My musing for today is, who selects which books intended for children receive a Newbery Medal and how do they do it?
Here’s how I imagine (and embellish upon) it:
A group of women between the ages thirty and sixty sitting at a San Diego Comic Con celebrity panel-style table, each engrossed in a 100 to 250-page book comes to mind. (That last bit about the celebrity panel is purely my imagination, sparked by the word “panel”.)
I imagine these women to be school teachers or librarians or of similar careers relating to children and/or the educational system, and that they would much rather read novels for adults, like Harlequin novels about forbidden love and other more “exciting” things. Hence, they are extremely bored by the simplistic, “namby-pamby” children’s books they’re presented with.
But then one of the nominated books has some illicit behavior in it, or talk of something really, really controversial from a child-appropriate perspective — just like in their favorite adult novels. Now, these panelists’ interests are piqued! Of all the books they’d perused that day (or, to be realistic, in a longer time frame), they have finally found a book that holds their interest, that stands out from the other childish (duh) books they’ve seen. Unfortunately, though, they’ve lost sight of what audience these books were written for.
And so they give that book — the one with the iffy stuff — an award for being a “distinguished” (AKA notably different from every other) nominated contribution to literature (due to its controversial/inappropriate materials no other children’s author dares to include), but they’re only dimly aware of what genre of literature this was intended for: children.
Here’s how they say it is:
…The original Newbery was based on votes by a selected jury of Children’s Librarian Section officers. Books were first nominated by any librarian, then the jury voted for one favorite. Hendrik van Loon’s non-fiction history book The Story of Mankind won with 163 votes out of 212.:11 In 1924 the process was changed, and instead of using popular vote it was decided that a special award committee would be formed to select the winner. The award committee was made up of the Children’s Librarian Section executive board, their book evaluation committee and three members at large. In 1929 it was changed again to the four officers, the chairs of the standing committees and the ex president. Nominations were still taken from members at large.:13
In 1937 the American Library Association added the Caldecott Award, for “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published in the United States”. That year an award committee selected the medal and honor books for both awards.:7 In 1978 the rules were changed and two committees were formed of fifteen people each, one for each award. A new committee is formed every year,with “eight elected, six appointed, and one appointed Chair”.:7 Committee members are chosen to represent a wide variety of libraries, teachers and book reviewers. They read the books on their own time, then meet twice a year for closed discussions. Any book that qualifies is eligible, it does not have to have been nominated. Newbery winners are announced at the Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association, held in January or February. The results of the committee vote is kept secret, and winners are notified by phone shortly before the award is announced.:8
–Wikipedia, “Newbery Medal“
So, how far off was I? Nobody except the panelists knows what went on in their minds when they made their decisions to award the Newbery Medal to certain books.
What I do know is, a vast majority of the Newbery-winning books that I have read (mostly for assigned reading in school) always had something wrong with them, and it was always the same sort of thing. On account of being required to read these books, I was exposed to vulgar and profane content that made my younger self very uncomfortable.
***READER DISCRETION ADVISED BEYOND THIS POINT***
Trust me, it was not a fun moment when I approached my parents and asked, “I’m reading this book for school and there’s a word I’m not familiar with. What does ‘whore’ mean?” Why on Earth would anyone put a word like that in a children’s book? I’d love to ask Katherine Paterson, author of Jacob Have I Loved; Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, author of Shiloh and the Alice series; or Richard Peck, author of A Year Down Yonder.
***AUTHOR SUGGESTS THAT READER DISCRETION IS NO LONGER NECESSARY BEYOND THIS POINT***
Now, there’s another section of Wikipedias’ Newbery Medal article I haven’t seen before today that I’d like to share:
…Some question a quest for exclusivity, or “equating children’s book habits with adults’.”John Beach, associate professor of literacy education at St. John’s University in New York, compared the books that adults choose for children with the books that children choose for themselves and found that in the past 30 years, there is only 5% overlap between the Children’s Choice Awards (International Reading Association) and the Notable Children’s Books list (American Library Association). He has also stated that “the Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children’s publishing.”
After reading that, my example of middle-aged women determining the literary merit of kids’ books came to mind again. Wouldn’t you say that their reading habits differ from those of little kids?
On the same token, I have seen teenage contemporaries critique some of my juvenile fiction writings under the presumption that I had written them for a teenage and/or young adult audience. (Teenage and young adult are two separate categories, believe it or not. “YA” ranges from mid-teen all the way through to early twenties, so I’d recommend parents keep that in mind when buying books for your thirteen year old.) I’d say that is an example of blurring the distinction between one’s personal reading habits at their level of maturity and the reading habits and maturity level of a child.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the review very much, but if you’re a teenager or a grownup, I really don’t care if it held your interest. It’s not supposed to. The question is, if you were twelve years old, would it hold your interest then?
I like young authors who write about young people because they’re writing honestly from a perspective they’re currently experiencing on a day-to-day basis. Their writing style and technique may not be as polished as that of an adult author who has had years of experience, but you can be sure the perspective is extremely accurate.
I am friends with a very scholarly old lady who observed that even authors who write about children and childhood forget about what it was like to really be a child; not even Tom Sawyer portrays childhood 100% accurately. I know this is going to sound like a conspiracy theory, but when an adult is writing from the perspective of a child, relying on their own foggy memories of their childhood, their characters aren’t thinking the way you think; they’re behaving the way they want you to think.
On the same token, it is my belief that the “grown-up” panelists who are judging these books based on their literary merit are looking at them through the wrong eyes. They’re looking for literary merit through their adult eyes (the ones that don’t mind reading about “mushy stuff” and “swear words”) as opposed to the eyes of children, who may very well have other interests (conspiracy theorist mode again–) but are being conditioned by these selections to want to read these things too.
In the second passage I quoted from Wikipedia’s Newbery Medal article, something called the Children’s Choice Awards was mentioned. I did a little digging, and while I haven’t read half of the books they’ve recently selected, (so I can’t verify how “a-prude-propriate” they are,) I believe the award-winning titles from last year’s selections could potentially show a more objective, honest sample of what real kids (AKA the people who are currently kids) are reading and enjoying right now.
Don’t let the Newbery medal be a rubber stamp of assurance that anything about a book — except for maybe its binding — is of notable or reputable quality.