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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Even More 1953 Newbery

The discussion in the comments of both my post and Nina’s shows that we are not done with this topic.  Maybe not even close.

First of all, I really would like to talk more about Mocassin Trail which I still haven’t managed to get my hands on.  But I’ll keep trying.  I really enjoyed reading the back and forth between Leslie, Wendy and Hope about that particular honor book from 1953 and would love to provide a forum for greater discussion and to add my own (and Nina’s) thoughts.  So I’ll work on that.  

But when we get back to Charlotte’s Web and Secret of the Andes, I wanted to take a minute and make a post that focusses more closely on "specialness" and on how we look at specialness in different genres of book.   I commented in my other post that:

I do agree completely with Leslie and Wendy that I think Charlotte’s Web was likely not chosen a winner for those exact reasons – too cute, too sweet, too hard to judge against more serious novels. Something worthy of so much more discussion, I think, then we’ve given it on this blog so far, although we have touched upon it here or there. How do we give those books their fair shot and how do we judge that style of writing against other styles?

I also think there is more to be said about popularity.  We can go back to the Anita Silvey article also here, that we discussed back at the very beginning of October.  Why is it that certain kinds of books seem to always win the Newbery?  And was 1953 just another example of that?

As Wendy points out in a comment:

I wonder, too, if Charlotte’s Web just seemed ORDINARY to the committee. You have a book set in Peru, a book straddling Indian and white-settler culture, one set in Italy, a philosophical/academic book (and I have no explanation for Hemlock Mountain, does anyone?)–and next to all those, maybe Charlotte’s Web, about an ordinary girl in the modern-day US living on an ordinary farm and going to the ordinary fair, just didn’t seem special enough. *Special* is, of course, not an official criterion, but I think it was an unofficial one, and maybe it still is.

So, what do we know?  We know that the Newbery Committee is not looking for *special*.  The committee is not looking for most unique, most special, most likely to last throughout history.  They are not judging on how ordinary the setting or story of one book is compared to another.  But yet, it seems like perhaps this is something that unofficially is perhaps being considered when committe members are thinking about what is distinguished writing.

We’ve talked about how rare it is for a "funny book" to win the Newbery and about how hard it is to judge a book that is not your normal prefered genre.  Is this an extention of that?  Does it go deeper?

Any thoughts on this?  Is there an inherent bias in the Newbery?  Or is this something committees can and do get past?

Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at


  1. Thank you for saying that you enjoyed the back and forth discussion about Moccasin Trail. It was much more pleasant to read that than to read that I was “making excuses for racism” rather than, as I had thought, having a legitimate disagreement over whether or not Moccasin Trail is racist.

  2. Seconds this.

  3. And do read Moccasin Trail without preconceived notions, because the only dissenting opinion I know about is my own.

    When I look at the list of past winners, I definitely think the committees valued special/unique/distinctive. There are so many winners that take place in “exotic” locales, and so few that are contemporary realistic fiction. And in Silvey’s piece, she quotes a committee member saying that she preferred Secret of the Andes because she “hadn’t seen any good books about South America”–that, to me, says she was looking for special/unique. (But one of my many quibbles with Silvey’s piece is that we don’t know WHEN that person said this, or what the context was. Did she say it in 1953, or just recently, with the knowledge that Charlotte’s Web stood the test of time? Is “confessed” an accurate way to frame that quote? It makes it sound like she was ashamed or regretful, but we have only Silvey’s word for it.)

    When you say “certain kinds of books seem to always win the Newbery”, what kind of book do you mean? I think there’s a perception about most of the books being depressing that isn’t borne out by fact. But I do note that there are a LOT of books in the last twenty years that include dead parents or other family members, and that that was less common in decades previous. The books aren’t necessarily sadder or more depressing; they just have more missing family members.

    It’s always interesting to me to hear about what people think Newbery books ought to be, when they don’t know the criteria. Usually there’s some variation on “deep”. I don’t necessarily disagree, because I don’t think many fluffy books are really that well-written, but a book can be funny or exciting and have plenty of depth (and there are several examples of this in the winner’s list).

    Personally, I have trouble judging sports stories and a certain kind of fantasy. I feel like if one of those really stands out to me as being great, it’s got to be really good–but I know that it means I’m not fair to some books that are probably really great. When I force myself to think beyond “did I like it or didn’t I”, I think I can usually get beyond my lack of interest, at least somewhat. But I would be absolutely terrible at library book selection.

  4. I re-read Charlotte’s Web for the first time in a several years, to refresh my memory.

    At some point a thread or two ago Mindy wrote, “Adults may see it as cute and sweet, but as I kid I sure didn’t. The ending devastated me. I thought it so unfair–Charlotte shouldn’t have died! Not like that!” I agree – lots of it may be cute and sweet, but even after having read it many times Charlotte’s death makes me cry.

    “‘Good-bye!’ she whispered. Then she summoned all her strngth and waved one of her front legs at him.

    “She never moved again. “

    I won’t post the entire passage, but by the time I get to, “No one was with her when she died,” it’s Kleenex time.

    Regarding Fern at the fair – I didn’t remember finding it jarring that we were focusing on Fern at the fair, and as I went back through the book I noticed that in fact through the whole book there are scenes with the humans. Yes, some of them, like Chapter VIII: A Talk At Home, feature Fern reporting on Wilbur and the goings-on in the barn. In Chapter X: The Explosion, though, there is a fair amount of description of swinging from the rope in the barn which, apart from the setting, has nothing to do with the animals. A large part of Chapter XIV: Dr. Dorian has to do with Fern’s mother discussing her – and Henry Fussy – with the doctor. The scene at the fair actually is more animal-centered than some of the other episodes, since Wilbur is right there. I do think it’s rather sad that Fern is so uninterested in the prize Wilbur’s going to get, but the fact that we’re reading about her wishing herself in the top car of the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy doesn’t distract me.

  5. Nina Lindsay says:

    Leslie, thanks for all the examples of scenes with humans (which, I just want to point out, is exactly the sort of detail-oriented argument that Newbery committee members have to prepare for every single title). I do think though there’s a slight difference in the shift of the focus back to Fern at the fair–no longer just description or narrative, it’s character development. Will it distract a young audience? Perhaps not. In some way it seems silly to focus on such slight points, which really don’t mar a book’s general reception with its audience…but does come into play with the Newbery committee, which really goes over each thread of a book.

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