2. Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.
That is the current criteria #2 for the Newbery award and I’ve written here before about my frustration with it. (Thoughts on Newbery: The Design Thorn.) As I complained in that post and Betsy Bird points out today, it keeps the committee from being able to recognize some of the most exciting books for children being created these days, those where art and design are intertwined with the text in original and innovative ways.
Betsy’s solution is a new award and while I’m absolutely fine with that something new, it doesn’t satisfy my problem with the something old — the Newbery. After all, it is the most prestigious award for children’s books in this country. It is the only one most people know. One Frederic G. Melcher proposed it to ALA and they approved it in 1922. This is from his formal agreement with the ALA board:
“To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.”
“Original creative work for children.” 88 years ago Melcher and the others who created this award wanted books for children to be consider literature on the level of works for adults. Can we agree that this is now moreso the case? A few years back Anita Silvey wrote a provocative article asking if the Newbery had lost its way. She felt it had because young people were not longer “rushing to read the latest Newbery winners.” However, as many pointed out in response to the article, that wasn’t the original intent of the award at all. Nor is it today. If the books end up being popular, that is just grand. But the award isn’t about that; in fact, some of the least popular winners have been the most creative (say, ahem, “my” winner).
But, to steal from Silvey, I do think the Newbery may be losing its way if it continues to leave art and design outside the circle of consideration. Some of the most exciting and original books (and these are still very much books) for children being created today have these elements as integral parts. For those books not be recognized as the best because of this or for them to be recognized in spite of this frustrates me tremendously.
How to do it is a huge problem, I realize. But I hope somehow it can be done so that the Newbery continues to truly recognize the most original and creative work for children of the year.