Critics Say Newbery-Winning Books Are Too Challenging for Young Readers

The 2008 winner has been called inaccessible to young readers.
The 2008 winner has been called inaccessible to young readers. (Courtesy Of Candlewick - Courtesy Of Candlewick)
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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Newbery Medal has been the gold standard in children's literature for more than eight decades. On the January day when the annual winner is announced, bookstores nationwide sell out, libraries clamor for copies and teachers add the work to lesson plans.

Now the literary world is debating the Newbery's value, asking whether the books that have won recently are so complicated and inaccessible to most children that they are effectively turning off kids to reading. Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism. Most of the rest deal with tough social issues.

An article in October's School Library Journal -- "Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?" by children's literary expert Anita Silvey -- touched off the debate, now in full bloom on blogs and in e-mails. It is the new flashpoint in the struggle to draw children into the delicious world of books at a time when the National Endowment for the Arts says fewer Americans are choosing to read than they did 20 years ago, risking social and economic consequences.

The organization that awards the Newbery -- and several other book prizes, including the Caldecott Medal for best American picture book for children -- defends its methods and its record.

"The criterion has never been popularity," said Pat Scales, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. "It is about literary quality. We don't expect every child to like every book. How many adults have read all the Pulitzer Prize-winning books and the National Book Award winners and liked every one?"

But Silvey and other critics have said the Newbery committee, which will award the 2009 medal Jan. 26, has a special responsibility because it is so influential.

"I can't help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids," said Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College and a professor of children's literature.

In an interview, Silvey said one example of inaccessibility is the 2008 winner, "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village" by Laura Amy Schlitz -- a series of monologues that Deborah Johnson, manager of the extensive book section at Child's Play in the District, agreed would be difficult for most kids to read on their own.

"Quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive concepts," said Silvey, editor of several books, including "Children's Books and Their Creators," an overview of 20th-century children's books. "They can be found in the same book. . . . If you don't think of children at all in the equation, what you get are books that work for adults."

Yet Johnson said she is reluctant to criticize the quality of recent Newbery winners: "To choose books that people feel are going to stretch a young person's mind is not a bad thing."

The Newbery Medal was launched in 1922 -- the first children's literary award in the world -- to promote the publishing industry by choosing "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." There are now numerous awards given for young people's literature by Scales's organization and others -- some even selected by children -- but the Newbery remains the most prestigious.

A 15-member committee of librarians and other literary experts is chosen each year to select the Newbery winner and the runner-up "honor" books.

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