Thoughts on Newbery: The Problem with Popularity Contests

Popularity is in the eye of the tweeter, facebook-liker, and such.  That is, I do feel that those of us involved in social media can perceive and help foster the perception that particular books are more popular than others.  And those involved in enthusiastically advocating for these books can feel dismayed when their evident popularity is not considered for awards like Newbery.  But I’ve always felt that these representations of popularity are problematic — that they do not give us a true sense of what books are truly loved.  After all, there are so many young people getting and engaging with books and we may only see some of that in our classrooms, homes, bookstores, and libraries.  Or on twitter, on blogs, on facebook, and so forth.

And so I was very glad to see NPR’s Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’s thoughtful examination of their recent contest for the 100 Best Teen Books, “When a Popular List of 100 ‘Best Ever’ Teen Books is the “Whitest Ever.‘”  He addresses what is often a problem with such contests, the particular demographic participating, in this case NPR’s audience that is indeed most likely whiter and older than the general population of teen readers.  It is something I think needs to be considered with other lists that get sent around, say those of flavorwire or HuffPo.  What and who do they actually represent?

Because there is often such unhappiness voiced when the evidently “popular” books are seemingly snubbed come Newbery-announcement-time I think it is good to remember this note from the the Newbery criteria and to keep in mind  just how problematic it is to determine true popularity anyway.  To keep in mind that not all voices get heard in all places.  And to do whatever you can to seek them out.  All of them.

The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity.



Filed under Newbery

6 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: The Problem with Popularity Contests

  1. Thanks, Monica for this! Popularity is not only hard to accurately quantify, it is also sometimes fleeting. People so frequently misunderstand what the Newbery IS and what the criteria require. But I am always grateful that popularity is not a factor for Newbery or the Printz.


  2. I just wish that child-appeal were more involved in the criteria. After all, this is a judgement about books written for children. Literary greatness doesn’t have to mean boring and difficult for elementary students to read, but some Newbery winners are. Oftentimes the Newbery Honor books are more interesting to elementary school age children, and fun to read besides, which is why I often find myself recommending these books to parents and children while ignoring the actual “winner.” Since reading a Newbery book is often assigned to fourth graders, we librarians cheer when a younger, more appealing book is chosen by the committee. Once the Printz had been created to acknowledge excellence in Middle School and High School books, we had hopes that the Newbery would return to its previous charge of selecting the best books for Children. IMHO


    • Hi Wendy,

      Not quite sure what you mean in your last sentence. Has the charge changed? As for “interesting to elementary school age children” I’d argue that the winners and honors have been. Again, the issue of how many kids is all in what your personal experience is. That is, what is interesting to a group of kids can vary depending on the group.


  3. Sam Bloom

    Wendy, this kind of “yeah, but…” comment is understandable. It’s hard when you are trying to find a Newbery book for a kid and they aren’t finding anything you recommend appealing. But I hope you really take Monica’s last paragraph to heart and keep in mind that not all kids want the same kinds of books. The Holes and Winn Dixies of the world are lovely and all, but some 4th graders may actually prefer A Single Shard or Moon Over Manifest (or Lincoln, or Good Masters…). Also, remember, the award goes up to age 14, so it isn’t always going to be a good book for 4th graders.


  4. Kelsey Wadman

    Thanks for this post! It’s important to everyone to discuss WHY all voices are not heard yet!


  5. Pingback: Fusenews: Though to be fair, who ever heard of harmFUL spitballing? « A Fuse #8 Production

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