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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Through the Decades

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.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Not that it changes the validity of your argument but McKissack’s DARK-THIRTY does represent a short story collection for the 1990s.

    Also there were 7 more honor titles selected in the 00s than the 90s. It’s hard to compare amount of genre diversity if the quantity of honors is not constant. Seven extra honor titles might have given some poetry or picture book titles an honor (it might also have given seven more middle grade fiction titles an honor, neither possibility would necessarily been a good or bad thing).

    Let’s not forget that the committees’ obligation was not to select winners and honorees across the “entire field of books the committee is charged with considering” but to merely consider titles from said field. Selection should, of course, have to do with distinction not diversity of audience, type or genre.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Eric, thanks for pointing out THE DARK THIRTY which I obviously missed. I think you might also be able to quibble with how I’ve labeled the audiences for some books, that is, young adult (grades 7-9) or young child (grades 1-3), but I think the general overall argument remains.

    The 1980s and the 1990s both recognized a total of 36 books: the exact same number of titles, remarkably different amount of diversity. And, of course, each committee makes their choices blind to the types of books they are choosing. I bet it was probably only in hindsight that this recent committee realized they had picked four historical fiction titles. The committee does not discuss balance at all, and while it may look like this committee likes historical fiction, it’s entirely possible that each member only voted for one, possibly two, at most.

    I would hope that a diverse mix of titles grows organically from the consideration of the entire field. A committee can’t really go in with that as an agenda, I think, there’s just no room for that kind of discussion. But I believe that (a) in any given year there are really about a half dozen different books that could legitimately be considered the most distinguished, and probably another dozen beyond those that would–brace yourself, Nina–make a good honor book.

    And that (b) the absence of something from a list does not necessarily mean there was nothing distinguished from that audience, type, or genre. For example, there were popular and distinguished books published during the so-called slump years, books that would have been right at home in the nineties. For example, 2005: THE SEA OF TROLLS and THE OUTCASTS OF 19 SCHUYLER PLACE, 2006: THE PENDERWICKS and DAY OF TEARS, 2007: THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE and A DROWNED MAIDEN’S HAIR, 2008: THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET and THE WEDNESDAY WARS.

    Now, I’m not saying that any of these should have won the Newbery in their respective years, simply that there were distinguished books with broader child appeal. Conversely, I can go through the years where only popular books were chosen and find worthy unconventional Newbery candidates, although I couldn’t necessarily always find a certain type of book. Some years might have an excellent nonfiction book, others an excellent book of poetry, still others an excellent easy reader.

    In any case, why the marked decline in diverse titles from the eighties to nineties? Why the explosion of superb reader’s advisory titles in the nineties? Was it solely determined by the field of books? Or did the biases and preferences of the judges enter into the equation? Hmmm?

  3. DaNae says:

    Thanks for that fascinating analysis Jonathan and Eric. I love when you blokes break out the statistics. Being married to a data junkie, I appreciate the illumination that hard facts shine on opinion.
    I have an uneducated guess as to why there were more YA novels in the 80s than in the 90s. Would you say that that YA as a concrete genre did not exist in the 80s? And once it became a fully fledged idea to write specifically to teens, more “adult” content began showing up in the books, excluding the 14 and under. For instance, Robin McKinley did not put overtly sexual situations in THE BLUE SWORD and THE HERO AND THE CROWN (although Aerin and Luthe were up to something in the mountains, it was pretty opaque.)
    While I am not in the camp pushing to lower the Newbery age, I would cringe if a book were to win gold that excluded most of an elementary audience based on content. I adore THE ABSOULUTLY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, but if it had won Newbery, as it is very much a 14-year-old title, most elementary school libraries would not feel comfortable shelving it. I realize content should not be considered along these lines when looking for the most distinguished book. I would even argue that it is hard to find a more distinguished book in the past decade than Alexie’s. The part of me who wants to challenge my students to read past winners with abandon, is relieved I don’t need to hand out a winner with a cautionary sticker.
    On another note, I am going to be away from the world of internet access for a week. I assume Heavy Medal may very well have closed up shop by the time I return. Let me offer my obligatory thanks to Jonathan and Nina for a rip-roaring good time. I so appreciate your willingness to illuminate the committee process. Nina, I will forever be grateful for your mention of KT Horning class. I am enrolled and expect to give much smarter opinions next year when Heavy Medal opens. Jonathan I hope you will list books to look for in 2011 before you go. Thanks for your help with my list, HEART OF A SAMURAI turned out to be a very good call. You have both raised the level of discussion around children’s literature for us commoners. Thanks.

  4. Wendy says:

    It’s definitely not true that YA didn’t exist as a genre in the 1980s–but I don’t have any theory about why several books on the YA end were chosen around that time. (I would move Dicey’s Song over to the more-YA-than-middle-grade end of the spectrum.) I do think in some ways that the 70s/80s seemed more permissive in children’s literature–I say this based on books that I’ve read long after they were published, since I was born in 1979. Things that people didn’t blink at during that time might have caused a ruckus in my childhood, or now.

    I agree that the 1990s winners are full of fiction with good kid appeal, but it’s an overstatement to include books like Missing May and The Midwife’s Apprentice in there–and depending on what kids one sees/knows/works with, Out of the Dust, Shiloh, and The View From Saturday, too. As far as “distinguished literature” goes… well, that isn’t my favorite decade, and I think maybe it could have been strengthened by some superb out-of-the-box winners. (Holes and The Giver are the only titles there that I think are really standouts, but I know I’m against popular opinion on Maniac Magee, and Number the Stars.)

    Hope you don’t mind a little self-advertising, but–though I don’t blog anymore–people who are interested in this kind of thing might be interested in my own look at the Newbery winners by decade at http://tinyurl.com/yk3amfh (a totally different angle from Jonathan’s) and my collection of Newbery statistics: http://tinyurl.com/4jx9qlh (now outdated, of course–percentage of female protagonists has increased since then though still doesn’t come close to the percentage of male protagonists).

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, Wendy, MISSING MAY and THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE are the weak links in the popularity armor, but they are both mercifully short (110 pages and 130 pages, respectively) which still make them both very useful for teachers and librarians trying to get kids to read and/or for kids trying to read a short Newbery for a book report. I, too, prefer CHARLOTTE DOYLE to MANIAC MAGEE and in another year CHARLOTTE probably would have taken the Medal (I could say the same for A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO). I do think MANIAC MAGEE, THE GIVER, and HOLES rank in the top 10% of Newbery winners.

    YA as a genre emerged in the late 60s, but you frequently see committees in the 70s and 80s picking YA books. Yes, I agree on moving DICEY’S SONG over to YA, and you could probably say the same thing for Gary Paulsen (DOGSONG, HATCHET, THE WINTER ROOM). And I think Virginia Hamilton is YA, too (THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN, M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT, and SWEET WHISPERS, BROTHER RUSH).

  6. Sondy says:

    The Printz Award started in 2000. Maybe that was a reaction to the dearth of YA titles in the 90s? I know that Newbery committees are supposed to consider books at the upper end, but last year I heard a committee member (before meeting with the committee) dismiss a book by saying, “That would be one for the Printz.”

    I also find it a little sad that our library shelves THE HERO AND THE CROWN and THE BLUE SWORD in JFIC, not YFIC. Maybe because of the Newbery Award and Honor?

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sondy, I think it’s a valid question. Maybe if YA, nonfiction, and easy readers had gotten more Newbery love in the 90s, then we wouldn’t have the Printz, Sibert, and Geisel in the 2000s. Maybe, maybe not. In any case, I don’t like the argument that these new awards absolve the Newbery committee of seriously considering these segments of their charge.

    In her response to the Newbery, for example, Betsy Bird said–

    I think the real lesson of 2010 is that of all those books that could be considered YA and that folks wanted to consider anyway for the Newbery, not a single one won a Newbery Award. And I’m fine with that. That’s why the good lord made the Printz, after all.

    I think it’s a slippery slope, that. Did the good lord make the Sibert and Geisel so that the Newbery could return to the glory days of the 90s with a clear conscience? I don’t think so.

  8. Heh. Whatever the broader results of the ’90s winners on people’s perceptions of the Newbery, I see it had a huge effect on ME. I was 12-22 in that decade. That was about when OTHER kids start saying they’ve OUTGROWN children’s books, but I just added YA and eventually adult books IN while CONTINUING to read the books that were quickly becoming aimed at people younger than me. And no wonder, looking at this list! I can’t believe how many of my FAVORITE BOOKS EVER were Newbery medal-and-honor books of the ’90s! Surely reading these prominent books and discovering how rabidly I LOVED them was what made me a grown-up children’s book addict.

  9. Hope says:

    Did Betsy also note “that of all those books that could be considered YA and that folks wanted to consider anyway for the Newbery,” none of them won the Printz either?

  10. Blakeney says:

    This would take much deeper analysis to draw any really meaningful conclusions, but if this were my PhD topic (!), I would look at the make-up of the committees and trends in services in public libraries as a factor. Traditionally public library children’s departments served children up through 8th grade (note the Newbery age parameter connection). In the 70′s, the growth of YA literature also saw the beginnings of YA librarians, discussion groups, and reviewing sources. I would think the 80′s saw a lot of committee members who were children’s librarians who also read and bought YA books. By the 90′s, the number of YA librarians would have been increasing, but those librarians might have been active in YALSA and not ALSC and thus not eligible to serve on the Newbery. Just a line of thought that would need a lot of time to investigate.

    I would note that I am uncomfortable with analyzing the books by genre, or gender, or whatever, as I would hate to see people feel there should be spots to fill – like a theater company doing one Shakespeare play a year, one musical, one new play, etc.

  11. Wendy says:

    People already feel that way, Blakeney. Noting trends isn’t the same as asking for a change in them.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I understand your concern, Blakeney, and I don’t necessarily need that kind of diversity in any given year, but I would definitely hope to see it over a span of years. Your theatrical season is an apt metaphor, now let me respond with one of my own: a beauty pageant. Wikipedia reports that, “In the last 51 years of Miss America (through 2008), 27 winners have been blonde, 12 were brown-haired, 9 were black-haired, and 3 were red-haired.” So, for me, this raises the question of whether blondes really are more beautiful than all of the other hair colors put together? Are they? Doesn’t this statistic really say more about the biases of the judges than it does about the beauty of the contestants? So, when they get down to the final group, I don’t expect the judges to pick one blonde, one brunette, one black-haired, and one redhead, but over time I would expect to see all of those recognized.

  13. Lynn Rutan says:

    An interesting analogy, Jonathan, but I wonder if this falls apart when what you are analyzing is a consensus process. There is so much give and take that goes on in a committee room trying to achieve consensus that a sort of unknown integer X gets created. That quantity X is unique to each committee so solving the equation is incredibly difficult. Usually everyone gives up favorites – or inherent biases – so what can really be said about the final result? Add in such variables as levels of persuasiveness, dedication to the process, committee dynamics, etc. and I wonder if it is ever possible to accurately understand the results. Still it is fun to try ;-)

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t need to understand the results; I just need the frequent or occasional winner/honor that reminds me of how broad the field really is. If we asked those Miss America judges individually whether they find brunettes and redheads attractive we’d probably get a unanimous response in the affirmative. Similarly, if we asked Newbery judges about nonfiction, picture books, easy readers, and young adult titles we would get a similar response (and if we could see the nominated titles and/or final ballot, then we would see this more clearly). The equation is indeed a complex one, but if you begin with people who cannot put unconventional choices in their top three, then you have predetermined your outcome, to a great extent, from the very beginning.

    Look at the last three committees with five honor book. 2003: THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, HOOT, A CORNER OF THE UNIVERSE, PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS, and SURVIVING THE APPLEWHITES. Great kid appeal, these, but no diversity. 1983: BLUE SWORD, DOCTOR DESOTO, GRAVEN IMAGES, HOMESICK, SWEET WHISPERS, BROTHER RUSH. Perhaps not quite as popular with middle graders, but we’ve got 2 YA titles, a picture book, a memoir, and a short story collection. 1972: INCIDENT AT HAWK’S HILL, THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN, ANNIE AND THE OLD ONE, and THE HEADLESS CUPID. Again, distinguished titles with limited appeal for middle graders, but 2 YA titles, the last title published for grown-ups, and a picture book.

    I think the twenty teens are off to a smashing start, by the way. We’ve got ten titles so far. I don’t know about MOON OVER MANIFEST yet (I’m worried about the leisurely pacing–same as KEEPER), but I think everything else has broad child appeal (and WHEN YOU REACH ME could possibly join HOLES, THE GIVER, and MANIAC MAGEE in that top 10%), and I’m also extremely happy with a nonfiction title last year and a poetry title this year. Let’s keep a good thing going, Lynn. :-)

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The one caveat I have about the twenty teens, however, is the length and/or pacing of some of these books. MOON OVER MANIFEST and CALPURNIA TATE are both 80,000 words in 350 pages, pushing it out of reach for many middle grade students. WHERE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON is also on the long side for 3rd and 4th grade readers (especially in comparison to TURTLE IN PARADISE which I think is also a younger book). This is not a concern I have from a critical standpoint (literary critic, book judge), but rather from a practical standpoint (i.e. as a parent, teacher, librarian, how to best match books up with readers). I mentioned the length and/or pacing of many of the middle grade books this year . . . KEEPER, THE DREAMER, FORGE, COUNTDOWN, THE BONESHAKER. It’s a trend.

  16. Wendy says:

    I have a concern about it from the practical and literary ends both. My goodreads friends are growing weary of me saying either “too long” or “blessedly short” about books. I think both Moon Over Manifest and Calpurnia Tate are on the upper edge of middle grade, if that, but they’re still too long (especially the first). I don’t think Forge is really a middle-grade book, either–but I guess these are really semantic distinctions. The proliferation of YA books for high-schoolers seems to be marking “YA” for a narrower age group than it was ten years ago, while “middle grade” seems to me like it’s being applied to books for older children (while retaining its lowest boundary at about third grade). In any case, from a literary standpoint an overlong book is too long whether it’s for toddlers, children, teens, or adults, always acknowledging that “overlong” is subjective.

    I asked Roger Sutton about this once, since I know he’s on the same page about books being too long–I asked what he thought authors and editors should be doing about it. I was surprised that he suggested cutting out secondary characters (which would probably lead to cutting out or shortening subplots). I expected him to say things about less description or introspection, but the idea of cutting out characters is more interesting and bold. (Hope I haven’t put words in your mouth, Roger.)

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I honestly think everything could be cut: plot, characters, description. It’s one thing if Gary Schmidt wants to publish 80,000 words and/or 350 pages, but I’m not sure how debut novelists like Vanderpool, Kelly, and Milford are getting away with it. Editors, explain yourselves!

  18. Sondy says:

    I always have to speak up when math is involved. The trouble with the Miss America example is that there are a whole lot less redheads in the general population. And if you look at all the people who enter the pageant, you might well find a preponderance of blondes. So if you had more redheads winning than anyone else, you’d think something was definitely going on.

    Same with the Newbery: A lot of the “diversity” or lack of diversity may have to do with what’s being published. It’s tough to say.

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