BREAKING: Books chosen by adults more likely to appeal to adults than kids

Thanks to Charlie (again) for sending me this fascinating article from the Washington Post: “Plot Twist: The Newbery May Dampen Kids’ Reading.”

This is a very interesting article, even if the central idea (kids are not such big fans of the sort of depressing and literary fare that usually wins the Newbery) is not a shocker.   It does, however, remind me of that timeless fight between bookseller and well-meaning relative of a young child; in which the bookseller will say anything, ANYTHING at all, to convince the relative that the child for whom they are buying a book would actually much rather have Captain Underpants than Moby Dick, really, truly, regardless of the omnipresent “but he reads above grade level!” and despite the fact that Captain Underpants has pictures in it.

It is a tricky balance, for sure.  What the article really suggests to me, though, is three things.

1. The Newbery is fundamentally flawed because, as the article says, it’s inclusive of books for readers up to 14–and as I have discussed in this space before, what 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds want to read (and what their parents think they SHOULD be reading) do not have much overlap.  Not to mention, the YA counterpart of the Newbery, the Printz, is for books aimed at readers 12-18.  This is a very goofy way of looking at books, I think (though it does reflect that when it comes to tweens, not even the ALA knows what’s what).

2. People embrace the Newbery books for many reasons, including its longevity and the fact that many Newbery books are great, great books (Holes, The Westing Game).  But I think it also points to how thirsty parents, teachers, and librarians are for book recommendations from people they trust, and there aren’t many more trustworthy bodies than the ALA.  Indie booksellers should take this lesson to heart (here, I am thinking of the workshop on thought leadership marketing that I attended at the ABA’s Day of Education before BEA) and take more steps to make themselves a trustworthy source of recommendations.  I personally haven’t agreed with the Newbery selection in years–why did I never think to make a table with the titles I liked better and a sign that said “Here’s what SHOULD have won the Newbery!”?

3. People seem obsessed with the dichotomy that kids are either reading big-L Literature or trashy crap.  Can’t they read both?  Geez.  Kids are not like adults, in many ways, but one way in which we’re all the same is that we like to read serious, interesting books sometimes, and popcorn fluff on other occasions.  What is true, though, is that if kids are always made to read serious Newbery-bait all the time at school, they will come to resist any book that seems serious, by association.  Doesn’t mean Twilight should be read in schools (least of all because young women don’t need any more encouragement to pursue romance with violent young men), but as Anita Silvey, who touched off this whole hullabaloo in the first place, says:  “Quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive concepts.”

Put another way, as an idea for people who think Newberys are automatically great for the classroom, or who only want to teach what they consider literature, let me tie this back to another lesson I’ve learned as a bookseller.  Just because you like a book and think it is the shit, does not mean that everybody will, nor does it mean it is a good book.  (This lesson is also dedicated to everybody who ever tried to make me like The Kite Runner.)  Sure, school shouldn’t always be about what getting to do whatever you want–but if encouraging a lifelong love of reading is the first goal, shouldn’t you get to read what you LOVE?  At least sometimes?

I will finish by quoting from The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley, a quote that is right next to my desk and is equally applicable to booksellers, teachers, and librarians: “Between ourselves, there is no such thing, abstractly, as a ‘good’ book.  A book is ‘good’ only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error.  A book that is good for me would very likely be punk for you.  My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms.  Some people have let their reading facilities decay so that all I can do is hold a post-mortem on them.  But most are still open to treatment.  There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it.”


4 comments so far

  1. Shari on

    Some of the Newbery winners lately… oy! Not that appealing to kids at all! I’m with ya on kids getting to read what they love if they’re to develop a lifelong love of reading. (And I’m with ya on Kite Runner, too – didn’t like it at all. But his next book, I thought was excellent.)

    Great quote at the end of the post. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Fortune on

    I totally agree with your point on arbitrary age ranges. Just think about how different those ages are in terms of education and life experience. There are great YA books that I’d recommend for a 17-year-old that I wouldn’t suggest for a 12-year-old based on content alone.

    I think parents and teachers looking for “serious” books should consider pairing books up. Like if teens like “insert YA novel,” they may also be interested in “insert regarded piece of literature” based on similar themes or content. I know some authors/publishers take this upon themselves by putting up lesson plans on their websites. One of my favorite papers to write in high school was a comparative analysis of The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye. It’s about fostering a love for reading, and there are entertaining books that aren’t just fluff.

    I also think a major misconception among educators (and maybe some people who choose award winners) is that the readability of most YA means that it doesn’t hold the same value as other literature.

    On the topic of tweens, I’m always surprised when I go to chain bookstores and see picture books, YA, and little in between. The other day I was in one looking for some middle grade fiction for a present and couldn’t find any!

  3. Doret on

    Don’t you just love it when an adult wants to get a children’s classic for a kid then they ask for Moby Dick or Mark Twain, takes everything in me not to scream those are not children’s classic. I too am all about the balance reading diet. It gets under my skin when customers dismiss a book simply because it didn’t win an award.

  4. kimpauley on

    Completely off topic, but I had to give you this:

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