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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Has the Newbery Controversy Lost its Way?

It does appear to be wandering in circles.

I missed the anniversary of Anita Silvey’s article "Has the Newbery Lost it’s Way?" by exactly one month. But will mark its thirteen months by inviting people to read–or at least dip into–Christine Jenkins excellent article of thirteen years ago in Library Trends: "Women of ALA Youth Services and Professional Jurisdiction: Of Nightingales, Newberies, Realism, and the Right Books, 1937-1945." 

I read this article in KT Horning’s excellent online course: The Newbery Medal: Past, Present and Future. (Now in session, registration closed, but check back again!)  

A tidbit, from an article by Clara Breed in the Wilson Library Bulletin May 1942…referenced in Jenkins’ article and available in full as part of KTs amazing course reading list:

“It would be a dull world if we were all agreed upon anything—the Roosevelt family or lemon juice before breakfast—but perhaps the Newbery Medal would not be criticized so much if it were really understood…. Indeed the complaints about the Newbery Medal usually insist that the medal be something it is not.  Elementary teachers say that the books chosen are too old, junior high teachers that the books are too young. An author of boys’ books says the books are too feminine and too tender-minded. A parent objects that the selections too often have been books with foreign backgrounds….Sometimes it seems as if all these people had joined hands and were chanting in unison “the Newbery books are not popular.”

Another very interesting bit from Breed’s article describes Frederic Melcher’s intent in creating the award:

"Because creative talent cannot and should not be confined to any pattern, the words ‘most distinguished’ were wisely undefined and unqualified, so that no limitations were placed upon the character of the book."

Definitions of "distinguished" have crept into the Newbery Terms and Criteria….but I really wonder what Mr. Melcher would have made of graphic novels.

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


  1. The Library Trends article Nina linked to above pointed to a supposed breach in the 1920′ and 1930’s between librarians and educators, concerning so-called sentimental (girlie) fantacy books championed by librarians vs. the more interesting (masculine) reality books as championed by educators.

    Today I see no rift between librarians and educators in this regard. In fact I don’t think you can characterize fantasy or reality as falling into either specific realm.

    But I do see a rift between the more quiet (girlie), sophisticated, literary, sometimes advant-garde choices of the recent Newbery winners…vs. the more popular, exciting (masculine) reading choices that children (especially boys) make if they are left to their own devices.

    These are some quotes (Library Trends link) from an article written in October 1939 by one C. C. Certain, an influential English teacher, school library supervisor, and school library advocate. Some of his observations that follow have applicability to today’s recent Newbery selections:

    *****C.C. Certain described Thimble Summer as possessing the “faded prettiness” of a “gossamer summer bouquet” but no appeal to “the average tousle-headed American boy.” Here were the same complaints about the inherent inadequacy of women for the job of choosing books that might “quicken the pulse of young people, or awaken in them the spirit of adventure in reading.” Again, he criticized the recent winners as “highly sentimental” and “almost forlornly reminiscent of the childhood of adults.” The reading of them, he claimed, would most assuredly lead his tousle-headed American (male) child reader to regard all literature as ‘‘sissy,’’ and either drive him to “ten-cent thrillers” or away from reading altogether.*****

    Another argument he made was that ****librarians preferred books “sweetly reminiscent of an adult’s childhood”****.

    It seems the some of his thoughts from 1939 are not far off the mark when it comes to the Newbery selections over the past ten years. We seem to be stuck on a ten-year cycle where we have a popular selection followed by nine years of questionable selections:

    1999 ** Holes…HURRAY!!!…popular book…one that boys would like.

    2000 — Bud not Buddy…boy protaganist…but just a middlin (bygone days) boy-book.

    2001 — A Year Down Yonder…book aimed specifically at adult readers about childhood bygone days.

    2002 — A Single Shard…a boy protagnoist caught in a girlie book.

    2003 — Crispin: A Cross of Lead…a Susan Lucci lifetime achievement award given for not even the author’s best effort.

    2004 — The Tale of Deapearux…a sword-weilding mouse…how exciting!

    2005 — Kira-Kira…UGH!

    2006 — Cris Cross…the writing includes poems, prose, haiku, and question-and-answer formats…ARE YOU KIDDING ME!

    2007 — A Higher Power of Lucky…the dog’s body part was kinda cool…but otherwise…meh…

    2008 — Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!…like the Peck, adults would appreciate. Salvagable with the boys if author would have only included a Strumpet!

    2009 — The Graveyard Book…HURRAY!!!…successful completion of the 10-year cycle.

  2. Isn’t it interesting, anon, that only three of those books have female protagonists? And yet you claim these books are “too girlie”, as if the Newbery has some kind of imperative to appeal to boys or girls in particular, as if “girlie” is an insult.

    Bud, not Buddy, A Year Down Yonder, The Tale of Despereaux, and A Single Shard are books I’ve heard are quite popular with kids. But I will repeat for the millionth time that the Newbery isn’t about popularity.

  3. When I say girlie I’m not refering to girls as a gender. I’m refering to the subject matter.

    OK, so I was wrong to use the “girley” adjective and should have used the adjective “sissy” as C.C. Certain did in his 1939 article.

    As far as popularity goes, you’re right! You only have to look at the list to realize that the Newbery has little–or nothing–to do with popularity.

    Bud not Buddy and The Tale of Despereaux may be popular with kids. A Year Down Yonder and Single Shard are a stretch. I don’t even know where Crispin came from to snatch the award that year.

    A Higher Power of Lucky may be a good book. I think Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, while it may not be a book kids would gravitate to naturally, it would be very good as a classroom book, especially in studying the middle-ages, or for speech and theater class for students to dress up as the characters and recite the dialog for skits.

    As far as Criss Cross and Kira Kira…no comment…

    Books can be exciting and popular, and still have a female protagonists. Katniss is a girl…but a sissy she is not!

  4. Anon, the funniest thing about these, quote, cycles, is that because they do seem to repeat over the decades, they would seem intentional, and yet…every committee has completely different people from one year to the next. A different way to look at them–rather than *corrective* to one trend or another (popularity, girlie, boyey)–is to see them as *productive* of the *range* of distinguished writing for children. How boring if we got a book every year that appealed to the same kind of person.

    I find it

  5. (whoops. Copy and paste mistake above. I was done. For now.)

  6. The issue of audience age will continue to be an issue, one in which the committee itself must dissect and apply to individual books. That aside, the appeal of the book, considering setting, time period, POV, or theme boils, down to one criteria: does the voice speak to the reader.

  7. Another interesting thing about “trends” is that if you flip a fair coin for a long time, statistically speaking you will get strings of heads and tails. We try to read meaning into it, but the “strings” of “boy books” or “girl books” may just be random.

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