Kids reject Newbery books

The prestigious Newbery Medal honors children’s books that are too complicated, inaccessible, depressing and dreary for most children, critics say.

Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism. Most of the rest deal with tough social issues.

Anita Silvey asked “Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?” in School Library Journal, setting off a blog debate. After talking to librarians, teachers and book sellers, she discovered that few of the recent picks have attracted readers.

“The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children’s publishing,” said John Beach, a St. John’s University professor who specializes in literacy education.

I remember the feel of the Newbery Medal seal on my copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

By the way, there’s still time to order Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the School That Beat the Odds before Christmas. It’s a fun read — compared to Newbery’s latest pick on life in a medieval village.

Update: Slate’s Erica Perl defends the Newbery choices. Captain Underpants doesn’t need an award to reach readers, she writes.

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  1. Well Charlotte’s Web dealt with death (what do I know, as a kid if an adult wanted me to read a book, I definitely did not want to read it).

  2. When I was younger I don’t remember being able to get books like Captain Underpants from the library. For that type of reading you had to go to the newsstand and get MAD magazine. So this report may say as much about the changing librarians as the Newbery medal.

  3. i generally disliked newbery winners when i was a child in the 80s. i found they were always about divorce or a bad home life or death or some issue. this isn’t new. Witch of Blackbird Pond may be one of the few I liked.

  4. It sounds like the Newbery is just following the same path as a lot of modern literary criticism. They’re trying hard to find the diamond in the rough to lift from obscurity, but many of those works they choose were in obscurity for a reason.

  5. The original article makes it sound more like librarians are rejecting Newbery books — the kids never even have it available to them. The librarians might be right, and maybe the medal has its ups and downs, but it still just feels funny for a school library not to aim for a complete collection of Newbery winners.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    My sons have read many Newbury winners and Honors books. My oldest is current reading Dragonwings by Laurence Yep. I do think Newbury winners in recent years, maybe since 1980 or there about, do tend to focus on social messages – divorce, racism, homelessness, and can be depressing. But, the older books are great. We homeschool, so I assign these.

    The books they choose to read in their free time are usually less heavy and aren’t Newbury books; Percy Jackson, The Mysterious Benedict Society, Pendragon.

    Some of our history “texts” are Newbury winners, as well; The Story of Mankind and Genevieve Foster.

  7. I would bet many students do not even know about Newbury winners. There are so many good books today for adolescent readers, if a book is going to get read, it better hook kids in a hurry.

    Five years without a hit is forever when you are twelve.

  8. I liked The Egypt Game, The Giver, and The View from Saturday. (from off the top of my head)

    As a tangent, does anyone else think that The Egypt Game would have been considered way too politically incorrect to be published today? I envision people complaining about Egyptian stereotypes and how Elizabeth Chung is described as “Oriental”…whatever, I still loved it. 😀

  9. Thank you Me for reminding me of the title of that book (The Egypt Game)! I read it several times as a kid (might still have a battered copy somewhere) and I want to introduce my kids to it.

  10. I just looked at the past list of winners, and I’ve hardly heard of any of them. “A Wrinkle in Time,” of course. But still. Maybe it’s just hard to tell what’s going to be popular with kids.

    Most of the ones I’ve heard of are mainly because they’ve been made into movies, e.g. “Bridge to Terebithia” and “Tale of Despereaux.”

  11. Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game” was wonderful. Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper are on there too; man, I haven’t read them in a decade or two, but now I get to raid the local used-book stores.


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