The middle of January is like Oscar season for librarians and those who follow children's literature. The anticipation and the predictions of what will win the numerous awards given out by The Association for Library Service to Children fill the first part of the month and the analysis of what and why take up the latter part. Some winners are well-received and much applauded and some cause raised eyebrows and Kanye West-like outbursts as people wonder what on earth the committee was thinking and why a different book was not selected.
I follow these awards with vague interest, to be honest, especially the Newbery. I am always curious to know what wins, but seldom do I feel like the winner is a book that the children at my school will really connect with. Somewhere, some kid will love the book, but in reality the awards are given by adults who are choosing books that they like, not books that the kids like. That is not to say that I believe the award is not valuable. It is, just as the National Book Award and the Pulitzer are. But, really, how many typical Americans read the winners of those awards? Nor do I think that that the committee should begin to consider popularity when determining who the medal goes to. It is important to exhibit outstanding literature for children and adults. But that book that gets left off the list is also important because some child, somewhere has read it and it meant something to him.
A glance at the list of past Newbery winners and Honor books comes up with very few boy-centric books. The 2009 winner, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, is an obvious exception, but most of the books have either girl main characters or themes that are more appealing to girls than boys. Girls will read about boys; boys generally will not read about girls. Of this year's Medal winner and four Honor books, only one has a boy for a main character or a boy-centric theme, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick (though I will argue in another post that boys could be convinced to read this year's medal winner and I hope they will be). Does this mean that the books being written that will appeal to boys are not exceptional? Not necessarily. Could it point to a failure on the part of the female-dominated committee to be able to appreciate literature that appeals to boys? Maybe. Does it really matter in the long run whether or not a "boy" book won a medal or an honor as long as boys are finding books they like to read? Not in my opinion. But it is something worth thinking about as teachers or parents push children to read these books just because they won an award.
The Medals are signs of exceptionalism. The books that win stand out from the millions that are published each year. Even ALA's Notable Book lists are not an exhaustive account of all the great books that came out within the past twelve months, though they are a commendable effort to recognize more books, because if it makes a list it is much more likely to be bought and read. Making it to the selective Newbery list should not mean that every child should read the book. Or that the book should be liked by everyone. Many states have begun Children's Book Award programs. North Carolina has a picture book and a junior book category. Diary of a Wimpy Kid won the 2009 NC Children's Junior Book Award. Is it Newbery quality? Heavens no! But the boys, and girls, love it and it is never checked in at my school. That makes it valuable. The Newbery Medal and the other awards given by ALSC have their place in children's literature, but so do awards like the NC Children's Book Award. Ultimately, winning an award doesn't mean much if kids aren't reading the book.
As January passes us by, so will the excitement of Monday's announcement. Very few people will be able to name the books on the various lists in a few months, just as not many people can name the winner of last year's Best-Supporting Actress Oscar (without Googling it). But boys everywhere who have found that one book that they really connected with will remember it for the rest of their lives, whether or not it won an award or was on a list somewhere.