Friday, January 29, 2010

Reflections on the Newbery Medal

A week ago Monday (January 18, 2010), at the American Library Association conference in Boston, Mass., the 2010 Newbery and Caldecott Awards were announced.

Last week, we explored a few of the guidelines for the Caldecott Medal. This week, I thought it would be interesting to reflect a bit on the guidelines given to the Newbery committee. Like the books that have received the Caldecott Medal and honors, the Newbery Medal and Honor books also reflect a wide range of topics and genres. Here is the charge of the Newbery committee: “The Medal shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work. Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.”

“There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered...” gives the committee a great deal of leeway. In Leonard Marcus’s book Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy, three of the writers he interviewed have won the Newbery Medal, and his questions get to the heart of their approach to writing and their affinity for humor as a means of communication. Other books that were considered “distinguished” by past Newbery Committees have run the gamut from poetry to biography to fiction.

Looking at this year’s Newbery winner and honor books alone, we see a diversity of topics and approaches. Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which won the 2010 Newbery Medal last week, is set in 1970s Manhattan on the Upper West Side, with a time travel puzzle at its core, and a heroine named Miranda trying to make sense of a world whose parameters are expanding in so many ways. (Another fun fact: Miranda’s favorite well-worn book, A Wrinkle in Time, also won a Newbery Medal.) The Newbery Honor book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly explores the changes going on in a small town in Texas in 1899, and 11-year-old Callie, who’s more interested in science than cooking and sewing; the book explores the impact of Darwin’s ideas on Callie and how scientific breakthroughs are affecting the society in which she lives. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, also an Honor book, is a timeless quest story set in China that seamlessly weaves Chinese folklore into the narrative with occasional glorious full-color, silkscreen-like illustrations. Then there’s The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick, in which 12-year-old narrator Homer adopts a tall-tale tone but also gets across the horrors of the Civil War, and the nonfiction title Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, which draws from interviews with Ms. Colvin and archival photographs to tell the story of 15-year-old Claudette Colvin’s brave decision to defy segregation in 1955 Alabama. Whew! Can you imagine a greater range of tone and topic, from history to time travel to folklore and tall tale?

Many teachers and librarians conduct “mock Newbery” discussions, to contemplate what makes a book “distinguished” and to choose the best of the year’s offerings. From the diversity of titles in this year’s mix, you can see how much depends upon the makeup of the committee and the discussion around each individual book. Does your school or local library host a discussion? If not, and if your son or daughter is interested, why not approach a teacher or librarian about starting one?

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