Thursday, December 16, 2010

Melanie and the Newbery

So I’ve been hacking away at this goal for the past few weeks, and I’m about to finish my fifth book.  I’m finally ready to start sharing some posts!  I wanted to give you a smidge of background on my childhood experiences with the Newbery Medal so you’ll know where I’m coming from when I talk about these books.

I sat down with the list of Newbery Medal and Honor winners, and here’s what I discovered.  As a child, I only read four of the Newbery Medalists:
and eight of the Newbery Honors:
Since the award is for books appropriate for kids up to age 14, we’ll say my childhood technically ended there.  I turned 14 in 1998, and at that time there were 77 Newbery Medalists.  I only read 5% of them.  This is odd for a kid who was a bookworm from the moment she learned to read.  Why didn’t I read the most excellent books?

I think the biggest answer is that the marketing for these Newbery books was not tailored to me.  My impression of these books with gold and silver stickers was that they were really, really old and mostly boring.  I remember seeing this poster that hung on the wall of the school library in either elementary school or middle school (or both).  It was some unattractive, dusty-looking color, like grayish-peach or grayish-aqua or grayish-gray, and had several Newbery covers lined up in orderly rows and columns.  I have no idea what covers were on that poster; I imagine it to be a good mix of the more popular titles from the 80s and 90s and maybe from earlier.  All I really remember for certain is that when I looked at that poster, all I could think was oooollllllddddd!

I don’t think I realized that this was an award that was still being given out every year to new books, or if I did, these new books must not have appealed to me at all.  In fact, let me look right now…yup, a brief perusal of the 80's and 90's portion of the list reveals a bunch of titles that still don’t really interest me.  I have read some of them in my adulthood and really enjoyed them, but two of those were for a college class and I probably wouldn’t have picked them up on my own.  My current interests run to light fantasy and fairy tale retellings; when I was a kid, as you can probably tell from the list of what Newberys I read, I was all about adventure and the (somewhat dark) supernatural.  My 5% would be a lot higher if Newberys had been awarded to Alvin Schwartz’s scary story collections, to Roald Dahl, to Goosebumps, and, rather anomalously, to The Babysitter’s Club.

This seems to be a subject of debate.  Another brief perusal, this time of the Wikipedia entry on the Newbery Medal, shows that there is a lot of controversy about whether the award honors books that kids actually like.  But there is a difference between popularity and excellence.  I don’t think the gold and silver stickers belong on Goosebumps or The Babysitter’s Club.  I mean no offense to R. L. Stine or to Ann M. Martin, because I thoroughly enjoyed those books and read each one I could get my hands on and made my parents take me to a mall in Columbus, OH so we could stand in line for three hours to get Ms. Martin’s signature on some of my books.  But even as a wee little elementary schooler I remember reading those books and thinking, that sentence could have been written better.  I want to see the gold and silver stickers on books that are not just fun but are also painstakingly written, finely crafted, beautiful stories.

And all of the gold-and-silver-stickered books that I’ve read are painstakingly written, finely crafted, and beautiful.  Even the ones that were not my proverbial cup of tea have given me something valuable.  Can you imagine a fourth-grade guy picking up Because of Winn-Dixie of his own accord?  Me neither.  There’s a little girl on the cover.  But when the bookstore I worked for recently had Kate DiCamillo in to sign, a few of these guys came, Winn-Dixie in hand, and were the most enthusiastic kids there.  They told me they were reading the book in school and absolutely loved it.  Perhaps the Newbery is a guide more for adults than for kids.  Maybe it’s a guide for those who can put books in kids’ hands, books they wouldn’t pick up on their own, books that may have an unappealing title or cover but are gold on the inside, and worth reading.

Or maybe not.  I’ve only read 5% (if you include the ones I’ve read as an adult, 13%).  I could be totally wrong about the rest of them.  That’s what I hope to find out this year.

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