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.