At a party last week I was introduced as having been chair of last year’s Newbery committee. The question came from a fourth grade teacher: how do you get on the Newbery Committee? …which is the most common question I get, and is most commonly followed by a statement somewhat like her next one: “Because ever since The Giver they’ve just been… weird.”
The Giver is one of the titles that Anita Silvey points to in Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?, in this months’ issue of SLJ (Don’t miss Roger’s response to it either). She places The Giver as a popular favorite within her “golden age” of recent Newberys: the 1990s. Interestingly, I don’t get many requests for it from kids in my urban public library, unless it’s been assigned…nor was it a favorite, clearly, of the fourth grade teacher I met last week. Notably, it was awarded the medal the year after Holes, and my suspicion is that this fourth grade teacher has never found a Newbery winner quite like that widespread favorite. Well…neither have I. But I’d hope not. [Addendum 10/2. Holes was published fives years after the Giver, as "donald" gently reminds me in the comments below. So my suspicion about that teacher is unfounded; yet the premise stands. Apologies for the embarrassing error.]
Silvey’s article does zero in on a topic that’s getting a lot of air time recently…frustration and confusion among many teachers, librarians, and booksellers, about the “current trend” in the Newbery award. I’m not sure that she, or anyone, has done an adequate job of defining “the trend” because I think there are different itches being scratched. She also fails to point to the Newbery Terms and Criteria in response to some of these frustrations. So allow me.
“’Recent Newbery committees seem dismissive of popularity, 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.”
Yet she fails to point out that the Newbery criteria state explicitly:
“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.”
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.
The comments from teachers and librarians that Silvey quotes, and from my experience, show a desire for the Newbery winners to be “appropriate” to certain “values,” specific educational purposes, and/or to specific ages. Yet, as mentioned above, the book “is not for didactic intent,” and is for a wide age range. Within the award’s definition of “children’s literature,” “Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.” If every Newbery winner was appropriate for a particular fourth grade teacher’s classroom, that would imply that only certain values, and books for certain ages, could ever be “distinguished.”
One of Silvey’s commenters suggested that “Possibly the committee has too many ‘experts’ on it, and not enough working, small-town public librarians.” Yet every ALSC award committee in my memory has been well represented between smaller and larger libraries, different parts of the country, various industries, and even gender and race. (Those latter two are the hardest to diversify on this type of committee, and are an excellent subject for some latter article.) The ALSC Vice-President appoints half of the committee after ALSC members have elected the first half, and appoints specifically with this diversification in mind. Each year’s Newbery committee is comprised of a completely different set of professionals, and each looks at its year’s books without comparing to the previous years’.
So I haven’t found any claim of a recent “trend” to be convincing. Among the complaints I’ve received about past years’ winners, Kira-Kira has been called “too quiet” and “inappropriate because it deals with death;” Criss-Cross “too old” and “meandering,” and The Higher Power of Lucky…well, those complainants had rarely gotten past the first page and pointed out that they simply “couldn’t” share this with children. Complainants have tried to lump these titles together, but the only common thread I see is adult discomfort in discussing difficult issues with children, and the narrowness of personal taste. (Well, and all girl protagonists, but that is, again, another article.)
To her credit, in claiming a “trend” Silvey is simply pointing to the sentiment she observed in questioning 100 individuals. It is true that these titles, combined with last year’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, all speak to very different and particular tastes in literature. She looks at the wider view and points out that “The strongest Newbery winners have always been ideal for a wide range of readers and have always worked in a variety of settings, including classrooms, homes, and book clubs.” I won’t disagree with her on the idea that some winners "last" better in the wider public arena, nor that there are “perennial best sellers…that combine quality writing with exciting pacing and heart-tugging characters…even though they never captured Newbery gold.” But isn’t this—and shouldn’t this be—in the nature of publishing, and of selecting awards?
Silvey tries to pit the last four year’s titles against four titles spread throughout the nineties, which were, in the scheme of things, still not that long ago, even though they may seem so to an individual. Doesn’t this just reinforce the short view, rather than point to a trend? The titles she selects from the 90s, with the exception of Holes, are also, in my experience, teacher favorites, and not necessarily children’s favorites. When I look at the longer list of Newbery winners, the ones that stand out as wide children’s favorites among my local public are even more scattered: The Tale of Desperaux, Bud Not Buddy, Holes, Walk Two Moons, The Westing Game, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH… There are plenty of favorites between those, but some are favorites of teachers, some of fantasy readers, some of nonfiction readers…the point being, variety. Certainly there is variety in distinguished literature for children ages zero to fourteen? Doesn’t a book like Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! help us to broaden and refine our definitions of distinguished children’s literature?
There is something special about a book that “everybody” seems to love. It becomes a touchstone—a common referent. Holes is such a book, and has perhaps skewed individuals’ expectations of the Newbery since. They’re not to blame, nor is Mr. Sachar…but we are, if we don’t attempt to correct it. There are other touchstone books that we can value as such: Charlotte’s Web is one (which was recognized by that year’s Newbery committee as "also truly distinguished"). So is Harry Potter (which was not eligible for the Newbery). But these books are by definition rare: they are one small but thick overlap in a Venn diagram that describes how we come to reading and what we take from it in a myriad of ways. Newbery Medalists are scattered all over that diagram. Beginning to close in on a century’s worth, I’d hope for nothing less.