What Are We Looking for in the Newbery?
Now is the time of year I have to triage my reading: I accept I won’t be able to do it all. I use your comments, the Goodreads Mock Newbery list, and Jen J’s starred review spreadsheet, as a first place to try to figure out what is getting “buzz.” But once I’ve narrowed down that list to something manageable, a different kind of panic sets in. What am I excluding by focusing on reading what everyone else is already reading, already talking about?
It’s impossible to read everything of course. But I can look to see what patterns I see in the buzz, and ask… what other kinds of books are out there? What are kids asking for that I’m not seeing there?
Now is also the time of year that the Newbery and other ALSC award committees are starting to nominate titles for their discussion lists. They are more immune to the buzz than we are, and are reading a lot more than we are. What are they seeing? What are they not seeing?
Last year’s Newbery Committee demonstrated a broader definition of “distinguished literature for children” than we’ve seen in a while. The celebration of poetry, of graphic novel, and of authors of color was affirming. The books were there to be chosen, of course, but I believe it must have taken a cohesively open-minded group of individuals to hold up these formats over others, given the kinds of books that tend to win the Newbery. I hope the committees can continue to push the boundaries of what makes “distinguished literature”. The criteria are there to guide us, of course, but while the criteria counsel us to focus on the quality of the literature, giving direction on aspects to look at, they don’t tell us how to evaluate those aspects. Award criteria shouldn’t be too prescriptive, since we need to be constantly thorough and flexible in establishing standards in our field.
But as open as the criteria are, when our committees are fairly homogeneous, if we aren’t rigorous in looking beyond our own limits in perspective, and if we can’t identify and name those limits, we breed-in a sense of what “is” quality literature, without recognizing the assumptions we are bringing to the table. Why is fiction the norm in Newbery winners? Why White writers? Why, when the committee makeup and process is as good and rigorous as it is? As diverse as ALSC attempts to make these committees, they are still overwhelming White and female. They are mostly graduate-degreed librarians, coming from a tradition that has set a standard, but carries its own limitations with that standard. I know how hard Newbery committee members work to read outside their experience and perspective, how rigorous they are in considering the reader first. I know how distinguished each selected book is. And yet when I look at the range that are selected, and consider that the point of this award is to celebrate and encourage the creation of more work that is up to the same standard, the only logical conclusion to me is that our standards are limited, and they are limited because they come from a place of White privilege. (If you’d like to read more about what I mean when I say “White privilege”, I’d point you here).
What can we take from what we know we know about distinguished literature for children, and how can we use that to look beyond what we, collectively (as professionals from industries dominated by Whiteness) have tended towards in the past? What have been your favorite Newbery contenders of the past 5-10 years? Why? What is your favorite Newbery book from childhood? Why? Line these up in your mind. What similarities do they have? Of those similarities, what are qualities that are privileged in the world of children’s literature, perhaps privileged because of who the taste-makers have always been?
The photo is me of course. I have always found myself in books, easily. How did that shape me as reader, and ultimately as a librarian? My favorites, even today, are novels with complex plots, or smart introspective girls. Sound like a few books you’ve ever read? Now, does that sound like most readers you’ve ever met?
So, what are you reading? And what are you looking for in the Newbery?
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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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