Kid lit and Captain Underpants

In an October 2008 article for the School Library Journal, children’s book expert Anita Silvey risked the wrath of parents and educators by taking aim at one of the most canonical institutions in children’s literature – the Newbery Medal. In her article, which boasts the subheading “Snubbed by kids, disappointing to librarians, the recent winners have few fans,” Silvey accuses the committee of privileging the unconventional over the readable, and of rewarding books that “don’t appeal to children.” The brunt of her argument is this: Newbery books have become schoolyard pariahs, and as a result, fewer kids are willing to read.The solution? Very simply, to take accessibility into account. Popularity, she claims, should not only be a feature of a book’s success, but also a criterion of its worth.

Obviously, this is a contentious stance, and one that Slate’s Erica Perl opposes.

Coming to the defense of the Newbery, Perl contends that while recent winners may be obscure, they don’t turn kids off to reading (at least not in her classrooms) and can often generate interest in overlooked subject matter (medieval monologues, anybody?) According to Perl, the purpose of the Newbery is to defend original and iconoclastic books, and not to promote ones that already possess mainstream appeal.

So who’s right?

Beyond accessing the value of recent literary masterpieces such as Everybody Poops, what’s at stake in this debate is the issue of what exactly children’s book awards seek to accomplish. Should the Newbery strive to credit books that help kids develop reading as a habit, or instead single out authors with innovative creative visions, even if their work risks alienating younger readers? In other words, what should be prioritized – getting kids to read now, or taking a risk on a book that may not be as immediately fun as Captain Underpants?

Embedded in this question is the issue of literary standards, and the extent to which a book’s value is constituted by its readability. If you side with Silvey, then the argument follows that great books are necessarily the ones that people want to read. Finnegan’s Wake may be an extraordinary artistic accomplishment, but without a popular audience, it can only enjoy limited success. But then, the topic at hand isn’t modernist literature, it’s children’s books, and so yet another complication arises: should kids’ books be judged by different standards just because they’re kids’ books?

Perl’s answer is an unequivocal no. While reading is on the decline, the Newbery isn’t the cause; in fact, the award is now needed more than ever to “offer hope for those of us who want to write and publish the odd, offbeat, and not always pretty stories that we believe in our hearts children will want to read.”

This doesn’t mean publishing Joycean fiction for kids, but it does mean that helping an obscure artist should be emphasized over sticking an award on the book that every kid in the neighborhood’s already read.  And in the long run, this strategy makes sense: by adhering to the standards of literature rather than the standards of publishing, the Newbery has retained the level of quality that first enabled it to distinguish itself as the premier award in children’s literature.

And nobody is more aware of this than the Newbery’s parent organization, the American Library Association. Anybody interested in this debate should take a look at the disclaimer hiding at the bottom of the Newbery website:

“Note: The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic intent or for popularity.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the committee has reached a verdict.

~ by Jessica on March 9, 2009.

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