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Critics Debate Value of Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature

December 18, 2008 10:29 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
Many consider Newbery Medal-winning books to be a “gold standard” for quality children’s literature, but critics are debating the value of the award.

Assessing the Newbery

For decades, the Newbery Medal has popularized children’s literature. When the winning book is announced each January, “bookstores nationwide sell out, libraries clamor for copies and teachers add the work to lesson plans,” according to The Washington Post.

But critics are wondering if the award is all it’s made out to be. Some say the books that win may be too complicated for younger readers to enjoy. A few of the winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005 deal with death, absent parents and mental issues like autism.

According to The Washington Post, The School Library Journal initiated a debate about the award in October. According to the Journal, some teachers admitted they had not purchased a Newbery book in years. “They don’t appeal to our children,” they said.

“The criterion has never been popularity,” Pat Scales, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, told The Washington Post. “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 the critiques of the Newbery committee’s book selection process come at a time when the number of Americans who read literature is declining from years ago. This risks “social and economic consequences,” according to The Washington Post.

Would choosing more popular Newberry-winning books help? The books tend to become best sellers. Eighth grader Elias Feldman said he thought kids were more likely to enjoy reading if they liked what they were asked to read.

Opinion: Diversity and Newbery winners

In 1996, The Horn Book Magazine published an editorial about the Newbery Medal, pointing out that for 10 years prior, only white authors had received the honor. Additionally, the winning books were written for middle-grade students and only featured white protagonists.

Other high-quality books showcasing more diversity also fit the bill for becoming potential Newberry winners, the editorial argued, including books written by African American authors, and some featuring Latino and African-American characters.

Horn Book concluded that the Newbery offers “an opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary richness and scope of children’s books, to look to the whole body of children’s literature for the year’s best.”

Related Topic: Turner Prize for Art

Some art critics believe this year’s Turner Prize for modern art marks an all-time low, but outrage over the artworks may be part of the package. In past years, Britain’s Turner Prize has gone to artists such as Chris Ofili, who put elephant dung on canvas, and Damien Hirst, who immersed the halves of a cow and calf in formaldehyde. For some reason, this year, critics were particularly enraged over the winner, Mark Leckey, who won for a video titled “Industrial Light and Magic.” The exhibition mixes film, performance and sculpture and features the cartoon character Felix the Cat, “The Simpsons” and a Honda car commercial.

Reference: Newbery Medal-winning authors


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