The Newbery Blog Post Revisited

 I’ve been quiet on the blog recently for the best of reasons: I’m hard at work on The House of Hades! Recently, though, my younger son Patrick (who is now 14) was talking with me about the books he’d read in school over the years — his favorites and least favorites — and this got me thinking about the following blog post, which I posted way back in 2006. Patrick has come a long way since this post was written. He’s a much better student and a voracious reader. Still, his opinion about some of the required reading books he’s struggled with hasn’t changed. For those of you who weren’t following the blog six years ago, here is my original post on Patrick’s early experiences with award-winning children’s books, and my follow-up post. The publishing world has seen a lot of upheaval since I wrote this, but the ongoing conversation about the relevance and usefulness of children’s literary awards has not gone away, nor is it likely to in the future.

Originally posted Friday, August 18, 2006:

Patrick’s Summer Reading Blues 

My younger son Patrick went back to school this week. He was not exactly thrilled, but he’s a good student and does well once he gets back into the classroom. His one big gripe: the summer reading assignment.

I’m sure many parents are familiar with the dreaded summer reading assignment. This year, Patrick was asked to read six free choice books (This part was easy; He likes the Magic Treehouse series) and one required book, Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. Ginger Pye was . . . problematic.

Patrick found the book extremely slow and hard to relate to. After many nights of struggling, we finally special ordered the audio version and used that to supplement his reading. This was better, but still the book was not a great experience for him. Patrick is eight years old, and he has already started forming opinions about school and reading: School is boring. They make you do things that don’t matter. Reading is boring. The books aren’t fun and they don’t mean anything to him.

As a teacher and writer, I have a lot of trouble hearing him talk this way. Unfortunately, after struggling through Ginger Pye with him, I am hard-pressed not to think the kid has a point. I tried reminding him that some books are great. I write books, after all, so he should love reading. Books pay for his tuition! But Patrick just shrugged. He bases his opinion on what he is required to do: read Ginger Pye.

The day before school started, we lost the book. Perhaps Patrick threw it away, as he had been threatening to do all summer. I don’t know. At any rate, we had to drive to the bookstore to buy another. I called in advance to make sure the store had copies. They did. They always keep Newbery titles in stock. As we were checking out, the clerk raised her eyebrows and said, “That’s an old one, isn’t it?” True, the book was published in 1952. But hey: It’s a Newbery title, so here it is, still being read fifty-four years later.

On the way home, Patrick took the book out of the bag and looked at it. He grumbled for a while about how much he wished he could burn it. Then he said, “What’s this thing on the cover?”

I glanced back. “That’s the Newbery Award medal.”

“What’s it mean?”

“Well, it means a group of librarians voted it the best book for children the year it came out.”

Patrick looked stunned, then appalled. Then he rolled his eyes dramatically, and with as much eight-year-old contempt as he could muster, he said, “Librarians!”

I tried to explain that the Newbery is supposed to honor quality literature, books that really make kids think, not necessarily the books that are the most fun to read. I told him Ginger Pye might have been more accessible back when it was published. Patrick was having none of it.

“Adults may like it,” he said firmly. “Kids don’t.”

And I think Patrick put his finger on a problem that still troubles the world of children’s literature. What kids read is dictated by adults – from the writers and editors to the booksellers and librarians. We are all well-intentioned. We do our best to decide what will be good reading for children, but sometimes we pick what we think kids should like, not what they do like. And when we don’t promote books children actually want to read, what happens? We produce generation after generation of nonreaders.

Now I’m not blaming the Newbery Award for our barely literate society. Some Newbery books are absolutely stunning. But you’ll excuse me if I say, having taught English for fifteen years, that very few Newbery titles are . . . er . . . crowd-pleasers. Try as I might, my students quickly learned to steer away from Newbery titles when they were given a reading list to choose from. Why? That little gold sticker, in their minds, had come to mean “BORING.” Those were the required books, the ones you only read if you had to.

I sometimes wonder what the Newbery committee envisions when they choose their books. I imagine they picture a solitary book-loving child, curled up in a library chair by a window on a rainy day, happily absorbed in a thought-provoking novel. I doubt they picture a classroom full of twenty to thirty reluctant readers, forced to study the novel because it’s “on the list,” even if the novel was published twenty, thirty, or fifty-four years ago. Unfortunately, in promoting quality children’s literature, the Newbery too often forgets the word “children.” We use these books as our canon of must-read titles. These are recommended. They must be safe. They must be quality. The parents certainly cannot complain if a book has that little golden sticker. And in using these books over and over for decades, we end up convincing kids of what they already suspected: Reading is boring. Reading is hard, and it doesn’t apply to their lives. I doubt this is what any librarian would want, but all too often that’s exactly what happens. Ask the parents in Patrick’s class who were grumbling about Ginger Pye at the pool party. Ask Patrick. And please God, grant me the wisdom to remember that I am writing for children, not golden stickers. If children don’t enjoy my books, I haven’t done my job. 

Originally posted Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Newbery Post 

I’ve gotten more emails about my previous post, Patrick’s Summer Reading Blues, than any post I’ve ever done. It seems I touched a nerve! The responses ranged from “You’re being too harsh on Newbery books” to “I can’t believe you had the courage to say something about the Newbery. Thank you!” Several simply said, “Amen!”

I try not to rant too much. Honest! Doubtless the post was fueled by my frustration as a parent who wants his child to love reading. This was compounded by my years in the classroom and my experience with some (not all) Newbery titles.

When it comes to children’s literature, I tend to be a populist. My primary concern is youth literacy. What will appeal to the most children? What will get them reading? What will inspire them to pick up more books? A book that can do this is, to me, a “best book” for children. If the book has levels of meaning, beautiful writing, great characters, a haunting story – that’s all wonderful and important. But will children enjoy it? Will they stick with it long enough to recognize those literary merits adults care so much about? If the answer to these questions is no, then I have a problem with that book.

I remember reading some decidedly mixed on-line reviews of a recent Newbery winner. Many of the book’s most ardent supporters said something like this, “This book has great literary merit. While it’s true children may not like it, older teens and adults will love it, and –” At which point I thought: Whoa, wait a minute. Children won’t like it, but you’re arguing that it deserved to win a children’s book award? What is wrong with this picture? Hopefully, the book’s supporters were as off-base as the book’s detractors. Hopefully some children will like it. But perhaps this particular Newbery title is not the sort of book that should be made required reading for all students. Unfortunately, since the Newbery is the “gold standard” of children’s literature, this is often what happens. Perhaps, you may say, the problem then is not the award books, but how we use the award books in the classroom. I would not disagree with that. But how do we change this? How do we change the conception that the only books worth reading, the only ones worthy of prestigious attention, are the hard ones very few children like? To paraphrase Mark Twain, “literature is the books everyone agrees are great, but no one has read.”

Since I left the classroom, I’ve been a volunteer reading tutor at a local elementary school, working one-on-one with at-risk second graders who are struggling with reading. In a way, this has brought me full-circle, since I began my teaching career working in public schools in the poorer districts of San Antonio. I’ve spent about half my career in public schools, half my career in private. I’ve seen a huge range of student ability. As I do school author visits, I go everywhere in the country. I do presentations for Title I schools struggling with teen parents and gangs and extreme poverty. I do presentations for the most elite private schools in the country. When I think of children’s literature, I see the thousands of faces of all those children. I see my eight-year-old reading buddy at Cable Elementary. And of course, I see my own sons, both of them reluctant readers, despite what their dad does for a living. I care about books that will get them excited about reading – that will light up their faces and make them think, “Wow, reading can be fun after all!” To me, that’s a “best” book!

Rick Riordan