Captain Underpants Doesn’t Need a Newbery Medal

In defense of the premier award in children’s literature.

Is the highest honor in children’s literature, the Newbery medal, woefully out of touch? Yes, according to children’s book expert Anita Silvey, who made her case in a recent issue of the School Library Journal. Silvey reports that many librarians and book critics think the American Library Association, which awards the Newbery annually, has in recent years chosen “quirky” books that appeal to few adults and even fewer children. Silvey’s article prompted an outpouring of trash talk about the award, talk that has now spilled out of the literary locker room. John Beach, an associate professor of literary education at St. John’s University, went so far as to tell the Washington Post earlier this week, “The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children’s publishing.”

Beach’s sound bite is bizarre—there’s a debate about which book award turns more kids off?—and, like the grumblings in Silvey’s article, unfair to the Newbery. For starters, the real reasons kids don’t read don’t have anything to do with the Newbery medal—or any award. It has to do with the declining role of the book in our streaming-media culture and with socioeconomic realities. I teach creative writing at two Washington, D.C.-area elementary schools. Of the two, the school where kids read less is the one where 90 percent of the students qualify for free lunch. The library at that school also has fewer books, award-stickered and otherwise. Giving a highly accessible book like  Captain Underpants a Newbery isn’t going to change that reality.

Even for kids fortunate enough to go to schools where Newbery Award-winning books are on offer, it’s hard to see how the books are turning kids off reading. Most libraries that herald the arrival of each year’s crop of Newberys (the medal winner and runners-up) also carry kid-pleasers like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. And no bookstore that wants to stay in business is going to stop selling Dav Pilkey’s aforementioned tighty-whitey-clad hero in favor of the Newbery winners.

Is a Newbery winner right for every kid? No—but what book is? Some kids will give the tougher tomes a try and come away with a richer vocabulary and a deeper appreciation of a world beyond their experience. Other kids will ditch them and dig right back into R.L. Stine (which, after all, is reading, too).

In her article, Silvey notes that librarians she interviewed described the four most recent award-winners as “particularly disappointing” because the subject matter doesn’t entice young readers. This year’s winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz, is a collection of medieval monologues. It does sound at first like a book only the most old-school librarian could love. I can see my teenage self rolling my eyes at its subject matter and bristling at the archaic language. But I can also imagine my inner drama geek finding pleasure in the book’s theatricality. Schlitz offers young readers the chance to step into life in a medieval English manor. As Jean Fritz, the Newbery-winning author of Homesick, has observed, “We underestimate the power of surprise in education. It seems to me that I have been surprised into learning almost everything I know.” Many children, I think, will be surprised to find they are fascinated by the world Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! brings to life.

Don’t get me wrong: Being obscure does not always make a book good, much less great. Like most people in the children’s books field, I can think of Newbery winners whose charms were lost on me. The Twenty-One Balloons, for example, has been praised for its humor and subtle social critique. I found it rambling and pedantic. And, as the award’s critics are fond of pointing out, the 1952 Newbery committee picked the forgettable novel The Secret of the Andes over the universally adored Charlotte’s Web. Yet I’ll take the occasional misfire if it means the awards panel is able to maintain its fierce independence and the courage of its convictions. The panel, which changes annually, has the rare and remarkable ability to shut out public opinion in its quest for artistic merit and innovation. Does this sometimes lead to idiosyncratic choices? Absolutely. But we already have plenty of ways to track the most popular children’s books. Shouldn’t the field’s most prestigious honor aim higher?

Occasionally, a book comes along that pleases almost everyone. It effortlessly blends compelling conflicts with endearing characters, dramatic tension with peppy pacing. Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux is just such a book. It paints a lush and complicated world in which an adorably puny mouse-hero must suffer tremendously at the hands of a cruel cartel of rats—for the crime of allowing a princess to admire his huge ears—before rallying against his oppressors and claiming his place, literally, at the royal table. The Newbery isn’t above awarding books like this; Despereaux took home the medal in 2004. (The movie version opens in theaters today.)

But literary awards should do more than simply affirm books that are easy to love and would likely find fans regardless of a medal. They also serve as inspiration for authors to take creative risks, push boundaries, and even reinvent the form. In 2007, American Born Chinesebecame the first graphic novel to receive the ALA’s Printz Award for Young Adult literature. The award recognized the author, Gene Leun Yang, for his funny and edgy trilogy of comic-style stories, but it also demonstrated new respect for the rapidly evolving field of illustrated narratives for teens.

According to children’s books historian Leonard Marcus, in his new book, The Minders of Make-Believe, promoting innovation in the children’s books field was the reason the Newbery medal was created in the first place. Frederic G. Melcher, head of the National Association of Book Publishers, initially proposed the award’s creation to the American Library Association and championed it as children’s literature’s own Pulitzer Prize. Marcus notes that while Melcher was pleased that the award generated “publicity of the best kind,” his motivation was to provide the nation’s best authors with an incentive to write for children.

As an author myself, I find it far more inspiring when the award committee picks a relative underdog like 2006 winner Criss Cross than when it picks an already popular book like The Tale of Despereaux. Every January, the kid-lit blogosphere buzzes with the Cinderella story of the Early-Morning Call that woke the Unsuspecting Writer and catapulted her into the spotlight. We all want to be her. But the only message the Newbery committee sends us: Follow your inner muse.

That message is particularly necessary in the current economy, which has forced the publishing industry to prioritize the bottom line more than ever. In a time of publishing industry layoffs and cutbacks, when commercial promise is king, the Newbery medal continues to offer hope for those of us who want to write and publish the odd, offbeat, and not always pretty stories that we believe in our hearts children will want to read. Regardless of the gripes Silvey reports, the Newbery medal still has the power to elevate a book’s status and spike its sales. And this power still tempts publishers to take creative risks, even at a rocky economic moment. All award-winners may not soar, but I appreciate the Newbery for choosing unconventional books and giving them a fighting chance. From what my students tell me, they do, too.