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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

What Are We Looking for in the Newbery?

Seen her before in some book?

Seen her before in some book?

Now is the time of year I have to triage my reading: I accept I won’t be able to do it all.  I use your comments, the Goodreads Mock Newbery list, and Jen J’s starred review spreadsheet, as a first place to try to figure out what is getting “buzz.” But once I’ve narrowed down that list to something manageable, a different kind of panic sets in.  What am I excluding by focusing on reading what everyone else is already reading, already talking about?

It’s impossible to read everything of course.  But I can look to see what patterns I see in the buzz, and ask… what other kinds of books are out there? What are kids asking for that I’m not seeing there?   

Now is also the time of year that the Newbery and other ALSC award committees are starting to nominate titles for their discussion lists.  They are more immune to the buzz than we are, and are reading a lot more than we are.   What are they seeing? What are they not seeing?

Last year’s Newbery Committee demonstrated a broader definition of “distinguished literature for children” than we’ve seen in a while.  The celebration of poetry, of graphic novel, and of authors of color was affirming.   The books were there to be chosen, of course, but I believe it must have taken a cohesively open-minded group of individuals to hold up these formats over others, given the kinds of books that tend to win the Newbery. I hope the committees can continue to push the boundaries of what makes “distinguished literature”.    The criteria are there to guide us, of course, but while the criteria counsel us to focus on the quality of the literature, giving direction on aspects to look at, they don’t tell us how to evaluate those aspects.   Award criteria shouldn’t be too prescriptive, since we need to be constantly thorough and flexible in establishing standards in our field.

But as open as the criteria are, when our committees are fairly homogeneous, if we aren’t rigorous in looking beyond our own limits in perspective, and if we can’t identify and name those limits,  we breed-in a sense of what “is” quality literature, without recognizing the assumptions we are bringing to the table.   Why is fiction the norm in Newbery winners?  Why White writers?  Why, when the committee makeup and process is as good and rigorous as it is?   As diverse as ALSC attempts to make these committees, they are still overwhelming White and female.  They are mostly graduate-degreed librarians, coming from a tradition that has set a standard, but carries its own limitations with that standard.    I know how hard Newbery committee members work to read outside their experience and perspective, how rigorous they are in considering the reader first.  I know how distinguished each selected book is.  And yet when I look at the range that are selected, and consider that the point of this award is to celebrate and encourage the creation of more work that is up to the same standard,  the only logical conclusion to me is that our standards are limited, and they are limited because they come from a place of White privilege.   (If you’d like to read more about what I mean when I say “White privilege”, I’d point you here).

What can we take from what we know we know about distinguished literature for children, and how can we use that to look beyond what we, collectively (as professionals from industries dominated by Whiteness) have tended towards in the past?  What have been your favorite Newbery contenders of the past 5-10 years?  Why?  What is your favorite Newbery book from childhood? Why?  Line these up in your mind.  What similarities do they have? Of those similarities, what are qualities that are privileged in the world of children’s literature, perhaps privileged because of who the taste-makers have always been?

The photo is me of course.  I have always found myself in books, easily.   How did that shape me as reader, and ultimately as a librarian? My favorites, even today, are novels with complex plots, or smart introspective girls.  Sound like a few books you’ve ever read?  Now, does that sound like most readers you’ve ever met?

So, what are you reading? And what are you looking for in the Newbery?

 

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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 ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Very interesting post, Nina. I’m reading even less than usual in the Newbery arena this year, partly because of purposefully stepping away a couple of years ago, and partly because I’m in Rwanda and limited to what is available to borrow as an ebook from my home library (and let me tell you how much that innovation has improved my year here!). Gone Crazy in Alabama, yes; most other things, no. And there are certain books I don’t want to try to read as an e-book on my phone because I have a feeling the format is important (graphic novels, for instance).

    My five childhood favorite Newberys are all by white people, four by women authors (The 21 Balloons is the exception), only one with a diverse cast (The Westing Game). (Mixed-Up Files, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and A Wrinkle in Time make up the others.) But I wouldn’t say so much that my favorites were influenced by who the tastemakers are as that my privilege is to have my own tastes matched, in certain ways, by the tastemakers. And, of course, that these books were published at all, and available in my library, reflects who had the power. But generally I didn’t want to read Newbery books because I had the impression that I liked different things from what people on the committee liked. (And when you talk about smart introspective girls, while of course those are abundant in children’s literature, don’t forget that books with boy protagonists outnumber those with girl protagonists among Newbery winners.)

    Here’s another wrinkle: another reason I did not think I liked most Newbery books is because so many of them were outside my own culture/experience. I always felt (still feel about those midcentury committees) that they were actually looking for books that were “exotic” and would open kids’ eyes to worlds outside their own. For the most part I preferred reading about my own world when I was a kid. So actually, from my perspective those committees were trying for diversity. But many of those “diverse” books were written by cultural outsiders. I wonder, if that had not been the case, if I might have found myself enjoying such books more. I don’t think I was discerning enough as a child, even subconsciously, to feel like those books were inauthentic–but I did feel like I was being taught a lesson, and I hated that feeling.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Wendy, I really appreciate hearing from you, and you taking the time to reply at such length. I think these committee were trying for diversity too. But I’m not sure we’re trying in the right ways yet.

      So interesting your different reading experience than mine…and that is kind of the point. It was interesting for me to think about my personal recent favorites (Brown Girl, When You Reach Me, Splendors and Glooms, etc) versus my *appreciated* recent favorites…ones I had to learn to read, and don’t come to naturally. That’s mostly the nonfiction (Claudette Colvin still among tops for me). I taught myself how to read nonfiction on the Sibert committee.

      So here’s another question for us…what have you learned to read, as a professional, outside of your reading tastes? How did you do it? Because I think many of us need to learn better how to read from outside our own culture and race. We’re not going to be able to *actually* do it (I still have to warm up to nonfiction, I don’t take to it…I’ll never be a nonfiction reader….) but we can learn to do a better job. It is, in fact, our job to do so.

      Your point about feeling you were being taught something reading about cultures outside yours (but written by someone inside yours) is interesting, and rings true.

      • I think with your last question, Nina, you were probably speaking generally and I’m not a reading/books/literature professional of any kind, but I’ll still answer. I’ve been thinking over this answer and thought, with the Meg Rosoff issue I’ve read a bit about (regarding the necessity for diverse books), that I should really answer. I think in order to get someone reading outside his/her own cultural frame, or other kinds of preferences (one person doesn’t read fiction, another person scorns graphic novels), it might take only one good book. I can’t exactly point to one book for myself, except maybe The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle, but for the past several years I’ve started actually preferring to read books about people of different backgrounds from my own. I think at some point I got a bit bored with reflections of my own world; they have to be extraordinary to interest me. I get more intrigued if I hear about a book that sounds like something different.

        I can point to specific books that got me over other kinds of humps–I read A Year Down Yonder when it was sent to me as a gift, and thought “huh, I guess there are still some good kids’ books being written today; what else is out there?”–and when I read Good Masters, Sweet Ladies, after being curious about it when I saw it on the Today Show, that’s what made me wonder if there were other good Newbery winners out there. (Are there any books whiter than those two, though?)

        And I’ve been thinking more about what I suggested above, about so many of the multicultural books by cultural outsiders feeling didactic. I loved books by Yoshiko Uchida and Sydney Taylor–both insiders. I’m afraid I never really tried books by Mildred Taylor or Virginia Brown, the only black authors I can remember knowing about in my childhood library, because I had the impression those books would be sad. I don’t remember any occasion that an elementary school teacher read aloud a book by an author of color or with significant characters of color.

  2. Nina, I just shared this with my Mock Caldecott course! We talked about these issues in our recent class meeting last weekend, but you’ve articulated the need for committees to cast a wide net in the discovery phase much better than I did. Can’t wait to see what our class picks (I don’t have a vote :-)).

  3. Samuel Leopold says:

    Wonderful post, Nina!!!

    I am a school teacher and, for the last 27 years, I have conducted Mock Newbery lessons and activities with my students. Over 70% of the students I work with are from diverse cultures and ethnic groups other than Caucasian.
    80% of the time, my students choose the book that ends up winning the gold medal for Coretta Scott King award.
    These young future Committee members always comment on the lack of historical diversity in the list of Newbery winners. Last year, my class was overjoyed by the selections made by the committee. I love Nina’s article and it hits to the heart of what our goal should be—–to look at ALL distinguished literature and not exclude certain authors because of race, gender, religion or sexual preference.
    My favorite Newbery books—–including Honor selections—–are BUD, NOT BUDDY THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM THE GIVER A WRINKLE IN TIME THE WESTING GAME and ROLL OF THUNDER HEAR MY CRY.
    Nina, thank you for sharing such a fantastic perspective!!! My students applaud you.

    • That says so much, that your students continually choose the books that end up winning the Coretta Scott King award as their mock Newbery winner. I imagine last year’s double winner was very affirming! My club members are also very diverse – we actually mirror the demographic breakdown of the country – and the whole school could hear our cheers from the library when THE CROSSOVER was announced. Two years ago our overwhelming winner was Margarita Engle’s MOUNTAIN DOG, which I felt was such an important book for its ability to deal with the complicated feelings kids have when their parents are incarcerated.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    Samuel, I am honored by your student’s applause, but I’d like to hear from them what most moves them in a work of literature. I don’t think the Newbery committee ever consciously excludes work based on the writer’s background. I just think we (white critics) don’t know how to read beyond systemic whiteness. I hope we can be courageous and humble enough to educate each other.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    The consensus process often forces the committee to look for their lowest common denominator and too often that is middle grade novels for suburban white girls. We’ve talked before about agendas, how we all have them, but how strict discussion criteria force you to set them aside. Nevertheless, I think it behooves us all to ask ourselves if the top 3-5 books are always by white people? If they are always novels? If they are always middle grade?

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    As a child, my favorite of the Newbery books would’ve been one of the awarded Prydain books, THE HIGH KING or THE BLACK CAULDRON.

    Every reader is different. As a boy and as an adult, I don’t think I’ve ever been interested in finding “myself” in a book. I read to spend time with characters I wanted to spend time with. Maybe yes as a child I also read for role models as well: characters I aspired to be like. But then and now, speaking as a Korean boy and man, that character would still be Taran, not Tree-ear (from A SINGLE SHARD).

  7. I began my library career in an inner city branch. I felt it very important that I become able to share reader’s advisory opportunities reflective of books with characters more like the children I saw rather than the mainstream “white” books. I quickly learned to value authors like Mildred Taylor, Jacqueline Woodson, Rita Garcia Williams, Sharon Draper — I still book talk their books in the suburban branch where I now work. I also taught myself to enjoy nonfiction, in order to have good recommendations for those (mostly boys) who don’t like fiction. I applaud you, Nina, and the other commenters in this thread. Last year’s Newbery committee ROCKED in my opinion!!

    • PS – I have NO idea why my list of great authors left off Christopher Paul Curtis and my all-time favorite, Walter Dean Myers.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Nina Lindsey explores the criteria for the Newbery Award and why Newbery has skewed so very white in this important post about diversity and the Newbery Award. […]

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