I didn’t intend to make a resolution or join a challenge, but after I reread the delightful 2010 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, I found myself thinking it would be neat to read all the Newbery winners. The prize was started in 1922, and really, how much work could it possibly be to catch up on the ones I’ve missed?
Turns out, quite a lot. I haven’t read ANY Newbery winner from 1922-1937, and I’ve only heard of one of them. (So much for the idea that Newbery books live forever.) And except for Caddie Woodlawn, half of The Door in the Wall, and half of Johnny Tremain, I haven’t read any Newberys from 1937-1958, though many of those I have at least heard of. (Can I check the book off the list if I’ve read half of it and abandoned it due to Extreme Boredom? I fear not.)
I printed out a list of the winners and Honor Books and marched off to the library to equip myself for my new challenge. I decided to check out one title from each decade, but I quickly ran into a problem. Namely, the problem of appeal.
I don’t actually want to read many of the Newberys that I haven’t already read.
A lot of the books I haven’t read are really long, and they have ugly covers, and they sound more like history lessons or didactic sermons masquerading as novels.
Although (or maybe because?) I disagree with many of its claims, I often assign Anita Silvey’s 2008 article, “Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?” in my Children’s Lit course to initiate and contextualize debate about the Newbery. “Kid appeal” is not one of the criteria for the Newbery award: literary excellence is. But I do wonder with the Newbery (and even more with the Printz) if the committees are searching too hard for books that nobody else has thought of. Or perhaps it’s the problem Silvey ultimates identifies: committees searching for good books when they should be searching for great books.
She cites the notorious example of 1953, when Secret of the Andes won over Charlotte’s Web. Just…. no.
Silvey’s teachers and librarians complain that recent choices have been “odd” and “unconventional”—but I believe most Newbery choices aren’t odd or unconventional enough. Most Newbery winners seem safe to me. Tame, middle-of-the-road, books that are clearly good but not always special.
Of course, many very special kids’ books are also Newberys: The Higher Power of Lucky (wrongly, in my mind, criticized by Silvey’s teachers and librarians as one of the dull Newberys), Bud Not Buddy, Out of the Dust, When You Reach Me, Walk Two Moons, The Midwife’s Apprentice, Sarah Plain and Tall.
There are three types of books I already know I wish the Newbery honored more often: picture books; quirky books; and funny books. The main fault of the Newberys I’ve read but haven’t cared for is their earnestness. Where is the fun? Where is the liveliness? Where is the weird? Even though I don’t like Holes or Dead End in Norvelt, I’m so glad they won the Newbery.
So. A new challenge. All of the Newbery winners from 1922-2012. I don’t plan to reread books I’ve already read, unless I just feel like it, but I do intend to finish the ones I started and abandoned halfway through (Johnny Tremain, I’m talking to you. And you too, Kira-Kira.) I have read most of the Honor Books from the last 20 years, but I will read any of those that I haven’t read too.