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New Take on the Newbery

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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.

4 Comments

The Newbery is hardly so antiquated that it should be in the Smithsonian. The last 10 years have offered plenty; I say there's much ado about nothing.

If someone knows of an book award with a better track record, let's hear it.

2008
The Wednesday Wars
2007
Hattie Big Sky
2006
None I cared for
2005
Al Capone Does my Shirts
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
2004
The Tale of Despereaux
2003
Crispin
The House of the Scorpion
Pictures of Hollis Woods
Hoot
2002
None I cared for
2001
A Year Down Under
Because of Winn Dixie
Joey Pigza Loses Control
2000
Bud, Not Buddy
1999
Holes
A Long Way from Chicago
1998
Out of the Dust
Ella Enchanted
Wringer

Hi Donalyn,

We ran into each other briefly at NCTE and I mentioned my blog, educating alice, to you. I'm a fourth grade teacher and was on last year's Newbery Committee (and have a series about the Newbery on my blog for anyone interested). I too think it is a bit of a stretch to feel the Newbery books of the last few years are to blame for a decline in reading among children today. So much else is far more at issue, much of which you write about here.

I do beg you to consider Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by reading it before deciding it is not for your students. You might be surprised! Or not. But give it a chance first! I know I'm prejudiced, but I thought it was quite child friendly as did my students (there are podcasts of their readings of it on our class blog, Edinger House).

ALSC President Pat Scales tried to help people understand the nature of the Newbery award. For what it is worth, popularity is not one of the criteria the Committee members are allowed to consider (and I would say one I'd be hard pressed to determine anyway for a book that might have only been out a few months before the award is determined). Child appeal is and I spent a lot of time last year checking into that by reading aloud books, giving them to kids to read, and checking with other teachers and librarians all over the country about this important issue.

I welcome the discussion about the Newbery, but also hope it doesn't deflect attention from the issues that are really at the root of how we teach children to read, why the choose not to, and other issues in education today.


I'm a huge fan of your blog. I love your philosophy of teaching language arts and your commitment to pleasure reading. I have to say that on this point, we'll have to disagree.

My daughter has been reading her way back from the present and is now in the early 1990s on the list (both award and honors). She has loved most of what she reads and I have been glad to have a list that is good, or even great, literature, that is also age-appropriate (she is 12).

I teach Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy to my 6th graders - which they love dearly. My 8th graders have been spell-bound by Wednesday Wars as a read-aloud. The Watsons Go to Birmingham is a staple in my classroom. Christopher Paul Curtis and Gary Schmidt are two of my students' favorite authors. They have both been well represented as of late. The committee is obviously doing something right!

Hi Donalyn,

I must confess, I started to write something else, then went to the ALA website, found the criteria for the awards, and saw this (I put in the bold for emphasis):


A "contribution to American literature for children" shall be a book for which children are a potential audience. The book displays respect for children's understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.

I think this implies that you are correct: If the winners bore the intended audience, the awards committee isn't helping their mission.

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