Thoughts on Newbery: Reading Old and Young at the Same Time

The Newbery award is given to a book, “… for which children are a potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.”

This means I look at books meant for a, say, five-year-old, trying to determine if it is well-written from the perspective of someone who has read and studied and knows a lot about good writing (I think:) and also sort of channeling the five-year-old I once was and the five-year-old I never was, but others were and are.

While I, no doubt like every member of every Newbery Committee, want desperately to give the award to a book that large numbers of children will genuinely love, that will be read by generations to come, that is not my charge. It matters not a whit that an eligible book is a hit among children. As long as it reads like a book for young people, even if only a handful of those young people read it, that is all that signifies.

But it is challenging. And I try to figure out all the time if certain things matter more to children than to me as I read. If a book has a beautifully paced plot that I adore in my guise as child reader, but an over-dependence on adverbs that irritates me as an adult reader, which takes the prize?

As I mulled this over I was intrigued to come across Eloise Millar’s Guardian blog post, “The Perfect Age for Reading.” Millar began thinking about this topic after reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and being underwhelmed.

Try as I might, the Cooper books just didn’t do it for me. It might have been the writing (clumsy and portentous); it might have been the fact that any “Dark” that can be beaten back by an 11-year-old just isn’t that chilling … Or perhaps I’m just too old, and the Cooper sequence is of the non-crossover variety that only works for (i) children, or (ii) adults who read them when they were little and use them as a portal back into their own childhood.

So that is my problem too. Am I too old to read certain eligible books? Am I being as fair to them given the many decades that separate me from their intended audience?

Fortunately, there are many eligible books this year that satisfy the picky adult reader that I am and are well liked by the actual intended audience as well. But no doubt, whatever we end up choosing, there will be those who will say it is either not good because it is too popular among the intended-child audience while others will say it is not good because few of the intended-child audience will go near it. If the former, I’m happy. If the latter, I can console myself with the thought that maybe they will go back to it when they are as old as me and will read it as I did — both old and young at the same time.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: Reading Old and Young at the Same Time

  1. Clare

    Oh her remarks about Susan Cooper’s books are painful. Not to ignore your main point, which I understand, I was captivated by The Dark is Rising, and to say any “Dark” that can be beaten back by an 11-year-old just isn’t that chilling” sounds so patronizing. I was completely chilled by the dark forces in the series, to the point of holding my breath at points.

    I may not love all the Newbery books but I think good writing is a constant in all the ones I’ve read. To me, in an award such as this that’s more important than whether children love it. There are Readers’ Choice awards for that and they’re important too.

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  2. Jane L. Hyde

    Oh my goodness — I will speak out with Clare. I didn’t read Susan Cooper’s amazing books until I was well into my fifties, with an M.A. in English and a library degree underway, and I was totally blown away by them. I found “The Dark is Rising” as captivating and scary and totally engrossing as almost anything I’ve read in my life. I’ve held off, in fact, recommending them to my very-sophisticated-reader grandson until I felt he was old enough (he’s just turned 11 and is maybe old enough now). I will now go and read Eloise Millar’s post. We all have different tastes, of course, but I MUST speak out on behalf of this amazing set (“sequence”) of books. I’m going to suggest them to Leroy now but will hold off on Alan Garner for a year or two.

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  3. Just to say I like The Dark is Rising series which I too read as an adult. But there are indeed other books I loved as a child that don’t work so well for me as an adult. So Millar’s mullings on this made me think of my own balancing act this year.

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  4. hope

    My biggest complaint about The Higher Power of Lucky last year was that I think Patron failed to accurately present Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. According to Patron, the theory is that organisms adapt to their environment. This is wrong. Organisms are whatever they are, and they either live and reproduce or they die based on whether or not they fit their environments. Is this way too subtle a difference for a second grader to pick up? Well, yeah. But it is wrong. It’s bad science. The reader won’t see it, but I as an adult do. And for me it is a deal breaker. In these days of resurging Creationsim and Intelligent Design, you shouldn’t give a Newbery to a book that provides children with their first glimpse of a major scientific theory and GETS THE THEORY WRONG.

    I’m sure the librarians on the committee didn’t realize this. Their science education was no probably no better than Lucky’s. But I want something better for the next generation of readers than bad science.

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  5. hope

    I apologize for the all caps. They just got away from me and I hit submit before I grabbed them back.

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  6. KT Horning

    But “The Higher Power of Lucky” is a work of fiction, not a nonfiction book about evolution.

    Besides, I find Patron’s simple explanation of natural selection to be be clearer and more to the point than yours, especially if one is talking about species, rather than individual organisms. Patron wrote: “…animals survive by adapting to their environments. Polar bears are white like the snow so they will be harder to see and they can sneak up on their next meal.” (p. 92)

    She didn’t go on to say that proto-polar bears with dark fur didn’t survive to pass on their genes to the next generation, but I wouldn’t characterize this as “bad science.”

    I’m sure that there were at least a few librarians on the committee who understand the basics of natural selection seeing as how most of them were educated in a time when this was still being taught in the public schools.

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  7. hope

    KT Horning,

    Thank you for the quote. I read a library book and have since returned it so I couldn’t be specific.

    I don’t think I can agree with you about fiction vs. non-fiction. Certainly if Patron had witches flying around on broomsticks or spacecraft zooming at twice the speed of light, I wouldn’t complain. But if she wrote a story in which a child visited her grandparents in Monrovia and said it was the capital of Sierra Leone, or she had a child travel back in time to see a T-Rex chasing a Brachiasauros, I would be disturbed. Freetown is the capital of Sierra Leone, and the Brachiasarus was gone (I’m pretty sure) before T-Rex appeared.

    I would say that the quote you posted above is wrong. Patron could have said, “animals survive by being adapted to their environments. Because Polar Bears are white like the snow, they are harder to see and can sneak up on their next meal.” She didn’t. What she did is repeat a common mischaracterization of the theory, one that is used by Creationist and ID people to convince people that Evolution and Creationism should be taught on an equal footing.

    Is this nitpicking? Yes. Is any second grader going to notice? Maybe the offspring of two evolutionary biologists. I think it matters. You think it doesn’t. All of those people on the Newbery Committee obviously saw it your way. I think that’s because science education just doesn’t get much respect. Who cares?

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  8. I always love the announcement of this award–whether it is one that is already a huge hit, or one that I have never heard of (which is often, the whole reason we started our blog!) I am always intrigued with the books I don’t know and love reading them to try to figure out what the committee saw in the book.
    Can’t wait!

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  9. hope

    Coming back to my own comment, I see that the last part of it was more harsh than I intended. What I meant to convey is that I understand that my feelings about science are a pet peeve and that not everyone shares them. I shouldn’t have said, “you shouldn’t give a Newbery . . .” only that I wouldn’t have. No one is going to offer me the job of weighing and attaching a measure of value to plot and character and quality of writing so that I can add and subtract to rank one book against another. And I’m glad. There’s no way to please us all.

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  10. Pingback: Thoughts on Newbery: Ten Years On | educating alice

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