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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Newbery Remembers its Way, or “Gee, thanks, Mr. Sachar”

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.

Silvey quotes:
“’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.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Jennifer says:

    I think the issue is that so many kids end up reading the Newbery winner that it’s a shame if it doesn’t have kid appeal. In fact, it could be argued that non-popular Newbery winners end up doing more harm than good in the long run because kids are forced to read them, they don’t like them, then they think “literature” is not for them. It’s a shame. That’s why Holes, to me, is the best kind of Newbery winner. It combines high quality literature with high kid appeal. I’d love to see more of that. I understand that the committee shouldn’t look at popularity. But shouldn’t they look at kid appeal? I’ve also noticed that the Newbery Honor books seem to have more kid appeal than the winners. As an author, I dream of winning the silver!

  2. eloise says:

    I can’t tell you how much I wish that The Higher Power of Lucky didn’t have the word “scrotum” in it. Because of that one word, everyone who dislikes the book is dismissed as narrow minded and opinionated. Any other Newbery winner we are free to have an opinion about, but not that one.

  3. book lover says:

    Certainly popularity should not be the only criteria for winning the Newbery, but the committee should realize that popular books/”frontrunners” are in that position for a reason. Something about the story/writing has mass appeal and should be taken seriously.

  4. an observer says:

    Silvey does a fine job at pointing out trends, but misses the big trend that Newbery committees are notorious for hating plot driven books. Hence, books like City of Ember, Alabama Moon, and Leepike Ridge were never really in the running. Primarily that’s because as much as anyone would hate to admit it, the committees are overwhelmingly female who tend to choose quiet, character-driven books.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    Yeah, Observer. Books like Holes.

  6. Two Cents says:

    With all due respect, I think there is a degree of disingenuousness here. When people use words like trends, without real proof, and popular, without saying popular among whom, they are really saying “I did not like this book personally and I am going to pretend like the kids don’t like it.” There are a wide variety of readers in our schools and children’s rooms, and there are kids who will love reading and be touched by books like Higher Power of Lucky, Walk Two Moons, and Good Masters Sweet Ladies, and there will be kids who hate these books. Believe it or not, there are kids who did not like Holes, Charlotte’s Web, or Harry Potter. Silvey’s article was sloppy, lacked any substantial evidence, and was solipsistic. I would have respected it more if she had merely said, “I do not like these Newbery books and here is why.” I could have respected that kind of honesty instead of her hiding behind some imaginary fleet of child readers who are dramatically turned off reading because of the cabal of evil feminist librarians out to remove good plots from all our children’s books.

  7. Walter Mayes says:

    The regular and predictable carping about the divide in some minds between the Newbery and popularity always seems so ignorant of the process, fueled by bias as it is and not by any factual information. The criteria are set. The committee has to use them, not ignore them for sake of a personal agenda or taste. It’s akin to complaints about the Electoral College by an uninformed populace–yes, it is easier to just complain rather than take the time to actually understand a problem or, god forbid, work towards effecting change. People’s complaints have nothing to do with the actual criteria (I swear no complainer has actually read them) and when they go so far as to claim some knowledge of what is in the minds of committee members, well, they become ludicrous. Yet they persist. Perhaps there needs to be an organized campaign aimed at teachers, librarians, and booksellers about what the award is and is not. And why are the complaints not directed at the clueless perpetual assignment that children read a Newbery, regardless of any other aspect of selection?

  8. sharon mckellar says:

    I agree with Walter completely here. Just from the time I’ve spent with the Newbery Criteria via Mock Newberys I’ve learned so much. Such a valuable way to learn what the award *really* is and also, perhaps just as important, what the award is not. The award is not a popularity contest. It’s not about what book the committee LIKES best. It’s about the most distinguished piece of literature for the year based on a strict set of criteria. It’s the assumption that this means it will or should have mass child appeal is the problem. Very few books have MASS child appeal given the wide range of age that “child” encompasses and the breadth of potential interests children have. But that aside, it is not what the award is about. So, when librarians and teachers treat it as if it is, that’s where the disconnect comes about.

  9. KT Horning says:

    Hats off to Walter Mayes for putting his finger on the exact problem. I get so tired of this argument from people who either don’t have a clue or don’t care about what the terms and process are.

    While I may not agree with the committee’s choice every year, I trust the process — the 15 people who make the decision each year know the eligible books of that year better than anyone else on the planet, and they’ve had intelligent and informed discussion about all of the contenders before making their final decisions.

    In terms of the last four years, I think what all the books have in common is that they were *surprises* and that seems to upset the Newbery junkies. They want to have at least read and rejected the winning book each year prior to the announcement. Maybe if they read as widely as the Newbery Committee, they wouldn’t be so surprised at announcement time.

  10. Nina says:

    Thanks Walter and KT. I wanted to respond to a couple of the earlier comments specifically. *book lover* says that *popular books should be taken seriously.* They are–believe me, the committees listen VERY seriously to what is being said about books by fans and professionals all year long. They are scouring blogs. Probably many of the current committee are reading this. *an observer* comments that *Newbery committees are notorious for hating plot driven books. Hence, books like City of Ember, Alabama Moon, or Leepike Ridge were never really in the running*. But those books were–they were eligible. And because they were popular, I’m sure the committee took them seriously. I’m not sure how a committee who works for one year can become *notorious* for a trend however…or, since their deliberations are confidential, how anyone could accuse them of *hating* certain books. These comments to me show a distrust based on unfamiliarity with the process and the criteria. I urge book lover and an observer to try to take part in, or organize themselves, a Mock Newbery discussion this year if possible. Sharon and I will be posting about exactly how to do this, soon.

  11. donald says:

    Great response Nina! Maybe you should submit an article to SLJ to balance. I’ve reread both Criss Cross and Kira Kira lately and was even more impressed with the craft and power of those books. I’m glad kids will have an extra incentive to read them for years to come. And if they want something more popular, teachers can always assign children’s choice awards instead. (But I do have to mention that “The Giver” won the medal five years before “Holes,” not the year after, as you mention above.)

  12. Nina says:

    Donald, thanks for the encouragement, which couches the supreme embarassment I feel at such a goofy mistake. I was looking at the PDF of Anita Silvey’s article, in which The Giver is displayed below Holes, opposite a column in which the recent winners decline chronologically. That kind of takes the wind out of my whole opening argument. Bloggers weigh in: is it inappropriate to change my posting at this point…or inappropriate to leave it innaccurate?

  13. dave says:

    Finding this thread very interesting.

    One thing I find peculiar is that any dissention among the ranks is marked as ignorance or unfamiliarity with the process. How do any of us know who these people are or what their involvement is? They could very well be former, disgruntled committee members wishing not to be identified. Or not. Or they may be on several “mock’ committees. My point is that accusing someone of not knowing the process when you are not familiar with the poster’s knowledge is hypocritical.

    Now, we all should know Walter (and his GIANT opinions), and I doubt anyone could disagree that he’s an expert in the field. I do however have a problem with anyone saying committees always choose the best. This argument is inherently flawed. The very nature of a committee is based on compromise and concensus. That means, in most cases, committees do not aim for excellence, but mediocrity.

    I am very familiar with the process, have many close friends and associates who have served on several different awards committees,and while they have never discussed the particulars of any committee, all of them have said something to the effect that while the “winner” in whatever catagory may not have been ANYONE’S first choice, it was probably on all of the members’ “top ten list.” In other words, they compromised. Rather than fight for excellence, they settled for mediocrity. And let’s face it, there are some recent choices that reinforce that argument.

    That said, I, like Walter, believe The Underneath is more than deserving of this year’s Newbery. It is an exquisite piece of writing. However, it is quite a controversial piece and elicits strong reactions on both sides.

    Walter, I fear, the Newbery committee will likely compromise it off the list.

  14. KATHLEEN HORNING says:

    Dave, while the Newbery Committee process does work toward consensus, in order for a book to win it has to be the first place choice of 8 of the 15 members, and, in addition, it has to be 8 points higher than the next highest vote getter in a tallied vote (1st place=4 points

  15. KATHLEEN HORNING says:

    Sorry, somehow my message got truncated. I’ll try again. **********
    Dave, while the Newbery Committee process does work toward consensus, in order for a book to win it has to be the first place choice of 8 of the 15 members, and, in addition, it has to be 8 points higher than the next highest vote getter in a tallied vote (1st place=4 points; 2nd place=3 points; and 3rd place=2 points). This means that even a book that is the #1 choice of a majority of committee members won’t win unless at least some of the remaining committee members like it well enough place it second or third. It is also unlikely that any book that was on every member’s top ten list would be “mediocre.” We have an embarrassment of riches in this country when it comes to children’s books, so the bigger challenge for the Newbery Committee is to select just one winner from so many worthy and varied books.

  16. Walter Mayes says:

    Look, I am as familiar as the next guy with the old saying (Allan Sherman’s, I believe) that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee,” but my experience doesn’t bear that out. The bigger point is, many of the complaints are ill informed and show an ignorance of the process, not because they dissent but because they focus more on shoulds, taste, and spurious arguments than ignore the realities of the situation.

    The argument Dave offers about “the best” is spurious. All a given medal or award **can** mean is that a particular group of judges read more deeply into a year’s output than most mortals and came up with the best selection they could based on the criteria and the competition. Nothing more, nothing less, whether we’re talking about the Oscars, the James Beard Awards, or the National Book Awards. That you or I or Dave or Kathleen or Nina or anyone should disagree with a given committee’s selection for the Newbery Medal is not only a foregone conclusion, but beside the point. We all have a tendency to congratulate the committees (a genius being someone who agrees with me) and decry them (what were they thinking?), but in most years, it is safe to say that none of us have done the work of reading, rereading, discussing, and selecting that the committee members have done. And none of us knows that was in the minds of the committee because we weren’t in the room. I know from experience that the selection does not come down to a mediocre choice over a worthy choice, regardless of how the votes come out, but the more likely scenario is that a book that was worthy got selected over several other titles that were also worthy. And whether they “like” or “love” the book is not part of the committees charge.

    The only thing I have been able to do when a committee makes a choice I don’t get is to read the book again and try to see what the committee saw.

  17. Roger Sutton says:

    I wish the article had, however briefly, laid out the charge of the Newbery Committee. A lot of the comments Anita quotes may speak to the reception of some recent winners but none of them follow through to their necessary conclusion: change the rules. In fact, the perception of those interviewed seems to be that there ARE no rules, that the Newbery committee just “picks” something. If a Newbery winner is supposed to “be ideal for a wide range of readers and [work] in a variety of settings, including classrooms, homes, and book clubs” then we need a different way of selecting it, because the criteria as they stand won’t necessarily lead to that happy conclusion. I wonder, though: what criteria *could*?

  18. eloise says:

    Oh, funny, Roger. I just posted a similar comment on your site, saying that I think the Newbery criteria has resulted in the selection of great books over time, and that I wouldn’t want to see them changed.

    Even if we agree that the Newbery committees have picked some losers, we don’t agree at all on which books we’d throw out. Anita Silvey would save A Single Shard, others would toss it as an excellent example of dave’s compromise candidate. Some people hate Criss Cross, and others hate Higher Power of Lucky–and for reasons that have nothing to do with the anatomical vocabulary. Anita Silvey has to know that there’s no agreement about which are the ”

  19. eloise says:

    Oops.

    Anita Silvey has to know that there’s no agreement about which are the “good” Newberys and which are the “bad” ones. And that just makes her article seem even more disingenuous.

  20. bookfan1 says:

    As I read the posts I have all sorts of thoughts going on. 1.I have to say I am one of those people who enjoys the plot of a book. Having said that when an exceptionally well written book crosses my way I start to say how well developed the characters are, the mood etc. Things I hated discussing in English class but now know these make for truly amazing books. Lizzie Bright comes to mind. The kids in my school really did not like the book yet I found the plot enjoyable and the writing great. Wonder why it didn’t win the top award but came in second both Newbery and Printz I believe. 2. The words I question in the Criteria is Quality for Children. Isn’t that where popularity should be discussed or is it just language construction, flow of words, setting etc. 3.Underneath is my favorite for this year so far and I struggle reading animal stories, do not like them at all. So for me to like this book says something about the writing IMHO.

  21. Sarah Miller says:

    To my way of thinking, there’s a significant difference between popularity and appeal. Popularity is about numbers; appeal is about accessibility and relevance to the intended audience. The Newbery criteria do in fact appear to address issues of accessibility: “The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” Likely, the dissatisfaction with some of the recent winners stems from a perception that this criterion is getting short shrift. Whether or not that perception is accurate is another matter, but the fact remains that the perception exists in a significant number of readers. And if it’s not accurate, how did it get rooted in so many people’s minds? Because I can tell you as a former independent bookseller that right or wrong, the majority of Silvey’s anonymous informants’ comments and opinions are dead-on with my experience of kids’, teachers’, librarians’, and parents’ reactions to many of this decade’s winners.

  22. Roxanne Feldman says:

    I posted this directly on the Silvey article page but also wish to share my thoughts here:

    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.

  23. Mom-of-a-reader says:

    Blasting Silvey’s article only denies the obvious–many of the recent winners don’t have kid appeal. My third-grade daughter loves reading more than anything — she reads for hours and hours on end, with extremely eclectic taste. But any book that has the Newbery sticker on she stays away from… she wants a great story and says most of the ones she’s tried are ”

  24. second that says:

    Here, here to Roxanne Feldman’s comments. Child appeal should be of utmost importance in the selection of what wins the Newbery. What ever the survey methods were I concurr that a lot of children’s librarians, including myself, do not like the recent selections. Child popularity is not something that should be important in the Newbery selection. While children may not gravitate toward a Newbery title, what I think is the desired outcome is that a child will like a Newbery book once they read it. Most of the titles will only be read if a librarian or teacher puts the books into the hands of children. With the most recent picks that’s not going to happen. As far as the ”

  25. Kris says:

    My experience as a former Newbery Committee member has completely informed my opinion of the Newbery since then. There are no commonalities among the last few winners, no plot to be unpopular. The only trend I can see is the same as always–the Newbery Committee follows the criteria as closely as possible, reads as much as possible, talks and talks and talks and then does their best. I would encourage people who find fault with the Newbery Medal books to learn more about the criteria, the process, and join ALSC. If you don’t join ALSC, you can’t work from within, either to create change or to learn just how well it all comes together when 15 people work their hardest to pick the best book of the year. Does every person on the committee agree that the winning book is the best? Of course not! My favorite book was not the one that ultimately won, but I am proud of the work I and the other committee members did.
    I also want to add that as a former Newbery Committee member, I’m not surprised by any of the comments that have been made. I’m happy that people are talking about the award, AND I don’t think it’s a crime that parents/teachers/librarians sometimes need to recommend Newbery winners to children. A Single Shard sticks out in my mind as a book that isn’t an obvious sell at first, but most of the young people who’ve read it either on their own or in a club with me have been knocked out by the protagonist, his struggles, his realness…it’s a tremendous book that I hope will last, and I feel that way about almost every Newbery Medal book. I applaud each year’s committee, because I know the work they did.

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