Saturday, December 20, 2008

Arguing the Merit of the Newbery

It seems like this year the voices of the children's literature world have really spoken up against, and in defense of, the Newbery Award. The Newbery is an award given each year by the American Library Association's Association of Library Services to Children to the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in English in the United States during the preceding year." For more on the criteria click here. The committee that awards the medal changes each year and is made up of librarians, booksellers, publishers, and sometimes other authors.

Suddenly, there is a really vocal outcry about the recent winners of the medal and whether they "appeal" to the audience who usually is assigned to read them - generally 5th graders handed a list by their teacher and told to pick a Newbery. Or by parents who want their child to read something "good." My former professor, the children's literature expert Anita Silvey, formerly editor of The Horn Book, wrote the first incendiary article this fall that sparked conversation and controversy all across children's bookdom. Here is a link to her article in School Library Journal from October. One of my colleagues was passing around another article this week (which I have since misplaced...I will post it when I see her tomorrow) that expressed displeasure at the seemingly esoteric recent choices. Finally, in defense of the Newbery, children's author Erica S. Perl rebutted on yesterday.

I am torn by the whole issue. I advocated for both Criss Cross and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! at Newbery time in 2006 and 2008 and was pleased when those books won. Both of those titles are attacked by librarians. On the other hand, I agree with the disappointment in The Higher Power of Lucky and Kira-Kira of 2007 and 2005. Honestly, the disagreement here seems to me like any other award from the Oscar to the Pillsbury Bake-Off--it's all a matter of taste.

The argument that makes me feel more passionate is this: now that the ALA has the Printz Award that recognizes contributions to the field of literature for teens, could the ALSC not change the upper age level considered by the Newbery committee for its prize? I think for some of the recent titles that would assuage some of the concerns felt by librarians and teachers. Now, when we have our mock Newbery discussions we're always leery. Last year it was this: "Does The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian fit the Newbery criteria? Because we think it's too old." Both Kira-Kira and Criss Cross walk that age line, as do recent honor books The Wednesday Wars and The House of the Scorpion.

Whatever happens this year and no matter what side of the issue you might take, I'm glad the issue has been re-visited. If nothing else, it's an exercise in critical thinking that I have enjoyed. Read the articles for yourself and let me know what you think.

In January, I will revisit the whole topic after our library's mock Newbery discussion.

No comments: