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!

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.