22 August 2006

If It Weren't for the Honor of It...

My weekend posting about Charlotte's Web and interesting discussion about it with Monica Edinger made me look closer at the seal on that book cover. No, not the "MAJOR MOTION PICTURE" circle that gets top position these days. The silver seal at the bottom right.

In 1953, Charlotte's Web was a Newbery Honor book. Everyone now agrees it's a classic. It came from an established writer, meaning the common wariness about a first book didn't apply. So what title did the Newbery Medal committee think was more deserving that year? I just had to look that up.

Answer: Secret of the Andes, by Ann Nolan Clark.
Highlight the line above or click on the link.

Fairly or unfairly, seeing that Newbery Medal winner took me a back a few summers to when I vacationed with my dad's family. My younger sister, Allison, had a summer reading assignment, with a long list of middle-grade novels to choose from. She'd spent an hour or so in a bookstore comparing all those books--to find the shortest. And what did she end up with?

Shadow of a Bull, by Maia Wojciechowska, weighing in at 176 pages! What is the story in this Newbery Medal winner for 1965? (It's not a good sign when even the publisher's page has nothing to say about it.) Shadow of a Bull follows a Spanish boy conflicted over whether to train as a bullfighter. (Wikipedia offers a slightly longer summary.) It would be hard to find a topic less intriguing to my sister, and I recall that she had a lousy time getting through the book.

Allison would probably have enjoyed reading Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy more. It was eligible for the 1965 Newbery, but not honored. (Back in 2001 E. J. Graff complained at length in a Salon essay.) But for Allison's purposes, Harriet is nearly 300 pages.

Now I get rather bored with any complaints that contemporary prejudices about what's worthy influence which books (or movies, or cheeses, or anything) win awards, rather than (a) what people most enjoy, or (b) what people turn out to most enjoy twenty years later. That's like complaining about the second law of thermodynamics. It's just how the world works.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to consider why Newbery committees thought Secret of the Andes was more worthy than Charlotte's Web, and Shadow of the Bull clearly superior to Harriet the Spy. Both Newbery winners are about boys, for one thing. Did that matter in pre-feminist days? Or do books about contemporary girls get more fondly remembered because there are more women in children's literature?

Actually, I think the significant factor in those two Newbery winners is that they're realistic stories about different cultures. They were multicultural literature before the term was coined. The librarians on those Newbery committees--and many others in mid-century, if we look at the list of honorees--seem to have striven to bring the world to young Americans through books. And what have young Americans ended up preferring instead? Mostly stories about other young Americans.


Camille said...

Great minds think alike.

What is most interesting to me about Newbery books is how "required" reading lists cling to them. If summer reading lists are going to require a Newbery for summer reading, why would they choose "Ginger Pye" from over 50 years ago rather than "Tale of Despereaux" or a more recent pick...

fusenumber8 said...

You mention that in the old days the Newbery went to books with male protagonists. Recently the winners have been particularly good and falling to both boy and girl heroes. Unfortunately, I usually prefer the books with boys in the lead. How lame is that?

J. L. Bell said...

For other folks, Camille's "Great minds" comment refers to how she'd blogged about Secret of the Andes/Charlotte's Web a few days before I unwittingly took up the same subject. I tend to use the formulation, "Great minds think alike, and sometimes I happen to think the same way, too."

The Newbery winners are, of course, a simple way of designating some books as worth reading. All together, they do offer a wide variety of literature. Nearly any kid should be able to find some title on that list that appeals—especially with the Honor Books thrown in.

Requiring a whole class to read one book is a different question, and I suspect the choice comes down to the individual teacher and what's available in quantity. Somebody must like Ginger Pye. It's got a cute dog, after all. And it's got a brother and sister as protagonists, not (like Shiloh) just a boy.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not sure if the Newberys used to go to boy-protagonist books disproportionately; I haven't done the survey, or read about someone who has.

That just seemed to be one difference between those two winners and the more (fondly) remembered novels published the same years. But perhaps the thinking was, "The last few years' medals have gone to girl books. We should think seriously about a book that boys would like." In that case, girl-protagonists would be disproportionate.

But what would "disproportionate" be? Not close to 50%? Not close to the fraction of total novels with boy-protagonists? Not close to the fraction of readers who are boys? There's a master's thesis in this somewhere.