A gold star for tedium

By E.J. Graff

Published January 29, 2001 10:59PM (EST)

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I've read quite a few of the Newbery Medal books both as a child and an adult, and frankly I enjoy them more as an adult. They are generally well-written, thoughtful books, but often they are children's books that adults think children ought to read (not what children would actually pick for themselves).

One of the reasons why the Harry Potter series is so popular is that these days, "good" children's literature is pretty grim. Kids need whimsy and fun as well as moral lessons, and the best children's books have both a moral center and a sense of wonder and excitement.

-- Nancy Ott

While I grant that E.J. Graff made some valid points about Newbery Medal books, I'd like to point out that one person's spinach is another person's dessert. For example, I loved "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" and was bored by "My Antonia." I also loved "The Phantom Tollbooth" (as did my son when he read it 30-odd years later), and agree that it should have won a Newbery. However, I imagine that its ironic tone and illustrator's association with left-of-center publications didn't sit well with ALA members, who were a pretty conservative bunch back in 1962. I'm just glad that they saw the light in bestowing the medal on "Holes."

-- Bella Stander

E.J. Graff makes some useful points, but misses as many. Within library circles, we do argue about the Newbery and Caldecott (for best art) awards, and we recognize that the best book isn't always the one that wins. This is true of the Oscars, the National Book Awards, the Grammys and every other award. Even when groups of books are given to children to vote on (many states have child-voted awards), several different books will win.

One difference with the Newbery Award is that the committee is required to come to a unanimous final decision on the winner, so sometimes a compromise winner is chosen -- most people's second choice, but not many people's first choice.

Just to show how nonobvious these choices are, I disagree with some of Graff's likes and dislikes on what books are obviously masterpieces. I thought "Out of the Dust" was a total success, creative and engrossing, and one of the 10 best Newbery winners ever. (It has been popular with young adult readers here.) On the other hand, I disliked one of Graff's favorites, "M.C. Higgins the Great," although I have very much enjoyed others of Hamilton's books. In 20 years, I have not been able to get even one young person to tell me he or she liked "M.C. Higgins."

I loved "Witch of Blackbird Pond" and didn't particularly care for "The Phantom Tollbooth." We agree on "Holes" and several other titles, I'm glad to see.

As for Richard Peck's winning title, I certainly did not think it was "tedious" or "educational" (in the pejorative sense that Graff uses the word). I have always enjoyed Peck's books and I think they speak well to the hearts of young adults. I don't think it is better than "A Long Way From Chicago," Peck's Newbery Honor book of last year; and I read at least two books ("The Wanderer" by Sharon Creech and "Silent to the Bone" by E.L. Konigsburg) that I would have been more likely to vote for this year.

But I'm not insulted or ranting because Peck won. I'm also not blind to human nature and I don't tell children that the Newbery Award will always be given to their favorite books. But a title that Graff and some other children hate may be a favorite book that opens the eyes of other children.

-- Stephen Bridge

I could not disagree more with Graff's assessment of Scott O'Dell's novel "Island of the Blue Dolphins." I also read this book as a young girl and found it to be beautifully written and inspiring. The story is not "miserable" but rather a tale of human strength and tenacity. It is a story about overcoming loneliness and learning self-reliance. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of nature, which are written in ways that are completely unique to the average young reader. Graff's dismissal of this book reminds me of people who refuse to see "Schindler's List" because it is too depressing. Out of the most difficult and dark circumstances of life come some amazing stories.

-- Kristin Rein

E.J. Graff's essay on the overall mediocrity of Newbery winners hinted at a broader problem in the literary lives of our youth -- namely, that they are subjected to an overall "canon of mediocrity" from the day they enter the public school system till the day they leave. It's not just the Newbery winners that bring our children subpar literature; school systems everywhere dole out a constant diet of dull, uninspiring and relentlessly hectoring works that invariably revolve around the common theme of young death and the futility of man's accomplishments.

Even when made to read books by authors of the Western canon, students are typically given an inferior example of the author's work. Raise your hands if you've been made to read any of the following in your school days: "A Separate Peace"; "Where the Red Fern Grows"; "The Yearling"; "Romeo and Juliet" (but not "King Lear"); "The Great Gatsby" (but not "Tender Is the Night"); "The Sun Also Rises" (but not "For Whom the Bell Tolls"); "Light in August"; "The Cay." If you were born after 1970, your hand is probably up by now. Why?

The answer presumably lies, as Graff aptly pointed out, in the peculiar notion of children as beings "who require special mental nutrients if their fragile little brains are to grow properly." Unfortunately, this misconception is not peculiar to the Newbery committee, but has infected the community responsible for literary education in public schools. I polished off the "Little House" books at 6, and the "Lord of the Rings" series at 8; but this was due to my parents, not the unchallenging pablum given me at school. By the third time I read "A Separate Peace," and the second time I was urged to watch "West Side Story" to get a better understanding of "Romeo and Juliet," I knew all too well that the arbiters of youth literature were determined to make sure I read only their bland brand of puréed prose.

As with the Newbery awards, there were exceptions -- in my senior year of high school, I had a teacher demand that the class read "Emma" (a task for which most were sadly unprepared). But such bright moments were, alas, merely the exceptions that proved the rule. If the Newbery awards are to be fixed, then this rule must be broken.

-- Joshua Trevino

By Salon Staff

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