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Wendy Lamb Books (Random House imprint)

“When You Reach Me” Wins Newbery Medal, Affirming the Award’s Value

January 18, 2010 04:50 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Many consider Newbery Medal-winning books to be a “gold standard” for quality children’s literature. This year’s selection has met the expectations of many critics that last year questioned whether the award had lost its value.

Winner in 2010

The 2010 Newbery Medal winners were announced earlier today at a conference of the American Library Association held in Boston. Top honors went to Rebecca Stead for “When You Reach Me,” a young adult mystery hailed as a likely winner almost immediately upon its release last summer.

Stead’s victory was prematurely announced by an employee on the Random House Twitter account just minutes before the official announcement.

The Christian Science Monitor describes Stead’s book. ”The complex, twisty mystery story neatly braids together plots and subplots involving a 12-year-old named Miranda, her single mom, and their life in a Manhattan apartment building in 1979. Clues to help unravel the mystery lie in the novel that Miranda carries everywhere with her—children’s lit classic and 1963 Newbery Medal winner ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Madeleine L'Engle.”

Prior to the announcement by the ALA, Jonathan Hunt of School Library Journal explained how “When You Reach Me” fulfill’s the Newbery Medal’s unofficial mission of getting children excited about reading. In the run up to last year’s awards, many questioned the value of the Newbery Medal, arguing that recent selections failed on that key mission.

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.

Last year, critics wondered if the award was all it’s made out to be. Some said 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, School Library Journal initiated a debate about the award in October 2008. 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 came at a time when the number of Americans that read literature was declining from years ago.

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; Stead’s winning novel could fit squarely into this category.

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.”

Reference: Newbery Medal-winning authors


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