The Newbery Controversy

As a child, I used to avoid books with “that gold medal” like the plague. I wouldn’t pick one up – at all. In fact, I read more SVH (sad, but true) and Babysitters’ Club Books than I did Newbery Medal Award and Honor Books. YIKES!

As a teacher, I discovered several Newbery Book Recipients that came out during my middle and high school years that I never read as a child. Some of my now-favorites that I never would have touched in the late 80′s and early 90′s are Number the Stars, Maniac Magee, and Sarah Plain and Tall. While I’ve read and shared them with my students, I can absolutely understand that most of my students would probably not gravitate towards these books on their own. It takes one heck of a text introduction to sell a child on many of the Newbery Award and Honor Books. When they’re used as read alouds in the classroom, I’ve found that they become beloved, almost instantly. However, when handed-out as independent reading, the attraction is usually not there.

My mother-in-law sent me an article from the Washington Post that talks about this “problem.” Valerie Strauss, author of the article, made her case about the significance of the Newbery Award with excellent quotes from a variety of sources, including kids and Dick Allington. Additionally, she wrote this paragraph, which truly resonated with me (or perhaps I should say my younger self):

“Now the literary world is debating the Newbery’s value, asking whether the books that have won recently are so complicated and inaccessible to most children that they are effectively turning off kids to reading. Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism. Most of the rest deal with tough social issues” (Strauss, C01, Retrieved on 12/19/08).

It’s true. Some of the recent recipients haven’t been upbeat (to say the least). I’ve found a couple I’ve read aloud to my students, such as Kira-Kira and Because of Winn-Dixie. However, there are many others I’ve personally read (e.g., Olive’s Ocean, Missing May, Al Capone Does My Shirts, and The Higher Power of Lucky) that were too mature for my fourth graders to hear during read aloud. Just because the Newbery is supposed to take-in books that will attract kids up through the age of 14 doesn’t mean that they’re right for my fourth graders!

When reviewing my students’ reading logs each week, it’s clear that my students, like the kids Strauss interviewed in her article, prefer to read funny books independently. Who can blame them? It’s hard to go home and sink your teeth into a novel that is too sad for them to negotiate by yourself. We can do that as adults, but more often than not, we seek out others to discuss the book with so that we can make meaning or sense out of what the characters are going through.

Perhaps the Newbery Books are better left as interactive read aloud texts in our classrooms. Perhaps if we read and discuss enough of them with our kids, they’ll want to seek out more of those books with “that gold medal” on their own.