With one broad sweep of a word-processing program, NY Times Columnist David Brooks brushed off the Newbery Award collection of the best children’s novels as containing some “exquisitely sensitive novellas” in his essay Honor Code (July 5, 2012). He should reconsider this judgment on several counts.
The premise of his editorial was to bring attention to recent statistics that suggest young boys are falling behind in the American education system. First, he compared the contemporary American schoolboy to the rambunctious Prince Hal of William Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry IV parts I and II and Henry V. This comparison proved an apt metaphor, although Brookes failed to call attention to the irony of his allusion; Prince Hal and the American schoolboy are both out of place in their respective educational institutions. Unfortunately, he over- stepped his position when he mischaracterized the prestigious Newbery Award given to excellence in children’s literature by stating: “If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas.”
Simply because a book is written for young audiences (elementary through middle school) and is shorter in length than an adult novel does not mean the book is a novella; the Newbery Award books are novels. However, on several occasions the Newbery has been awarded to books of poetry (1989 Medal Winner: Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman) or short stories, songs and poems (2008 Medal Winner: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz).
As to the charge that some of the Newbrry novels are “exquisitely sensitive,” well, yes, some are. I am “exquisitely sensitive” myself when I remember my reading the 1963 Medal Winner: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. However, while I can only comfortably include those titles that I have read or recommended to my students, there are fewer “sensitive” novels than one might suspect, in fact, some of the Newbery Award novels are brash, outrageous, or disturbingly violent. More than a few of them have been banned.
Consider that Mr. Brookes began reading Newbery books in 1969; he would be eight or nine years old. The “exquisitely sensitive” 1967 Medal Winner: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt would be available to him as would 1947 Medal Winner: Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey However, during a 10 year school reading career, ages 8-18, he could have also encountered:
- 1969 Medal Winner: The High King by Lloyd Alexander
- 1970 Medal Winner: Sounder by William H. Armstrong
- 1972 Medal Winner: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
- 1974 Medal Winner: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
- 1976 Medal Winner: The Grey King by Susan Cooper
- 1977 Medal Winner: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
- 1979 Medal Winner: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
These are seven books that do not qualify as “exquisitely sensitive” books “to tame” rambunctious students. If Brooks had continued to read the canon of Newbery award winning novels as an adult, he would have encountered the following “definitely NOT exquisitely sensitive” books as well:
- 1987 Medal Winner: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
- 1991 Medal Winner: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
- 1990 Medal Winner: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
- 1994 Medal Winner: The Giver by Lois Lowry
- 1999 Medal Winner: Holes by Louis Sachar
- 2000 Medal Winner: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
- 2003 Medal Winner: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
- 2009 Medal Winner: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I would also like to give a shout out to the one book that was read by every “rambunctious” boy I ever taught, the 1988 Newbery Honor book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. For many boys, this is the ONLY book they remember.
Newbery authors do not write in order “to tame” rambunctious youth, boys or girls, and I would suspect that several would take great offense to that statement. Authors for children and adults alike write to tell an extraordinary story, to share an experience, or to give voice to a character or person from the “margin”, an outsider who has a voice through the written word.
Many authors are not “tame” themselves, in fact, this year’s Newbery Award winning writer was Jack Gantos for Dead End in Norvelt. Gantos has a fascinating back story. He was convicted as a young man of smuggling drugs and spent time in a federal prison. His behavior, in fact , was very much like the behavior of Prince Hal of Shakespeare’s plays. However,Gantos was a reader and found great literature to guide him during times of trouble. While in prison, he was without a notebook and wrote in the margins of The Brothers Karamazov, intertwining his words with Dostoevsky . His memoir of his felonious behavior is called A Hole in My Life, and we teach the text as a required read in our Grade 12 Memoir class.
The Newbery Award winners reflect the rich diversity of literature that is available to students, rambunctious or not. These novels are not assigned “to tame” , but they are assigned, or recommended, to comfort a reader, to entertain a reader, to challenge a reader’s beliefs, or to incite a reader to action. They may be short, but they are not novellas, and no teacher “pretends” they are the solution to educating a fiercely rambunctious student. Most teachers know that these Newbery Award novels, and their Newbery Award honorees companions, may be the only solution for educating that fiercely rambunctious student.