THE 1990s: THE UTILITARIAN NEWBERY
For many Newbery fans, this decade remains the zenith of Newbery greatness: one awesome middle grade novel after another: NUMBER THE STARS, MANIAC MAGEE, SHILOH, MISSING MAY, THE GIVER, WALK TWO MOONS, THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE, THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY, OUT OF THE DUST, and HOLES. It’s an incredibly amazing string of child-friendly titles unrivaled anywhere in the Newbery canon. And the honor books offered up titles such as THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY, THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM, BELLE PRATER’S BOY, THE THIEF, WRINGER, ELLA ENCHANTED, and A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, among others. If you wanted the Newbery to validate great reading for upper elementary and middle school students you couldn’t have asked for better books. These choices, however, hardly embraced the entire field of books the committee is charged with considering: one poetry book (OUT OF THE DUST), three nonfiction honor books (THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, and THE GREAT FIRE), no picture books, easy readers, or transitional chapter books at the one end, and no young adult titles at the other end.
THE 1980s: THE PLURALISTIC NEWBERY
Contrast those books with the diverse mix of titles recognized in the previous decade. For the Medal alone, we had two young adult books (JACOB HAVE I LOVED and THE HERO AND THE CROWN), two young novels (SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and THE WHIPPING BOY), two poetry books (A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN and JOYFUL NOISE), the last nonfiction winner (LINCOLN). The middle grade winners (A GATHERING OF DAYS, DICEY’S SONG, and DEAR MR. HENSHAW) are respectable, but none of them top the best of the decade that followed. The honor books are equally diverse: the only science book in recent memory (VOLCANO), the only folklore in recent memory (IN THE BEGINNING), the only short story collection in recent memory (GRAVEN IMAGES), a couple of memoirs (UPON THE HEAD OF THE GOAT and HOMESICK) a couple of picture books (DOCTOR DeSOTO and LIKE JAKE AND ME), and an additional pair of nonfiction titles (SUGARING TIME and COMMODORE PERRY). Much of the fiction leans more toward young adult (SCORPIONS, AFTER THE RAIN, THE BLUE SWORD, and SWEET WHISPERS, BROTHER RUSH) than middle grade (THE FLEDGLING, THE WISH GIVER, ON MY HONOR, and HATCHET). And again, with very few exceptions the middle grade fiction of the eighties cannot touch the high water mark of the nineties.
THE 2000s: A MARRIAGE OF UTILITY AND PLURALISM
The most recent decade represented a bit of a synthesis of the two. The Medal winners were dominated by middle grade fiction with one young adult title (CRISS CROSS) and one book of monologues (GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!). There was more diversity in the honor books: four nonfiction (CLAUDETTE COLVIN, HITLER YOUTH, AN AMERICAN PLAGUE, and THE VOICE THAT CHALLENGED A NATION), two poetry books (CARVER and THE SURRENDER TREE), one picture book (SHOW WAY) and one transitional chapter book (26 FAIRMONT AVENUE).
The most popular books of this decade (THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, and BUD, NOT BUDDY) can hold their own against those popular nineties Medal winners. And there are also flashes of broad child appeal (BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, HOOT, and THE WEDNESDAY WARS) in the honor books, but not as consistently as the nineties. Sure, there was a string of four consecutive Medal books with limited child appeal–KIRA-KIRA, CRISS CROSS, THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, and GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!–but when you look at the honor books for those years, when you look at those years in the context of the entire decade, and when you compare the middle grade fiction not with the nineties but with the eighties, then the slump was greatly exaggerated.
THE 2010s: A NEW IDENTITY?
What will the new decade of Newbery books bring? Will we see a return to the daring pluralism of the eighties? The utililitarian populism of the nineties? Or will we stay the course of the twenty oughts: a little bit diverse, a little bit popular? We’ve got two years under our belt, what do you make of them? Lots of historical fiction, yes, but also already honors for nonfiction and poetry.