Critics Say Newbery-Winning Books Are Too Challenging for Young Readers - washingtonpost.com: "'I can't help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids,' said Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College and a professor of children's literature."*
OK, that's the money quote, and I think it's already (rightly) been ridiculed. As if one award is single-handedly preventing kids from becoming readers? In a culture where reading is not valued, where celebrity children's books and TV tie-ins dominate bookstore shelves (how many children have Madonna, Jenna Bush, and Jeff Foxworthy turned off reading?), how can the Newbery be keeping millions of children from becoming readers? It just doesn't make sense.
On the next page some actual teen readers get their say--briefly--and they note that one thing that dampens their enthusiasm for reading is having it assigned. While this annoys me, I think it may also have some truth, and of course there's an overlap between assigned reading and the Newbery, though it's by no means the only criterion teachers and curriculum developers use.
This semester some of my students spent a few hours working with middle school students at an innovative private middle school for girls. The girls they worked with have almost no specific assigned reading; rather, they are assigned a number of hours of reading a week. They write journal entries and book reviews, and they discuss the books with each other and with their teacher; they are thoughtful about their reading choices, and many of them challenge themselves with books like Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and The Life of Pi (though, yes, others spent many hours last year working their way through the Twilight series). In a larger school the logistics of such a program might be daunting, but it clearly works: the girls read a lot, and they're articulate about their reading choices.
At the end of the semester I ask my (college) children's lit students to write a research paper. One option for that paper is for them to revisit a book they loved as a child. I haven't worked out the statistics (hey, I'm an English professor, remember?), but my sense from doing this for many years is that the students split their choices fairly evenly between books assigned for school (books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Giver, Catcher in the Rye) and books they picked up for pleasure (this year, Redwall, The Phantom Tollbooth, and James and the Giant Peach, for example). I guess I'll have to start keeping records on the awards won by the books they choose. In the meantime, I'm really not going to worry about the Newbery award. Those librarians know their business.
*MotherReader takes the piece on here, with a hilarious list of fake controversies.
Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.