I have always wanted to write a children’s book. There is nothing creative or literary about me, but I love the purity of children’s literature and its simple eloquence. So, even though I teach high school students, I try to stay in touch with what’s going on the the world of pre-Young Adult literature.
When I read that this year’s Newbery Award (the Oscars of children’s lit if you will) went to a first time author I was at first pleasantly surprised. I love those stories–a mom or a college student or a teacher (!) finds time to pen a few random words in the space of a day that become a story that become a novel. It gives me hope that, no matter where in suburban New Jersey my life takes me, literary greatness could lie just around the corner. But the more I read, the more I began to question the Newbery committee’s choice. Let me be clear–I have not read Moon Over Manifest. I have, in fact, never heard of it. And that is my question. Newbery books tend to become the “classics” of the children’s lit world–the canon for the under 12 set. But what are the actual criteria used to determine the Newberry winner?
A big criticism of the Newbery is that it is awarded to children’s books that adults like, but that often the books fail to resonate with actual children. And, of course, it’s hard to tell how much of that is true. The ALA (the organization that doles out the Newbery) states that the Newbery “shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” But what does that contribution mean? Is a book that contributes to American literature because it is beautifully written about a powerful subject but that fails to resonate with children a good choice?
To be clear, I’m not saying that Moon Over Manifest DOESN’T resonate with children. Or that most Newbery winners don’t (Ella Enchanted, anyone?). But the fact that Moon Over Manifest isn’t available in my fairly well-stocked local bookstore and that it appears on no bestseller lists makes me question its impact on the children part of the ALA’s description. With the line between adult, young adult and children’s books becoming increasingly blurry, how important is the Newbery? Does it still serve a purpose beyond alerting elementary or middle (or, in some cases, high school) teachers of the “quality” literature out there that is on children’s reading levels even if it’s of no interest to the students themselves? Is it truly a barometer of the achievements in chidren’s literature of the year? Do children even read anymore?
A funny anecdote about a child who DOES read. My cousin is 8. She loves to read and write. For Christmas this year, we got her a Tangled journal (since my husband Ryan graciously took her and two other little girls to see Tangled while I got to take my older cousins to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and a Roald Dahl boxed set. On Christmas morning, my cousin tore through the paper to reveal the journal and expressed her delight. When she opened the books, she looked at them thoughtfully, then said “They’re books! I love to read! Good gift, Bethy.” I rejoice for the future of America.
“To sum up” (as I read in about 45 student essays today), I’ll check out Moon Over Misfit because I tend to like Newbery winners. And I’ll continue to harbor secret JK Rowling instincts in the middle of my mundane life. And I may even pick up The Witches again to read it with my cousin. But I WON’T be reading it before bed.