Everyone, myself included, wants the Newbery winner to be popular. That is, we all want to see kids, lots of kids everywhere, making a run for the book when they see it, to rave about it to each other, to return to it again and again. Even more than classics like Newbery Honor Charlotte’s Web we all yearn for the winner to be popular NOW, sort of like Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Twilight, right?
Yet not only is that not the charge of the committee, but it turns out that previous winners that have been dubbed “not popular” or “popular” are not necessarily so. Here’s what children’s librarian Betsy Bird, in a recent interview, had to say about two of these:
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz is sometimes considered one of these books that don’t speak to young people. That’s the theory anyway, and I reckon it comes from adults who didn’t want to read it themselves. However the book has been amazingly popular in my library, in part because it’s found a great deal of life with kids trying out for plays and needing to give monologues in auditions. My aunt’s forensic team in California won some huge awards because they used the speeches in this book. On top of that if a kid has to do something on a medieval village it’s the funniest, drollest, most amusing book you’ll ever find on the subject.
Now let’s look at The Graveyard Book, a title that supposedly was more kid friendly. I can tell you honestly that I have never had a kid ask for that book. Never. It’s by Neil Gaiman, and I’ve had plenty of children ask for his other title Coraline. But The Graveyard Book is, surprisingly enough (and unlike Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!), a bit of a shelf sitter. It gets assigned in school, so kids check it out for that reason, but so is that old Newbery winner Secret of the Andes, for crying out loud.
Reading that Schlitz’s book is attractive to kids, is being checked-out from a public library, is being read and used makes me understandably happy. I’m especially delighted to learn from Betsy that it is being used for its theatrical aspect as it is first and foremost a collection of monologues that are absolutely marvelous for kids to perform. As for The Graveyard Book I too am not seeing kids snapping it up. While I personally adore it and was thrilled when it won, I’ve always felt that its apparent popularity was and is because of Gaiman’s adult fans rather than kid readers who don’t know him from…er..Rick Riordan.
The moral of this is — popularity is very much in the eye of the beholder. What may appear unpopular in one situation may be surprisingly popular in another. And vice versa.