Thoughts on Newbery: The Age Problem

Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.  

That is directly from the Newbery criteria and can be one of the hardest to sort out.  At least it has been for me.  I teach 4th grade in a 4th-8th grade middle school and since my students come back to me as they get older for book suggestions as well as for an after-school book club, I have some sense of how kids at the upper end of that age range respond to eligible books. Our middle school librarian, Roxanne Feldman, who was on last year’s Newbery Committee, has an even closer ear to the ground for this.  We both see many incredibly sophisticated readers who totally appreciate and get books that are for adults and/or are clearly YA. And they certainly get those books on the cusp, the ones we struggle with when trying to figure out if they fit within the Newbery level or are beyond. The question though is just because these sophisticated young readers get such books, are they within the broader cohort of their age group? That is, are these books that they are getting, but others their age are not especially –within the age range of the award?

Even harder for me as a 4th grade teacher is fighting against my personal desire to see the award go to a book for the age group I teach —  9 and 10 year olds.  I really, really, really want that, but I also want the best book to win.  And sometimes that book may be too old for 9 and 10 year olds, but just right for 13-14 year olds.

Nina Lindsay over at Heavy Medal has just posed this perennial question with her post, “The Age Question*” and I’ve already written the following comment. I look forward to others weighing in and helping us all with this complicated issue.

When I was on the Committee I consulted with our school psychologist (I’m in a 4-8 grade middle school) about development when dealing with cusp books. He was incredibly helpful at helping parse things out with such titles.

My feeling is that there are always going to be kids who can read completely anything. Kids who are sophisticated, who have a personal depth that results in their “getting” what they read in a remarkably adult-like way. I come across kids like that now and then at my school. I think of one of our students who at age 13 adored Mal Peet’s LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM which many saw as a book mostly adults would appreciate. (He has been one of our two Kid Commentators on BOB — RG—and you can read his enthusiastic pick for LIFE to win it here:http://battleofthebooks.slj.com/2012/03/31/winner-of-the-2012-undead-poll-and-kid-picks/) But that doesn’t convince me that the book is for his age group. He and his cohort read more as adults do, they have developed quicker than their peers. That they love and appreciate these books does not convince me that they are for their chronological age group.

This year I’d put Tom McNeal’s FAR FAR AWAY in this category. I don’t know what you and Jonathan think about it and whether it will be on your discussion list, but it is getting Newbery buzz and I’m trying to work out if it is within or above the age range. The reason I lean toward above is that while there are certainly kids 14 and younger who will read and enjoy the book (always are, after all) it seems to me that the darker elements in the latter part of it will be better understood by those older with slightly different orientations on life, more experience so to speak. That is, I think that you can truly get the whole gestalt of this book if you are beyond 14 by and large.

Nina, I actually think you are on to something similar with HOKEY POKEY — in my experience, those who enjoy it and seem to get it are out of childhood, be they 50 or an 8th grader. So it may be out of Newbery age range. (That said, someone here — can’t remember who, sorry — wrote that it is being very much enjoyed by younger kids around her. That hasn’t been my experience, sadly.)

* Nina sees this as a “question,” but it has been definitely been a knotty “problem” for me.

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