The Child is the Father of the Man
THE DREAMER was lovely in every way except the way in which I can get my students to pick it up and read it. (Oh, stop reaching for your Newbery Criteria handbook already; I know that child appeal is NOT to be considered. As long as one kid is in the audience – criteria is met – check.)
This, of course, begs the question of what the purpose of the Newbery really is. Is it to honor books that are the best written and devil take the readership, or is it to get kids reading the best of the best? I was no fan of the “Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?” argument, but I’m admittedly going to have a much easier time hand-selling something like “Keeper” or “A Tale Dark and Grimm” than “A Conspiracy of Thieves” to my ten-year-olds, and even my twelve-year-olds should such books win.
Are you on Team Best-Written-and-Devil-Take-the-Readership? Or are you on Team Get-Kids-Reading-the-Best-of-the-Best? What I would like to do in this post is to explore how we each picked our respective teams. I’ll go first.
I read a grand total of five Newbery books as a child. Yep, five. A WRINKLE IN TIME, THE BLACK CAULDRON, THE HIGH KING, THE DARK IS RISING, and THE GREY KING. I read these books because I wanted to read them, neither because of the Newbery nor because of adult intervention. Thus, the Newbery was completely and utterly meaningless to me as a child. Now I’m sure that someone who actively sought books out because of the Newbery would have a different view. I suppose that Laura Rodgers, she who has read all of the Newbery Medal winners, will have a much different take, both now and when she grows up. How could it be otherwise?
But when I grew up and became a teacher, I found that most children were like me: they read what they wanted to read, regardless of whether it had won awards or not. Some students had an awareness of the Newbery, and a few were pleased that a good book, perhaps a favorite book, had won, but very few sought books out because of the Newbery. When I became a school librarian, I didn’t have an intimate knowledge of the reading habits of 30 plus students, but I did have the broader view of an entire school. Still, nothing from my experience changed my views on the motivational power of the Newbery.
Now I know that some of you might like to make the argument that if the Newbery committee would consistently pick “good” books then it would over time accrue the power to motivate students and point them to the best of the best.
Here’s the problem with that argument: Me. Do you remember which Newbery books I read? Fantasy books–all of them. Thus, you can stock your Newbery canon with all sorts of good child-friendly titles, but if they aren’t science fiction or fantasy (and preferably high fantasy) then you might as well go ahead and put those inaccessible Newbery titles on the list because it wouldn’t have made one whit of a difference to me. Moreover, I would have scoffed at any list that purported to be the best of the best, but did not not include J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Frank Baum, or John Christopher.
So when you tell me the Newbery canon must be child-friendly for the sake of children . . . Oh, stop it! Who are we kidding? The Newbery canon needs to be child-friendly so that adults–parents, teachers, librarians–do not have to do the hard work of putting the right book in the right hands at the right time. It would be nice if one size fit all, if the Newbery could be a universally recognized standard of goodness, but is that realistic?
Now it’s your turn. Tell me about your childhood experiences with the Newbery and how those have affected your attitudes. Then tell me about your professional or parental experiences and how those have colored your views.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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