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Children’s books honored — does it matter?

January 19, 2010

Jerry Pinkney

To paraphrase St. Paul, when I was a child I spake as a child– but I read like an adult as soon as I could. As a result, I didn’t gain an appreciation of children’s literature until I had children of my own. Yesterday’s 2010 Newbery and Caldecott winners — a much-laureled veteran illustrator and a debut novelist — got me thinking about the importance of children’s books.

For example, I don’t really have any favorite children’s books from my childhood like my children do– but I love those same books, even though I was grown when I read them. Do you have children’s books that were important to you then and remain important to you today?

Back to yesterday’s awards: Jerry Pinkney, one of the best illustrators of the past 30 years, won his first Caldecott Medal after five Caldecott Honors (essentially second place), for The Lion & the Mouse, a gorgeous watercolor retelling of Aesop’s fable. When it came out last year, the Christian Science Monitor termed the book “magnificent,” adding: “colors glow, emotions sing, and each detail entrances as the tiny mouse finds a way to help his majestic friend.”

First-time novelist Rebecca Stead took the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me, a “sharp, clever young adult mystery” focused on a 12-year-old New York girl and her single mom. A surprise bestseller, it was praised by The New York Times, School Library Journal and others periodicals.

Rebecca Stead

The American Library Association has bestowed the Newbery since 1922, the Caldecott since 1938. In 2000, it added the Printz Award for Literary Excellence, which this year went to Going Bovine, by Libba Bray, “a contemporary dark comedy with supernatural elements featuring vividly characterized boys,” according to Bookslut.

Four runners-up were tapped for Newbery Honors: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose; The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin; and The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick.

Two books were selected for Caldecott Honors: All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee, written by Liz Garton Scanlon; and Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Joyce Sidman.

And four Printz Honors were awarded: Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman; The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey; Punkzilla by Adam Rapp; Tales from the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance, 1973 by John Barnes.

Libba Bray

To give you a notion of the importance of these awards, past Newberry winners or Honors recipients include Hugh Lofting, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E.B. White, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Madeleine L’Engle, Randall Jarrell, Isaac Bashevis Singer, E.L. Konigsburg, Julius Lester, Virginia Hamilton, Ursula K. Le Guin, Patricia MacLachlan, Richard Peck and Neil Gaiman.

The Newbery came under criticism in 2008 from children’s literary experts for selecting books too hard for children to read. I say, if that’s true, then the Newbery is a lot like the Nobel Prize in Literature. Besides, the important thing is the Newbery, Caldecott and Printz recognize excellence, however imperfectly, and that keeps the conversation going about books in general.

What do you think?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 19, 2010 1:11 pm

    I have too many favorite children’s books to list here. Oh the days of learning the pleasure of reading!!!!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 19, 2010 4:16 pm

      Well, Candice, surely you can share four or five with the class?

  2. rachel permalink
    January 19, 2010 2:12 pm

    Of course it matters. I remember realizing as a child that a favorite book of mine “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry had won an award (the Newbery) and that the seal on the front was like some sort of seal of approval. And after that day I started looking at books with the seal or other seals and looked at the books I had already read to see if they had any special marks on them, some did, like “Bridge to Terabithia.” I respected these books and realized that the seal meant that other people respected them too. I think that awards are important and this sort of thing is good not only for adults but also for children. For no matter how an imperfect world we live in where things are judged and often not correctly, that is the world we live in and it was a valuable experience for me to realize that some books won awards which meant that they were “better” than other books.

    Another one of my childhood favorites, “Dragonwings” by Laurence Yep, didn’t win the Newbery but is listed as an “Honor Book.” Looking back on the three listed here it makes me realize that the books that were Newbery winners, or honors, were books that really taught me something about the world and about history and about people different than me. That’s a great thing for books to do for a kid and for an adult. And the books mentioned here still live in me.

    Also: I love Maurice Sendak, who has won the Caldecott eight times. Rightfully so.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 19, 2010 4:31 pm

      Thanks for your perspective, Rachel. As I said, I read adult books at the earliest possible age, and came to appreciate children’s books only as an adult. From that point of view, some of my favorites are Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Dear Milli, by Wilhelm Grimm, ills. by Maurice Sendak; A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle; The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown; The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams (esp. with the original William Nicolson illustrations); Danny, the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl; The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis; The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; The Cay, by Theodore Taylor; The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, by Molly Bang; The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. And that’s just a start. Some of these books are by British writers, who are not eligible for the Newbery or Caldecott prizes, which are restricted to Americans.

  3. rachel permalink
    January 19, 2010 2:14 pm

    Also, and this feels like a secret that I am reluctantly sharing:
    The Grey Lady and “The Strawberry Snatcher” by Molly Bang was an honor book for the Caldecott in 1981. A book I have always loved but didn’t know what on this list.

    These people have pretty good taste.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 19, 2010 4:32 pm

      Yeah, that’s best book with no words I think I have ever, er, read.

  4. rachel permalink
    January 19, 2010 2:15 pm

    (correction. obviously “The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher.”

  5. DeeBishoff permalink
    January 19, 2010 2:52 pm

    My grandmother read and told me the stories of many of the Grimms fairy tales and also Mother Goose tales. When I was a little girl, childrens books were not as plentiful as now. One of my favorites was “Snow White and Rose Red” not to be confused with Disneys “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” which is a totally diferent story. And yes, some of them did scare me. Many of the fairy tales were quite scary, not really suitable for the very young, but I loved them!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 19, 2010 4:36 pm

      I have a long, complicated argument about why scary (and, in the case of boys, disgusting) stories actually are appropriate for children, but it boils down to this: Children are aware of their powerlessness in a big dangerous world, and scary stories a) enable them to externalize their fears and anxieties, and b) prepare them for the eventual knowledge of just how hard life can be once they are cast from the Eden of childhood onto the stony, thorny ground of the grown-up world.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        January 19, 2010 5:02 pm

        Wow, Chauncey Mabe, that’s harsh.

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 19, 2010 11:06 pm

    Well, Candice, does your experience as an adult contradict it?

  7. January 21, 2010 11:00 am

    Well, well, welcome to PurpleUmpkin. Children books matter, The awards matter if they are real. Nothing wrong with that as long as it is done properly. No large publishers buying it. Now folks how many people have seen PurpleUmpkin. A little planet next to Pluto. We are Murples here and we really care.

    The book is going national soon. Some of the best child hood educators have said a new classic is here. Go to PurpleUmpkin.com and see.

    I have created an adult book for children. It is the adults that actually buy the book. If you want to interact with your children about kindness, tolerance, love, and understanding this is it. Come have fun with words. Lots of fun. Children books are very important to children and parents. I think some of the awards are not open and there for probably not the best book out there. This part of the book industry is very controlled by huge publishers.

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