The Age Question
Ah, the weekend. Housecleaning, tomato canning, and anticipation of the NBA Longlists to be announced 9am Eastern Monday morning.
I’m completely opportunistic regarding the National Books Awards. If I like them, I salute them, if not, I dismiss them. (My loss.) I think this is easier to do with awards that have no posted criteria and a small judge panel, than with the elaborately procedurally-documented Newbery. Still, one thing I always appreciate about the NBA choices is that the books tend to be…writerly. (Recall my insistence on solid prose?) I wonder, with the advent of the “long” list and inclusion of “other experts” along with writers on the judging panels, whether we will see that change? Whatever is on the list…Jonathan and I will be eyeballing it for possibilities to consider for Newbery. The NBA Young People’s Literature category, however, stretches all the way through YA, and in recent years there have tended to be mostly “truly YA” titles on there.
As recent YA literature and the Printz award have really grown in to their own in the past decade, I find more and more people eager to assign books as either “potential Newbery” OR “potential Printz”, ignoring the overlap in the award criteria (12-14) and the obvious truth that there is no clearcut gateway between childhood and young adulthood. Let’s look for a moment at what the Newbery criteria tell us about the audience for eligible books:
2. A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended 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.
The Newbery Manual’s appendix then goes on ad infinitum to interpret this, basically keeping the net as broad as possible (from p.77):
In some instances, award-winning books have been criticized for exceeding the upper age limit of fourteen.
If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible. Questions for committees to consider include these:
* Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?
* If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?
* If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?
A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee feels that
* it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book; or
* it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership; or
* it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.
Yet, everyone seems to have a slightly different personal interpretation of what the criteria means (or, what we want it to mean?). My own mental shorthand is “consider the 14 year old child reader; not the 14 year old adult reader.” I know 14 year old individuals who drift between one and the other, depending on the context.
In some earlier comments on another post I brought up THE CANNING SEASON by Polly Horvath as one of my favorite non-Newbery-winner titles of its year (it did win the National Book Award), and I was immediately challenged on it not being a children’s book. We didn’t get into it there... but the most common arguments I hear on why CANNING SEASON is not for a child audience has to do with one of the aunts who is clearly (though never called out to be) alcoholic, and the use of the word “fuck. ” (Specifically, one aunt describing her own childhood teacher, who was horrible, and as explanation quoting her having said: “I can’t wait for the day when I have enough saved so that I can buy my dogs and say goodbye to you little fucks.” p.64. Ratchet, the child protagonist of this book who is listening, is appropriately alarmed.) Ratchet is 13, and through the entire book floats between being a 13 year old child, and a 13 year old young adult. She’s had an unusual childhood, with less obvious love in it than the ones we usually see in children’s books, and she gets dumped for a summer with her even more unusual aunts…. who are able to demonstrate the most peculiar but also most obvious and voluminous amounts of love and respect that Ratchet has ever witnessed. It’s a see-saw summer for Ratchet, but one in which she is able to start to understand why she feels the way she does, and transition from childhood to young adulthood.
THE CANNING SEASON can be a very different read, depending on the age and maturity of the reader. Ratchet is in many ways a very young 13 year old. A similarly young 12-13 year old reader could read this book and experience–because of the quality of its prose–exactly what Ratchet experiences that summer. A more mature 13-90 year old might read it from more of a point of observation, in which case the story takes more of a bittersweet tone, rather than a psychedelic one. Either way, I find it distinguished. And, therefore, Newbery-eligible.
Every year, Jonathan and I try to have a least one title on our own long shortlist that will “challenge” the Newbery age criteria, just to keep it interesting, and relevant. Maybe we’ll find this year’s on Monday.
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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 email@example.com
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