The buzz this week in the world of children’s books is the American Library Association‘s announcement of its 2010 awards for excellence in children’s and young adult literature.
Even if you don’t follow such things – and many avid readers don’t – you may have seen a gold sticker on books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, Shiloh, or The Giver, for the Newbery Medal; or Jumanji, The Snowy Day or Where the Wild Things Are, for the Caldecott Medal. The ALA issues these awards to one winner and several honor books each year. (Sometimes the honor books go on to be more famous than the winners; for instance, in 1953, the Newbery winner was The Secret of the Andes, which – if you’re like most people today – you probably haven’t read; but I’ll lay pretty good odds that you know one of the honor books for that year, a little story about some barnyard animals called Charlotte’s Web.)
So, what are these awards? The Newbery Medal, which recognizes the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” was awarded this year to When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. The Caldecott Medal, which honors “the most distinguished American picture book for children,” went to The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. You can see the list of all this year’s Newbery books here, and all the Caldecott books here.
There are more awards: the Printz Award, for excellence in young adult literature, awarded to Going Bovine, by Libba Bray; the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for beginning reader books, to Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!, by Geoffrey Hayes; the Coretta Scott King Awards, to an African-American author and illustrator, awarded to Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, by Vauna Micheaux Nelson, and to My People, illustrated by Charles R. Smith Jr. (text by Langston Hughes); the Pura Belpre Awards, to a Latino or Latina author and illustrator, awarded to Return to Sender, by Julia Alvarez, and to Book Fiesta!, illustrated by Rafael Lopez (text by Pat Mora); the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults, awarded to Jim Murphy. A new award, the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, was awarded to Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith.
Does this mean these are the best books of the year? That’s a subject of hearty debate. Librarians, booksellers and teachers all over the country talk for months before the awards are announced about the year’s books. Some have “mock Caldecott” or “mock Newbery” panels, which may – or may not – agree with the ALA. In recent years, articles have criticized the ALA for choosing books that, in the critics’ view, no kids would want to read (a criticism not likely to be aimed at the very popular When You Reach Me); defenders wrote just as fiercely that the books were great literature.
Bottom line: there are people who take children’s literature very, very seriously. And that’s a very, very good thing. Children’s literature nourishes of children’s minds; it should be taken seriously just as children’s nutrition is taken seriously, and children should no more be given a steady diet of junk books than they should of junk food. Oh, not that there’s anything wrong with some fun, non-nutritive stuff sometimes … but for a healthy, thriving mind, you need excellent books. So go take a look at those book lists, and maybe check out some past Caldecott and Newbery books, crack open a few titles, and see what you think.
And then share them with the kids in your life.