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.