The Recent Newbery Debate

In the world of Children’s Literature, a recent (and seemingly perennial) debate has the field experts and practitioners jumping in and all over each other on the Nets (an Ender’s Game term!) Anyway. Here are some links and a couple of my own responses to those articles and comments.

The original article is called Has the Newbery Lost Its Way by Anita Silvey and SLJ published the article and many comments in its Talkback section. One of the very active talkback follows Nina Lindsay’s thread in SLJ’s own blog “Heavy Medal” entitled The Newbery Remembers its Way, or “Gee, thanks, Mr. Sachar”. Over here on Roger Sutton’s blog Read Roger, his post Going for the Gold also generated further discussions. Another thoughtful blog post is The best book no kid wants to read at Librarily Blonde.

I posted two rather long-winded responses on the SLJ and the Librariry Blonde sites but want reposts them here as well:

Response on Librariry Blonde:

I agree with almost everything here and I already posted a long response to Silvey’s article in two places. However, I still think it is important that we/the committee members take into consideration of the author’s ability to “speak to children” successfully through his/her work. And I DO think that the criterium of potentially appealing to many children should be considered as an important component when we define the “work of art” aspect in a “book for children.”

This is a separate genre and it should have its own distinct set of criteria. If we are looking at a work of fiction, we must of course examine its plot, its character development, its theme presentation, its pacing, its use of language, etc. But, then, where in this list of criteria do we consider the “children’s literature” part? What makes a book “stand apart” and become a great “book for children” and not just a “book for general readers or adults” IS its ability to reach out and grab child readers. Some of them will appeal to adults (Golden Compass, Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting, Out of the Dust, The Giver, and yes, Holes) as well — but, if they are only appealing to a very small group of children and a large group of adults, then they, in my mind, fail to BE “children’s books.”

I think there has to be a balance and a serious appreciation of those writers who really know how to tuck the heart strings of many children without giving up the high demand of literary qualities. That, my friends, should be the real charge of the Newbery Committee (and actually it IS the current charge if the committee chooses to interpret the criteria to its fullest extend and give EVERY clause equal weight.)

Response on SLJ:

I don’t quite feel outraged by Anita’s article as some of my Newbery Committee colleagues (not necessarily serving simultaneously as I did but those who went through the “same” process as I did.) Maybe because in some way, I feel similarly to many of those quoted by her — that the recent few years did not QUITE yield the most long-lasting and child-appealing titles.

But even in the 90s, not all of them are being sought after by today’s children — even HOLES has lost some of its luster with my 4th and 5th graders because they have moved on to the newest things! Out of the Dust is not picked up by children themselves. It is being “used” by teachers. The View from Saturday is read but only by a small group of children. The Midwife’s Apprentice does not get takers no matter how much I try to push it. Walk Two Moons is just one of the many Sharon Creech titles now. The Giver remains strong going both within the classroom setting and words of mouth. Missing May has become almost obscure. Shiloh definitely does not elicit the same excitement as many new titles. Maniac Magee is still being taught and regarded highly in classrooms. It, however, is also not a book that children recommend to each other any more. Number the Stars remains strong. So… out of the 10 titles, only 3 really has its OWN lasting power without the help from teachers or librarians.

And in the 9 years of winners from 2000 to 2008, we have Bud, Not Buddy, a book my students constantly read and exclaim to their peers how good it is! We have The Tale of Despereaux, a new “classic” amongst grade school kids. And this year’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, a book that teachers will keep promoting and will bring fresh air into the classrooms. Plus the title cited by Anita A Single Shard which teachers definitely enjoy teaching. And the reports from the students remain positive, although it is not an easy “sale” all the time. That’s 4 titles worthy of mentioning. Not that much different from that of the 90s and actually if one examines carefully each decade, the scenarios are quite similar (3 or 4 that really speak to a larger number of children and 3 or 4 that are somewhat obscure and than about 2 in the middle ground.)

So, I do question the whole “surveying” method that is the basis of this article and wonder about those other who were “interviewed” but not quoted. Did some of them speak positively about the choices and their faith in the process but were not quoted because their opinions did not fit cozily with the intent of the report? However, even as I somewhat question the method of the article, I do agree, quite strongly, that CHILD-APPEAL is essential in selecting the “most distinguished” literary work for children in the United States.

I have made this same argument for years now — that we as participants in a legitimate field of intellectual inquiries (the children’s literature study,) must acknowledge and award those who have the uncanny abilities to speak directly to children everywhere — those who know HOW to write “for children,” and those who are beloved by their targeted audience. Writing for children will always be regarded as “simpler and easier” than writing for adults if we cannot figure out ourselves how to critique, evaluate, and award the true talents and keep the Newbery Medal truly meaningful to the readers.


Filed under Book Notes

4 responses to “The Recent Newbery Debate

  1. Jan Dohner

    In my years of experience since becoming a school librarian, I've often tried to put my disappointment with many of the Newbery winners into words. Your phrase is perhaps the best – "if they are only appealing to a very small group of children and a large group of adults, then they, in my mind, fail to BE "children's books". Many of the winners are lovely and beautiful literary works – to adults – but not to my students who barely touch them even after I book talk them. After a year of promoting great new books, my students, my staff and I all sigh when a title wins that none of us adored.


  2. Anonymous

    fairrosa and jan,

    I'm having trouble boiling down what I want to say without editing myself into incoherence. Please forgive me if I am long-winded, or if I don't get this right the first time.

    I agree that people like Sacher or Babbitt deserve recognition for their astonishing ability to be both literary and –the word I've come with– inclusive. Their audience includes so many different kinds of readers.

    However, I think that the book written for a little tiny slice of the child audience deserves exactly the same recognition, and I think there, you and I disagree. Whether or not adults appreciate Octavian Nothing, is irrelevant to whether or not it is a YA book. The adult audience for Criss Cross doesn't mean it cannot be a book for 13 year olds. Even if ten times as many adults read the book as children do.

    There is a subset of child readers who will enjoy these books. These are the children who read Eagle of the Ninth, or Treasure Island, or Jane Eyre because they WANT to, not because it was assigned. These books should be available for them, even if the audience they make is very small.

    These are the children who would be under served if the Newbery didn't reward and therefor promote the publication of books exactly like Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, Criss Cross, and Olive's Ocean. These are books for Readers with a capitol R, and it is Readers who get short shrift in a market driven publishing world where Goosebumps is always going to outsell Hattie Big Sky. Sacher's Holes might exist without the current configuration of the Newbery. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! probably wouldn't.

    If Appeal becomes more important to the Newbery committee, we will be left to hope that some sense of nobless oblige will keep publishers publishing these beautiful books for small audiences. But I don't want to count on it.

    M W Turner


  3. fairrosa

    M W Turner,

    I am so pleased to be visited by you! (I adore your writing and I know many young people, mostly early teens, who have fallen in love with the fantasy trilogy. One of them was a Newbery Honor!)

    I intend on compiling a thread-archive of the recent discussion on Child_lit where I talked more and hopefully more clearly about my views. You might, however, still disagree with me. Here is one of the many lines I wrote in the past few days:

    "I think we must shift the discussion from the "quantitative" to the "qualitative." Let me explain myself:

    If we must say that the "minority" opinion is as valuable as the
    "majority" one, then, I want to make sure that when a book speaks to a small group of children (minority) but not many (majority), it speaks to them deeply and strongly. It must reach to the core of these children's souls. You will know whether that's the case by listening to these children."

    I want to clearly state that I am not promoting giving whatever the children want to them and just make Newbery into a Popularity Contest. On the contrary, I am asking that we must consider more and more effectively.


  4. Jan Dohner

    I was unhappy that the word popularity became associated with this discussion. Popularity is not important. It is the phrase child appeal that is important here.

    I tend to agree with Fairrosa – if a book has little or no child appeal, is it really children's literature? I have no quarrel with saying that a work will only appeal to a small number of children. Every week I work with more than 1600 middle school children, doing lots of book talks and individual book advisories. And I've been doing it for many years. I think I can put my finger on books that have little or no child appeal. Some books are loved deeply by only a few children while others appeal to many children.

    I have often book talked The Thief trilogy to both teachers and students,with good success. These novels are deep, rich works with an amazing ability to surprise. They do have an adult audience but also, as Fairrosa says, an audience with young people.

    Personally, I think I'm going to stop promoting the Newbery so much. It's probably my fault for expecting it to do what I want it to do.


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