Also Truly Distinguished
From time to time, we have talked about the process for selecting honor books. There is always great interest in why the number of honor books varies from year to year, and that was especially true this past year when the Newbery committee selected 2 honor books, while the Caldecott selected 6 honor books. I’d like to give you a historical perspective on the situation. (Keep in mind, first, that prior to 1980, the Newbery and Caldecott Medals were selected by the same committee.)
- Over the years, this is how many times the Newbery committees have chosen various numbers of honor books–
None listed occurred 3 times
1 honor book occurred 7 times
2 honor books occurred 22 times
3 honor books occurred 23 times
4 honor books occurred 23 times
5 honor books occurred 12 times
6 honor books occurred 3 times
8 honor books occurred 2 times
- And similarly, the Caldecott committees (many of which, you will remember, were also Newbery committees)–
1 honor book occurred 6 times
2 honor books occurred 13 times
3 honor books occurred 28 times
4 honor books occurred 15 times
5 honor books occurred 14 times
6 honor books occurred 1 time
Thus, the median range for Newbery is 2-4 honor books, while for Caldecott it is 2-5 honor books, but there are some mitigating factors, however. The extreme outliers in the Newbery Honors (i.e. 0, 6, and 8 honor books) all occurred during the first dozen years of the Newbery’s existence. A closer look also reveals that many of the 4/5 honor book years occurred during a slightly later stretch.
When you account for these two anomalies, it’s clear that 2-3 honor books is the median range for both Newbery and Caldecott during the modern era. What could account for this shift from the earliest decades to now?
Well, for one thing, the committee make-up and process was radically different in the very earliest years and for another thing, the voting didn’t actually happen at Midwinter. The discussion did, but the voting happened afterward by mail. (Read K.T. Horning’s Horn Book article, “Secrecy and the Newbery Medal” for some more background information on this.) I’m not sure when that practice changed, but I’d be willing to bet that it was after 1957. In that light, it’s easy to imagine that the chair, in the absence of face-to-face discussion might opt for a more inclusive approach. I’d be willing to bet that some people back then there were detractors who found 4 or 5 honor books every single year a bit gratuitous, despite the fact that it was considered the norm.
In 1971, the term “runners-up” was changed to “honor books” and applied retroactively. A true runner-up means that, but for the winning book, this one could have won it all. That really only describes one or two–perhaps even three books if the votes fall in a strange and magical way. I’m willing to bet that most of the committees who have chosen three or four honor books have chosen the true runner(s)-up and padded with honorable mention books. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it seems there is a double standard for committees that choose five (or more) honor books, and there is no shortage of theories to explain these lapses in judgment: there were lots of good books, but no truly great book; the committee couldn’t come to consensus; or the prestige of the Medal is further diluted with each additional honor book that the committee selects.
I’m sure we’ve all heard some variation of these arguments from our colleagues whenever the committee lacks the decorum to stay within the prescribed range of honor books. I’d like to examine each of them a bit more closely.
- DILUTING PRESTIGE: While there is some truth to this argument, there are just some things that are so prestigious that they cannot be diluted. Did the prestige of the Oscars become diluted when they expanded the number of nominees for Best Picture from five to ten? Did the National Book Award become diluted when they added the longlist phase to the process? In both instances, the prestige of the award was used to shine a brighter light on a wider swath of nominees. The last time I checked, that was also a fundamental goal of Frederic Melcher when initiated the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. Do you think that David Wiesner esteems some of his six Caldecotts as more or less prestigious because of the number of honor books? Of course, most of the general public does not even link honor books to their Medal winner and/or other honor books from the same year; it’s just us nerds who do it, and even then we often have to look these things up. I think the most compelling part of this argument–diluting prestige–really comes down to the fact that 4-5 honor books are not a natural product of the weighted ballot system, and while I would agree with this, the same can also be said about 2-3 honor books as well. It’s just that the general public can never know whether honor books are truly runners-up or whether they are honorable mentions, but it’s easier to discern that the committee has included both with a longer list of honor books.
- GOOD VS. GREAT: I don’t think there is a correlation between the strength or weakness of the field and the number of honor books, nor should committee members and their critics attempt to draw one. Thus, I think both of these statements are erroneous: It was a strong year for picture books so it stands to reason that there were lots of honor books; There were lots of good books, but no great books (which leads to the final argument that the committee couldn’t find consensus). While the strength or weakness of the field can be a factor for some committee members when they vote for how many honors to include, it’s only one of many factors that they might consider. Moreover, there are plenty of worthy books in any given year, especially when you consider atypical genres (nonfiction, poetry, picture books, easy readers) that any committee could feel justified that the field is strong enough to merit 4-5 honor books in any given year, regardless of the perception of how strong that year is. I also want to make it clear that I am truly ambivalent about the number of honor books; I do love the drama that it creates at the YMAs, and I would love to see even more variety, years where there are one (or no honor books) and years when there are 5-8 honor books.
- BUILDING CONSENSUS: It is impossible to draw inferences about a committee from the number of honor books as it relates to their ability to build consensus, either their inherent likemindedness or their ability to persuade and be persuaded. Many honor books may indeed be a sign of a committee that tried to please a sharply divided members, but it can also be a sign of an incredibly like-minded committee, a committee that wanted to spread the love, a committee that believed this set of books best represented their year, or any number of well-meaning reasons–and, of course, in truth the committee is comprised of 15 distinct individuals who may be voting for or against a particular number of honor books for a variety of reasons, both individually and collectively. K.T. Horning in a recent Horn Book article, “A Second Look: It’s Like This, Cat,” revealed that it took the 1964 committee five ballots to select WHERE THE WILD THINGS as the Caldecott Medal book from several forgettable honor books, a fact that is surprising because the book is widely considered the best Medal book ever. It took the same committee nine ballots to settle on IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT as the Newbery Medal winner with two honor books. As the ballots progress, books get taken off the table, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in extreme cases (perhaps even in 1964), there are committees that named two honor books because there were only two books remaining on the ballot and they were thus the only ones that could be named honor books. Then, too, what are me to make of the 1977 committee which awarded 5 Caldecott Honors, but were much stingier with the Newbery: only 2 Newbery Honors? This arguments about a committee’s ability to reach consensus are weak because they are based entirely on speculation. That speculation is sometimes rooted in the personal experience of previous committee members, but while that yields informed speculation, it does not yield infallible speculation.
No Newbery committee in the modern era has declined to list honor books, and I think it is unlikely to happen with so many divergent opinions on a committee of 15 people, especially coupled with the strong annual output of children’s books. Seven committees have chosen a single honor book, and only one of those was from the earliest years of the Newbery. From a historical perspective, these books have tended to hold up better through the years, and these committees are to be commended for making difficult decisions that almost always look brilliant in hindsight.
1999: HOLES and A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO
1991: MANIAC MAGEE and THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE
1980: A GATHERING OF DAYS and THE ROAD HOME
1979: THE WESTING GAME and THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS
1974: SLAVE DANCER and THE DARK IS RISING
There are a couple of duds there, but overall these choices have held up much better than most. By contrast, there were only three committees within the same span of time that chose five honor books. These also have held up nicely, and in two cases included a diversity that is often lacking in Newbery choices. (I think picking five honor books can be just as difficult, in an entirely different way, as picking a single honor book, but that’s a discussion we can have in the comments if any feel so inclined.)
2003: CRISPIN, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, THE PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS, HOOT, A CORNER OF THE UNIVERSE, and SURVIVING THE APPLEWHITES.
1983: DICEY’S SONG, THE BLUE SWORD, DOCTOR DeSOTO (picture book), GRAVEN IMAGES (short stories), HOMESICK (memoir), SWEET WHISPERS, BROTHER RUSH
1972: MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH, INCIDENT AT HAWK’S HILL (published as an adult book), THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN, ANNIE AND THE OLD ONE (picture book), THE HEADLESS CUPID
Honor books are a rich and integral part of the legacy of the Newbery and as we approach the announcement of the 2016 Newbery Medal, I especially look forward to the announcement of those books that are also truly distinguished.
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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 email@example.com
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