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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Washington Post Article

(I apologize in advance if the formatting of this post makes it a challenge to read.  I’m having software issues that won’t seem to let me change where there is space between paragraphs etc.)

I’m sure that most of you have seen the Valerie Strauss Washington Post article titled Plot Twist: The Newbery May Dampen Kids’ Reading, but if you haven’t, please take a second to read it.  It has caused a great deal of emotion for me, making me feel both depressed at the way this award has been publicized lately and angry at the misunderstandings and misrepresentations that are part of this publicity. 

First of all, we are back to the very same popularity arguement.  We have people who do not understand this award arguing that the selectors of the winners of it are not doing their jobs.  This is straight up not true.  The Newbery is not an award for popularity. 

In the Strauss article, Silvey is quoted from her article stating that:

Quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive concepts….They can be found in the same book…If you don’t think of children at all in the equation, what you get are books that work for adults.

It is appalling to me that this sends the idea that the Newbery Criteria and the Newbery Committee does not call for thinking of children.  I will quote here from the Official Newbery Terms and Criteria:

A "contribution to American literature for children" shall be a book for which children are a potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.

and also:

Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.

and the final word:

Note: 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.

So, while popularity and quality are not mutually exclusive, they are NOT both criteria for this particular award. 

Which is not to say that some past award winners have not become immensely popular.  But that was not *why* they won.

The Post article also states that:

Silvey and other critics have said the Newbery committee…has a special responsibility because it is so influential.

This is one of the few true statements in the article, although it still has faulty implications.  First of all, it seems to imply that this responsibility is not taken seriously.  And secondly, it implies that the responsibility is to anything other than taking the criteria seriously and doing their best job to analyze and discuss every piece of eligible literature and choose the most distinguished one.  Of course the Newbery Committee takes their job seriously.   The idea that they do not is completely offensive to me.

Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a professor of children’s literature states in the article that:

I can’t help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids.

What she fails to mention is that it is impossible to predict what will be irresistible to kids.  And to which kids?  How many kids?  What age of kids?

I truly believe that the real problem here is that teachers (and parents and even many librarians) are not aware of what the Newbery Medal is and what the basis is for choosing the winner and honor books.

Thirteen year old Elias Feldman is quoted in the article stating:

If you force someone to read a book, the less likely you are to like it.

He feels that "kids would read more if their assigned books engaged them".  I’m going to get juvenile for a minute here and say, DUH!  So, why are teachers assigning Newbery winners haphazardly and without discussion.  Why are they forcing students to read books that might not be appropriate for them based on content or age level.  Children being forced to read books that they do not enjoy is not the fault of the Newbery Award or the committee that selects it.  It is the fault of misconceptions about the Newbery Award and how it is selected.  The assumption that an award winner will be appriate for a class of upper elementary school students is just not true.  The Newbery covers book through age 14.  This means that a book that would be appropriate for 14-16 year olds qualifies as much as a book that would appeal to 8-10 year olds or 10-12 year olds.  And the book does not need to appeal to EVERY child in the age range.  It must have child appeal.  But not universal child appeal. 

So, what is our role in this?  I think perhaps a strong PR campaign and a push to explain to the population at large what this award is about, how it works, and how we might suggest using the winners in a classroom or library setting.   Current ALSC President, Pat Scales, has done a good job of responding to these articles.  She correctly points out that:

The criterion has never been popularity.  It is about literary quality.  We don’t expect every child to like every book.  How many adults have read all the Pulitzer Prize winning books and the National Book Award Winners and liked every one?

I would like to personally thank Pat for her eloquent answer.

What do you all think?

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Comments

  1. Wendy says:

    I’ve posted frustrated responses to blog posts about this here and there. I’m so annoyed with how much everyone LOVES this angle; as I’ve said before, I’m sure it’s because it makes people feel smart. The kid’s quote is good, and it’s annoying that it would be taken out of context and/or misapplied in that way. He’s pretty clear: kids don’t like assigned reading. Whether it’s Newbery or not. While that’s not necessarily universal, I’d say it IS extremely common.

    I don’t know that there’s any PR campaign that could be successful. No one’s going to come up with something that people love to read about as much as they love this topic. It makes them feel better for not loving the Newbery winners (except for The Giver!!1!).

    I am probably lucky and unusual in that when my elementary school librarian heard some of us complaining about Lincoln: A Photobiography’s selection, she planned and taught a lesson about how the Newbery was chosen and what its purpose was.

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    Seems to me reading instruction in this time of NCLB, endless testing and testing prep, adult and child aliteracy, other attractive ways of receiving information and story (film, games, music, etc),and a very low regard for educators are all far greater factors in this debate than any book award, be it a children’s choice award or the Newbery. Sadly, it appears to be a lot easier to blame the Newbery books (and those of us who select them) than to take a hard look at what is going on in our culture, homes, classrooms, and policy-making venues around the issue of child reading.

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    While I share with you all the dismay at the cluelessness of the article, it (and Silvey’s original argument) does bring up the question of the continuing relevance of the award: if the perception persists that the Newbery is out of touch with what children actually read, is it worth giving? We can say over and over that the award is for a book that meets a very particular group of criteria, but if those criteria aren’t perceived to be relevant, maybe they need to be changed. I don’t actually think recent Newberys are any more or less kid-friendly than those of previous eras (and it’s dishonest to suggest that this is the first time the question of reader-appeal has come up–read your old copies of SLJ and Top of the News) but we are in a different era of how “expertise” is received, much as that may dismay us experts!

  4. children's librarian says:

    I agree with Roger: I think a re-examining of the award criteria is essential at this point. I also think a re-examining of how committee members are appointed and who gets on the committee is also essential. I am going to be starting on an award committee next year and I’m the only one on the committee who is a) a newbie, and b) from a smaller library. If the criteria is examined and the committee is more balanced between children’s librarians who are not high-level managers doing mostly administrative work and those who are, I think it may help the situation. But in no way will the criticism ever go away– it’s just the nature of awards. Look at the Oscars, for example!

  5. Vicki says:

    It’s a very heady decision, really. I was personally disappointed with this year’s selection, as I was rooting for another book to take the main prize. I just didn’t feel anything about “Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!” It does what it sets out to do, and it does it well. It’s very informative and would make an excellent addition to any cirriculum dealing with life in the Middle Ages. However, I didn’t think it deserved this prestigious award. The Higher Power of Lucky missed the mark, too, in my opinion. I applaud the idea of thrusting great books that are usually in the shadows of popular books into the limelight. However, I felt that there are much better books that do more to promote literacy that could have been picked. I hope this year’s pick inspires me to ask children to embrace it, rather than inspires me to ask children to look at the books that ALMOST made it.

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