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“It’s a Good Book and I Love the Message, but…”: how “didactic content” can impact the Newbery Medal

Way down at the bottom of the Newbery Terms and Criteria, below age ranges and literary qualities and the rest, we find one last admonition: “The award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or for popularity.” It’s the last line of the Criteria, but it’s an important one. And it’s loaded enough that it will require two separate discussions. We’ll look at popularity later, but for now: “didactic content.” 

The Criteria don’t say that a book can’t have didactic content. Just that the award is not based on that. “Didactic” can imply a touch of patronization, which would be easy enough to dismiss, especially given the Newbery’s requirement of “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” But it gets trickier if we interpret “didactic” as “educational” or “instructional.” Weighty, thought-provoking content is central to many of the year’s best books, both fiction and nonfiction. So for me the question really isn’t: “is it didactic?” It’s more a question of how well the author might integrate instructional messages into a book that shines in multiple areas of literary excellence.  

Here are a few brief examples from this year where the messages seem especially prominent, but in very different ways:

RICK by Alex Gino

RICK is an important book to have on library shelves, no question. The author explores many complexities of gender identity and self-awareness. Rick’s questioning about his own feelings is conveyed with insight and realism. The Rainbow Spectrum club is great: I want every school to have a group like this, filled with strong and kind kids like Rick and his friends. I think most children, and many adults, will learn stuff from this book, and enjoy the reading experience at the same time. And the author does a very good job of presenting characters and information in ways that are just right for their target audience. But do the delineation of character and the development of plot match the level of excellence of the best books of the year? I don’t think they quite do, which means that even though it’s a well-written book that involves topics that we haven’t seen addressed much in books for this age group, it would be challenging for me to see this as a strong Newbery contender.  

BEFORE THE EVER AFTER by Jacqueline Woodson 

Woodson’t free verse novel has a clear message for readers: football can cause serious brain damage. ZJ’s fear and sadness and frustration come from the devastating changes in his father. That’s the central plot element, and other threads involving his friends and family also revolve around this. But the setting and characters are fully developed through the author’s poetic language. The deep connection between ZJ and his friends and the longing for the happy times before his father’s decline began are really at the heart of the novel. They serve the book’s message effectively because we get to know the characters and care for them so much–and then we care about the message. I see this as a book where the didactic content is clearly evident, but one that shines in all of the literary elements as well. 

ANY DAY WITH YOU by Mae Respicio

Here’s a good example of how a book’s didactic content can actually elevate its impact. It’s a warm story about family and friends, but the plot elements are fairly tame: Kaia learns that her Tatang is moving back to the Philippines; and she and her friends enter a film contest. Those two threads are fairly engaging, but it’s the interweaving of Filipino stories, foods, and traditions into Kaia’s story that brings readers more deeply into her world. We care more about her and her family because of the cultural content. This is an enjoyable, accessible story, conveyed with grace and skill, but perhaps without the level of distinction that we must look for in Newbery discussions.

CLASS ACT by Jerry Craft 

This companion to last year’s Newbery winner is filled with eminently discussable content related to race, wealth, class, and diversity education, along with specific thought-provoking moments involving food, basketball, hair, and so much more. The issues are related in such engaging ways, though, that nothing about the book seems forced or overly instructive. We learn about Jordan and his friends, especially Drew, through dialogue, character interactions, and of course, the illustrations. 

In the last couple of chapters, Drew feels distant from Liam after he visits his fancy house; then Liam visits Drew and Jordan’s homes and they all feel better. (chapter 13) This could have been a pointed lesson with a satisfying, “problem-solved” conclusion. It’s not like that, though.  The humor and the casual, but meaningful interactions keep readers within the world of the book. We don’t feel like the characters’ actions are intended just to teach us. 

Though Woodson and Craft use completely different stories and styles, CLASS ACT and BEFORE THE EVER AFTER both hold up just fine to that last sentence of the Criteria. Yes, they contain clear educational messages, but it’s because they’re conveyed with such skill, originality, and artfulness that they stand as strong Newbery contenders.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Cecilia Cackley says:

    I appreciate this unpacking of part of the Newbery terms and criteria, however I wanted to point out that Any Day With You by Mae Respicio is about a Filipina-American character and incorporates stories and traditions from the Philippines, which is where the great-grandfather character is moving back to, not Korea.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    There are a lot of Korean books this year, but ANY DAY WITH YOU isn’t one of them 🙂 But that does lead me to this question — WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER is getting a lot of love here, but what makes it better than ANY DAY WITH YOU? Is it just the (possible) magic tiger? But for that, the books seem awfully similar to me: the beloved grandparent that is the link to Korean or Filipino culture that the protagonist fears losing, the relationship with the older sister, etc. I suppose one could concede the similarities and claim WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER is just better execution of the Newbery criteria, but I am not certain that’s true.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Also, repeating a point I made earlier — I think your writeup on ANY DAY WITH YOU could apply with little change to books (just swap a few words) such as ZOE WASHINGTON, ONLY BLACK GIRLS IN TOWN, and others. It fascinates me how some of these books get a lot of support here but others don’t. I am not criticizing them for being, in my analysis, somewhat interchangeable. Everyone can have their own. But for the Newbery (“individually distinct”), I think someone arguing for a specific book of this type probably does need to address what makes their choice better and more individually distinct than others of its type.

      • I wonder if the reason is as simple as the fact that WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER was released in January and more of us have had the opportunity to read it. You make a good point to consider before next month’s nominations.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Thanks for the kind corrections of my mistake on ANY DAY WITH YOU, Leonard and Cecelia. (I originally wrote that Kaia’s family was Korean…just fixed that). Not my first gaffe, I’m afraid, though this one’s bigger than most, and it surely won’t be the last. Too many books is my only excuse…

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        Per Sue’s comment related to release date, I read this as an opportunity for Steven to shine a spotlight on four books that haven’t received much attention here, with two being recent publications by former medalists.

  3. I think we need to unpack articles like this and confront why we write them.

    Do you notice any similarities in every title chosen for this article?

    They’re all by marginalized authors.

    Yes, maybe the writing sometimes feels a bit more on the nose to talk about themes that relate to marginalization but diverse writers are often expected to represent their identity in their entirety (unjustly), and do more than white authored, non-marginalized writers.

    The central theme of this article connecting these stories to being didactic is a choice.

    Think we should examine and dig deeper into how articles are framed, the examples we use, and comparisons we make.

    I’ve had this issue before on this site with the way we discuss marginalizations and how sometimes our generalizations can hurt blog readers.

    Perhaps we should be better.

    • Tom, I’m not exactly sure of your point. First, I want to applaud Steven for confronting an issue that is clearly in everyone’s minds. The subject of a book is not in and of itself related to excellence. Books written about “smaller,” personal issues may be superior to ones that take on events of national or global importance. Yet the issue of relevance seems to be in the back of our minds as we evaluate the risks the author took, any relevant historical research in the book, whether it courts controversy, or engages with deeply painful flaws in society. I wish we could see more discussions like this one in the children’s book world. The attention paid to the authors in this article is a reflection of their excellence. The fact that they may be from marginalized groups does not alter that judgment. Many authors from marginalized groups do address themes of crucial importance to those groups, and to everybody. We don’t only learn from books which exclusively address problems related to our own identity. This article is entirely respectful, so I’m not sure why the phrase that “we should be better” applies here. Which books are you referring to in your claim that authors from marginalized groups are unfairly expected to represent their group to a degree which other authors are not? Are there specific books by these authors which you feel have been unfairly overlooked for this reason?

      • Thanks for your thoughts. While I appreciate Steven and his analysis of books, which are often, if not always, thinking critically in a way that is important for us to do, the framing of this article is ultimately flawed, in my opinion.

        For three authors of color and one queer author to be the only books in an article that discusses being “didactic”, feels like an odd choice. Many other books have been published this year that could quality under this discussion that could have been used a examples. While I appreciate the sentiment that these books are being discussed because they are “excellent” and deserve to be discussed, why are three authors of color and one queer writer the sole examples of bringing up didactic content in Newbery potential novels.

        Ultimately, I would love to discuss how BIPOC and queer writers are pressured to represent more, but I think if you follow discussions from those writers themselves, you would learn more than I can provide in these comments.

        In my comment, “we should be better”, I truly believe we need to think deeper about how we frame the reviews or analysis we write. We have to be conscious that the first thing you see about an article dealing with possible “didactic” content has images solely by diverse authors.

        In the end it’s not necessarily the content that is the issue. It’s the framing of that content with these authors as the only examples.

        I’m going to bow out of further discussion, but I’m glad to see our love of books and kid lit community shine on this blog! At the end of the day, we all love stories and I appreciate that this provides a platform for thoughtful discussion.

        Wish you the best in these trying times and I hope you have a good day.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I am not clear on the point here either. I think it is saying that Steven’s post implies “didactic” is bad (which is not how I read it) and therefore his choice of didactic books is problematic because of who their authors are. I disagree on a couple things. First, I think there is a conflation between authors and “themes that relate to marginalization.” I don’t think this applies, for example, to BEFORE THE EVER AFTER where Steven identifies the “clear message” as “football can cause serious brain damage.” Second, I think the definition of “marginalized authors” being used to claim “they’re all by marginalized authors” is overly broad. On a personal level, if Respicio is marginalized, then so am I, and I would thank you not to make such generalizations about me. And if it’s being claimed that all of these books are by marginalized authors, then *most* of the books being discussed on Heavy Medal this fall (at least 60%) are by marginalized authors, so I don’t see the utility of this categorization. Finally, I agree with Emily’s suggestion that being discussed on Heavy Medal at all is a reflection of excellence, so I have trouble seeing the negative aspect that Tom does. Sure, Steven is more positive about two of the books. But as I have written repeatedly, when you are talking about “most distinguished”, you are going to be critical of even excellent books. And Steven’s assessment is more generous than mine. He thinks 2 of the 4 are “strong Newbery contenders.” Of the 3 I’ve read, I don’t think any are, and again that does not mean they aren’t excellent.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tom. I hadn’t noticed that the four books I chose were “all by marginalized authors.” As I planned and wrote the article, I was looking for books with issues and messages that were conveyed in different ways and with different levels of success. I was trying to make the point that didactic content doesn’t necessarily detract from a book’s excellence and can actually elevate it if done expertly, as (in my view at least) Craft and Woodson have done.

      Your comment has me thinking about how I might have accomplished that without choosing those four particular books. Earlier in the year I had CHIRP, WHAT LANE, and HERE IN THE REAL WORLD as “possibles” for this planned post…two of those are by “non-marginalized writers” as far as I know. But I wound up featuring those in other posts.

      Please correct me if I’m misinterpreting, but I think what you’re saying is that when four out of four books in an article about didactic content are by “marginalized authors,” it can imply, even if it’s not intended, that all of the books we might discuss in relation to didactic content must be ones by marginalized authors. I believe I could have made similar points about didactic content and the Newbery Criteria if, for example, I had featured CHIRP instead of ANY DAY WITH YOU. Would including a book by a non-marginalized writer among the four have gone far enough to remove that implication? Or are there further or different approaches that might have addressed this?

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        I realize that Tom has stepped away, but I’m not sure why he thinks any one book is expected to represent the ENTIRETY of a group’s experience or who exactly is asserting the pressure. One book can’t do it all. It’s why we need more excellent books that represent the variety of experiences of people from all communities, particularly ones that are underrepresented in the literature.

        I am wondering if Tom does have a point, however, about authors from diverse communities being expected to represent their communities in some way (not just in its entirety) or even in particular ways, and if it may account for why Erin Entrada Kelly’s excellent WE DREAM OF SPACE has received so little attention here. Do we expect Kelly to write only about the Filipino/Filipino-American experience and NOT to focus on a troubled white family as she does in this book?

      • I tried to resist, but I felt the urge to check comments one last time. Thanks Steven for your thoughts! I appreciate that. I do think adding one or two other examples, or having an even split would have felt better overall to avoid possible implications.

        Julie, I did not mean to state that a book should represent the entirety of a group’s experience. I actually was trying to argue the opposite. That a book should be able to stand on its own without having expectations that it SHOULD represent an entire group/identity. Based on many authors discussing how their books are perceived, authors of color and/or queer authors often feel that pressure to represent their whole identity because of word choices in reviews and other receptions of their work often place that kind of expectation of them.

        I haven’t read Erin’s newest book, but snaps to your comment!

        There’s always a lot to unpack in how we talk about books! Thanks Steven for thinking more about this! I appreciate your thoughts here.

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Leonard writes that: “I think someone arguing for a specific book of this type probably does need to address what makes their choice better and more individually distinct than others of its type.” That’s really helpful in Newbery deliberations. Comparing books, and elements within those books directly can help us to distinguish the qualities of the most distinguished titles. They don’t even have to be exactly the same the same “type” of book. When I read A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS, I first thought about WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER, since both use an animal whose real-ness and purpose aren’t totally clear. I also looked at FIGHTING WORDS and AGOFAS, for the ways both books addressed child abuse. The plot in AGOFAS increased in intensity towards the final chase in the woods, though, and I don’t see anything like that in those other two books. Maybe A WISH IN THE DARK is a better comparison for that piece…

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I am almost done listening to A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS and had the exact same thoughts — that it lies at an intersection with WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER and FIGHTING WORDS. If you consider these three books together, I think there also could be some very useful comparisons regarding the older sisters.

      (Also, I see that someone suggested THE KINGDOM OF BACK this summer. That one could also be compared to A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS.)

  5. I am glad you caught that, Mr. Kim. AGOFAS and The Kingdom of Back have similar ways of addressing their themes, and I was struck by how powerful both titles were. Adding Fighting Words to the discussion is equally compelling. It’s really going to be hard for me not to root for AGAFAS, though, as I think literary quality and other aspects of the novel are handled powerfully and beautifully. I am trying to judge other titles fairly, though. There are many stellar titles this year.

    Regarding didacticism: I think there is a difference between outright “preachiness” and a fiction or nonfiction work that contains didactic content that doesn’t interfere with the flow of narrative, character development and other aspects. Every reader will draw from their own experiences when contemplating a book. It is the committee’s responsibility to judge titles on how well they represent experiences from a child’s perspective. Of course, the age range, (0-14), gives them much to consider. There are many diverse titles that do effective jobs of conveying their messages this year, but I think the committee has to focus on the books as whole entities, not just the current social trends. That’s why the award is not based on popularity, a fact which I appreciate. The more books we can encourage children to read the better, and Newbery recognition could theoretically bring well-deserved attention to an overlooked book.

  6. Emily Mroczek says:

    I like the way Stephen laid out how all these books could be didactic, but it’s still important to look at the criteria and how that makes the books stand out. It always goes back to the criteria.

    I also think it’s important to look at the parts of the definition:
    “Contribution to American literature” indicates the text of a book. and

    “Distinguished” is defined as:

    marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement
    marked by excellence in quality
    marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence
    individually distinct

    Going off of this, a Dog Man book will always be didactic and yes it COULD win the Newbery if it meets other criteria and considering how it compares to everything else published that year. (It’s always fun to relate back to Dog Man)

  7. Julie Corsaro says:

    Although focused on YA literature, there was a thought-provoking interview with long-time book reviewer and critic, Michael Cart, in the Los Angeles Review of Books a few years ago, “Pedagogic, Not Didactic,” which may be relevant here. I think we generally think of didactic as a negative trait in the history of children’s literature, something that is condescending towards the reader — and often not much fun. Pedagogy may be more generally instructive without such condescension and may, as Cart argues, lead to the development of empathy and emotional connection. These are not the single issue, even if groundbreaking, books of yore (okay — we still have some), but ones like the examples that Steven presents here, which show excellence in such areas as characterization and writing style. The characters and stories don’t exist to serve the issue in a pedagogic book, the theme emerges out of character and story. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/pedagogic-not-didactic-michael-cart-on-young-adult-fiction/

  8. For what it’s worth, I *think* I have a different gloss on Tom’s comment that might be closer to what he intended. If something is seen as didactic, it is because the content is generally unfamiliar or foreign or “other” enough to need to be “taught.” If I am Black or Trans of Filipino, these texts are not didactic. They just are. When we build a conversation about the didactic issue around what Tom calls marginalized voices, it can appear as a Majority (aka White American Straight Cis) perspective that is “other”-ing those texts.

    The problem Tom raises is almost certainly not that didactic is perceived as negative. Nor is it that these texts are somehow seen as less worthy. It is in the idea that a Black or a Trans person has a responsibility or intention to “teach” when he/she is just telling a story.

    A book about how tornadoes are formed. Or about the lifecycle of frogs. Or about why we should all be vegetarians. That’s didactic. A child’s experience with friendship or growing up or family is not didactic. If Jerry Craft’s book is didactic then so is Ramona. To be considered didactic, it needs to have the intention of instruction, which causes me to agree, Stephen, that CHIRP (and maybe FIGHTING WORDS) is a more accurate choice.

    I could, of course, be wrong about Tom’s intended meaning, but I didn’t want us to have dismissed what seems to me to be a valid point.

    • There is the literal meaning of “didactic,” and the connotation. It is not the same as an informational book; it implies that teaching a specific lesson is the primary point, and, in works of fictions at least, it carries a somewhat negative connotation. No, the Ramona books are definitely not didactic.

      • That’s my point exactly, Emily. Would it be possible that someone would say the same about CLASS ACT? Or do you thing teaching a specific lesson is the primary point of Craft’s work?

    • Sarah Beth,

      You did a much better job at describing my feelings than myself! Thanks!

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Sara Beth, thanks for this explanation and you make a good point about the issue of labeling a text “didactic” when it may not be for a reader of the culture. But I think it really depends on the individual book. As a Korean-American, I really reacted differently to the slew of “Korean” books this year. I think STAND UP, YUMI CHUNG! illustrates one of your and Tom’s points. I don’t think this book shows anything a Korean-American wouldn’t already know, so yes it’s not teaching “us” anything. But on the other hand, it still read to me less like a book “for” someone like me and more a book that is “didactic” for a non-Korean-American audience. And it may well show an author bowing to pressure to portray their culture in “entirety” to a White readership. In just the first chapter of ten pages, this book refers to Korean beauty salons, BTS, Korean words (with context clues which would be unneeded if I were the intended reader), Korean churches, Korean parents’ obsessions and pressuring and conversing about their kids’ educational and professional (and classical music) achievement, Koreatown, Korean food, Korean school, tae kwon do, hagwon, instant ramen…. Korean-Americans are familiar with all of these things, but the sheer density of cultural references is unrealistic and the implication that Korean-Americans use and talk about their culture as a reference point all the time for everything was annoying to me. Maybe some would like to see this book as a non-didactic “mirror” book for Korean-Americans, but to me, it very strongly felt like a didactic “other” book for a White audience. As such I actually think it would have been a perfect example for inclusion in this post.

      The Korean-ness of WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER gets mentioned a lot, and maybe this is another book that some would imagine is a non-didactic “mirror” book for Korean-Americans. But I wasn’t personally familiar with Halmoni’s stories and superstitions, so the book “taught” them to me as much as it would anyone else. And though Keller invokes some familiar tropes such as the Quiet Asian Girl (which also appears in YUMI CHUNG) and uses Korean words (somewhat questionably translated) and mentions some food etc., there was little in TIGER, unlike YUMI, that felt familiar to my own Korean-American experience. So if Steven had chosen WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER for this post and analyzed it similarly to ANY DAY WITH YOU, I may well have agreed with Tom there. It would be our error to imagine Keller is writing a book about Korean “cultural content” for either Koreans or Whites. Keller is one-quarter Korean and a 3rd generation American, so this is the book she can write, a book about her grandmother, nothing more.

      I’ve said before that I think the best “Korean” book of the year is ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL. Unlike YUMI, I didn’t sense pressure to “teach” Whites about Koreans. Unlike TIGER, it did feel somewhat “mirror-like” of a broader Korean-American experience. To quote again one of my two favorite parts of SAL & GABI, this is the book that felt like it was written to express “what life feels like.”

      • Leonard, I was very moved by WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER, although I did have some criticisms of it. I never assumed that the Korean material in it was universal to all Koreans, nor would I assume that it was even all accurate. I hope I did learn something about Korean culture from the book, but the main experience of reading it was immersing myself in the experience of a young girl about to lose her grandmother. And the grandmother wasn’t a stereotypical wise and understanding refuge from the problems of adolescence, or a funny old person who has gained to the right to act foolish by attaining old age. She was a real person; loving, caring, stubborn, damaged by life, struggling with death. That was my experience of the book. Your comments are particularly valuable, but I hope that we are not so limited as readers that we can only identify with books which reflect our own faces and lives. (I’m sure you are not claiming that!)

      • ESE Librarian Bob says:

        Leonard, thanks for this relatable post. I appreciate your take on each title and insight on writing for inside and outside culture and how personal experiences (or lack thereof) affect the storytelling. Ex. Someone dumping a load of markers in the first chapter vs letting it unfold. I feel similarly about Black and especially biracial rep, and maybe particularly Down South or Deep South setting and characters which are maybe 98% stereotyped, superficial and just plain foolish.

      • Interesting breakdown, Leonard!

  9. No, I do not. Nor does Steven’s post imply that it does.

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