Part 2 of 3 about the Newbery Award. Absolutely everything should have an assumed “In my opinion” affixed. Longer reviews of most books—everything I read this summer—are on Goodreads. All dates signify the year the book won the award (which is the year after it was published), unless otherwise specified.
You can find a full list of Newbery winners and Newbery Honor books here.
GENERAL STATISTICS AND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NEWBERY AWARD WINNERS
Q: Doesn't it seem like all the Newbery books lately are depressing? How many of them are problem novels?
A: I always thought this, too. It's true that almost all of them are quite serious and deal with serious subjects. But very few are what I would consider “problem novels”--books centered on a depressing subject, where the character is mostly dealing with that subject. Dear Mr. Henshaw (1984) by Beverly Cleary is, I would say, a classic example of a Newbery-quality problem novel. (It's about a boy with divorced parents and the problems he has with that.) There are a few others, but it was hard to pin many of them down that way, and I don't think there are many, if any, Newbery books that wouldn't have won except that they're problem novels. (I do note that an author's most serious work is most likely to be awarded the medal or honored--see Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Jane Langton.) Using a very broad definition of “problem novel”, I could only come up with 15% of the Newberys belonging to that category.
Q: But come on, didn't they used to be better and less depressing? Look at the old classic Newberys. Where's A Wrinkle in Time (1963) or Miracles on Maple Hill (1957)?
A: Well, there aren't many books like A Wrinkle in Time; that would be asking too much. But plenty of the older Newberys are not very good—we just notice the good ones more. And as far as being depressing, sad, violent, inappropriate for children, etc—number one, by far, is Lois Lenski's Strawberry Girl (1946). This story about feuding, violence, murder threats, killed animals, child abuse, and alcoholism would chill people who disliked The Higher Power of Lucky (2007) to the bone.
Q: So if they aren't problem novels, what are they, mostly?
A: Historical fiction. 51, or 59%, of the Newbery winners are either historical fiction or plain historical (there are a few biographies, for instance). Only a few of the books are realistic fiction, about ordinary kids in the US.
Q: What? Why?
A: Maybe librarians like historical fiction. Maybe they think they're less likely to seem dated in twenty years. Who knows?
Q: How many of these books are about orphaned or semi-orphaned boys traveling through medieval England and meeting colorful characters typical of the period?
A: Funny you should ask. There are three books with that plot: Adam of the Road (1943), The Door in the Wall (1950), and Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2003). The Whipping Boy (1987) is a little like that, too.
Q: What other time periods are strongly represented?
A: I actually count eight total books about medieval Europe. Otherwise, they're pretty scattered—three Depression books, a few other twentieth-century historicals, several scattered around the nineteenth century, several colonial-through-Revolutionary-times. And since a lot of the books that were contemporary when written are now more like historical fiction to today's kids (sometimes they're successful as “historical fiction”, sometimes they just seem dated)--well, this makes for a very historical-feeling list.
Q: What else is there a lot of?
A: The “exotic”. This is a little difficult to define, but it's plain that the Newbery committees have often loved books that take place in settings that would be exotic to the average reader. I think there's always been an effort—sometimes misplaced—to make this list multicultural, which has sometimes resulted in a sort of... fetishization. In counting books I would put under the “exotic” label, I'm basically considering books that take place outside the US or pre-colonial England; also settings outside mainstream US culture, like a Navajo reservation. I count 22% of the books in this category. Some of them are really excellent (A Single Shard, 2002), and others are “goodness, aren't other cultures interesting! They eat funny food! Their customs are so colorful!” (Dobry, 1935).
Q: You said there are lots of books about boys?
A: Yeah. 53% of the books have male main characters. 34% have female main characters. (The rest either don't have main characters, or are ensemble books. There are differences of opinion about certain books, such as whether The Westing Game has a main character or not; I vote not.) I think this goes back to that annoying idea that “girls will read books about boys, but boys won't read books about girls”. For one thing, I don't think this is as true as people claim. For another, I think a lot of books that girls enjoy that do have male main characters are not books that boys enjoy anyway. But I think, either consciously or sub-consciously, that some people on the committee must have always thought that if they choose books that they think will appeal to boys, it will encourage boys to read. This is not the purpose of the award, and I don't think it works. And if boys really are reluctant to read “girl” books, let's talk about the way those books are marketed, what their covers look like, and how we react to boys who are reading those books, rather than simply saying that “boys won't read that”.
Q: What about a gender breakdown on the authors?
A: 66% of Newbery winners were written by women. Except for the first decade, there have always been far more women authors honored than men authors. I'm sure that's at least partly due to more women than men who write for children. But it's interesting to note that obviously a lot of women authors chose to write about male protagonists. (Three men authors wrote about female protagonists.)
Q: How about people of color?
A: About 24% of the books have main characters who are people of color, including people of African, Latino, Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Arabic heritage. That's just a statistic, not a judgment of under- or over-representation; I have no idea about that. Some of these are positive representations, some are not, and some are partly positive and partly problematic. I don't know the racial backgrounds of all the authors, but I think I can safely say that since the 1960s, there have been more Newbery winning authors who are people of color, and the portrayals of people of color have been more positive.
Q: So what's under-represented?
A: Funny books. Lots of them are not funny at all, and I only count a few that are VERY funny. There are more of these in the Honors. Maybe they do not have sufficient gravitas for the committees. Also, if any genre is permissible, why is all the non-fiction historical stuff? Where are the books about science and art and math? I understand that they might be reluctant to choose most science-oriented books, out of fears that they would soon be outdated—probably true—but there are probably possibilities in any of these categories. Wouldn't you like to have seen The Way Things Work (published 1988) on the list? Also, books about Jewish children. There's The Bronze Bow (1962), which is about historical Jewish people who are following Jesus; some of the people in Number the Stars (1990); some characters in The View from Saturday (1997). Asian American characters are also rare, although there are several books that take place in Asia, as are Latino characters.
Q: Do you think a lot of the Newbery books have racist elements?
A: Yeah, I do. Some of the stuff I can accept as being “of the times”--Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (1930), for instance, has some racial characterizations that are definitely offensive, but the characters are presented positively, and the author displays some sensitivity; I think it was actually sort of forward-thinking. None of the characterizations have the intent of showing another race to be stupid or “lesser”. I would recommend that book to some kids, with cautions and discussions. On the other hand, in Smoky, the Cow Horse (1927), there's a villain whose primary characteristic is that he's of mixed race. This has clearly doomed him, because, the author seems to claim, such people are born bad. I expect that to be unforgivable no matter what the times were like in which it was written. It also comes down to—does this book have redeeming qualities? Is it so good that people should read it even though it's racist? This is a question people can only judge for themselves.
And I have to give the committees credit: by being willing to honor books about people from a variety of racial backgrounds, they were opening themselves up to this kind of criticism in the future. It's better, perhaps, than if they had only chosen “safe” books about white people.
Q: How many of the books that won are definitely not better than one or more books that received an Honor that year?
A: Not as many as I thought there would be, actually. A lot of times when there was a really good Honor book that you want to think “that should have won”, there was an equally good winner; sometimes when the winner is weak and you think “how did that win”, the Honor pool looks equally weak; and sometimes the winner is really good and the Honors are all really good, and you just have to think, “Wow, that was an amazing year for children's books.” But to be honest, I haven't read enough of the Newbery Honors to judge this very well. Hitler Youth (2006 Honor) is an amazing, fascinating book, but I loved Criss Cross, the winner. I probably would have chosen Hitler Youth, but I can understand why they chose Criss Cross. I haven't read all the Honor books from 2003, when Crispin won, but based on reputation, probably one or more is better. I greatly prefer Charlotte Doyle to Maniac Magee (1991), but Maniac Magee has plenty of fans.
Ones I would definitely put in that category:
Julie of the Wolves (1973) beat The Upstairs Room
Rifles for Watie (1958) beat Gone-Away Lake
Secret of the Andes (1953) beat Charlotte's Web (the most famous mistake, and the worst)
Rabbit Hill (1945) beat The Hundred Dresses—okay, actually I hate The Hundred Dresses, but I know a lot of people love it, and Rabbit Hill is not very good
Call it Courage (1941) beat The Long Winter (this is the second worst mistake, in my opinion)
Daniel Boone (1940) beat By the Shores of Silver Lake