It's been just over a year since I finished reading all the Newbery winners, something I only thought about after I was able to put my Newbery skillz to work recently and call out Peter of Collecting Children's Books (which I referred to this weekend as, I think, "the best blog in the world" or similar), who graciously posted all about it.
Recently I said to Jen Robinson "I'm just really invested in the Newbery," and she responded "I can see that," possibly with a little "hello, Ms. Crazypants" in her eyes.
If I was formal about this kind of thing, I would start a Newbery Challenge and try to convince bloggers to read one Newbery they think they have zero interest in. Or to pick the decade of which they've read the fewest books (probably the 20s or 30s for almost everyone) and read one from there. Or to read the book published the year they were born, or the year their mothers were twelve. (The Westing Game and Amos Fortune: Free Man for me, respectively, which is very funny--of all the books on the list, I put The Westing Game at the top and Amos Fortune at the bottom.)
Every once in a while I revisit the idea of reading all the Newbery Honors, too. I've always avoided that for two reasons--one, I am not a compulsive person in the slightest, and two, a lot of the Honors sound really boring. But compared to most people, I have very little knowledge of most of the Honor books. (Um... when I say "most people", I mean... people with specialized children's literature knowledge. YOU know.) I did have an idea for a series of posts that deal with the winner and all the honors for one particular year; in fact, I finished all my reading for 1953, and if I ever post that year, I'll be soliciting for other year suggestions.
But for now, I'm going to do a decade-by-decade suggestion list. You could take it as a challenge, if you wanted.
1920s: Best read: The Trumpeter of Krakow; interesting setting, characters, and easy-to-enjoy plot. Most important read: The Story of Mankind. I think you really have to know this book.
1930s: Best read: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, a delightful story of adventure. Most important read: probably Caddie Woodlawn is the one with the most cultural resonance, though I found it unremarkable.
1940s: Best read: The 21 Balloons. This is really the book I wish everyone would read (especially if you like food). Most important read: depending on why you read, maybe The Matchlock Gun. It's easy for me to write off most of the racist books on the Newbery list, because most of them aren't very good. The Matchlock Gun is VERY good. It's a good (and safely in the past) point of reference for discussion about cultural insensitivity vs. distinguished writing.
1950s: Best read: Oh, The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was talking with a writer who isn't familiar with most of the Newbery books, and she was asking if I agree that most of them aren't very appealing to children. "Like, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, do you really think that's a great book?" she asked. "It's in my top five," I said enthusiastically. She hadn't read the book, had just heard something about it. I loved it when I was a kid and love it more now. Ladies and gentlemen, THAT is a great work of literature. Most important read (other than that): Secret of the Andes. Depending on who you are, you'll read it and see how horribly wrong committee discussions can go (that's me), or you'll read it and come off brilliantly when you're the one person in the group arguing that the right book won that year.
1960s: Best read: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but you've already read THAT. Most important read: probably the same. If you look at the list of winners, this book seems to usher in a new modern era of children's books; most everything before could be called somewhat old-fashioned, even, in some ways, A Wrinkle in Time. This book has an immediacy and modernity and envelope-pushing quality that seems important in Newbery history.
1970s: Best read: Well, The Westing Game, of course. Most important read: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I think, which is so central to discussions about period-appropriate offensive language. Incidentally, in the 1970s, four of the books focused on African American themes, one is about an Alaska Native, and The Westing Game has quite a bit of race-relations conversation, too. It's an interesting decade for the Newberys.
1980s: Decade of my childhood, and none of the winners are thrilling to me, which is maybe why I avoided Newbery winners for so many years. Best read: maybe Lincoln: A Photobiography. (Most of the books are good, just not thrilling.) Most important read: um... Jacob Have I Loved might be the most YA book in the entire list, so maybe that's important.
1990s: I sense another cultural shift here. Perhaps the best read is The Giver, and the most important is Holes, which is generally held up as "both popular and profound".
2000s: Best read: A Year Down Yonder, which is spare and funny and meaningful. Most important read: Too soon to say, but Bud, Not Buddy might be the one it's most important to be conversant with, culturally.
As always, I am delighted to hear any agreement or disagreement or to take any "what did you think of" questions. And I'm nudging you--do it now!--take just one of the books I've listed above and put it on hold at the library. Let me know which one you're choosing and why.