Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I just want to say this one thing about the Newbery

Over at Oz and Ends Monday, J.L. Bell questioned the lack of diversity among the Newbery winner and its attendant Honors, noting that all four books are "very serious" and have girls as central characters. Run, I wanted to tell him. Duck-and-cover. Some people get really protective of that medal, as Martha Parravano and Lauren Adams learned ten years ago when they brought up the same question as Mr. Bell, but in their turn asking why the Newbery too often tended to go to middle grade novels about white children.

This year we have four books, all middle-grade realistic fiction, all with white female protagonists. Not to say that the four books aren't distinct from each other, but look at what all of them aren't: picture books, poetry, easy-reader, fantasy, science fiction, biography or other nonfiction. What gives?

34 comments:

Melissa said...

Honestly. Could we please give the Newbery to a book that a kid actually wants to read? The kids who shop in our store would have probably all picked Rick Riordan's "The Sea of Monsters"; librarians who shop in our store would have picked Edward Tulane. What about "Clementine"? That was adorable.

And one of the big problems with Higher Power of Lucky is that Matt Phelan's charming illustrations, especially his cover, make the book look far younger than it actually is. We had an elementary librarian buy it on Monday morning and return it Monday evening because of the whole scrotum description/stream of consciousness thought that the main character does on about page 13.

J. L. Bell said...

I should clarify that I didn't use "diversity" to refer to characters' racial classifications in today's only acceptable way. Before I did that, I'd have had to, well, read all the books.

I was simply considering the Serious Challenges their heroines faced, all in the present or recent past.

Thanks for the warning, though!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say the illustrations make the book look "far younger." They do complement the innocent quality Lucky has. And the scrotum story -- especially Lucky's reaction to it -- is pretty innocent too. Is the passage below really too risque for an elementary school library? If anything, I worry that Lucky hasn't come across more information about the human body in her own library.

"Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important, and Lucky was glad she was a girl and would never have such an aspect as a scrotum to her own body."

Jordan Sonnenblick said...

Interestingly, some moron left an anonymous, nasty Amazon comment about _Higher Power_ which focused SOLELY on the scrotum thing. Apparently, the poster thought that kids in the middle grades should be protected from the horrifying concept of body parts correctly named.

Lynn said...

For the first time in years I did not purchased the Newbery winner before the medal was announced; it is on order as I type (*smile*). So unfortunately, I can not comment on the book itself. However, I do think the Newbery winner has been slightly more culturally diverse in recent years with Kira-Kira, A Single Shard, and Bud, not Buddy (I liked The Watson's go to Birmingham better). Overall I have to agree, history shows the Newbery is often about middle class white children (mostly girls). We are then left to wonder if this phenomenon is because authors are writing to/for/about a specific population of readers, if publishers think that is the only, or core, group of readership for the books in question, if the committee itself needs to broaden their scope when selecting award winners, or if this year the winners just happened to fall into a particular category.

It's interesting that Melissa mentions how nice it would be to have a book that children actually want to read win (I agree). Looking at the medal criteria, it says "committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience" but goes on to say "The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality of presentation for children" and that is not "for popularity." With that in mind, committee members bear the responsibility for fulfilling the criteria. One thing is for sure, there will always be discussion about the winners.

Roger Sutton said...

I don't have any problem with The Higher Power of Lucky (or its scrotum) as a winner, and I think there are plenty of kids who will like it, too. My unease comes from the similarity of the lineup--all of the books honored this year are middle grade realistic fiction about girls. I think this says more about the committee than it does about the year's books.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Thanks, Roger!

I have wished for a long time that more poetry books, picture books, and early chapter books would be acknowledged by Newbery committees--even by "Mock" Newbery committees.

rindambyers said...

I'm not sure if the following observation will give illumination, but I did, at my short hours at my first ALA Meeting this year observe that there were very few "ethnic-looking" or "non-white" people in the ALA crowd inside the Convention Center--and most of the crowd WERE women!

Down town Seattle is much more culturally diverse, with many more "brown" or "dark" faces in the crowds--and other languages too, than English! I can breathe in Seattle, you know? And Bremerton across the water, where I now live, for all its stiffling, military, "white mentality" status quo, is extremely culturally diverse; in my neighborhood alone here are Native American, Indian, Filipino, African-American, Iranian....etc.

The majority of folks in children's book publishing also
ARE white, ARE woman, are middle-class to upper-class. Furthermore, poor children and poor families in this country can't afford to buy good books--or if they do, they buy used ones or go to the libraries, which are most often run by, well, you get the picture. Plus the majority of authors pushing their books in the schools are white, middle-class, upper class...

I think, far more shocking than the low number of African-American winners of the Newberry is the non-existence of winners from other ethnic groups--PARTICULARLY Native American tribes. No Philipino, no Mexican, no Puero-Rican has ever won the medal to my knowledge. Certainly, no Iranian-American, Iraqui-American has ever won it...

I also think that, until many more librarians and publishers and editors--and writers and artists, too, start coming from roots other than "white," middle-class to upper-class American, this Newberry "trend" is all too likely, unfortunately, to continue.

Melissa, for a new quick read that won't disappoint, try "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," by Jeff Kenney! I get as frustrated as you do with all the BORING books out there....ahhh!

Anonymous said...

Take a look at the YALSA Best books list and the Notables List and things look a little less--er--pale. (I must disclose that I was just about the palest woman at ALA--and that's saying something.)

Sitting in on the Notables and Best Books discussion was eye-opening, exciting, and illuminating. Worth the price of ALA admission, for sure. I only wish I could have stayed through Tuesday to hear them until the very end.

Many, many of librarians I know have to pay their way to ALA--that alone will cut down on who can afford to make the trek, take the time off, volunteer for committees...

Robin

Nina said...

Regarding genre diversity...I don't think there were many strong contenders this year. In the not-fiction areas, I only found Freedom Walkers to add to my Mock Newbery. Last year I had four: Show Way, Wreath for Emmett Till, Hitler Youth, and John Lennon. All of which were honored in some way on the podium. (This year I'm zero-for-zero on my Mock...tickles me).

Anonymous said...

if you look at the salaries p[aid by libraries and publishers, you will realize why there are so many "pale" folk at ALA

Anonymous said...

I think Bernette Ford was the most amazing editor. She was ahead of her time with vision.

Roger Sutton said...

I fail to follow those last two Anonymouses. But Nina, you may have a point. When I look at our Fanfare list, the only possible Newbery candidates are The Green Glass Sea, A Drowned Msiden's Hair, The King of Attolia and Freedom Walkers. The first two books are in the same genre as the one the Newbery committee honored, so I can't exactly whine about that. But the Newbery winner aside (because by the award's nature it can only go to one book, therefore one genre) why do we honor three more more alike the winner than differing from it, given the universe of all eligible books?

Anonymous said...

Roger--
Does this have something to do with the balloting system? I mean, I have never been on this committee, but I have read a lot about it. I am unclear about the voting process for the honor books. And, I am equally unclear as to why, on certain years, there are four honor books and, in other years there are many fewer.

Can there be discussion about trying to have a different genre represented? (As in, "Okay, now we have given the medal to a fiction book. It was resounding. Shall we take a second look at these picture books with fabulous writing? How about these nonfiction books you were all so taken by earlier?") I've always assumed there was a prohibition against such talk. But, I don't know.

Last year's Printz (I know--another committee and another set of protocols, I am sure) there was a novel, a nonfiction book, a book of short stories and a poetry book.) I wonder if that was on purpose or if it "just happened."


Robin

Elaine Magliaro said...

Roger and Nina,

Regarding genre diversity: I am looking at the history of the Newbery. Just two poetry books, in more than eight decades, have been recipients of the medal--and both of those medals were awarded in the 1980s. How many picture books have been awarded a Newbery?

Why aren't more books that are written for very young children considered to be the most distinguished children's book of the year? I keep wondering.

Miriam said...

As a former Newbery Committe member, perhaps I can shed some light on the Honor Book question. The Honor Books can only be selected from books that have already received votes for the award winner.

I agree that there is a lack of genre diversity in this year's winners but, having not been "in the room" I wouldn't care to speculate as to why that is so.

If future committee members are anxious to give honors to various genres, they should be sure to cast some of their votes accordingly so that they don't lose the option to honor them.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree, why do we rarely see books written for a younger audience nominated? Excellence in writing should not be limited to middle and upper grade novels. Picture books seem to only gather Caldecott nods - what about the writers?

kittenpie said...

I did have the same thought, sort of, as rindambyers - perhaps the answer lies in teh homogeneity of the people choosing the winners. Let's face it, librarians are largely white females themselves, and being one myself, I know that the plucky female heroine often appeals to me too.

I find the discussion about genres and non-fiction or poetry more interesting. We for the most part I think we automatically think fiction when we think Newbery but it doesn't specify that in the actual criteria. How interesting to give that a second look and examine the assumption. Go, Bell!

Anonymous said...

Something tells me that if the dog in The Higher Power of Lucky were female, and she were bitten on the vagina, the Newbery committee probably wouldn't have found this incident nearly as charming and/or entertaining. I even wonder if the book would have gone on to win the award.

Gloria said...

Well there is an award for writing in a picture book, the Charlotte Zolotow Award.
http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/zolotow.asp

It's awarded annually by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Nancy said...

Wishing the Newbery would go to a book "That a kid actually wants to read" misses the point of the awards. Part of what the award does is call attention to well-written books that might otherwise have a much smaller audience. It rewards excellent, high-quality writing. It encourages writers and publishers to create those books that might not be wildly popular commercial successes, but that will touch readers with beautiful language or transformative stories, or characters we love and remember forever.

Anonymous said...

It can't be easy to choose one book as the best contribution to literature for children in a given year. I am sure it is easier with hindsight. Could we have a prize, maybe called The Postdated Newbery, for the best book published five years earlier?

The Newbery might go to prose fiction so often because, no matter how hard it is to agree on what the best prose is, you will never never get 15 people to agree on what makes good poetry. Okay, maybe once, or twice. tops.

Nina said...

Since we're all apparently still reading this post, I'll jump back to Elaine's comment about the number of picture books, or poetry, or nonfic that have actually won the award.

Yup, not many. The criteria, while not excluding any of these genre's, make it particularly hard for picture books, because (from the criteria):

"The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other aspects of a book are to be considered only if they distract from the text. Such other aspects might include illustrations, overall design of the book, etc."

i.e., the text of a picture book would have to be distinguished WITHOUT looking at the pictures. Very hard to do, since the point of an excellent picture book is the combination of the two. (And this is where the aforementioned Zolotow award so elegantly has stepped in to fill a void).

Poetry: well...I'm always on the lookout for good poetry for children, but, frankly, don't always find much. It's out there, but rarer than the actually publishing output in the genre.

And non-ficiton? A digression: the first Sibert award for non-fiction was first given in 2001. Folks worried that it would effectively cut non-fic out of the running for other awards. However, it's proven the opposite. If you include honor books, non-fiction has been recognized by the Newbery committees in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006...and by the Caldecott committee in 2006, 2004 and 2002. In fact--a fair amount of poetry too, if you take a look, which you can at:
http://www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/literaryrelated.htm

Elaine Magliaro said...

Thanks, Nina.

You make some really good points about picture books. I agree that the Zolotow Award has filled a void. The Lee Bennett Hopkins Award has filled the void for poetry books. Unfortunately, these two awards do not garner the same kind of attention as those bestowed on books by the ALA every January.

I have been told by some people--one a children's book editor--that children's poetry is a hard sell these days. To be sure, there aren't that many Newbery-caliber poetry books being published. I do think, however, that there have been more than two or three outstanding ones in the past eight decades. Some poetry gems do go unnoticed.

I know, too, that there aren't that many high quality fiction books written for younger readers. I was always looking for them when I taught second grade--and later when I worked as an elementary school librarian. I guess all my years of reading and writing poetry and sharing other literature with younger children has left its mark on me.

Anonymous said...

When you are on Newbery you have such a strong sense of choosing just one book and wanting it to be a great book that will excite everyone. It is very difficult for nonfiction, well written picture books and especially for very well written early chapter books to win the high honors. Remember they are competing against writing that has room for long descriptive passages and rich language that gives longer books the edge. Look how often the more approachable books for younger readers were chosen as honor books. Beverly Cleary's Newbery award title was for older readers and her best writing - the Ramona Quimby titles were occasionally given honor status. Tommie DePaola did get recognition for one of his beginning readers, 26 Fairmount Avenue in 2000. That year did have a diverse mix of winners from Bud Not Buddy to Getting Next to Baby, to Our Own May Amelia to 26 Fairmount. Now that ALSC has Siebert and Geisel, I think we will see less nonfiction and even less early chapter books get recognition as the best book written for children in the prior year. I am too lazy to sign up so will add my name to the comments -- Therese B.

Roger Sutton said...

Wow, we're certainly bouncing all over, what with hypothetical vagina bites, the lack of good poetry, and what genres of books tend to more often prompt consensus.

I wonder if it might be better if ALA went back to calling the Honor Books runners-up. Heresy, I know, but they are. But while they all must be eligible for the main prize and must have garnered considerable support for that, there are no real rules on how to pick them, which is why you get one one year and half a dozen another. But I feel better, somehow, thinking about this year's Newbery Honors as runners-up--for some reason, their similarity then doesn't bother me so much!

gloria said...

Okay, I finally got to read THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY. (I loved it. My hat is off to the Newbery committee. Good pick.)

Anyway, the scrotum belongs to a dog! It's not even a human scrotum. How can anyone possibly object to the mention of a dog's scrotum -- especially when it (the mention, not the scrotum) carries a message of spirituality and redemption?

Greg Trine said...

Yes, it's interesting that the books winning the major awards collect dust on the library shelves. The big exception in recent years, of course, was Holes. Intersting thing about Hole, though, is that it's NOT very literary. No wonder the kids went for it.

That said, yeah, the award should be about great writing and story, regardless of popularity.

Greg

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wish we had a two-tiered honor system. One that allowed for both runner-ups (silver Newbery Honor) and honor books (bronze Newbery Honor).

Jonathan

Anonymous said...

I'm the opposite of Jonathan. I'd like to see no honor books at all. It would be a little easier to bear the sting when my favorite missed out. I wouldn't be sulking here at home saying, Four Books, and None of them was the one I WANTED TO WIN?

Of course, the ALA would lose the money they get in licensing out the stickers for all those honor books.

Expanding the Newbery to five or eight books would still mean that too many great books were overlooked. Just one Newbery might mean that more attention would be paid to things like the Best Books list and Horn Book's Fanfare.

Anonymous said...

re HOLES - surely you must have forgotten that a MOVIE was made of the book? ergo its popularity.

Anonymous said...

Holes isn't LITERARY??? What planet are you from?

Anonymous said...

Point of clarification on sticker sales. It is ALSC who gets the revenue not ALA even though strictly speaking Newbery and Caldecott are ALA awards.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but the point of having more honor books--true honor books rather than just runners-up-- wouldn't be to ensure that favorite books get awarded, but rather that those underrecognized genres--picture books, easy readers, poetry, and informational books--get their just due. If only middle grade fiction gets recognized year after year than I really do not see a need to have more than one or two books recognized every year.

Jonathan