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Newbery Medal: A Prize for Popularity?

The Newbery Medal, the world's oldest and most prestigious award for children's books, has come under fire recently.  Last fall children's literature expert Anita Silvey wrote a widely read article, "Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?", that questioned the recent medal winners.  She quoted librarians who claim the winners are too special, with appeal to only a few readers.  Sales figures do bear out the fact that recent winners have sold less well than many earlier selections.

But is the Newbery Medal a prize for popularity?  In fact, it's awarded to the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children," and while potential appeal is considered, popularity has never been emphasized.  The books under consideration are for young readers up to age fourteen, so the medal, despite its reputation as a children's book award, is often given to books for teens.  Your third grader may love "Sarah, Plain and Tall" by Patricia MacLachlan (the 1986 winner), a short, tender story about families, but she's unlikely to warm to "Out of the Dust" by Karen Hesse (1998), a novel in verse about the tragedies of life in Depression-era Oklahoma.

Silvey's article was the talk of the children's literature world, but this controversy is not new.  People still point to the obscure 1953 Newbery winner, "Secret of the Andes," while "Charlotte's Web," one of the great classics of children's literature, received only a Newbery Honor that year.  The fact remains that each committee looks only at the books published in one particular year and makes the very best decision they can.  The rest is up to young readers and the adults who do their best to match each individual reader with the right book.

After all that, this year's Newbery choice turns out to be not only the most distinguished book of the year - it's also a proven favorite with readers, having spent months on the bestseller lists.  "The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman tells the story of Nobody Owens, orphaned as an infant in a horrific assassination and raised by ghosts in an abandoned graveyard.  Any book set in a graveyard is sure to be spooky, even creepy, but Gaiman's coming of age story is also filled with humor and warmth for readers twelve and up.

"The House in the Night," winner of the Caldecott Medal, is sure to find a ready audience at bedtime.  Author Susan Marie Swanson's poetic text sets the tone: "Here is the key to the house / In the house burns a light / In that light rests a bed."  The circular story's soothing, hypnotic language is illustrated with Beth Krommes' scratchboard illustrations.  Using black and white with just a touch of yellow on each page, she shows how the sun, the moon and the stars illuminate each nighttime scene.  The rounded shapes of rooftops, trees and twinkling stars add to the cozy feeling.

The phrase "deceptively simple" certainly applies to "The House in the Night," with its spare text and clean illustrations.  This is a book to admire and enjoy, especially with young children, at bedtime or any time.

Each committee also named honor books, ranging from the humorous ("A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever" by Marla Frazee, a Caldecott Honor), to the fanciful ("Savvy" by Ingrid Law, a Newbery Honor).  Find the complete results online at www.LibraryPoint.org.

First published in the 2/3/09 Free Lance-Star newspaper.