Newbery Controversy Part…..Oh, I give up!

Growing up, I never had a problem finding books to read.  My aunt was a 7th grade Language Arts and was always passing books on to me to read.  I knew what the Newbery Award was but I didn’t ever read a book just because it was a Newbery.  I read what I wanted to read, whether that was a book my aunt recommended or something I found while browsing the library shelves (totally based on my impression of the cover, of course).  Every few years one of my teachers would assign a book report on a Newbery winner or honor book, but I never had trouble finding something I was ok with reading.  Granted, I was a voracious reader, so I probably was not a typical student.

When I went to high school and college I stopped reading middle grade and YA books for some reason.  Most likely it was because I was so busy with school and homework  (I did go to the #4 high school in the country….yay Techers!) that pleasure reading fell by the wayside.  At the same time, my aunt moved on from teaching to administration.  And I hadn’t yet discovered blogs or other lists of notable books.  But since I started teaching I have read many of the Newbery winners and honor books that I missed during those years, like Because of Winn-Dixie and Al Capone Does My Shirts.  Many of those award-winners are staples in my classroom library now.

Over the last few months, various media outlets have been picking up a story about the supposed downfall of the Newbery.  This past week the Washington Post printed an article about the so-called “problems” with the Newbery Award.  The fact that this supposed controversy actually stems from a nearly identical article in School Library Journal a few months ago notwithstanding, the article is just another example of the media not understanding what the Newbery Award is awarded for and why.  The Newbery is not and was never meant to be an award for the most popular and accessible book for all children.  The article quotes Lucy Calkins, and I think it is the first time I have ever disagreed with her.

“I can’t help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids,” said Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a professor of children’s literature.

Really?!  That’s taking an incredible leap. There are thousands of books published for kids and teens every year.  A list of 1-5 books is the only one teachers and parents are relying on?  And because of that, the award is at fault when not every single child wants to read that year’s winners?  Just based on the fact that the Newbery is given to any book for 8-14 year olds should tell you that it’s not a list to be arbitrarily used!  If you yourself have not read the book, how do you know if it is appropriate for your child or students?  Sorry Lucy, but there are plenty of amazing book lists out there that can help parents and teachers find great books.  The Newbery winners are not the be-all-end-all, and they are certainly not the reason for the decline in reading for enjoyment by kids!  The Newbery is awarded to the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature in a given year.  This does not mean the list of Newbery Medal and Honor books is a go-to list for that parents and teachers must use when assigning or suggesting books to children!  


Newbery winners are typically fairly high level books that deal with a range of issues in depth.  The Washington Post article specifically points to last year’s winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.  According to the article, 

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village” by Laura Amy Schlitz — a series of monologues that Deborah Johnson, manager of the extensive book section at Child’s Play in the District, agreed would be difficult for most kids to read on their own.

You know what?  I love Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!.  Would my 6th graders pick it up on their own?  Probably not.  Have I had great experiences with my kids acting the monologues out and having a ton of fun?  Yes!  In fact, the monologues were written specifically for the author’s students to perform while they were studying medieval times.  It is a wonderful book and certainly different from any other book I have read with my students.  And it is one they really enjoy with the right amount of scaffolding and support from me.  

The article constantly comes back to the idea that the Newbery winners over the last few years are so inaccessible that they are causing children not to read.  Again, that is quite a leap to make. The decline in pleasure reading is seen from children to adults, and I strongly doubt that kids are giving up on reading strictly based on what book wins the Newbery.  You know what?  Most kids have no idea when the Newbery is awarded, how it is awarded, or even that it is anything other than a shiny sticker on a few books in the library.  What is causing children to stop reading is being forced to read books that parents and teachers randomly choose for them strictly based on the fact that they won a Newbery.  The Giver is always referred to reverently in these conversations, as a Newbery winner that kids adore.  But guess what?  It is far from appropriate for younger readers.  You are talking about a book that deals with human euthanasia, free will, and a dystopian society.  We read it as part of our curriculum, and it is an amazing read-aloud.  But I would never hand it to a 4th grader.  Unfortunately, I think that is happening far too often.

Attention teachers and parents:  The Newbery Medal and Honor books list for each year is NOT a list to be used to select books children should or must read.  It is one of many tools that can be used when selecting books.  In my classroom, most Newbery winners are read-alouds.  The reason for this is that they require a good deal of scaffolding and conversation in order for my students to enjoy them and get the full experience of the book.  The stories are wonderful, the issues are important, and the writing is amazing in Newbery winners (talk about great modeling).  But they are not perfect for every child’s independent reading.  Stacey mentions in her post that a lot of recent winners haven’t been appropriate for her fourth-graders.  So she does not read those with her students!  She does, however, read them herself to judge their suitability for her group of students.  And I do the same.  Those same books have been perfect for many of my 6th graders.  And there are even more that are better suited to eighth and ninth graders.  The winners are not books that are appropriate for all 8-14 years olds.  They are books are suitable for someone in that age range.  

So instead of automatically grabbing a book because it has a sticker on it and assigning it as a book report or forcing your child to read it, check out some of these other great resources for book lists:

On January 26, 2009, my class and I will be waiting with baited breath to hear the Newbery Awards announced.  We will have read at least 2 contenders as class read-alouds, and my students are very invested in the awards.  We have discussed the criteria for winning and they fully understand that the award is not given for popularity but for a distinguished contribution to children’s books.  So when they choose a Newbery winner for independent reading, they will know that it is full of amazing writing, but that won’t be the reason they choose to read it.  Instead, they will choose their books based on what they want to read and what is right for them.  Just like I don’t want to be forced to read the National Book Award or the Pulitzer winner each year, we have no right to force our kids to read the Newbery winners when they might be grossly inappropriate for the child in question.

Newbery winners make wonderful read-alouds, as do many other hundreds or thousands of books.  Use some of the industry lists to help your children choose books, but the best way to really help them is to know them.  Know them as readers and as people.  Let them choose their books.  

And you know what?  If they want to read Sweet Valley, the Wimpy Kid books, or Twilight- that’s great!  And if they want to read Newbery or Printz winners- that’s great!  They deserve the same choices we take for granted as adults.  And leave the Newbery alone!

10 Responses

  1. […] A sixth grade teacher makes sense at Newbery Controversy Part…..Oh, I give up! « The Reading Zone […]

  2. You make some great points. I like how you have talked to your students about the Newbery and that they will be vested in the final selection while still realizing they should not only read Newbery’s or that maybe the only Newbery’s they will read are the ones you read as a class.

    I had a quick question for you. When you used the Giver as a read aloud was that with your 6th grade class? I am going to be doing a social justice unit in about a month and I have been trying to think of a read aloud that would tie into that theme. I really like it when I have a read aloud in English and Spanish because I am in a dual immersion school and when I can read the book regardless of the language week then the book does not lose momentum. I had not considered reading The Giver as a read aloud until I saw that you said it has worked well for you as a read aloud and I do have it in both languages. It would also tie into our social justice theme. Last year I remember one of my co-workers saying she didn’t think the giver was for everyone because of the topics (the same ones you mentioned); however, it seemed like you meant it was not appropriate for 4th graders but that by 6th grade it is okay. Is that what you were saying?

  3. Great post. In terms of the Newbery article in question, I kind of look at it like this: Journalists covering the book beat need to constantly generate new material, which often results in knee-jerk swipes at whomever the redheaded stepchild of the moment might be, whether YA in general, the Newbery in particular, or Chick-Lit or what-have-you. They just write this stuff and half the time, I swear *they* don’t even believe the junk they’re writing!

  4. Good points. I am just wondering how your students will have read at least two of the Newbery contenders? My impression of the selection process was that the entire thing is veiled in secrecy and there would be no way of knowing WHAT books the committee was considering, at least until after the award winners are announced.

    • Caralyn-

      Any book that fits the criteria is eligible for the award in a given year. Then I spend a lot of time watching Mock Newberys, blogs, etc. Plus, I read a ton of books to review each year, so I have a general idea of the feelings among teachers and librarians. My students know that the books we have read are eligible and getting a lot of buzz. But they also know that there are literally hundreds of books eligible, so the odds are not great that one of our favorites will win. It’s a lot of fun to speculate, though!

  5. Thanks for the great post!
    I live in America, the land of the free. I’m free to shop at any store I want, and if I have a problem with their service or lack of, I’m free to shop somewhere else. They don’t need to change for me. I’m free to watch any show on television that I want. If I think a show is nasty or stupid, I’m free to change the channel, they don’t need to edit it for me. The same goes with books. I’m free to choose what I want to read. There have been award winners that I have not enjoyed reading at all. I have read books that haven’t won a darn thing that have inspired me, humored me or that I just plain loved. I don’t get these people who are having problems with the Newbery. I would say to them, “You are free to choose what you want to read. Just stop trying to take other people’s freedoms away from them.”

  6. Well said—but I have to point out, it’s bated breath, not baited breath!

  7. “Just like I don’t want to be forced to read the National Book Award or the Pulitzer winner each year, we have no right to force our kids to read the Newbery winners when they might be grossly inappropriate for the child in question.”

  8. Well said, plus, you got a nice shout-out from Fuse 8!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: