I’ve been enjoying the discussion going on over at the SLJ Web site about how the Newbery medal winners have, since the 1990s, become, mmm, odd and hard to sell to kids. Here’s the article by Anita Silvey, which frankly surprises me, called “Has the Newbery lost its way?” (Silvey, a long-time editor, should know what the Newbery’s about.) And here’s a response (yes!) from Nina Lindsay, “The Newbery remembers its way, or ‘Gee, thanks, Mr. Sachar.'”

Here’s a sample from Silvey’s piece:

School librarians say they simply don’t have enough money to spend on books that kids won’t find interesting—and in their opinion, that category includes most of this century’s Newbery winners. Cash-strapped teachers, who spend part of their paychecks on paper, pencils, and other classroom essentials, say they can’t afford to buy any books. But the only recent winners they enjoy teaching are Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte, 1999), A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001), and The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003).

I usually stay away from literature issues, because there are so many other people ready to hash them out. But I did want to comment here because so many people involved in this discussion (both Silvey & those making “Right on!” comments) don’t seem to understand what the Newbery’s for or how it’s – mistakenly – used.

The Newbery Medal is supposed to be for a truly excellent book for children, NOT for a really appealing book for all, or for the huge majority of, children. Traditionally, just about every school and public library buys it because it’s supposed to be the best. But many teachers and many librarians appear to wish that it was for the best children’s book that appeals to lots and lots of kids the way that the Captain Underpants books or the Magic Treehouse books do. They want a book they can sell to lots and lots of kids, many of whom are reluctant readers in this Net-&-video-game era. But the award doesn’t work that way.

Often the “best” book, the kind that Silvey disses, only appeals to what we librarians often call the “special reader” – the child with deeper senses of taste or perception who you suspect will grow up and become a teacher, a librarian, an artist, or a writer. There aren’t that many kids like that in most schools. Lindsay doesn’t really discuss the need for a Newbery-sorta-award that deals with 4th-to-6th-grade books. But I really think we need one. These are the ages when many kids, the kids who frequently grow up to become computer technicians, or business managers, or mechanics, abandon reading fiction because they don’t see why reading it is worthwhile, and when we need to be working really hard to keep kids reading.

And another problem is that the “best” books that are chosen for the NM are often seventh- and eighth-grade level, and there are tons of teachers in the fourth through sixth grades – many of whose students are reluctant readers to begin with – who assign reading the Newbery winner to their children. Does this sound doomed to failure? It does to me.

We should not be assigning whole classes to read each year’s Newbery book. What many of us (including me) want instead are books that will get kids, especially the reluctant readers among them, excited about reading. The average kid out there needs to experience how reading can be just as absorbing as playing a videogame or watching a DVD. I’ve been suggesting something totally different for years. I think we need a new award for teachers to assign that looks for the best of books that appeal to the average kid – an award for non-arty, non-deep, but just plain fun and exciting books that don’t have big marketing budgets.

(Oh, and so I don’t get into legal trouble, all rights to the Newbery Medal image belong to ALSC, a division of ALA!)