Newbery Controversy

Anita Silvey ignited a fireball of controversy recently when she asked if the Newbery Medal has lost its way.  It seems that she has been involved in numerous conversations lately that all ended up asking why the recent Newbery committees picked “those” books.  Apparently, “those” books are kid and teacher-unfriendly.  As a 6th grade teacher I felt the need to jump in.  

I begin each school year by telling my students that I read “a million books a year!”  I also tell them that I love to try and predict the Newbery award-winners each year.  This always results in looks of amazement.  My 6th graders are more than familiar with what a Newbery book is.  They can recognize the medal on the book cover.  Most have read a handful of winners through the years.  What would shock many of you is that very few of my students have ever chosen a book based on the fact that it won the Newbery.  You know why?  Because they are acutely aware that the award is chosen by adults and given to adult authors.  Without ever being explicitly taught the requirements for the Newbery, they know that the award is for great writing and not popularity.

And that’s the problem.  Adults seem to look at the Newbery as a stamp of approval, a signal that a particular book is the book to give to kids.  Parents and teacher see that medal stamped on a book cover and choose the book blindly over others, because it is an award-winner.  Are many Newbery books extremely kid friendly?  Of course!  Are many of them exquisite examples of writing but not necessarily kid-friendly (for the majority of kids)?  ABSOLUTELY.  And as a teacher, I do not expect Newbery winners to be the be-all-end-all of books published in a given year.  Unfortunately, too many teachers and parents do expect this.  Ironically, it’s the kids who do not expect the same.  There is no perfect book for all kids.  But there is great writing, and it should be honored.

Right now, I am reading Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath to my two classes.  The Underneath is one of my personal favorites for a Newbery this year.  As soon as I finished reading it this summer I knew that I wanted to share it with my class.  The writing is incredible, the story is magical, and the characters are drawn to perfection.  However, I also knew that this was not a book many of my kids would choose on their own.  If we are completely honest with ourselves, kids and adults rarely choose to read the best writing.  Just look at the most popular books in the bookstore or library- you will see chick lit, detective mysteries, romances, and humor.  Will many of those books take home literary awards?  Of course not.  Does this mean no one should read them?  Heck no!  

So what did I decide to do?  I am reading The Underneath aloud to my students.  This allows me to think-aloud and scaffold as we read.  We discuss, we make predictions and inferences as a class.  When I stopped reading today, they groaned.  Not because they disliked the book.  Oh no.  They groaned because they wanted to continue.  They love the book.  But a few of my students pointed out they would not necessarily have chosen to read it on their own.  When I questioned them about this, they said the story is great but it has a lot of description (what most kids refer to great writing as).  They need the scaffolding that a class read aloud provides.  And you know what?  I am fine with that.  Great writing sometimes is above students’ current reading levels and that is fine!  We need to give kids more credit.  They can and do appreciate great writing just like adults.  It’s just that sometimes they need a little help, as their higher level thinking skills are not fully developed.  But they have the ability, and great writing and great books will develop those capabilities!

The Newbery is an important award. However, adults need to come to the realization that children have already reached.  The Newbery Medal is not an award given to the coolest or most popular book of the year.  Instead, it is given to the greatest book written in a single year, compared only to other books published in that same year.  Parents and teachers need to get out there and read, read, read, and read some more.  We can not rely on a single list provided by a small pool of people to make our reading choices, to make our curriculum choices.  A librarian quoted in Silvey’s piece says the following regarding recent Newbery winners:

 “I think I know books, but because of the subject matter, these wouldn’t be the ones I’d naturally choose to introduce to my kids”.

Newbery books are not a catch-all for reader’s advisory!  Look at last year’s winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.  I don’t know many students who would pick up a book of monologues in verse, set in a medieval village.  But Laura Amy Schlitz shattered boundaries with her book.  A book written FOR HER KIDS.  To be performed by her kids!  And I fully plan to use her book this year because it fits into our ancient civilizations curriculum perfectly.  

No Newbery committee will ever choose the one book that makes everyone happy.  I still can not fathom how Tuck Everlasting did not win the 1976 Newbery Medal.  But you know what?  The books that were chosen are also wonderful.  And Babbitt’s book, referred to as the greatest children’s novel ever written, has survived and done quite well for itself as a “loser”.  The Newbery Medal is important and worthy.  But it is not the be-all-end-all.  We must be involved in our kids’ reading.  We must allow ourselves to enjoy children’s literature for what it can do- help children enjoy reading!  We must also realize that children’s and YA books are real literature, with the same variety as adult books.  There are many other lists and awards that honor books for their kid-friendly appeal and their wonderful writing- the Cybils, the Quick Picks, etc.  But children’s literature also deserves an award that focuses solely on extraordinary writing.  And that is what the Newbery does, and it does a great job.

Hero Type by Barry Lyga

I have to admit that Barry Lyga’s previous books (The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and Boy Toy) never made it to the top of my TBR pile. However, the buzz had been steadily building around his latest offering, Hero-Type, and I was excited to receive a review copy from the publisher. It immediately went to the top of my TBR pile strictly based on the cover, which I loved. In a departure from my usual reading habits, I dove into the book before reading the blurbs on the back or the inside flap. And boy am I glad I did!

Kevin is a hero. Bonified, through and through, saving a girl’s life hero. When he attacked the Surgeon, a notorious rapist, he saved fellow classmate Leah from certain death. He receives a key to the city, a large reward, and a lot of fame. What he can’t do is get rid of the guilt he feels. “If they only knew….” he thinks. Why was he in the right place at the right time that day? Is he really a hero?  Or is he just a Hero-Type?

Rewards and gifts seem par for the course when you become a local and national hero. One of the best gifts is a majorly discounted car from the town mayor, who also owns the car lot. When Kevin brings his new ride him, his father notices two “Support the Troops” magnetic ribbons on the back bumper. He demands that Kevin remove them and throw them out. Kevin’s dad is an Army hero, even though he never discusses his experience. So when he demands that the useless ribbons be removed, Kevin does it without a second thought. Unfortunately, a reporter is hanging around trying to catch an interview with Kevin and snaps some pictures of his “unpatriotic” behavior. Soon enough, the pictures are picked up by the local and national media and Kevin is once again thrown into the limelight. But this time, he is reviled as a villain. From nobody, to hero, to villain in a matter of days.

It’s a furiously fast turnaround from “Local Teen Saves Life” to “Why Does Local Hero Hate America?”. Even faster is the turnaround at school. Kevin is worshipped one day and despised the next. But the worst part is that he starts to understand why his dad hates the magnetic ribbons. And Kevin agrees with him. Suddenly, he is spending his free time researching freedom of speech and flag-burning laws across the globe. And he is speaking out at school, which only leads to more threats and violence aimed at him.

But at least it keeps his mind off of what he did, the reason he was there to save Leah from the Surgeon.  The real reason…

Kevin isn’t a likeable character all the time. In fact, some of his actions are downright creepy. But he is real. Lyga accurately captures the insecure voice of a nobody, a high school loner. He struggles with his looks, his friends, his dark secrets, and fitting in at school. Lyga also draws the secondary characters very well, particularly Kevin’s friends Fam and Flip.

It’s hard to sum this book up in a short review. There are a lot of issues here- the true meaning of patriotism (which reminded me a bit of Avi’s Nothing But The Truth: A Documentary Novel), dealing with divorce, growing up, guilt, and more. But this isn’t a preachy book. Lyga never tells his readers what they should feel or believe. They struggle alongside Kevin to form their own views. There are no neat answers and Lyga makes that perfectly clear.