Friday, July 8, 2011

Bring Out Your Controversy

This seems like a good time to talk about the controversy over the Newberys that popped up in 2008, sparked by this article by Anita Silvey, seeing as how she was addressing several of the books that are next on my list.

If you don't feel like reading the whole thing (though it's interesting and not long), this in particular was one of the bits that really struck me:
Book critics and reviewers offered the harshest critiques. “Recent Newbery committees seem dismissive of popularity, a quality which should be an asset,” said one reviewer. “They appear to be hunting for a special book—one with only a few readers, rather than a universal book,” offered another. “They search for a book that makes the committee powerful, because they were the only ones to think of it,” reasoned a critic.
Unsurprisingly, Silvey's article inspired a whole flurry of debates about the status of the Newberys, including some extremists bringing the crazy.  In the Washington Post article, John Beach, a professor of literacy education in New York, was quoted as stating that,"the Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children's publishing". Clearly an outrageous statement, considering just how many beloved classics have been Newbery winners, but something at the heart of the quote does speak to accessibility... because so many of the winners lack it.  The Scripps News article brought up a study by Brigham Young University, which found that,"characters in Newbery Medal-winning books are more likely to be white, male and come from two-parent households than the average U.S. child".  Ouch.

On the other hand, Erica S. Perl from Slate defends the Newberys, commenting that, "as an author myself, I find it far more inspiring when the award committee picks a relative underdog like 2006 winner Criss Cross than when it picks an already popular book... in a time of publishing industry layoffs and cutbacks, when commercial promise is king, the Newbery medal continues to offer hope for those of us who want to write and publish the odd, offbeat, and not always pretty stories that we believe in our hearts children will want to read".  As someone who often is violently disinterested in pop culture crazes, I totally grok her point.  Not to mention the fact that I've heard serious horror stories from my friends who work in publishing, to the point where I'm ready to see the Leverage episode where they take down some big publishing CEOs.

In the end,  a lot of the Newbery debate comes down to popularity versus perceived quality. I worked at a bookstore for years, and I can tell you that the most popular books we sold (to adults, that is) were the low-end romance novels.  I had customers who came in every single month to buy bags full of the new Silhouettes/Harlequin/etc titles.  I certainly don't think there is anything wrong with this.  I read tons of "low-brow" texts myself, from fanfic to pulp mysteries to Star Trek books.  But I'll admit that I'm horrified when someone states that Twilight is a better book than say, Pride and Prejudice.  There's nothing wrong with loving the former more than the latter (though I may never be able to discuss literature with you again if you feel that way), but I do find it disconcerting when people are unable to separate their fondness for something from their ability to judge its relative level of quality (though this is a whole other debate in itself).

The Newbery Medal is awarded each year to "the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" (as taken from the ALA site, bolding mine).  It is up to the members of the committee to figure out exactly what that denotes.   In the end, like many famous book awards, that is going to mean that some of the books will lack popular appeal.  As long as the committee doesn't completely lose touch with their target audience, I think that's OK.  But I believe there is definitely a conversation to be had about the lack of minority representation (both authors and characters), not to mention a reminder to the committee that obscure and/or difficult does not automatically equal quality.

So, thoughts, debates, arguments, flames?


  1. I think it is possible that there aren't any "universal" books being published for children that are good enough to win the Newbery. I haven't read, nor do I know anything about, the recent winners, but I think it's possible that in the 21st century, we're trying to figure out what can actually be universal, meaning Not leaving out millions of people from disparate walks of life.
    Also...these Newbery winners are all taught to middle least I was in middle school when I was assigned or recommended to read them. Isn't that young adult? Or is it? What is the age group for young adult? I went from Newbery books and other "childrens" books straight to Stephen King and grown-up books in about 7th grade.

  2. The target age group is supposed to be "children up through and including age 14". Which is why there's a range of books aimed more at the 8-10 crowd, and then those books that are definitely more the 12-14 crowd.