As we were saying last Saturday . . . you just can’t predict what the Newbery committee is going to do. Trends have been toward diversity, disability, and difficulty; books that show children in adverse, even desperate circumstances often get Newbery nods. (That’s why I was so sure The Thing about Jellyfish would be on the list.) But this year’s top winner is sunny, optimistic, even Christian in outlook. That might be because it’s a picture book for 3-6 year-olds!
Last Stop on Market Street opens with CJ (apparently of Hispanic heritage) and his grandma walking to the bus stop after leaving church. CJ, like many children, is a natural-born complainer but he’s lucky in his grand-parentage. Nana continually reminds him how much there is in the world to be happy about, and at the end he sees that the greatest happiness lies in giving to others. It’s a terrific selection for any book award . . . except maybe this one?
Technically, the Newbery is awarded to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”—it doesn’t indicate the age of the children. Still, there are unwritten boundaries that peg the Newbery for readers in the middle-grade range, and the Caldecott medal for preschoolers and early readers. This year, Last Stop scored in both categories, sweeping up a Caldecott honor medal as well as Newbery gold. The only other time this happened was in 1982, with A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. But in that case, the text was better suited to middle readers than lap-sitters.
What does it mean? I can think of two possibilities, one not so good and the other very good. First, I’m a little uncomfortable about the ALA award committees, especially for the two highest-profile awards, disregarding tradition and age distinctions. Last year the Caldecott committee chose six honor books, including a graphic novel called This One Summer, which I would classify as YA even though the main characters are thirteen years old. This One Summer has some positive attributes, but it took on issues like lesbianism, adolescent sexuality, suicide, and unwed pregnancy with a relativistic worldview and foul language. Again, the award description did not technically disqualify it, but the selection raises havoc with general perception and tradition. Is crossing unspoken boundaries a new trend?
But at the same time, the Last Stop on Market Street pick makes me wonder if we’re getting just a little weary of relentless negativism in children’s literature. For the last many decades, Newbery committees have favored sad stories or “problem” stories: parent problems, disability problems, social-issue problems, etc. Most have some sort of happy or at least positive ending, but “excellence” is usually associated with “serious.” (Even last year’s winner, which we liked a lot for its exuberant language and strong family ties, featured the death of a parent.) Might Last Stop on Market Street indicate a tentative step back toward simple happiness? Not that we’re out of the dark woods by any means, but pendulums only swing so far.
In other news, Betsy and I got one of our predictions right: Roller Girl won a Newbery honor medal. Personally I find the rough-and-tumble world of girls’ roller derby unappealing, but the story is breezy and humorous and deals mostly with the ups and downs of friendship, which almost all middle-graders can relate to. Betsy further proved her prognosticating prowess with another honor book, The War that Saved My Life. As she explained, the story has diversity, poignancy, and boundary-pushing text: during the early days of World War II, the heroine escapes an abusive mother and must overcome a severe club foot. The main character’s personality was not especially appealing to me, but once her terrible mother is out of the picture the story offers more sunshine and roses—and horses. Echo, rounding out the honor list, links three separate characters over space and time through the medium of music and a magical harmonica. The harmonica carries within it the spirits of three sisters who were cursed by a witch, so the supernatural angle may be a problem for some. The characters face very trying historical times, namely the Great Depression and the buildup and explosion of World War II, but music is the theme that ties their stories together, and the creative human spirit is a source of hope.
Megan made a stab at predicting the Caldecott winners, and scored with Waiting and Last Stop on Market Street, both of which made the honor list. But the gold-medal winner was Finding Winnie, a lovable story about an even more lovable bear–the original, and real-life inspiration for, Winnie the Pooh. The committee turned sharply toward diversity with Trombone Shorty and Voice of Freedom: Fanie Lou Hammer: the Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. Both of these picture-book biographies won Coretta Scott King awards as well. Trombone Shorty follows Troy Andrews from his New Orleans childhood to contemporary jazz-legend status in lively pictures and bright dialogue, but readers should be advised about some voodoo elements. Fannie Lou Hamer’s story, in Voice of Freedom, is not for young children, as it involves some violence and a harsh word or two. But it also highlights Hamer’s Christian faith and strong determination.
Winners of the Prinz list, given for YA literature, are often crammed with controversial titles and socially-relevant themes. This year, not so much. Out of Darkness, set in 1930s East Texas, is straight-up historical fiction that takes on racial and ethnic prejudice with a real-life disaster as centerpiece. The Ghosts of Heaven is hard to classify—like Echo, it weaves separate stories together but spreads out over all of recorded history. This years’ winner, Bone Gap, is rather remarkable for having little that’s objectionable by way or language or content. Though it centers around a young girl’s abduction, with some threatening (but not explicit) sexual themes, it rounds off to a positive conclusion.
Once the awards are announced, libraries rush to buy all the titles they’ve neglected so far and chances are you’ll see them prominently displayed. The good news is, none of these books should cause serious concern.