Washington Post Article
(I apologize in advance if the formatting of this post makes it a challenge to read. I’m having software issues that won’t seem to let me change where there is space between paragraphs etc.)
I’m sure that most of you have seen the Valerie Strauss Washington Post article titled Plot Twist: The Newbery May Dampen Kids’ Reading, but if you haven’t, please take a second to read it. It has caused a great deal of emotion for me, making me feel both depressed at the way this award has been publicized lately and angry at the misunderstandings and misrepresentations that are part of this publicity.
First of all, we are back to the very same popularity arguement. We have people who do not understand this award arguing that the selectors of the winners of it are not doing their jobs. This is straight up not true. The Newbery is not an award for popularity.
In the Strauss article, Silvey is quoted from her article stating that:
Quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive concepts….They can be found in the same book…If you don’t think of children at all in the equation, what you get are books that work for adults.
It is appalling to me that this sends the idea that the Newbery Criteria and the Newbery Committee does not call for thinking of children. I will quote here from the Official Newbery Terms and Criteria:
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.
Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.
and the final word:
Note: The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic intent or for popularity.
So, while popularity and quality are not mutually exclusive, they are NOT both criteria for this particular award.
Which is not to say that some past award winners have not become immensely popular. But that was not *why* they won.
The Post article also states that:
Silvey and other critics have said the Newbery committee…has a special responsibility because it is so influential.
This is one of the few true statements in the article, although it still has faulty implications. First of all, it seems to imply that this responsibility is not taken seriously. And secondly, it implies that the responsibility is to anything other than taking the criteria seriously and doing their best job to analyze and discuss every piece of eligible literature and choose the most distinguished one. Of course the Newbery Committee takes their job seriously. The idea that they do not is completely offensive to me.
Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a professor of children’s literature states in the article that:
I can’t help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids.
What she fails to mention is that it is impossible to predict what will be irresistible to kids. And to which kids? How many kids? What age of kids?
I truly believe that the real problem here is that teachers (and parents and even many librarians) are not aware of what the Newbery Medal is and what the basis is for choosing the winner and honor books.
Thirteen year old Elias Feldman is quoted in the article stating:
If you force someone to read a book, the less likely you are to like it.
He feels that "kids would read more if their assigned books engaged them". I’m going to get juvenile for a minute here and say, DUH! So, why are teachers assigning Newbery winners haphazardly and without discussion. Why are they forcing students to read books that might not be appropriate for them based on content or age level. Children being forced to read books that they do not enjoy is not the fault of the Newbery Award or the committee that selects it. It is the fault of misconceptions about the Newbery Award and how it is selected. The assumption that an award winner will be appriate for a class of upper elementary school students is just not true. The Newbery covers book through age 14. This means that a book that would be appropriate for 14-16 year olds qualifies as much as a book that would appeal to 8-10 year olds or 10-12 year olds. And the book does not need to appeal to EVERY child in the age range. It must have child appeal. But not universal child appeal.
So, what is our role in this? I think perhaps a strong PR campaign and a push to explain to the population at large what this award is about, how it works, and how we might suggest using the winners in a classroom or library setting. Current ALSC President, Pat Scales, has done a good job of responding to these articles. She correctly points out that:
The criterion has never been popularity. It is about literary quality. We don’t expect every child to like every book. How many adults have read all the Pulitzer Prize winning books and the National Book Award Winners and liked every one?
I would like to personally thank Pat for her eloquent answer.
What do you all think?
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About Sharon McKellar
Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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