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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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Eligible books -- fiction, non-fiction and poetry -- must be by an author who is a citizen or resident of the United States and written for "ages up to and including 14." Librarians have said some parents and teachers mistakenly think the Newbery is aimed for children ages 8 to 12 and give children developmentally inappropriate books.

Some Newbery winners have become classics, including Louis Sachar's "Holes" in 1999, Lois Lowry's "The Giver" in 1994 and Ellen Raskin's "The Westing Game" in 1979. Some runners-up have, too, including "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White in 1953; that year, the medal was given to "Secret of the Andes" by Ann Nolan Clark.

Winning books become instant bestsellers. Many bookstores and libraries have Newbery sections, and popular television shows interview the winners each year. Textbooks given to prospective teachers and librarians includes lists of Newbery winners, and many master's and doctoral theses are written about them.

A book's appeal to students is important in literacy acquisition, according to experts -- and kids.

"If you force someone to read a book, the less likely you are to like it," said Elias Feldman, 13, an eighth-grader at private Landon School in Bethesda. Teachers, he said, like to select books ripe for analysis rather than for a gripping narrative. He said he understands that motivation but thinks kids would read more if their assigned books engaged them.

John Beach, associate professor of literacy education at St. John's University in New York, studied 30 years of book lists chosen by children and adults. He found that less than 5 percent overlap between the Children's Choice Awards -- named every year by the International Reading Association -- and the library association's annual Notable Children's Books list, which includes many Newbery and Caldecott winners.

Books prized by children had stories and characters "accessible" to their lives, Beach's report concluded. "The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children's publishing," he said.

Richard Allington, an education professor at the University of Tennessee and a literacy expert, wonders why adults seem to identify literature with books that are sad and difficult. So does Temuulen Uranbayar, 11, a fifth-grader at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington.

He says he loves to read -- but not always the books his teachers want him to. "I love funny chapter books, when I get to pick," said Temuulen, who is part of a project in 12 Arlington schools that anecdotally bears out the contention that kids select different books than adults.

Kristi Jemtegaard, coordinator for youth services for the Arlington Public Library and a former member of a Newbery selection committee, has recruited youngsters at 12 public schools to review books. At Long Branch, about 15 fifth-graders volunteer to skip lunch and recess once a week during the fall to evaluate books that she believes have a chance to win the Caldecott Medal, the picture-book award. They will vote soon -- and learn next month whether they agreed with the real Caldecott committee.

Last year, after reviewing about a dozen books, only one of the school committees chose the Caldecott winner: "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," by Brian Selznick. There was some controversy over that selection, too, with critics noting that it was more a storybook with illustrations than a book driven by pictures.

Jemtegaard said that the Newbery selection process, though "not perfect," is valuable because it raises the profile of children's literature -- and because "it makes us think harder about what we do."

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