Thoughts on Newbery: Patrick Ness’s CBAITS

Some of you may bristle (or already have) about this topic, but I think it is one to take very, very seriously. It is Patrick Ness‘s provocative point in his SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Book decision this week about what he has termed CBAITs:

Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people.  People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes.

I think Patrick has a point, an important and enormously complicated one. First of all, what Patrick may consider a CBAIT may not be what someone else does. That is, our criteria may be different, our idea of what is good, our taste, and so forth. Which is why, presumably, some end up winning prizes. That is, enough people on a particular award jury may have the same sense of what is good even if it isn’t what others think. And so they are going to give an award to a book they sincerely think is good not crappy.

And that gets to the heart of Patrick’s issue: what do people consider to be a good book? Many indeed think a book is good if it takes on an Important Thing and will dismiss questions about the quality of sentence level writing that would be something I’d be paying attention to . While Patrick and I probably would agree that something with painfully poor sentence level writing is crappy there are some who might feel differently. Not to mention what I might consider overwrought writing might be something someone else would think is wonderful, and vice versa.

That said, I do think there is a tendency for those of us who review and/or participate in selecting best books, award books, and such to pay a lot of attention to books that deal with topics that we feel need to be more known. And sometimes we excuse weaknesses in such books because we think they are so important. Because they are so few and because we so badly want young people to take in the topics, to know about these Important Things.

I think this has special resonance when considering the Newbery award. While the criteria are clear that it is for literary merit not popularity or didactic intent, I suspect most  of us can look back at the books that have received the medal and find one we’d call a CBAIT.

Thank you, Patrick, for pointing out that metaphorically children’s book award emperors sometimes have no clothes.

 

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9 Comments

Filed under awards, Newbery, Reviewing

9 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: Patrick Ness’s CBAITS

  1. fairrosa

    I think Ness’ use of the C word is meant to shock more than accurately describe many of the award winning titles. To modify the acronym, I’d use M for mediocre (MBAIT) and they do tend to receive accolades even when the awards are meant for Literary qualities, and not topic importance. No?

  2. Pingback: My New Heroes | crossreferencing

  3. I agree with Patrick to a certain extent. When I was in elementary, middle, and high school, it seemed like some of the books we were required to read were picked solely because of their subject matter and/or the number of awards they had won, instead of the teacher thinking they were worthwhile reads (or even worthwhile treatments of the “heavy” subject matters at hand). I think there are far too many books about WWII that get a lot of attention because that’s a popular topic in children’s literature, when really most of them don’t look at the subject from a unique/balanced point of view.

  4. I hadn’t seen Patrick’s comments, but I do tend to agree (though, as you say, it’s complicated). On reflection, I suspect that I tend to steer clear of the books that are about very important topics at all, just in case they are crappy (or mediocre, anyway), so that I don’t have to say so. Or something like that. Anyway, thanks for making me think!

  5. I’d like to hear which books he considers CBAITs. Also, I suspect that, at least in terms of the Newbery, CBAITs don’t win as many awards as we perceive them to (sort of like the quintessential Newbery book – “quiet read about a female orphan” – that isn’t actually quintessential at all).

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