Scrutinizing the Newbery Criteria
Thanks for the thoughtful comments on my last brief post.
Anonymous said to "Washington Post Ripples"
"I think that what Roger was saying is that maybe the public perception isn’t all wrong and is really pointing to an underlying problem with the award. Maybe the age limit needs to be changed, maybe the criteria needs to reflect more the depth and breadth of children’s literature now. Remember: when the award was started, children’s literature was nothing like what it is today. I know you headed the committee last year, Nina, but I think you may need to look objectively at this issue. The facts remain that regardless of the criteria, the award appears to be perceived as not kid-friendly. How is that good press for a children’s book award, especially one this prestigious? Something needs to change: whether it’s a re-examining of the criteria or the committee nomination process, who knows."
It’s absolutely true that as a previous chair I feel the need to defend the award–and I hope readers of this blog understand that bias. At the same time, I hope that my experience with the award can help inform people’s perceptions of it. While the Silvey article and the Washington Post article point to a perception that the award is not kid-friendly, I think that the responses to both articles show that this perception is often born of several other issues, such as individual preference in reading, the stigma of assigned reading, and individual adults’ feelings of what is "appropriate" for children. These are not necessarily problems that the award itself can, or should, remediate.
Anonymous does aptly point out that "when the award was started, children’s literature was nothing like what it is today," and Roger also expands on this idea in his response:
"All I meant was that the Newbery relies for its influence on a culture that prizes what librarians think a "distinguished" book is. I don’t think librarians and cultural authorities of all kinds have the same kind of influence we used to. Think of how hardcover book-buying has changed, where library purchases are a markedly decreased proportion of the whole. This is not to say that the Newbery should change, only that fewer people might find it significant. Despite the article’s claims, I bet, for example, that fewer and fewer teachers believe they "should" teach the Newbery rather than some other book that might work better with their particular students. This is a good thing. I fear we may have to become like Dick Cheney when told of the flagging public support for the Iraq war: "so what?""
And Leslie, looking at the criteria, comments:
"I read the Newbery Terms and Criteria, and notice that they’re originally from 1978, revised in 1987 (or something like that). I’m wondering what the original terms were, and how often they’ve been revised. Given the discussion about changing the award, it seems to me it would be interesting to see whether and, if so, how, they have changed over the years."
I don’t think that they have changed much (I will try to find out), and I think there’s a reason why: they are fairly flexible. I DO think that these articles aptly challenge us to look at how we interpret these criteria. I’m pasting them directly in, though selectively–I’m leaving out the parts that describe eligibility, rather than qualitative aspects.
TERMS "1. The Medal shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in English in the United States during the preceding year."
That single statement seems to be the gist of it. There follow various definitions:
2. 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.
3. "Distinguished" is defined as:
marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement
marked by excellence in quality
marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence
Is this any more clear? Those bulleted points sometimes befuddle me…but words like "significant achievement," "marked by conspicuous excellence," and "individually distinct," suggest that the "most distinguished" book is one that clearly stands out, stands above, is remarkable is some articulable way. This "significant achievement" or "conspicuous excellence" though should be found in particular aspects of the book, outlined in the criteria:
1. In identifying "Distinguished Writing" in a book for children,
a. Committee members need to consider the following:
Interpretation of the theme or concept
Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
Development of a plot
Delineation of characters
Delineation of setting
Appropriateness of style
Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it. "
b.Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience."
I consider those bulleted points to be the "literary aspects" of the book, to put it crudely. So, both the "literary aspects," and "the excellence of presentation for a child audience" must be "distinguished." This is reiterated at the very end:
"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."
I think that these criteria are flexibile enough to change with the times. The literary aspects of today’s children’s literature are very different than those of the 1920s. So are concepts of how literature should be presented to a child audience. (Ergo: Secret of the Andes.) Perhaps it’s the fact that both these areas have been changing SO dramatically in the past decade that causes us to question how the award has been given?
I do have to say that I’m often dismayed these days by the state of critical reviewing of children’s literature. Far too many books are touted that are comfortable for adults’ ideas of children–books that adults want children to want to read (Which is why you don’t find Waiting for Normal or Shooting the Moon or White Sands, Red Menace on this MockNewbery shortlist. I’m not saying that these don’t have kid appeal, or aren’t well written. But they are message driven first and foremost, and the characters’ voices too often become ventriloquist’s projections of the authors’. I actually feel somewhat the same about The Underneath and Chains, but these seem more promising discussion titles.). I wonder if this is not the latent force under many adults’ complaints about the Newbery. I do think we have to look hard at the fact that the children’s literature world is dominated by white females, often coming from a "social work" perspective, and ask ourselves what this does to the dominating concept of what is "good" in children’s literature. When the ALSC vice-president does her job right, the Newbery committee is actually more diverse than the wider profession, though still miles away from the diversity of the readership.
That diversity is key. One of Silvey’s interviewee’s says “They [the committee] appear to be hunting for a special book—one with only a few readers, rather than a universal book,” and Silvey herself says "valuing uniqueness over universality has often led judges down the wrong road." How on earth–and why–would a committee find a book that is "unversally" distinguished? Down the road towards universality, you lose sight of what distinguishes anything. (Case in point: the Oscars.) The Newbery committee reaches a "consensus" decision among a large number (15) of experts who are picked precisely both for their expertise with children and literature, and for their diversity. That pushes the bar about as far towards "universal" as you can get on the road to "distinguished." Within that structure, I think that we can challenge ourselves to work within these criteria to find the "distinguished" books that are relevant and appealing to today’s children.
I do think we should be concerned that a paper like the Washington Post found their capitalizing headline to be so negative regarding the Newbery. I think it is wise to continually scrutinize the criteria and the process…which I don’t believe that the challengers of the award have necessarily done. I do think we should consider how the definition of "children" or "childhood" has changed recently in regards to age level–but in my recent experiences on the committee we have addressed that issue from the outset, and I’d be surprised to hear of a committee that didn’t. I’m glad that the success of plot-strong books (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson) have forced us to look at how we each weigh literary qualities against each other, and to examine our own biases of preference…and I’m just sorry I haven’t found an eligible book this year with such strength of plot that also measures up in other areas for the award.
…what do you think?
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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