06 October 2008

Newbery Negativity

Last week the School Library Journal published an article asking "Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?" The top award in American children's fiction can still sell lots of books. But the essayist wrote that for some titles that sales bump wasn't lasting. And why?

She reported:

First, a librarian at my local public library confessed that she had no interest in learning “what unreadable Newbery the committee was going to foist on us this year.” Then, a few weeks later at an education conference, I was startled to hear several teachers and media specialists admit they hadn’t bought a copy of the Newbery winner for the last few years. Why? “They don’t appeal to our children,” they explained patiently.
These complaints aren't new, but what makes them notable now is that Anita Silvey--former editor of The Horn Book, former editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin, author of guides to children's literature--is voicing them.

Among recent Newbery winners, Silvey counts these as successful with young readers, teachers, and "small-town public librarians":
  • Holes (1998)
  • Bud, Not Buddy (1999)
  • A Single Shard (2001)
  • The Tale of Despereaux (2003)
(The parenthetical dates are when the books were published; they won their medals in the following year.)

The medal-winners from the same stretch which Silvey describes as not becoming popular successes are:
  • A Year Down Yonder (2000)
  • Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2002)
  • Kira-Kira (2004)
  • Criss Cross (2005)
  • The Higher Power of Lucky (2006)
  • Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (2007)
Interestingly, with the exception of Crispin, that's also a sort of recent Newbery winners that have male protagonists from those that don't. Hmmmm.


david elzey said...

Are we to conclude that popularity lies with both boy and girl readers, and that those books with female protags don't interest the boys as much, hence the lack of popularity?

What I've always been curious about is the percentage of female committee members deciding the awards versus how many books with male main characters win.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, one possible answer is that boys aren't eager to read about girls while girls are willing to read about boys. If that's the case, then books with female protagonists start with a disadvantage in the race for wide popularity. Of course, that's probably only one factor, and perhaps one that's diminishing.

Another possibility is that in our culture authors write more of a certain type of story with girls in the lead roles, and more of another type with boys in the lead roles. And the former type wins more awards while the latter type gains more sales.

As for the Newbery selection committees, every photo I've seen of them, such as the one on this page, shows that a large majority of the judges are middle-aged white women. They are all, of course, librarians. Presumably, they were at one point book-loving white girls.

Given that trend, it wouldn't be remarkable if Newbery judges had a fondness for stories about introspective white girls. But if the committees were judging largely on that criterion, we'd see a lot more of those stories than we do, given the overwhelming majorities in that "voting bloc." It's probably only a small factor at most.

Nina Lindsay said...

The "mostly white women" is an excellent point that never came up in Silvey's article. I think it reaches beyond the Newbery committee though--it seems to me to describe the entire children's literature publishing/criticsim macrocosm.

I have to point out that newer titles Silvey listed as not popular are not all without male protagonists. Cripsin would be surprised to hear that, as would Hugo, Jack, Simon, Drogo, et al.

J. L. Bell said...

I noted Crispin as an exception. I find there's almost always a prominent exception when it comes to "rules" in literature. I treat that book's Newbery as a career award for Avi, and am not surprised it's not as popular as many of his other titles.

As for the lads in Good Masters!, I don't think any character stands out as the one for readers to identify with for the course of that book. It doesn't really have a main protagonist, male or female. Hence my division of books with male protagonists and books without—rather than books with male protagonists and books with female ones.

This past year was a weird one. The middle-grade novel with a male protagonist, an action-filled story, and a Serious story about history and art—the sort of book that could both win awards and become popular with young readers—turned out to win the Caldecott instead of the Newbery.