The Newbery is Not For….
We’ll continue discussion of possible Newbery contenders later this week. Today, though, we’ll check in on the Newbery Terms and Criteria. The Newbery Manual, which describes expectations and requirements for committee members, is filled with reminders that decisions must be “based on the award criteria.” We refer to them with almost every book on Heavy Medal; they’ve already been raised in last week’s discussions of EVENTOWN and Past Newbery Winners. Here’s a quick look at a few aspects of the Terms and Criteria that we seem to wrestle with most frequently:
The Newbery is not just for 5th graders: “Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered. “
Distinguished literature for ages 13 and 14, as well for preschool ages, should be considered. The 2018 awards landed closer to those boundaries than usual, with a picture book (FRESH CUT) and a 7th grade & up novel (A LONG WAY DOWN) both earning honors. From this year, ON THE COME UP by Thomas and VOICES by Elliott are two high quality examples that approach that older age range; on the younger side, I think WINTERCAKE by Perkins is a picture book worth considering.
The Newbery is not just for fiction: “the committee shall consider all forms of writing—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.”
We’ve seen poetry (FREEDOM OVER ME, DARK EMPEROR) and non-fiction (BOMB, CLAUDETTE COLVIN) recognized in the past decade, though it doesn’t happen often. This year, THE UNDEFEATED by Alexander looks like a possible poetry contender. BORN TO FLY by Sheinkin is a non-fiction book to watch. And THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE is poetry and non-fiction.
The Newbery is not for pictures: “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.”
Illustrated books can win the Newbery, of course. And the words don’t need to be able to stand alone, as if the pictures weren’t there. Distinguished writing can complement illustrations, rather than restate in words what the pictures convey. Also, “primarily on the text” does not necessarily mean “just words.” A broader definition of “text” could apply to the content and meaning of illustrations. A 2018 post about BEST FRIENDS is one of many examples where we’ve explored this topic on Heavy Medal. In recent years graphic novels EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL earned Newbery Honors while LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET was a rare picture book Medal winner. This year we have some strong GN contenders, including NEW KID by Craft and QUEEN OF THE SEA by Meconis.
The Newbery is not for teachable moments: “The award is not for didactic content.”
“Didactic” can refer to a teaching component; it can also suggest a patronizing element. In terms of the Newbery Criteria, I don’t think this means a book can’t have didactic content. It’s just that you don’t give the award for it. You can’t say: “this book has a great message so let’s give it an award” or “I disagree with the author’s message, so let’s not give it an award;” but you can say: “the message in this book was conveyed effectively through distinguished writing.”
The Newbery is not for high sales and circulation: “The award is not for…popularity.”
If popularity were a factor, this year’s Newbery would be a four-book race between GUTS and three DOG MAN books. Popular books can win the award, of course, but the comparative size of readership can’t be the reason. The winner still must have child appeal, though. The award is for “excellence of presentation for a child audience,” so it must connect strongly with readers…but those readers can be a small range of children, rather than the millions of 2nd – 5th grade boys who will read the Dog Man books.
The Newbery is not for diversity: Members must “consider materials representing diverse experiences”
Diversity matters, for sure, but there’s actually nothing in the Terms and Criteria about the topic. The quote above comes from a section in the Newbery Procedural Manual called “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation” (p. 23). It’s important to note that this section is about Newbery members, not about the books. The manual instructs members to “be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials.” As I read it, it’s not directing members to give more awards to diverse books, but rather to make sure that the books they consider represent a wide spectrum of diversity and to recognize their own “gaps in knowledge and understanding, and biases” that might affect their evaluations. The impact of this direction, though, could conceivably lead to more diverse books getting recognized. The diversity section was added to the manual in 2015, and though we can’t measure its direct influence, it’s fair to say that the five years since then reflect an impressive level of diversity among Newbery winners and Honor books.
These are some of my own thoughts about the Terms and Criteria, but there’s plenty of room for interpretation. Feel free to share your own ideas and opinions below.
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About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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