This week, I sped through Moon over Manifest, the winner of the 2011 Newbery (the award given to the book that makes the greatest contribution to children’s literature each year). This is the kind of book I aspire to write as an adult, and the kind of book I loved as a kid. It was sweet without being sappy, full of historical details of life in the Depression and the 1910s that transcend the same-old same-old clichés we’ve all heard about. The novel flips back and forth between two stories. We have the tale of Abilene, a plucky girl spending a summer in the town where her father grew up and struggling to learn more about his life story and therefore hers. Interspersed with her quest are the adventures of a young amateur conman (conboy?) and his buddy growing up in the same town but twenty years earlier—around the time of World War I. I loved the device the narrator used to jump between these two stories—a “seer” in town who spins stories for Abilene by looking at some trinkets Abilene finds in a cigar box in her room. The two storylines are separated by “cuttings” from the local Manifest paper (including ads!)—another clever device that lent a wonderful air of authenticity and character to the setting.
But as much as I liked the book, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed at the predictability of the Newbery committee—yet another historical fiction nabs the top prize in children’s literature. For anyone who pays attention to the Newbery Award, it’s hard not to notice how often historical fiction rises to the top of the list—whether it be an honor award or the gold medal winner itself. This year alone, the winner, as well as its honor relatives were ALL historical fiction with the one exception of a book of poetry.
Why is that? Why is humor so rarely recognized? (The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Newbery Honor 1996 is humorous, but it’s also, surprise!, primarily historical fiction.) Why does mystery hardly ever make the cut? (The only book I can think of is 1979’s Newbery winner, The Westing Game, but that’s certainly not a traditional example of the genre.) Fantasy and science fiction tend to fare just a little bit better, as long as it’s not too far out there (no dragons, unicorns, or space aliens, please.)
Naturally, I have a few theories.
The Newbery Award is not a “majority rules” decision. It must be a unanimous choice from all members of the committee. Because of this, any book that has any inkling of controversy, any tendency to elicit a love-it-or-hate-it reader response, gets tossed out early on. Humor is too personal—one man’s hilarious fart joke is another woman’s highly inappropriate bathroom humor. High fantasy and science fiction are also “you get it-or-you-don’t” genres. And so historical fiction rises to the top—no matter what your taste, it’s hard to get too riled up about it, even if you don’t want to read it again and again.
Stories set in the past (and written in the past) are generally regarded in our culture as “real” literature whereas real-world humor and mystery have long been derided as brain candy. Just look at the Academy Awards where the same prejudices prevail—costume dramas are consistently nominated where great thrillers, mysteries, and adventures often go unnoticed. Although this isn’t always the case, I do think there’s a sense that a story needs to teach us something to be considered noteworthy, and no other genre teaches so clearly as tales set in the past.
And—though I hate to be controversial—look at who makes up the majority of the committee year after year: women. Women and girls are drawn to historical fiction. Yes, this is a broad generalization. But I don’t know a whole lot of little boys who jump at the chance to read Caddie Woodlawn over Captain Underpants. I’m not saying this is an intentional prejudice on the part of the committee. But unconscious prejudice is prejudice nonetheless.
I’m not trying to second-guess the Newbery committee or put out some kind of battle cry for more diversity in award winners. This committee is a group of incredibly hard-working librarians who dedicate a year of their lives to selecting this list of books. I know they do so with a lot of weight on their shoulders and a lot of time lost to family and friends. And they don’t always go for the predictable choice: (see The Graveyard Book).
I suppose what disappoints me is the way these books are regarded once they receive the golden sticker. They’re celebrated on the Today show. (Okay, not this year but let’s not talk about Snooki.) They’re displayed prominently in bookstores and libraries. They hit the best seller list in an instant after the awards are announced. If you’re a parent—or a grandparent or relative—who only pays passing attention to contemporary children’s literature, but longs to make the kid in your life love books, you might give the latest winner to your kid thinking that at last, here’s the book that will make him love reading—and if he doesn’t like it, that kid and reading are a lost cause. I’ve heard librarians say that just the sight of an award sticker on the cover of a book is enough to turn off many kids from that book for good. It must be boring, these kids think. It’s not for me.
In some ways, I can’t blame these kids. How would you like it if people were always telling you what you should be reading? That you should only read the best and the books you want to read are not “good” enough? I know I would hate it. And it could very well make me, a reading addict, give up reading for good.
In fact, reading research has consistently shown that the quickest way to demotivate a reluctant reader is to dictate their reading choices. If all they want to do is read Captain Underpants—get them as many Captain Underpants read-alikes as you can find! Let them read those books again and again. The simple secret to reading success is that the more kids read, the better they will read, and the more they will want to read. And ultimately isn’t that the greatest contribution to children’s literature we can give?