And the Newbery Goes To….
We humans have an instinctual drive to excel, and in homage to that, we make substantial efforts to recognize the best in almost every field there is. For sports, we have the Olympics. For movies, we have the Oscars. For children’s books, it’s the Newbery. The Newbery Award is given to the best American children’s book published in the previous year. The 2021 winner was When You Trap a Tiger, which brings Korean folklore to life as Lily makes a deal with a magical tiger to save her grandmother. Things don’t go as she expects, but that doesn’t meant they don’t go as they should.
Since 1922, the American Library Association has given the Newbery Award for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. It was the first children’s book award in the world, and is still considered one of the most prestigious. There are also a varying number of Honor books every year. Books are judged by the American Library Association, which includes librarians from school and public libraries.
The real prize, though, is the image emblazoned on the cover that a book has won this award. These books often become movies or TV shows, and frequently land as assigned reading from teachers. There is also usually a considerable spike in sales of both award winners and Honor books.
But more than a decade ago, the Newbery was under fire. Some people thought that the books were too challenging to be thoroughly enjoyed by a broad range of children, had themes that were too sad, and lacked diversity in both authors and protagonists.
It’s true that Newbery Awards aren’t always the ones that are also the most popular with kids. And they often aren’t lighthearted romps, either. Many of them have themes about death, absent parents, racism, cruelty, and poverty. These kinds of issues can be a lot for kids to handle, but these are real concerns that kids deal with. That said, this is another good reason for parents to be involved in and aware of what their kids are reading, so that discussion can take place.
As for the lack of diversity, that may have been true through the early 2000’s, but it certainly isn’t the case now. Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, and Ashley F. Bryan are just a few of the recent African-American author winners. The aforementioned When You Trap a Tiger has a Hawaiian author, Korean-American characters, and a small subplot about a young lesbian. Merci Suárez Changes Gears (2018) has a Cuban-American protagonist. In Last Stop on Market Street(2015), African-American CJ encounters a blind man on the bus. One of the narrators in Hello Universe (2017) is deaf, another is Filipino-American, and a third is Japanese-American. These days, the Newbery Awards are nothing if not diverse.
I’ve really enjoyed all the Newbery winners that I’ve read, especially *The One and Only Ivan* in 2012, The Giver in 1994, and Holes in 1999. (to be honest, I could go on and on about the Newbery winners I love, but I’m restraining myself).
It’s true that I’ve been a devoted reader my entire life, so I’m maybe a little biased. It’s also true that these can be challenging books, in terms of theme and story. Many of them do touch on emotional or disturbing issues. In fact, all three of the books I mentioned above deal quite a bit with man’s cruelty, but they also focus on hope. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be read. Reading books like these can help us, all of us, figure out ways to deal with these issues.
I’m not advocating for reading only award-winning books; on the contrary, I firmly believe that kids should read a diverse selection of books, both in terms of difficulty level, but also theme and tone.
It’s good to know though, that if you find a book with a “Newbery Winner” image on the cover, you’re more likely to find a book that is deep, but also rewarding.