Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Newbery Project Revisited

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.


Eric said...

Reading the Honors titles or at least a decade worth is really rewarding. I as much as I love the medal winners when I look at my favorite read by decade between Medal winners and Honor winners I pick an honor winner almost every time (granted there are 287 honors so a lot more choices).
For me the only medal winners that I would pick over the medal titles are: 20s' Dark Frigate, 50s' Carry on Mr. Bodwitch and 70s' Westing Game. I would pick House of Scorpion over the 00s winners, Watsons go to Brimingham over 90s winners, Doctor DeSoto over any 80s winner (as much as I LOVE Dear Mr. Henshaw), Jennifer, Hectate, MacBeth... over Mixed up Files by just a hair, My Father's Dragon for the 40s and Mr. Popper's Penguins for the 30s.

Jess said...

I'm pretty invested in the Newbery, too, but not compared to you - I don't have the dedication to read them all! Out of the honor books that I've read, I have mixed feelings. Some I loved, some I thought were good, and some just don't seem like distinguished titles. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the discussions! I'll have to think over my favorites/best of the decades.

Sandy D. said...

I still have a handful of Newbery winners left to read, but I have to disagree with you on some of your decade picks!

NO to "The Trumpeter of Krakow" for the 20's - I would suggest "Gay-Neck" instead. As disjointed as it is, I think it was one of my biggest surprises (being so much better than I anticipated). And "The Story of Mankind" is awesome but I think it is a hard sell to get people to even browse it. :(

I like your picks for the 30's (and this is the decade I have the most books left to read from), but for the 40's I'd pick either "Adam of the Road" or "Call It Courage" over "The Matchlock Gun". Not because of the racism in Matchlock, but because I thought the other two books were better "boy adventure" books.

I liked "Miracles on Maple Hill" a huge amount. But I guess I have to agree with your pick of "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" for the 50's. I am not going to urge anyone to read "Secret of the Andes", even to compare it to "Charlotte's Web".

For the 60's, I have to pick "A Wrinkle in Time" as both best and most influential. Maybe because I'm such an avid SF reader. And for the 70's, "Bridge to Terebithia" as best (haven't read "Roll of Thunder" yet, so dunno about important/influential for that).

The 80's are tough to pick - I liked this decade a lot more than you did, and "The Hero and the Crown" would probably have been thrilling to me as a kid or young teen. I think Lincoln was the best, though, it really is an amazing book.

For me personally, "Out of the Dust" was the best of the 90's, but I guess I'd go with "The Giver" as most important, and "Holes" as the best read.

I'm torn between "The Graveyard Book" and "A Year Down Yonder" as the best reads for our decade, and have no idea which book will be seen as most important.

Sandy D. said...

Ooops, forgot to say that I totally agree about "The Twenty-One Balloons". That was even more of a surprise to me than "Gay-Neck". I'm really sorry I never read it as a child, because I think I would have loved it and re-read it, perhaps as many times as I re-read "A Wrinkle in Time".

LaurieA-B said...

Yo! 1980s! Hero and the Crown! I LOVE The Hero and the Crown.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, Bud Not Buddy over Watsons Go to Birmingham? Did you include Honor Books in this?
I need to read some of this before I see you...

Wendy said...

Nope, only the winners; this isn't a popular opinion, but I think the honors are taken into account too often. It annoys me when teachers assign kids to read "either a Newbery winner or a Newbery honor", for instance. It's not like there aren't enough winners to choose from. I do think Bud, Not Buddy is the more important read canonically, though, and that's all "most important read" is meant to mean.

Laura said...

Wow you did it. I am in the middle of reading all the Newbery's, I have about 20 left. I found your blog because I wanted to see if other people were doing this project too. You can see my blog at You are the first blog I found of someone who finished the project (well until the new one is picked!). I am 9 and wonder if I will find some other kids my age who finish too.
thanks for the blog!

Anonymous said...

Awesome list...seems like a challenge I would love to take as well! May I mention here that we are HUGE Caddie Woodlawn fans?