“It’s a Good Book and I Love the Message, but…”: how “didactic content” can impact the Newbery Medal
Way down at the bottom of the Newbery Terms and Criteria, below age ranges and literary qualities and the rest, we find one last admonition: “The award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or for popularity.” It’s the last line of the Criteria, but it’s an important one. And it’s loaded enough that it will require two separate discussions. We’ll look at popularity later, but for now: “didactic content.”
The Criteria don’t say that a book can’t have didactic content. Just that the award is not based on that. “Didactic” can imply a touch of patronization, which would be easy enough to dismiss, especially given the Newbery’s requirement of “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” But it gets trickier if we interpret “didactic” as “educational” or “instructional.” Weighty, thought-provoking content is central to many of the year’s best books, both fiction and nonfiction. So for me the question really isn’t: “is it didactic?” It’s more a question of how well the author might integrate instructional messages into a book that shines in multiple areas of literary excellence.
Here are a few brief examples from this year where the messages seem especially prominent, but in very different ways:
RICK by Alex Gino
RICK is an important book to have on library shelves, no question. The author explores many complexities of gender identity and self-awareness. Rick’s questioning about his own feelings is conveyed with insight and realism. The Rainbow Spectrum club is great: I want every school to have a group like this, filled with strong and kind kids like Rick and his friends. I think most children, and many adults, will learn stuff from this book, and enjoy the reading experience at the same time. And the author does a very good job of presenting characters and information in ways that are just right for their target audience. But do the delineation of character and the development of plot match the level of excellence of the best books of the year? I don’t think they quite do, which means that even though it’s a well-written book that involves topics that we haven’t seen addressed much in books for this age group, it would be challenging for me to see this as a strong Newbery contender.
BEFORE THE EVER AFTER by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson’t free verse novel has a clear message for readers: football can cause serious brain damage. ZJ’s fear and sadness and frustration come from the devastating changes in his father. That’s the central plot element, and other threads involving his friends and family also revolve around this. But the setting and characters are fully developed through the author’s poetic language. The deep connection between ZJ and his friends and the longing for the happy times before his father’s decline began are really at the heart of the novel. They serve the book’s message effectively because we get to know the characters and care for them so much–and then we care about the message. I see this as a book where the didactic content is clearly evident, but one that shines in all of the literary elements as well.
ANY DAY WITH YOU by Mae Respicio
Here’s a good example of how a book’s didactic content can actually elevate its impact. It’s a warm story about family and friends, but the plot elements are fairly tame: Kaia learns that her Tatang is moving back to the Philippines; and she and her friends enter a film contest. Those two threads are fairly engaging, but it’s the interweaving of Filipino stories, foods, and traditions into Kaia’s story that brings readers more deeply into her world. We care more about her and her family because of the cultural content. This is an enjoyable, accessible story, conveyed with grace and skill, but perhaps without the level of distinction that we must look for in Newbery discussions.
CLASS ACT by Jerry Craft
This companion to last year’s Newbery winner is filled with eminently discussable content related to race, wealth, class, and diversity education, along with specific thought-provoking moments involving food, basketball, hair, and so much more. The issues are related in such engaging ways, though, that nothing about the book seems forced or overly instructive. We learn about Jordan and his friends, especially Drew, through dialogue, character interactions, and of course, the illustrations.
In the last couple of chapters, Drew feels distant from Liam after he visits his fancy house; then Liam visits Drew and Jordan’s homes and they all feel better. (chapter 13) This could have been a pointed lesson with a satisfying, “problem-solved” conclusion. It’s not like that, though. The humor and the casual, but meaningful interactions keep readers within the world of the book. We don’t feel like the characters’ actions are intended just to teach us.
Though Woodson and Craft use completely different stories and styles, CLASS ACT and BEFORE THE EVER AFTER both hold up just fine to that last sentence of the Criteria. Yes, they contain clear educational messages, but it’s because they’re conveyed with such skill, originality, and artfulness that they stand as strong Newbery contenders.
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 email@example.com.
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