Education Opinion

New Take on the Newbery

By Donalyn Miller — December 17, 2008 3 min read
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Each winter, the children’s literature world debates the upcoming Newbery Awards, the annual honor given each January by the American Library Association for the best children’s books of the previous year. Scores of book bloggers create Newbery shortlists predicting the winners, while libraries across the country host mock Newbery committees. Discussing the timeless appeal and literary merit of the books we read is an authentic pastime for readers, but this year the importance of the Newbery Award itself is the center of a media storm.

In the October edition of the revered book review publication School Library Journal, Anita Silvey, notable children’s book expert, questions whether the Newbery Award winners resonate with today’s young readers. Pointing to the unpopularity of recent winners with librarians, teachers, and students, Silvey denounces the Newbery committee for selecting books that are unusual or unique rather than popular.

I am a Newbery nerd from way back—reading every gold and silver medal winner since I was in fourth grade—but this achievement becomes harder for me to accomplish each year. I still have not read last year’s winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, a book of monologues and dialogues set in an English village in 1255. Although written for classroom use, my sixth grade students aren’t interested in reading it. The current Newbery trend toward honoring books acclaimed by educators and book reviewers, but ignored by children, makes me question whether the Newbery Award is the literary jewel it once was. I still mine the Newbery lists for gems, but I wish that the list was not such a hit or miss offering these days.

A recent Washington Post article, “Plot Twist: The Newbery May Dampen Kids’ Reading,” implies that the failure of Newbery Award winners to connect with readers contributes to the decline in overall reading among children. I think this assertion is a stretch. The limited allure of recent winners doesn’t marginalize reading, it marginalizes the award and reveals a missed opportunity by the Newbery committee to celebrate books that are not only well-written, but also attractive to readers. My students don’t read less because of the Newbery list’s lack of popular appeal; they simply read fewer books from the list. Gone are the days when I could convince a student to try a book simply because it won the Newbery. No matter the prestige surrounding the award, my students trust me to suggest books that are enjoyable. How can I in good conscience suggest the difficult, preachy, boring books that have won the Newbery award in recent years? Pressing such books on my students would definitely turn them off and reduce my credibility.

Pat Scales, the president of the Association for Library Services to Children (the division of the ALA that bestows the Newbery Award), compares the Newbery to the Pulitzer claiming that popularity is not the goal—literary quality is. But I don’t think that these two aims—literary value and wide appeal—are mutually exclusive. My students love past winners like The Giver, Maniac Magee, Holes, and The Tales of Despereaux, but none chose these books for the gold medal seal on the cover. My students devour books like these because they are good stories with memorable characters— qualities that make books worth sharing with future generations of readers. I thought this was the intent of the Newbery Award. It shocks me that the American Library Association offers no assurances that their yearly selections for the best children’s literature appeal to the books’ perceived target audience.

The Newbery Award is in danger of becoming a museum piece, a stuffy canon that is good for you, but not necessarily good reading. I yearn for the days when it was a source of books children could love, too.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.