Now that we're past the halfway point of 2008, it's time to start looking at books that are garnering 2009 Newbery buzz. A quick look around the Internet (which adds up to a page and a half of Google results) leads to the usual suspects: war (5 titles and 3 different wars), dead/dying siblings (2), dead/dying parents (2), divorced/separated parents (2), learning disabilities (2), and bullying.
I say “the usual suspects” because each year it seems the most attention is given to the books that explore the heaviest and most serious themes. Why is that? Is it easier to be distinguished, as designated by the Newbery Medal’s criteria, when writing about serious topics as opposed to the potentially hilarious?
Check recent history. From 1999-2008 there have been ten Newbery Medal winners and thirty Honor books. Of those forty books (of which I’ve read thirty-eight – sorry Rules and Penny from Heaven), I count only four (A Long Way from Chicago, 26 Fairmount Avenue, A Year Down Yonder, and Surviving the Applewhites) where “funny” is my first reaction. Other books certainly are funny (Bud, Not Buddy, Joey Pigza Loses Control, and The Wednesday Wars to name a few) but remembering “funny” is tough when Bud lives in the Great Depression, poor Joey can’t control himself, and people are dying in Vietnam.
Here’s a partial theory, in two parts. First, serious topics are always serious whereas comedy is subjective. If a book is about the atrocities of war, everyone will agree that war is atrocious, so the discussion will immediately progress to the book’s distinguished-ness. Comedy is too widely varied. One person’s hilarity is another person’s confusion. “That was funny? Really? Why was that funny?” Nothing kills a conversation like having to explain a joke. The joke is clarified, the discussion wanes, and it’s off to another book about a dead sibling. As E. B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."
Second, we adults get too caught up in our adultness. We evaluate children’s books based on a strict set of guidelines, none of which is appeal to children, and few of which kids actually use in their personal evaluations. As readers we understand the characteristics of quality literature. As teachers and children’s librarians we should have a feel for what our kids will enjoy and appreciate. As professionals we need to find a balance.
It is possible (Holes, Hoot, Surviving the Applewhites, 26 Fairmount Avenue, Mercy Watson) to write books kids love that don’t burden their shoulders like a backpack full of four hours of homework. Where are these books?
It’s hard to believe that the best books for children don’t necessarily have to appeal to the children themselves.
I read once that when The Long Winter was written, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original title was The Hard Winter. Her publisher, however, didn’t want children or their parents to be scared away by such a foreboding title, thus the change. If it was published today it certainly would have retained the original title and probably subtitled Frozen Death Stalks at the Door. A Pioneer Girl’s Survival of the Dreadful Great Plains Winter of 1880-1881.
[In an effort to prove I’m not anti-everything, I will admit that one of my top all-timers includes the death of two beloved characters plus a stillborn sibling and a mother in an institution. Can you name this Newbery book?]
Nevertheless, it’s on to the potential 2009 Newbery books. Here’s where I’m starting, gleaned from online mock Newbery lists, and given in no particular order:
Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell
After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes
The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti
The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman
Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff
Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor
I’ll post my thoughts as I finish, but right now I’m curious what readers think. Is this list a good start? Is anything missing? What’s your opinion about serious and comedic themes in children’s literature and the likelihood of these books to be considered distinguished? Leave comments below or send me an email.
Update II: Now that the real deal has been announced, click here for my initial thoughts and additional reviews.