberry shelf at the library stopped being very helpful. Most of the books simply weren’t ones my kids — 6, 12, and 13 — would read.

    I don’t think it’s about “popularity”, which the Newberry judges are correct about — it’s no guide to quality. But that’s a false dichotomy — popularity is a factor largely disconnected from quality. There are great books that are popular, and mediocre and even bad ones that are popular. Especially for kids, whose tastes are shaped as much by their fascination with their own bodily processes as by the judgment of adults around them. Maybe more.

    The problem here seems to be that judges are equating popularity with *readability*. The charge isn’t that the books aren’t good, but that they’re good *for adult readers*, which means they’re probably above many young readers’ level. That’s not to say that all books that are good by adult standards aren’t readable by children and teens, but I would pay special attention to the readability of any book aimed at young adults that I found meaty enough to satisfy my own adult mind. If a book doesn’t engage young readers, and it’s *aimed at* young readers, then it is a failed book, no matter how literary it is.

    I wonder how much publishers are to blame for this? The young adult market has been a strong area of growth while literary fiction has declined; I can imagine that many writers who wouldn’t otherwise write for children are being drawn to the one segment of the publishing world where rosters (and marketing budgets) are still growing. Could it be that, in order to fill out their lineups, publishers of books for young adults are backing books that should rightly be aimed at adults — or that authors who should rightly be writing for adults are trying to write for this growing market without giving up too much of their authorial integrity?

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  3. Thea says

    Well, it’s not the Newberry Committee’s responsibility to pick only best sellers.
    Just something well-written and unique.
    I’ve never noticed any snobbery element
    in their choice of books. I’d like to
    think of it as more of a choice of ‘quality’.
    Teachers can really help by discussing books that receive awards, explaining what awards mean, and choosing award winning books for their class reading. My son read many Newberry and Caldecott winners, especially in second and fifth grade. I credit those teachers for their selections.

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  4. M. A. Golla says

    Unconsciously, I compare the Newbery award with the Oscars for best movie. Neither of them is chosen for its popularity among the poplulation, but on its ‘literary’ value. Uh, many of the movies that have won didn’t lasted in the theaters, but instead were brought back AFTER they won. And no, I still didn’t plunk money on the counter to see the movie.
    The same goes for the Newbery. I’d rather spend money on books my daughter (7) is interested in reading: The Magic Treehouse books, Katie Kazoo series, the Black Lagoon, etc. These books challenge her without being too ‘lofty’.
    Yes, we have two of the Newbery books, and I think they’ve only been read once or twice compared to the rereads her favorite books get.

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  5. Noelle Greene says

    What a relief to see I’m not alone in this opinion. I worked as a children’s librarian for five years and I noticed a distinct trend toward boring Newbery books. There were notable exceptions; however, some years I couldn’t get the kids to check those books out to save my life. And then I realized: I didn’t want to read past a few pages either. There ought to be a balance, a middle ground somewhere. It’s just plain stupid to turn off young readers with boring books.

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