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28 January 2009 @ 12:45 pm
round two  
neadods linked to this Guardian article about the Newbery, and Neil, and how his winning means that the Newbery award is no longer in danger of being thought irrelevant (or something less snarky):
"Gaiman's Newbery win is a vote por populism - and for excellence"
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/jan/27/neil-gaiman-newbery-medal-controversy

And this article was linked in the "Related" column of the previous article:
"Are the Newbery Medal judges out of touch with their readers?"
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/dec/19/newbery-medal-children-elitism
(Oh dear no! Not the dreaded specter of elitism! We can't have our children reading the best books in a category!)

The article that apparently started the hoopla, Anita Silvey's piece in the School Library Journal, is here:
http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6600688.html

And I can't believe I'm still talking about this after having this argument with maybe half the people I know about Harry Potter, but look. I'm thrilled that Neil won the Newbery. I announced it in the computer lab when I found out, to people who don't even read his books, because I was that excited. I really liked The Graveyard Book, and I'm looking forward to rereading it.

But "popular" does not necessarily equal "good." Nor does being popular preclude quality, just to get that out of the way. But the fact that several Newberys in the last few years have not gone on to have big successes in sales does not mean that something was wrong with the judging process. (Which is not to say that judging processes aren't idiosyncratic and imperfect. Maybe it'll turn out that some of the recent books won't stand the test of time. But how many publishers initially turned down A Wrinkle in Time, one of the books held up as an excellent Newbery pick? FSG took a gamble on that book, and it wasn't immediately popular, if I recall. It's also heavily read in schools, which is not an insignificant factor in its success.) And this idea that children's publishing is somehow a neutral world in which sales indicate nothing more than the fact that a book has made connections to as many individual readers as there are book sales is just plain ridiculous--and yet people make this argument all the time. "Harry Potter must be better than other children's books, or at least children must like it more--look how many copies it's sold!" Right. Because certain books don't have more advertising than others, or bigger displays at the store--or hell, just being *stocked* in the store is not a given! And children always buy their own books, right? So all of those sales are from children buying the books for themselves or asking for them. Children are never given books by well-meaning adults who don't know that much about children's books, but have heard that these books are popular and good. Sales aren't possibly influenced by libraries more likely to spend their limited funds on books that are likely to get checked out often, rather than taking a chance on a book less well-known.

(This is not a slam on Harry Potter. The books didn't do much for me--I read the first four and didn't really have enough interest to bother seeking out the fifth--but that's a personal response. You don't need to defend the books to me or indicate that I am not allowed to feel a certain way because the market has clearly spoken, and therefore these books are Good and You Should Read Them. I have had this argument so many times--and the accompanying "But she's done such good for the children! How dare you say anything against her" argument, too. Oh, and the "Anyone who doesn't like these books is a snob" argument, and the "why are you so concerned about the writing, they're just children's books" one as well. Forgive me if I sound a little annoyed.)

And comparing the sales of something like The Giver (as the second article does) to the sales of something like Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, when the former is included on many school curricula, is naive if not disingenuous. Comparing recent Newbery winners to the Narnia books or Eoin Colfer doesn't make a ton of sense (since neither would be up for a Newbery anyway, right?), and completely ignores that, hey, maybe these books are getting a bump from the current interest in children's/YA fantasy and the fact that one of them is a big Hollywood movie! Furthermore, it's bizarre to assume that the Newbery should have the same effect on book sales that it did in earlier years, when children's lit has turned into such a heavily publicized segment of publishing, when books like Rowling's and Stephenie Meyer's (and the movies they spawned) are talked about in entertainment magazines and on economic programs. And the idea that the problem with the Newbery is that it focuses too much on books that are "overtly literary" makes me want to kick things. Seriously, what does that even mean? What are you saying about children if you think that books that are "literary" couldn't possibly appeal to them? No, not every book is going to be suited to every reader. But the idea that a prize-winning book shouldn't be special or different in some way, it should merely be popular because the goal of the prize is to sell books rather than to award achievement, makes my skin crawl.

Anita Silvey, who spoke to "more than 100 people—including media specialists, children’s librarians, teachers, and booksellers—in 15 states across the country" (wow, that's some exhaustive research there!), appears to have interviewed people whose view of children is a bit disheartening. One person suggests that s/he wouldn't give the recent books to children because of their subject matter (because the Middle Ages and Japanese-American families couldn't possibly be interesting to children. And wait, if the librarians are deciding not to offer the books to kids, why are we surprised that the kids aren't liking them?). Others don't enjoy the books themselves, so clearly the Newbery chose the wrong books for kids. In another example, "While a young bookseller conceded it was a snap to sell a classic like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to 9 out of 10 of her customers, only 1 in a 1,000 seemed intrigued by the recent Newbery winners." (You do realize that you're a bookseller, don't you? And that kids are probably going to be more interested in a book they've heard of [there's that Narnia film again!] than one they know nothing about? That's where *you* come in!) And well, if Midwesterners prefer the Newbery books from the 1990s--and that's Midwesterners at *one* library, mind--then of course the problem is with the recent selection process! Because that's where the real, non-elitist Americans live.

There are just so many assumptions lurking in every paragraph of this piece that it's beginning to give me a headache. But the elephant in the room might be Harry Potter, after all. Because there is not one mention in this piece of the fact that children's publishing has changed phenomenally in the last few years--right around the time that the Newbery committee apparently started choosing the wrong books ("wrong" because booksellers are having a harder time selling them, and they're not appearing on bestseller lists, unlike books from the 1990s). You don't think there might be reasons for that related to publishing and marketing? To shifts in school curricula? To anything other than the idea that the Newbery committee is trying to pick books kids *won't* read?