What The Newbery Award Is Not: For Thematic Choice

Sometimes, to understand what something IS, one has to think of what something ISN’T.  So, I’m going to write a few posts about what I think the Newbery Award Isn’t — starting with Thematic Choice.

Over at SLJ’s Blogland, Karyn Silverman discusses her reaction to Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, a highly praised book and a National Book Award finalist based on the true story of a young person’s life under the rule of Khmer Rouge. In her post, Karyn concludes how she will recommend this title for its historical significance but not for its literary merits. As to the book’s Printz award winning chances?  She wrote, “the Printz doesn’t care about importance, or message, or history.”  Her final words on the post are, “The Printz is an award for literary excellence, and on that front, this does fall down.”

What Karyn illustrates of the Printz Award is equally true of The Newbery.

In the Newbery Manual, it is stated that:

“Committee members need to consider the following: a. Interpretation of the theme or concept, b…..”

It also contains an additional note: “The committee should keep in mind that the award…is not for didactic content…”

These are the only directions regarding themes that Newbery committee members have from the official document.

What this informs me, then, is that my focus of examination should not be on whether a book is about sibling rivalry, death,  historical events, lunch money, girl power, or anything else that the author chose as the central theme(s) of the book at hand.  What I should care most, then, is how well, literarily, the author interpreted such theme(s).  For example, if I am to choose from the following three (made up) books based on the authors’ skills in theme interpretation, I will probably ask these questions to start (but of course many more aspects will have to be explored):

A. An easy reader about the fun of playing with blocks

Has the author managed to make the fun and joy palpable to its readers?
Has the author successfully employed an appropriate narrative device (such as rhyming) for the audience?

B. A middle grade fiction about the importance of environmental protection

Has the author created a riveting plot line that pulls the readers in and keeps them engaged all the way through?
Has the author created true-to-life characters that the readers care about greatly?

C. A nonfiction about the history of fireworks

Has the author presented the most significant moments clearly for the intended audience?
Has the author expertly captioned all the illustrations to further illuminate the topic?

My duty is not to choose a winner based on which theme I believe as most significant (to me or a young reader) but based on which of the books is most literarily successful after thinking hard about each book, and after deliberating with input from my whole committee.

So, I say,

The Newbery Award is not for the book with the most significant theme.
The Newbery Award is not for the most teachable book.
The Newbery Award is not for the book most likely to change a young reader’s life.