Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The best book no kid wants to read

The article everyone in the YA and children's lit world is talking about lately is Has the Newbery lost its way?, by Anita Silvey in the October SLJ. I read the article, and I read Melissa's response to it at Librarian by Day, and I read Monica Edinger's thoughts on the Newbery's relevance, and Roger Sutton's entry, titled Going for the Gold, and Nina Lindsay's response at Heavy Medal.

After reading all of these, I went back and reread the Newbery criteria, and after mixing it all together in my head and baking at 350 degrees I have the following:

1. Why do we care about whether kids like the Newbery books? It's not the committee's charge to pick books kids will like.

2. Isn't Ranganathan's second law "To every book its reader?" Whether a book has millions of readers or fifty, there is a reader for every book out there. Why does it have to be liked, or resonate with a huge number of people, to contribute to the genre? I don't particularly like the Beatles, but I do admit they contributed to the rock genre in important ways.

3. Clearly, we're not doing a good enough job not just educating the public, but educating our fellow librarians, about what the Newbery and the Printz are given for. Personally, I like to say that the Newbery and the Printz are given to works of art, books that stand apart and make us rethink what a children's or YA book can be. The Newbery is given to a book "for which children are a potential audience," which by my interpretation means that the Newbery people have always acknowledged that not all kids will lurve a Newbery winner. Potential, not absolute, not guaranteed. I think the use of the word "potential" shows that the Newbery committee does understand the diversity of children and their reading habits and that no one book will ever speak to all children. Except maybe Holes.

4. One of the things I like best about my job is that I get to talk about YA books with other adults and not be thought of as strange. I think there's extreme value in adults, looking at books published for children and teens, bringing their adult perspectives and experiences to a discussion about said books. It's why I pushed so hard for Octavian Nothing when it came up at the BCCLS Mock Printz in 2007. I thought it was the perfect book to demonstrate why the Printz is given. It was a work of art, chronicling an adolescence that was completely unfamiliar to most teens.

What did I hear at the discussions? "It was too hard to get through." "My kids wouldn't read it." "I didn't understand it." Now, all of these are perfectly legitimate reasons for not adding a book to your collection, where circ stats are key to knowing how you're going to develop your collection in the future. But for an award? I knew the minute I read it that given the Printz criteria and the committee's charge, that it would take an honor for that year if it didn't win the whole thing. Why? Because the Printz criteria, like the Newbery criteria, has nothing to do with how much the intended audience loves a book.

5. In general, I think Silvey's muchly-flawed article wants us to believe that the Newbery committee has a job to do that is not, in fact, in their charge. It is not the job of the Newbery committee to pick the book that will stay a favorite with generations of children. It is not the job of the Newbery committee to make sure that those small-town kids will love the Newbery winner. It is not the job of the "too many experts" on the Newbery Committee to pick the year's most perfect book for children.

Winning the Newbery Medal does not mean a book will automatically be loved or even remembered, or that all children should read it. (Why would anyone make such a ridiculous statement, that "every child" should read ANY given book, Newbery winner or not?) It means that in one particular year, that book made the most outstanding contribution to literature for children. Here's hoping school assignments catch up to that.

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