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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Newbery Debates — Or, The Problem of Knowing History

Have You All Been Reading Anita, and Melita, and Roger and and and On the Newbery?

I’m sure you have, but I just got caught up so here are some links for people like me,;;

There are two strands here — Anita Silvey’s claim that the Newbery has lost its way in recent awards, steering too far towards the "special" book and away from popular appeal; Melita Garza’s assertion that the Newbery continues to be out of touch in another way, in that it is too white, straight, dual parent in characters (as compared with the reality of American life). By meerest coincidence, I happen to be working on a book about communism and anticommunism in America, leading up to McCarthism. To that end, I’ve been reading the debates over what art should be that roiled American intellectuals in the 1930s. The fight over whether literature is a pure sphere that should be judged by some abstract aesthetic standard, or is in some way bound to the experience of most people (and especially workers, the poor, those outside of dominant, wealthy, white culture), was the central cultural war of the decade. In the thirties the dividing line was class — with the aestheticians seen as aligned with wealth and the critics with the proletariat. It is interesting that none of the critiques today are about class at all, only the "identity" markers of the late twentieth century — race, ethnicty, gender, sexual orientation.
But to read the issue of sociology versus aesthetics raised again about the Newbery, as if this were a new thought, is somewhere between annoying and hilarious. It is as if kids books inherited the pallid ghost of what was once a real clash decades after the big fight was over.

I notice that Roger has taken a similar tone — midway between annoyance and bemusement — towards Anita’s complaint about the past four Newbery winners. He sighs over what a familiar discussion this is — and I can’t help recalling precisely the same arguments the just after Smokey Night won the Caldecott. 

Now just because current debates have historical echoes does not tell us which side is right. But, as a historian, I find myself cursed with knowledge. I simply cannot get exercised about this moment without seeing it in context. This is not really a debate over the Newbery, it is one more twist in an essential argument over what art is and does. Reading the 30s debates, the advocates of Proletarian Literature come off as shrill, and I can see the echoes of their positions in modern advocates for a more diverse set of award winners. Yet,  as someone who has criticised Newbery committees for slighting nonfiction, I am sympathetic to the argument that there is an insularity in ALSC that is reflected in its choices.

What I’d like is a set of comments on the Newbery that is not drawn from a survey of four winners, or the latest demographic chart, but a wider sense of art and culture in our time. If we want children’s literature to be respected, shouldn’t our own commentary on it demonstrate that kind of grounding and depth?


  1. leda schubert says:

    Thank you for this wider view, Marc. On Child_Lit, a similar familiar argument is raging: who has the right to tell whose story? I see both of these discussions as part of a broader situation: that there are always new people entering the field who have yet to examine deeply their own positions or perspectives on the recurrent hot-button topics, and there are others who want to be sure that certain positions are articulated. The historical context is frequently missing, as you point out. So there’s your next book or long article.

  2. PS: I do realize you’re doing a big chunk of this work (providing the historical context) in your book on McCarthyism, which, as you know, I look forward to reading.
    leda again

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Yes, Leda, I am in the midst of the McCarthy book, which has mutated into a book on fear, on communism and anticommunism, which leads up to and includes McC and in which Hoover plays a big part. On who gets to tell what — really no one should talk about that without reading the Socialist Realism debates, they are so clearly the grounding of everything said today.