Thoughts on Newbery: True Popularity

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.



Filed under Neil Gaiman, Newbery

8 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: True Popularity

  1. Wendy

    Since I’m not a teacher or librarian, I have the luxury of not caring at all whether a Newbery winner is popular with children. And I never believed The Graveyard Book was as “unusually popular for a Newbery winner” as some of the uninformed comments made out, largely due to your astute observations about its place on bestseller lists and it probably being adults who put it there. But I’m curious–any theories on WHY The Graveyard Book isn’t flying off the shelves? I would expect the title alone to intrigue lots of kids (even if they didn’t end up reading it after checking it out).

    Hmm, I’m curious now–I don’t suppose there’s such a thing as collected statistics about how frequently Newbery winners are checked out, say at the NYPL? That’d be really interesting. I can guess a few that would be at the top (Holes, The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze*), but I wonder about the others.

    *that was a joke.


  2. I love this idea for generating statistics about how frequently Newbery winners are checked out – it would be an interesting read (especially if Young Fu headed the list).


    Read Aloud Dad


  3. Sandy D.

    It would also be interesting to compare the statistics from different parts of the country. Is Holes more popular in Texas than in Michigan? Do big city or suburban kids check out Gaiman more than small town/rural kids?


  4. Pingback: Some things that happen for the first time…. « Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog

  5. Some librarians are picking up on this idea and checking stats. Interesting stuff!

    I also think THE GRAVEYARD BOOK might be a bit above most of my fourth graders for independent reading (I read it aloud) and so it isn’t really fair for me to make any sort of judgment just because that small group of kids aren’t gravitating to it.


  6. Interesting ideas in the comments! I would be really interested to see stats reflecting actual popularity, for the nation and different regionsl


  7. Jan Tappan

    The 4th graders in my classroom have been competing for The Graveyard Book, the one copy in my classroom library. I read them the first chapter and they were hooked. There are some who can’t get through it, but most are having a great time with it.


  8. Now I want to run stats on all our Newbery books…With our computer system, it’s trickier to tell how many times a book checks out in a year (unless you average the number of circs over the life of the book), but lifetime stats are simple (unless you take into consideration copies that were discarded & removed from the catalog because they got worn out, and knowing that we went automated in 1990!). I can tell you that Secret of the Andes beats out Young Fu, 72 to 46, for whatever that’s worth!


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