Newbery 2011

As a member of two Newbery committees myself (A Single Shard, 2002; Criss Cross, 2006), I have tried to school myself against second-guessing what goes on behind those closed doors every January. It’s a certainty that committee members have read all of the books more often than I have, and at least one of the fifteen will bring specialized knowledge to a text I loved (or hated) but didn’t have the background to evaluate thoroughly. That being said, I haven’t stopped having opinions, though this year my gripe seems to center on the award itself rather than the individual titles honored.

We’ve all heard it before, but it bears repeating before I go any further: What is honored in any given year by the Newbery committee is an alchemy of sorts between the members of the committee and the eligible books published that year.

The truth is that there are far more excellent books published every year than go home with stickers. Others have written of the Newbery committee’s collective neglect of nonfiction, funny books, books for younger readers, boy books, and/or popular books. While most of these arguments tend to overlook the purpose of the Newbery — to honor “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” without regard to “didactic content or popularity” — underneath all of them is the reality that most excellent books, whatever their stripe, go un-Medaled.

This is all a long introduction to my rather wishy-washy assessment of this year’s Newbery clutch, both winner and honor books: I’m happy with them all. There’s not one of them that doesn’t deserve its sticker.

Moving alphabetically by author backward through the honors, we come first to One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. I found Delphine and her sisters entirely likable, and I thought the Black Panther day camp was frequently laugh-aloud funny. Delphine’s pitch-perfect voice carries readers through each emotional wallop with total conviction.

Joyce Sidman’s Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night had to have been a challenge for the committee members — not because her poems are in any way undistinguished, but because the rules said they had to ignore Rick Allen’s absolutely gorgeous relief prints. The poetry really is lovely: “The night’s a sea of dappled dark, / the night’s a feast of sound and spark...” That “dappled dark” gets me every time I read it. The clarity of the informational text matches the beauty of the poetry to deliver a terrific one-two punch.

The story of Manjiro, the teenage Japanese fisherman shipwrecked in a storm in 1841 and then rescued by an American whaler, has been told before. Heart of a Samurai, Margi Preus’s fictionalized account, though, gives readers the chance to inhabit this boy who lost his country, gained a new one, and then helped to establish diplomatic relations between the two. This stranger-in-a-strange-land tale is a rock-solid adventure, with plenty of seagoing action to captivate twitchy readers.

A storm begins Heart of a Samurai; a hurricane ends Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm. Turtle’s arrival in Depression-era Key West, like Del- phine’s in 1968 Oakland, takes readers to a place lost to history. Who can’t love the one-of-a-kind Conch community, a treasure hunt that actually ends with treasure, and Turtle’s longing for her family? Holm’s a pro — she carries readers through her story as expertly as the boys of the Diaper Gang care for their infant charges.

Which brings us to the winner of the 2011 Newbery Medal: Moon Over Manifest by debut author Clare Vanderpool. I adored everything about this book: Abilene, her ferocious love for her father, her curiosity about the mysterious Jinx, her investigations into the events of 1918 and how they manage to give a little bit of new life to the tired, worn-out town of Manifest, Kansas, circa 1936. I was enchanted by  the way the 1918 stories talked back and forth with the 1936 story, and, even a second time through, I sniffled a bit at the big reveal. What can I say? Vanderpool had me in the palm of her hand all the way through.

(Having made my way through this list, I realize that the 2011 Newbery committee managed to select nonfiction, humor, books thoroughly in the middle-grade wheelhouse, a quintessential boys’ adventure book, and books with real child appeal. Good on them for a thorough job.)

Just because I loved all of the books honored by the Newbery committee, though, doesn’t mean I’m not sad there weren’t a score or two more named. Not that they could do that, really, but it means that a lot of great books will, sadly, not find their readers. This is the cruel irony of the Newbery: it is so successful at drawing attention to itself that it effectively eclipses so many other books kids need to find.

Perhaps most frustrating of all to me is that the Newbery excises two important classes of children’s
literature: books by authors who do not meet the Newbery’s residency/citizenship requirement and books that rely at least in part on non-textual elements to tell the story.

A recent task force of the Association for Library Service to Children examined the American-only criterion and determined to retain it. This is a damn shame, as I really believe the Newbery has done its initial job of promoting excellence in American literature for children. We have a thriving industry full of talented people committed to creating the very best books for kids. We also have an increasingly xenophobic and inward-looking population that would benefit from exposure to books from elsewhere. Two of my personal favorites of 2010 were not eligible for the Newbery, though they were in my opinion entirely distinguished: Rex Zero, the Great Pretender by Canadian Tim Wynne-Jones and Departure Time by Truus Matti, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.

No one is better than Wynne-Jones at capturing that moment when children begin to realize that there is a huge world outside of their own heads and experiences. Rex’s tragi-comical odyssey through 1963 Ottawa and the psychodynamics of his own family is as nearly a perfect piece of storytelling as any I encountered last year.

Matti’s surreal drama of a girl named Mouse lost in a mysterious hotel staffed by a fox and a rat alternates with the tale of an eleven-year-old girl who’s coping with the death of her musician father. The two apparently unrelated stories converge at the end in a resolution so emotionally on target I sighed audibly when I reached it. Departure Time’s publisher, Namelos, was recognized with a Batchelder Honor, but that’s probably not enough to help this very special story find a broad readership.

The Batchelder Award, created to encourage publishers in the risky business of translating children’s books published abroad, is a noble effort, but in the rush to Newbery gold, too many publishers decline the risk. In increasingly budget-conscious times, I fear that publishers will look outside our borders even less than they have historically, corporate bean counters having determined that the gamble does not
pay off financially, however much it might culturally

The other class of books excluded by the terms of the Newbery is that growing body that combines visual with textual storytelling to create a unified whole. The committee is specifically instructed to “make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective [emphasis mine].” Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret notably won the 2008 Caldecott, but with much of the burden of the storytelling carried entirely by images, the 2008 Newbery committee would have been hard-put to consider it.

What with the success of Hugo Cabret and Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, more and more creators and publishers are producing what my publication has saddled with the ungainly moniker of “graphic hybrid”: books presented in conventional text interleaved with comic-book panels or sequences of illustration that substitute for text. The year 2010 saw a substantial number of these.

One that almost certainly would have made it to the table in a Newbery environment that considered text and illustration together is The Memory Bank by Carolyn Coman, illustrated by Rob Shepperson. Coman’s text tells the Dahl-esque story of young Hope Scroggins, taken from her heartless parents to the World Wide Memory Bank to address a dream-to-memory imbalance, while Shepperson’s illustrations depict the adventures of Hope’s little sister Honey, whose forceful ejection from the car by
the horrid adult Scrogginses resulted in Hope’s memory deficit. Committee members, obligated to consider only the text, would have missed half the story.

All in all, the committee done good, considering the limitations imposed on it. But as we look down the next decade toward the Newbery’s 100th anniversary, here’s hoping ALSC will see fit to adapt its terms and criteria to reflect the world America’s children are living in, both politically and culturally.

From the July/August 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards.

Vicky Smith

Vicky Smith is the children’s editor at Kirkus Reviews. She has served on a bunch of award committees and on the ALSC Board but she speaks for none of them, nor does she speak for this magazine, though it’s nice enough to print her opinions.

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