Editorial: Books About Kids like Me

The late Andrew Clements, whom we remember in this issue in my look back at his novel The Janitor's Boy, was a practitioner in a core and long-hallowed subgenre of children’s literature. He wrote what adult-book critics would call “domestic fiction” and what we would call “everyday life,” “friendship,” or “school” stories. Before Harry ­Potter and his magical ilk bestrode these shores, everyday-life stories by the likes of Clements, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume were the bread and butter of children’s publishing and libraries, the demand for them driven by kids who wanted stories, preferably funny ones, about children like themselves.

These were not books that frequently won awards (awards given by adults, that is, as children’s-choice awards have been honoring these titles for decades). Perhaps it’s because they were the norm and thus not “distinguished,” and perhaps it’s because their intended accessibility to a wide range of readers meant that clarity would necessarily trump literary dazzle. Arguments about literary quality vs. popular appeal are older than anyone writing or reading this editorial, although I hope we have all now figured out that it is a specious, not to mention loaded, distinction. “It’s just not well-written” is blather that generally says more about the critic than about the book.

But look at the last three Newbery Medal winners. Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe (2018), Meg Medina’s Merci Suárez Changes Gears (2019), and our newest Newbery, Jerry Craft’s New Kid (a comic, no less — ­Fredric Wertham must be rolling) are all realistic middle-grade/middle-school novels that depict the pleasures and travails of contemporary American child life. They are all, despite serious themes and moments, also funny. When Beverly Cleary’s mother advised her as-yet-unpublished daughter to write something funny, she wasn’t trying to get her kid a medal, she was telling her how to get readers. “People always enjoy reading something that makes them laugh.”

Cleary’s books have long been the central exemplar of “funny books about kids like me.” But her long career coincided with the publishing world’s assumption that “kids like me” were always middle-class and white, and that “kids like me” books should follow suit.

Well, hallelujah, everybody, when a book starring an African American kid follows a book starring a Cuban American kid follows a book starring a Filipino American kid as “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year” — that is, the John Newbery Medal. When I came to the Horn Book almost twenty-five years ago, Martha V. Parravano and Lauren Adams were, in their January/February 1996 ­editorial, calling for “A Wider Vision for the Newbery.” Here you go. And for those who perennially wring their hands over the Newbery winners being shelf-sitters, stop. If New Kid is languishing on the shelf of your library, you’ve probably forgotten to open the doors.

•   •   •

Jerry Craft’s acceptance speech for the 2020 Newbery Medal, along with those for the Caldecott, Legacy, and Coretta Scott King Book Awards, will be ­delivered at the ALA conference in June and published in the July/August issue of The Horn Book ­Magazine.

 

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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