Friday, September 26, 2008

Newbery Report, Part 1 of 3

Part 1 of 3 about the Newbery Award. Absolutely everything should have an assumed “In my opinion” affixed. Any information about the award is taken from the ALA website, except for a few things that I've picked up from people I know who have been on the Newbery Committee. If I've misunderstood and/or misinterpreted what they've talked about, that, of course, is my own fault.

You can find a full list of Newbery winners and Newbery Honor books here.


Q: Who are you to be criticizing classic and award-winning books?

A: No one. I'm just a reader of children's books; I have strong opinions, and sort of old-fashioned ideas about what makes good writing. I tend to be more interested in books about girls. I didn't read any new-to-me Newberys that I liked as well as my favorites from when I was a kid—for one thing, I think I really had read some of the best ones, and for another, it's easier to overlook flaws when you're a kid—so I have a strong bias there. I don't pretend that I could do a better job than any of these writers. I just read 'em.

Q: Why did you decide to read all the Newbery winners?

A: I reread a lot and don't read as many new-to-me books as I could. I thought this would get me to read a lot of different kinds of books that I'd never ordinarily pick up, like books about boys or animals (or boys AND animals), or books with dull-sounding titles.

Q: Hadn't you already read a lot of them?

A: No. To my surprise, I'd only read twelve of them as a child, and I read seven more as an adult before I began the project. A lot of them had titles and covers that were not appealing to me, which led me to believe that most Newberys were not that good; that made me even less likely to pick them up, no matter what the title or the cover.

Q: Did you read all the Honor books, too, or just the winners?

A: No, just the winners. It never crossed my mind to try to read all the Honor books, too, but apparently it has crossed a lot of other minds, because several people have asked me this.

Q: Are you going to read all the Honor books now?

A: Not really. I'm far more likely to pick up a random Honor book now than I used to be, but I don't intend to read all of them. To be honest, I don't think all of them are probably worth reading, especially the older ones—check out some of those titles.

Q: Should I read all the Newbery winners, too?

A: Only if you are compulsive about finishing things, or, like me, you need a shove to make you read other kinds of books. Quite a few of them are not that great.

Q: How are Newbery books chosen?

A: From what I understand (anyone chime in if you know more than me), there's a committee every year, formed from members of the American Library Association (ALA). ALA members can suggest each other for the committee, and I assume you can apply, but I don't think they take outside suggestions. They try to get members from a variety of library types. The members of the committee read a lot of books, then get together, discuss, and vote. Because of the nature of the process, sometimes the “wrong” book gets chosen. Really good books, by their very nature, usually have something that makes some people dislike them. I get the impression that sometimes the winning book is something of a compromise, and that's why it might seem like the Honor books are better than the winners (more on that later).

Q: What is the Newbery awarded for?

A: The most distinguished contribution to children's literature that year.

Q: Isn't it supposed to be, like, a story? What's with the medieval poetry and biography of Lincoln?

A: No, any genre is acceptable, in theory.

Q: Don't you think some of the books are inappropriate for children?

A: No. Books suitable for children up to age 14 are eligible for the Newbery Medal. That doesn't mean every book is suitable for every child, and several of them might not be appropriate for your ten-year-old—they might have been written for your young teenager. It's up to you, as always.

Q: What are the criteria for the award? Some of these books are dumb.

A: ALA defines “distinguished” as: marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement; marked by excellence in quality; marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence; individually distinct. The elements the committee is supposed to look at are: interpretation of the theme or concept; presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; development of a plot; delineation of characters; delineation of setting; appropriateness of style. These criteria are not going to be relevant to every genre, but if it applies to the genre, it's supposed to be distinguished.

Q: What are the REAL criteria?

A: I would add innovativeness, exoticness, seriousness of message, potential appeal to boys. We'll get to that later.

Q: What is NOT supposed to be considered?

A: How good an author's other books are; “didactic intent”; popularity. This does not attempt to be any kind of kids' choice award.

Q: What's your personal opinion of what a Newbery book should be?

A: The writing should be terrific. I don't like books where the author's voice breaks into the character's. I like the books to feel really authentic, like I totally believe that these are the thoughts and observations of the characters. Any message should be worked into the story so thoroughly that you don't realize you're being preached at—you don't realize it until later, or you feel like you're learning along with the characters. No effort should be made to wring sympathy from the reader. I don't think Newbery books need to appeal to everyone, but their appeal should not be too narrow. If I have a problem with something in the book—whether it's in the writing or the content—I make no excuses for “but it's written for kids, and kids would never notice that”--excellence should be honored. They should be enjoyable to read. And preferably, they should be at least a little bit funny.

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