Sunday, November 20, 2011

One Berry, Two Berry, Read Me a Newbery

Part 1 of 2

Back in September, for a lot of reasons I won't go into right now, I decided to read the Newbery Medal winners, or at least all of the Newbery Medal winners that I had not read recently (as in the last decade).

The Newbery Medal is given annually by the American Library Association to the "most distinctive contribution to American children's literature" for the prior year. One has been given every year since 1922. (The Newbery Committee also names "Newbery Honor Books" for the outstanding runners up for the year. No, I have not read all the honor books.)

Of the 90 Newbery books out there, I had previously read about 18-20 of them. That left all the rest.

I did not read them in any order, including chronologically. Our local library owns all but a scant handful of them, and houses many of them at the main branch here in Delaware. My selection method consisted of taking a printout of the list (found here) to the library, stand in the children's section (where most are typically found) and pluck a random bouquet. When the load grew heavy in my arms, I had enough. "Enough" usually meant that 15 books came home at one shot.

Over the 5 or 6 weeks it took me to read the Newbery Medal books, I heard some interesting comments from adults about my quest. One, a former school librarian, said he thought the list was put out by adults for adults, and that is why children don't read Newbery Medal books.(This theory has a number of vocal adherents, incidentally.) Another, a retired teacher, said he had rarely used Newbery books in his classrooms because the writing styles were too dated and the students wouldn't understand them (he taught primarily 5th and 6th grades). Another said she thought the Newbery had covered enough niches (homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse) and it was time to stop using "does this fill a niche?" as one of the selection criteria. A constant comment I heard was "but the process is so subjective."

Interesting theories all, and I now have my own thoughts on these points, as well as my own theory about the Newbery Medal books.

Is the Medal Book a book chosen by adults for adults? Other than a few winners in the earliest years, I would say they are not picked with adult readers in mind. I think we read the books differently as we get older, but I think almost all of them stand the test of time and interest to a young reader. (I'll write tomorrow about the ones that I think "fail" as selections.) In fact, my overwhelming response to many of them was to smack my forehead and say "dang, why didn't I ever put this book in my children's hands?" (Sorry, Ben and Sam, that we missed Lloyd Alexander, among others.) Watching my own children devour many of the Newbery Medal books of their generation (my copy of Holes came from Sam's insistence that we buy it) tells me a lot about the appeal of the books to children. I think we as adults either fail to put the books in children's hands or so sermonize about their value that reading a Newbery Medal book is seen as torture.

Are the styles of the older books dated? There are one or two books that I say time has not been kind to when it comes to style. I found myself reading all of them with a critical ear and eye for the style as well as the content. My test was whether I felt I could read the book out loud to a child. The vast majority passed. In fact, the very book that the retired teacher and I discussed (Rifles for Watie, 1958) is one that I would say still holds up when it comes to style, although I have other concerns about it. I don't think children are put off by style as much as adults are; we adults think something is tedious, and so we expect children to think so too. I think a child who is grabbed by a book will plow through it regardless of the style in which it is written provided the characters populating the story are engaging.

Are there too many niche choices? Hmmn, tougher question. There have certainly been some choices that could be considered niche selections. I look at the changing nature of the list as a reflection of the changes we as a country have gone through as we moved through the 20th century and into the 21st. (Although, surprisingly, the Newbery tackled mental illness as early as 1960.) I think ethnic and racial niches or selections point this change out the best. It took a long time for novels with believable African-American characters to crack the list, with Sounder finally doing so in 1970. True, a biography entitled Amos Fortune, Free Man, made the charts in 1951, and the beautifully written I, Juan de Pareja, about the Moorish slave of the painter Velasquez, made it in 1966, but Sounder was the first in which an African-American family living in America was featured. After that barrier was broken, others books featuring African-American characters followed.

What is glaringly absent from the list are books about modern day Latino, Asian-American, or Native American youth. I can make a convincing argument that a good book will captivate a reader of any age or ethnic background, because I believe that to be true. But I also firmly believe that, especially when you are young, it helps to be able to read a book in which the main character reflects your life experiences as someone of a different color or family origin. Louisa May Alcott established this beyond refute when she published Little Women and it became a runaway best seller on the strength of it being the first children's novel written about believable girls growing up in Civil War America.

I have my own little theory about the Newbery Medal books and why the older ones are not read more widely. I believe it is because we read, teach, and share those books with which we are most familiar. A 5th grade teacher in his or her thirties may be most familiar with the Newbery Medal books of the 1990s, when he or she was in 4th through 6th grades. They may have never been exposed to the works from the 1960s and earlier, unless they were either avid readers or had the good fortune to have had a teacher who knew the older winners and did not hesitate to make recommendations or read them aloud to the class. Otherwise, there is book after book on the list from every decade that I think stands up to the honor of being selected.

And finally, are the Newbery Medal Book selections subjective? Absolutely. They often reflect the times and the makeup of the selection committee. And the selection committee is only human. Look at the fact that neither Stuart Little nor Charlotte's Web, both of which are established classics, ever won a Newbery Medal. This is largely due to the fact that for a long time Anne Carroll Moore held sway over the committee, even when she wasn't a member of it. Moore, who all but created the concept of children's librarians and children's sections of public libraries, is remembered by many not for her significant contributions but by her intense and profound dislike of White's children's literature. In the end, although she won the battle and kept E. B. White from collecting a Newbery for either, there is little question as to who won that war. The 1946 winner (the year that White would have won for Stuart Little)? Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, a period piece that has not held up well. The 1953 winner (the year White would have won for Charlotte's Web) was Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark. The 1953 winner is an oddly mystical, haunting fantasy that blends the ancient Incan past with the modern world, but it's no Charlotte's Web. I would have awarded the medal to White each time.

Sometimes I have to remind myself (while I am carping about subjectivity) that the Newbery is not the Nobel, in that the Newbery Medal is given to the most distinctive contribution published the previous year and not to an author for his or her body or literature. (More head smacking moments: what do you mean Beverly Cleary never won a Newbery for any of her Beeezus and Ramona books?)

In the end, the Newbery Medal selection is subjective. And so am I, as you will see in my free ranging critique of the Newbery Medal Books in part 2 of this post.


see you there! said...

Sadly, I never really thought about the Newbery Medal while my girls were growing up. They were and are avid readers tho.


Momof2 said...

These are great points and wonderful questions! Looking forward to reading your part 2. (My children read many of the Newberry books.)