Horn Book veteran Anita Silvey puts herself in the hot seat this month over at School Library Journal, where, to sum up, she complains about the lack of broad appeal of the last four winners of the Newbery Medal. Anita has been around for a long time and she knows just how stirred the dragons get when their precious gold and silver is disturbed. This could be very entertaining.
But--to quote one former SLJ editor speaking of another former HB editor--I think she is all wet. The main problem with Silvey's argument is that she's comparing the popular appeal (which is in any case not part of the Newbery's criteria) of current winners with that of winners from earlier decades. But the question before each committee is not "how does this book stack up with the great books of the past?" but "how does this book stack up with the others published in the same year?" It's easy to compare, say, Kira-Kira with The Giver and find the first book wanting in terms of wide resonance, but what book published in 2004 should have won instead? To make this argument work, Silvey needs to name names, and not those cherry-picked from the Newbery's long and (sometimes) illustrious past.
In the humble beginnings of the Newbery Award, its founders clearly sought a book that would have broad appeal. As children’s book historian Leonard Marcus reminds us in Minders of Make Believe (Houghton, 2008), back in 1922, when the first Newbery was awarded, ALA allowed any librarian who worked with kids—even part-time librarians—to nominate one title. The Story of Mankind (Liveright, 1921), nominated on 163 of the 212 ballots, won that year. Obviously, the founders cared deeply about the opinions and needs of those who worked directly with children.
But librarians are still allowed--encouraged--to nominate books for the Newbery, and the awarding committees still largely comprise librarians working with children. What has changed? One thing that hasn't: complaining about the winners.