Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Going for the Gold

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.

Silvey writes:

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.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

"All wet" is a kind way of describing this writer. Obviously she didn't like the last few years' selections -- big deal! who cares? -- and she wrote a 100% opinion piece that pretends to be a "study."

For example, one of her anonymous sources said of this past year's committee “Possibly the committee has too many 'experts’ on it, and not enough working, small-town public librarians.” Ignoring the Palin-esque reference to the superiority of small-town values, did it ever occur to to Silvey to challenge or verify this comment? How hard is it to dig up the names and work places of last year's Newbery Committee members? I found a press release on the ALA website without too much trouble which shows that the majority of the committee members were garden-variety children's librarians from places such as Oakland, CA, Winston-Salem, NC, Houston, TX, and Bettendorf, IA. So what if there were a few "experts" in the mix? Don't we want all kinds of smart people involved in the process?

Second, she allows an adult Newbery Discussion group in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to define which Newbery winners have the most staying power without questioning their methods or, frankly, their sanity. I myself can't give too much credence to a group that ranks "Shadow of a Bull" above "Holes," "Adam of the Road" above "Bud Not Buddy," and "Gayneck: The Story of a Pigeon" above both "Jacob Have I Loved" and "Walk Two Moons." Are they on crack, or what?

Lastly, can we finally put the old Secret of the Andes/Charlotte's Web argument to rest? I am so sick of seeing this argument dusted off and touted as proof that the Newbery Committee is out of touch. That happened more than half a century ago -- get over it!

Robin said...

I never like to hear statements like "some librarians" or "a reviewer." How about some specifics? Who are these folks? Are they so scared of others' opinions that they will only talk if their name is not used? It reminds me of children, when they say, "everyone hates ___________ ." Things are rarely so definitive.

I imagine if Anita had asked our teachers she would have gotten quite different answers.

And, what? No mention of the honor books? There were some pretty spectacular honor books in the last two decades...

Which books were better than the winners in the particular years?

Laurie said...

I am puzzled that SLJ would publish a piece with so many anonymous sources. Unless there is a compelling reason for a source to be anonymous, aren't journalists supposed to find sources that will go ON the record? SLJ and Silvey are at fault for including the anonymous sources. I'd also like to know: what are these people afraid of, anyway?

Anonymous said...

A naive question: did SLJ commission the article (I mean the subject matter, not the conclusions, of course) or did the author just send it in? Have no idea what SLJ'S editorial policy is - can anyone just submit, or wait to be asked or assigned a topic?

Franki said...

This is such a great discussion. I just read Nina's post and now yours. I think so much of the Newbery for me, as a teacher, is the talk around it. Is it one that I love or one that I wouldn't have chosen? It is always interesting to try to figure out what the committee saw in the book that wasn't one that I agreed with. Has there ever been a Newbery Award that most people loved? I doubt it.

I remember when Kira-Kira won--I shared it with some kids in my class, telling them I had read it and really didn't see why it won. One of my students read it, came back to me a few days later with sticky notes throughout the book letting me know that "you clearly missed some of the great writing. This is definitely worthy of the Newbery." And, of course, she was right!

Roger Sutton said...

Anon 9:44, I imagine SLJ works the same way we do--some articles are submitted, others commissioned. For example, I've commissioned Anita Silvey to write an article about the BGHB Awards, which will appear in our January issue.

I agree with Anita about how great it is when a Newbery winner is a crowd-pleaser, like Tale of Despereaux or Holes. In those cases, the award can act as an ambassador for children's books. But that's not what the committee is asked to choose, and, since crowds are fickle, there's no guarantee of the committee choosing correctly anyway.

Make sure to look at Nina Lindsay's thoughts on the article. And let me quote again from that TV producer: “There are awards for [popularity]; they’re called ratings,” Mr. Shore said. “There are really good shows on cable, and even if only 10 people are watching them, if they’re good they should be recognized.”

Anonymous said...

I like to see good writing rewarded: writing that raises the bar and that challenges readers to engage and to think. I want to see outstanding character development (unforgettable characters) and solid plotting, active verbs, control of point of view, and no sloppiness. That's the book that should win the Newbery.

The problem, obviously, is that we don't all agree about what good writing is.

Anonymous said...

I tried to post these comments at Nina's SLJ blog, but they have not appeared, so I'm hoping they can be posted here to further the discussion.

I do think Silvey has captured a widespread sense of disappointment with many of the recent Newbery choices, but I do find the article annoying on several different levels, and I wanted to add my two cents.

1. You cannot serve on the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee that selects the book that has less child appeal than the last four Newbery winners combined . . . yes, I speak of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing . . . that popular crowd pleaser. No, you cannot do it, Ms. Silvey. It's rank hypocrisy. It's the pot and the kettle. Shame!

2. You cannot rank A Single Shard with Bud, Not Buddy and A Tale of Despereaux as the best winners to date from the new decade. We note you did not state that it was a children's favorite--even you cannot pretend that it is--but teachers love to teach that book, really? Hmmmm. Can't we just be honest and say that you feel an affinity for the book since you were a publishing executive at Houghton Mifflin when it won?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps professional reviewers, and also people involved with book publishing, should be enjoined from commenting in print on awards in their own fields. Sour grapes may be suspected.

Anonymous said...

...or, when comments from people in the relevant fields are published, should we assume that the periodical (SLJ or whoever) endorses the writer's opinion?

Melinda said...

When the Higher Power of Lucky won the Newbery, I rushed out to my local libraries to get my hands on it. But neither had it! I was aghast.

Then I found out that the print run had been so small that the book was nowhere to be found and everybody had to order copies.

Now I think that's awesome. (I hope that the Printz award bestows the same kind of blessing on Elizabeth Bunce's book. SHAMELESS PLUG.)

Anonymous said...

I would agree melinda, if I didn't think The Higher Power of Lucky was twaddle. I think this is the most important point that Silvey failed to address. Everybody agrees that the Newbery committe has picked some losers. There's no consensus, though, on which ONES were the losers.

Is there an objective way to pick which were the "good" Newberys and which were the "mistakes?" Silvey's measure seems to be "The ones I like were good, the rest were misguided." Hardly objective. Do you use sales? Count how many teachers are using them? Survey schoolchildren? Wait fifty years? I don't think there is a measure. This isn't science and it's a mistake to try to make things too hard and fast. I think the criteria of the Newbery has highlighted great books over the years, and I wouldn't want to see it changed.

I also would really like to see the dead horse of Secret of the Andes buried.

Diane Foote said...

[also posted on SLJ Talkback; I apologize for cross-postings!)

It's great sport to second-guess awards! Many thanks to Anita for bringing this up, and to others for engaging in discussion. I'd like to take a moment to myth-bust. From a look at the past 5 years of Newbery ballots: 1) On 4/5 slates, both chair candidates had served on the committee previously. On 1 slate, only 1 had. 2) On 4/5 slates, only 1 candidate for membership (out of 14) had served previously. On 1 slate, 0 had. 3) Out of 80 candidates (2 for chair + 14 for member X 5 years), 44 were in children's services in either public or school settings. This reflects ALSC's belief that a variety of persectives yields great results, but tips the balance slightly in favor of practicioners versus "experts." Next: A look at the actual committees. The above reflects only the ballots.

Nina said...

Anonymous 11:51am Oct 1...sorry you couldn't post over at my blog. SLJ's comments are filtered, causing many frustrations. (Maybe the use of the words "child" and "pot" caused the problem for you?)

Anonymous 9:51am Oct 3: well, the Secret of the Andes is, for all intents and purposes, buried. That is, no one reads it anymore. The only reason we all know about it is because of Charlotte's Web.

Last year when I was reading every eligible Newbery title of 2007 for the committee...my husband decided to read every single Newbery medalist of the past. And he did. He's now better rounded in Newbery reading than I am, which gives him absolutely no advantage in his profession (construction). But what he found interesting was that the more he read, the more he got a sense of what different measures of "distinguished literature" exist in the winners over the decades. I think he was really able to "appreciate" books he didn't necessarily "like." And there were, actually, a couple that he just couldn't finish reading. Secret of the Andes was one...Caddie Woodlawn was another, even though it was one of my favorites as a child. Even bribery couldn't move him on that one.

Melinda said...

*gets out backhoe and buries the dead horse*

Anon 9:51, I'll just call you Boss because otherwise I feel like I'm addressing a Bible verse. I did like "Lucky" and was moved by the scene where they all gathered in the desert. Though I have to say, I tried to explain "scrotum" to my daughter the way it was explained at the end of the book (my daughter had questions about the cat which was to be neutered) and my husband laughed so hard he couldn't catch his breath. Fiction, 1; Real Life, 0.

I have the same interesting issues with Printz award winners that you've had with Newberys, Boss. I think The White Darkness is a super-awesome book, though the big flaw through it has made a lot of people denouce it. I felt Part-Time Indian should have gotten a Printz. There are other Printz winners that left me scratching my head. I kept wondering, is there perhaps something that I'm not seeing in these books that these other people are seeing? Am I perhaps a little dense? Maybe I don't read enough, ha ha.

Really, though, books aren't like math. You do math, you get definite answers. Books on the other hand ... you can't line up variables and say, "This one is worthy; this one sucks." We just do our best.

Anonymous said...

nina,

I haven't read Andes, and wouldn't be surprised if it was the result of good intentions at work. I also don't know the climate of the time that might have driven the choice. The reason it narks me when people cast it up as an example of a bad Newbery pick, is that they DID pick Charlotte as an Honor Book. I think it's splitting hairs to say that it should have had a gold sticker instead of a silver one.

We aren't talking about Suzanne Freeman's The Cuckoo's Child, which vanished without a trace. Or Katherine Sturtevant's True and Faithful Narrative, or any of the Obviously Deserving Candidates each of us would pick if WE were in charge of the world.

that said. . .

I'd be interested in what you have to say about "the right book at the right time" versus "books with staying power."

Can a book be the right pick, right now, even if ten years from now people will be scratching their heads over it?

Anon 9:51
And ye will go forth and read . . .

fairrosa said...

It's quite coincidental -- but tonight's Jeopardy's Final Jeopardy Question is

JOHN NEWBERY

And I believe neither the contestants who "got it right" spelled Newbery correctly :)

KT Horning said...

I always thought "Secret of the Andes" won over "Charlotte's Web" because it was published by Viking. The joke in the publishing world at the time was that Viking editor May Massee was tallying the votes back then.

Anonymous said...

Roger,

I understand that some people put polls on their blogs. Can you make a poll that offers people a chance to click on which Newbery of the last ten years they'd throw out? And a simultaneous "Newbery I'd defend to the death?" pick? I'd love to see the results.

JLH said...

I'll say, after readinbg the post and the comments, that the Newbery is chosen in one time period and that we can't always predict what will have lasting power. But I;m always wondering why we don't spend a little more time looking at Britain's Carnegie Awards, both their choices (though the age range is a bit different) and the process that goes on through the year of choosing.

Anonymous said...

I am with Ms. Silvey on this one. I am a small town children's Librarian who grew up in a city (just so you you all don't think I am some small town small minded person). I get upset when people look to the Newbery list as the authoritative list of what to read, because there are so many better books out there. I would say that the 90% of the kids in my community who read Higher Power didn't like it. I am concerned that this award is being given to the obscure, beautiful writers who don't write for a child. They write for adults who read children's books. I think there should be some kids on the committee. The same with the National Book award, I groaned when I saw the list. BUT, on a side note, I love that the children's ambassador of literature is a comedy-writer. A man who gets the kids. What a joy to get to share Jon's work!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone has mentioned this, but I find it disturbing that Silvey doesn't make it clear that she worked at Houghton for years. All the Houghton/Clarion books in the article get positive comments. Is she biased? You can't be sure, but the readers certainly need to be informed that it could be an issue. I think SLJ has done a shoddy piece of work here in many ways, including that one. Surely someone at SLJ knows that the Newbery criteria explicitly say not to consider popularity; that books are to be compared to those of the same year; and that, in fact, ALSC actively solicits suggestions. Shoddy, shoddy, shoddy.