Newbery Winners, Part 1

I went to bed Sunday night hoping, hoping, hoping that When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, would win the Newbery Medal, and lo and behold, Monday morning when I woke up and Googled, my wish was granted! It wasn't a terrific surprise; When You Reach Me has been the odds-on favorite to win the Newbery ever since it was published earlier this year. One feeling among many librarians I know is relief that the 2010 Newbery winner is a gorgeously written and plotted book that is also one they're fairly sure many kids will actually like.

This comes up a lot with the Newbery, more than with other children's book awards: the sense that since the medal is specifically given for literary merit, often the winners appeal more to adults who appreciate a fine turn of phrase than to kids who are more apt to want humor and action and characters they can relate to. I'm generalizing wildly--kids like as many different things in their books as adults do--but the point holds: every year or two, it seems, there’s an article by an adult complaining about deadly dull or depressing books that their kid is forced to read because they have that shiny gold medal on the cover, followed by ripples of fervent print and online agreement.

My take on this is that assigning kids to read a Newbery Medal winner because it's a Newbery Medal winner is a misuse of the award (although I admit that I did this, once, early in my school librarian career-- it wasn't a success and I never did it again). The award really is mandated to be for "distinguished" literary quality, not for intrinsic appeal to the average kid. Better to have kids read, and vote on, a couple of nominees from one of the many regional children's choice awards, like the Pacific Northwest's Young Reader's Choice Award, than to force a Newbery winner down their throats. Or have them read a bunch of current kids' novels and try to game the Newbery for themselves: which one will win? Why? Then when the award is announced, they'll have some idea of how hard it is to pick a "best" book, especially in collaboration with a bunch of other people with differing opinions.

One thing I like about the Newbery is that sometimes it gives staying power to a book that is truly a gem but that might be too odd, or too uncategorizable, to stay in print long just on the basis of demand from kids themselves. Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, the 2008 winner, is a great example of that. I'd be surprised if many kids were rushing to check this book out, at least not without an exceptionally juicy booktalk or recommendation from a trusted teacher or librarian: it's a collection of monologues about kids in the Middle Ages, which is just not the kind of topic that has kids battling each other to borrow a book. It's also, if you take the time to read it, wry, funny, tragic, amazing piece of writing. Without the Newbery, Good Masters might have fallen into obscurity within a few years, and that would have been a terrible shame. That said, when a kid comes and asks me for "a good book" I don't automatically push Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! into their hands-- it's a rare kid who will fall for this book on first flipping through it. But the ones who will, will fall hard. I'm very grateful that the Newbery has helped assure that it will be there for them for a long time.

More on the Newbery in the next post; in the meantime, here’s the ALA’s official press release listing all the Youth Media Awards announced yesterday. Congratulations to all the winners, including Scholastic titles The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, by Rodman Philbrick, which won a Newbery honor; Siebert teen award winner Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork, and Geisel honor book I Spy Fly Guy, by Tedd Arnold, as well as Scholastic authors Walter Dean Myers, who was awarded the first-ever Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, and Jim Murphy, winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

The comments to this entry are closed.