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The Battle for the Newbery Award

“If something bad is happening to a child in a book, that book will win the Newbery”, a veteran children’s librarian complained to me once. And I can’t deny it. Next week, the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) will announce the winner of the John Newbery Medal, a highly coveted award for best contribution to American children’s literature in the past year on Monday, February 12, 2018. The winner is selected by a committee of children’s librarians from across the country and broadcast at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference.

The original idea behind the Newbery medal was cited by Fred. G. Melcher as a way to boost publishers’ interest in producing children’s literature in the 1920s. At the time, there was a growing interest in stories for children that didn’t necessarily have a moral or didactic purpose. British authors like E. Nesbit (The Railway Children) and A. A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and Canadian author L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) had begun to whet the public’s appetite for more humorous, child-focused stories. The award was named for John Newbery, a prominent 18th century British publisher and called the “father of children’s literature” for publishing the first book directed at a juvenile audience, A Pretty Little Pocket-book.

Melcher himself was the editor of Publisher’s Weekly, an industry trade magazine, and was well-versed on how to utilize publicity to boost the sales and peak interest. Today, we’d say that he created “buzz” around children’s literature by creating an award for it and asking its largest buyers, children’s librarians, to form a committee of judges to grant the honor. Since 1922, members of ALSC, then called the Children’s Librarians’ Section of ALA, have met on a yearly basis to decide which meet the award criteria.

At first glance, the three criteria seem deceptively simple: the Newbery Award can be granted to an American author who has written the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature. The author must reside in the US and the book must be published in English by an American publisher. Seems pretty easy, right? Just pick the best book, right? Well, as the years have gone on and the committee structure has evolved, the three original criteria remain but definitions have been added in an attempt to tease out exactly what we mean by “distinguished”. What does it mean for a book to be the best? ALSC defines distinguished children’s literature as books that are marked by “eminence and distinction, noted for significant achievement, excellence in quality and are individually distinct”. I’m not sure if that makes things any clearer!

What has become clear in the past 20 years is a growing dissent among librarians about what kind of books SHOULD win the Newbery Medal. Many of us have observed that the Newbery Medal winners aren’t terribly popular with their intended audience: children! For those of us who work with kids on a regular basis, selling the most recent Newbery winners to kids as an enticing read is a real challenge. The settings and characters appear to be getting more and more obscure and the point of views are more seemingly adult rather than from a child’s perspective. This was not always the case. Many of us remember the golden era of the 1990s that produced classics like Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (1997), Number the Stars and The Giver both by Lois Lowry (1990 & 1994), and Holes by Louis Sachar (1999). All of these are staples in any children’s literature collection and are frequently requested by actual children!

The 2008 Newbery Committee selected Good Masters, Sweet Ladies: Voices From a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, a book that became a lightning rod for the controversy over “good books” winning instead of popular books. Schlitz’s book comprises of a series of individual narratives of fictional medieval village inhabitants, similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Certainly, this winner would qualify as “individually distinct” but left many librarians wondering if kids would be attracted to the subject matter.

Noted children’s literature scholar Anita Silvey wrote a controversial piece for School Library Journal, a popular review journal for school and public librarians, where she wondered whether the Newbery Award had lost touch with real kids. Silvey noted that many librarians, teachers, and book critics felt the same way, feelings that might possibly prevent them from purchasing the next Newbery winner. This seems to be antithetical to the original purpose of the award, to bolster public and professional interest in and sales of children’s literature. Finally, Silvey concluded that while the award’s selection criteria don’t include consideration of how children themselves would receive the winner, the concepts of popular books and quality literature should not be mutually exclusive.

I completely agree with Silvey’s point. I recently read last year’s winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill and, while I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult reader, I was left scratching my head over what type of child I could actually convince to check it out of the library. The story focuses on a magical village at the age of the forest that requires one child to be set out in the woods as a sacrifice for the local witch. Barnhill’s clever narrative alternates between the witch and one of the children left out in the woods. It’s a wonderful book and I highly recommend it…to other adults. I don’t think many children would stick with the first half of the book which follows the witch and her philosophical musings on her life’s purpose, her role as a parent, and her own impending death. While many children certainly have some understanding of these topics, I don’t think they could relate to it from an adult perspective.

The Newbery Award is an amazing opportunity to drum up excitement over reading for children. The current digital era provides ton of distractions for kids and furthers the the desire for instant gratifications. This makes the challenge of finding good books akin to finding good-tasting healthy food kids will eat instead of junk. If children’s librarians, educators, and parents truly want reading to be a preferred activity for kids, we have to feed them a diet of great but palatable literature to make them want more. Given that over 20,000 children’s books are published in America annually, we should be able to expect that the highest literary achievement in that field can reward an author that combines both well-written, insightful thoughts wrapped in a story to which kids can connect. By the time you read this, the 2018 Newbery Award winner will have been announced. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Update: The 2018 Youth Media Awards were announced on Monday, February 12, 2018 at the ALA Midwinter Conference in Denver, Co. Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly is the recipient of this year’s John Newbery Medal.  More on the rest of the award winners here.

Kate Tigue is the Assistant Children’s Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library.  Read her column in the Thursday, February 15, 2018 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin. 

Kate Tigue

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