A Wider Vision for the Newbery

Editorial by Martha V. Parravano and Lauren Adams

At first glance, the last ten years appear to have seen a remarkable diversity of books honored by the Newbery award. Poetry and nonfiction have both won medals (Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise [Harper] and Russell Freedman’s Lincoln [Clarion]); and a wide range of books, from folklore to nonfiction to books for older readers, have been named Newbery Honors.

But an examination of the fiction medalists over the past ten years — Sarah, Plain and Tall (Harper), The Whipping Boy (Greenwillow), Number the Stars (Houghton), Maniac Magee (Little), Shiloh (Atheneum), Missing May (Jackson/Orchard), The Giver (Houghton), and Walk Two Moons (Harper) — quickly disperses any idea of diversity. All are middle-grade novels; all are by white authors and feature white protagonists (Salamanca Tree Hiddle’s great-great-grandmother notwithstanding). The last author from a parallel culture to win the Newbery Medal was Mildred Taylor for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial) in 1977. While several honor awards have been given to nonwhite authors since 1986, the big prize has, for almost twenty years now, been out of reach.

It has also been a long time since a picture-book text was recognized in any way: Mavis Jukes’s Like Jake and Me (Knopf) was named an honor book in 1985. Surely it hasn’t been ten years since such a richly literary picture book has been published. Helen V. Griffith’s Granddaddy and Janetta books, for example, spring immediately to mind.

This year, there are many books eligible for the Newbery Medal that fit the current mold — middle-grade fiction featuring a twelvish, white protagonist. A stellar example is Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (Clarion). Cushman brilliantly transforms her main character from the waif Brat — taking shelter from the winter night in a dung heap, hoping for and expecting nothing from her life — into the self-defined, confident Alyce, who bursts into bloom at the close of the book, just as the springtime world does. The Midwife’s Apprentice is one of the best books of the year and wholly deserving of the Newbery Medal.

But a look beyond the recent parameters reveals some equally stunning examples of Newbery-quality fiction. Another superb middle-grade novel, but one written by an African American, newcomer Christopher Paul Curtis, is The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 (Delacorte) — a laugh-out-loud domestic tale with deeper undertones, as the Watsons become involved in a national tragedy that has lasting repercussions for ten-year-old Kenny and his family. Some truly outstanding books for older readers have also been published this year, including Judith Ortiz Cofer’s An Island Like You (Kroupa/Orchard), Rita Williams-Garcia’s Like Sisters on the Homefront (Lodestar), and Angela Johnson’s Humming Whispers (Jackson/Orchard). The voices of the Latino and African-American characters in these books are some of the freshest to emerge in years; the writers’ talents, unquestionable. Cofer’s collection of original short stories features a variety of young people struggling to come to terms both with the island that is their New Jersey barrio and the island that is their adolescence. Williams-Garcia’s riveting novel follows a street-smart yet heartbreakingly innocent fourteen-year-old as she finds her place in the world through her friendship with her equally spirited great-grandmother and through knowledge of her heritage. In Humming Whispers, Sophy seeks joy and freedom through dance in spite of her overwhelming concern for her beloved, schizophrenic older sister Nicole and her growing fear that she, too, will be afflicted with madness. Johnson tells her story with the quiet intensity of the whispers that haunt Nicole.

The Newbery Medal is for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” ages “up to and including fourteen.” The awards provide an opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary richness and scope of children’s books, to look to the whole body of children’s literature for the year’s best.

From the January/February 1996 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Letters to the editor responding to this editorial (from May/June 1996 Horn Book Magazine)

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