Decoding the Newbery

Introducing a new column and new contributor: Decoding the Newbery with Catherine Faris King

Today we are delighted to launch a new column here on The Book Smugglers!

Starting in April, “Decoding the Newbery” will be a monthly column taking a look at Newbery Medal winners and will be hosted by our new regular contributor, Catherine Faris King, author of The Ninety-Ninth Bride.

Please give the warmest of welcomes to Catherine, here today to talk about the Newbery and to introduce her vision for the column!


Decoding the Newbery – Overture: Introduction and the Formula

Hello, dear readers. I am Catherine Faris King (previously of The Ninety-Ninth Bride and An Enneagram of Books), and starting in April, I’m going to be writing a series of articles looking at books that have won the Newbery Medal for distinguished contributions to children’s literature.

At my alma mater, Whittier College, we have a saying. Actually, I just like to imagine that we have a saying, and that is, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” The John Newbery Medal, awarded for noteworthy contributions to American literature for children, is well known to the general public – better known than many book awards. However, this fame is built on some notoriety. There’s a trope for it. Heck, there’s a book named after it. And this book explains its name early in the first chapter:

“Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down,”

declares Wallace Wallace, in Gordan Korman’s 2002 comedy, No More Dead Dogs.

So it is a truth pretty widely acknowledged, that award-winning children’s literature must include a tear-jerking death. Why, though? Why is this such a reliable trope? Why does the Newbery Medal honor this trope so regularly? Heck, why must we even have awards for books?

The Socratic Method won’t help us any further here. Let me try to provide some answers, not just questions.

Awards, and all the ritual surrounding them, are built deep into the foundations of Western civilization. They set standards, order time, and they enshrine today’s achievements in a historic setting. The Olympics, in recognizing athletic excellence, connect our time with the vanished age of the Greek heroes. The Nobel Prize recognizes advancement in the sciences and in humanitarian causes, each year proving a step further in human progress. In Los Angeles, my hometown, the “award season” rhythms set the calendar, and the Oscars can command the flow of the industry.

Separate awards serve specific purposes, each to their field. But artistic awards like the Newbery, the Pulitzer, and – yes – the Oscar – are important for a different reason. Our world overflows with stories that demand our attention – books, television shows, movies, and games. To single out a handful of works is to bring a clarity to the chaos, designating what is worthy of attention. When it comes to children’s literature, awards have a responsibility to recognize art that advances young minds and hearts, that helps guide the reading child on the path to maturity.

I’m speaking, of course, as an adult. As a child reader I couldn’t care less about the award stickers on the book’s cover. I read what was on my bookshelf, what was gifted to me, what I was assigned at school, I read anything that looked interesting. And I enjoyed a lot of it!

I’m not the same reader that I was then. I was much more open, much less critical. A story was a story, no more and no less, and I loved the chance to live other lives and get out of my own.

I was not, however, completely accepting. One book that I wanted to love, the last in a favorite series, was a big letdown. I couldn’t put my finger on why, not until rereading it a decade later. The structure, character development, and pacing were weak. These things made an impression on me, even though I couldn’t articulate them at the time.

There are those who sniff at the idea of holding children’s entertainment up to any standard other than getting little brats to sit still for a couple of hours. I disagree with them – vehemently. Children deserve to have stories crafted with care, with attention to craft and verisimilitude, and diversity of cast and theme. The stories we read (or watch, or play, or hear) when we’re young tend to stick with us for much longer than we realize.

Which is why parents want to plant good, nourishing literature in the way of their children…which is why parents ask teachers, who ask librarians, who look to awards… which brings us back to our topic.

In 1921, Frederic G. Melcher established the John Newbery Medal as a service of the American Library Association. He named the medal after John Newbery, a famed bookseller of the eighteenth century, who contributed to the establishment of children’s literature as an important literary genre in its own right. In Melcher’s definition, it is meant “to encourage original creative work in the field of books for children,” as well as to elevate children’s literature as an art form and to help librarians and authors promote and produce good work in the genre.

Flip ahead a few pages to our time. In 1998, Elizabeth Cosgriff appraised the Newbery Medal as “the Holy Grail of American children’s book writers.” It imparts fame and, perhaps even more importantly, longevity, in an industry with a high turnover rate: “of the seventy-seven Newbery medal books, seventy-two are still in print today, including the second recipient, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, [by Hugh Lofting], published in 1922.”

The Newbery is not selected by a huge body of industry professionals, the same group year after year, as at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Each year, a new committee of fifteen persons – some appointed, some elected – gathers periodically, and they vote on which works will be designated Newbery Honor Books, and which one will receive the coveted Medal.

This system, to my mind, has a lot to recommend it. The selection process is meant to establish a diverse electoral body, and changing the roster every year out of a vast association seems like it guarantees a fresh perspective for each new batch. This system precludes an insider’s circle, celebrating the same stale tastes every year. Maybe AMPAS could learn something from it…

The system, of course, isn’t perfect. As Jared Shurin wrote in the excellent piece, Stop Trying to Make ‘Prestigious’ Happen, “awards are institutions, too. With rules and traditions and rich histories and in-fighting and out-fighting and reputations and politics and and and and…” There are more factors at play here than I can report on. I’m not a member of the ALA, so I can only speak as an outsider. And as such, I’m interested in how despite a changing electoral body, the list of Newbery winning-and-nominated books shows a lot of uniformity.

Reading over the decades, I noticed a general narrowing towards a specific type of YA fiction, and the development of a clear formula. It is not universal, but it is prevalent. I mean, I know there’s only six plots in the world, but I was able to pin down a set of tropes that have crystallized and become something of the standard formula for Newbery winners.

I call this, with great originality, the Newbery Formula.

* * *

Our book opens in a Small Town, or perhaps a community that is isolated for some special reason, like the crew of a boat, or the ghosts of a graveyard. We swiftly meet our protagonist, a Kid Hero, who is trundling along, feeling lost. Perhaps our protagonist has big dreams, or perhaps their world is limited to their dusty town. Either way, they are more or less a blank slate, and the arrival of a Doomed Catalyst will turn their world upside down.

The Doomed Catalyst may take several different forms. There may be a tough but cute Animal Friend, there might be a person with a Wise Soul, usually someone marginalized and outcast in society. Check for disability, advanced age, and racial or cultural minorities – or just an oddball. You might even have both versions, with the Animal Friend teaching patience, responsibility, and fun, and the Wise Soul teaching our hero the grown-up truths you won’t find in a textbook.

Our hero will run into perils in their town, small as it is. The tiny size of the community means that conflict – whether Person versus Person or Person versus Society – is inescapable. Usually there is some pressing Social Issue that drives the action, such as racial or cultural conflict. Our hero might find solace in nature, but frequently she or he takes up some Hands-on Activity that is described with the clearest action verbs of the book. And the landscape isn’t entirely grim: if your protagonist is male, there is a fifty percent chance of them encountering their own sort of Romance, even if it’s just blushes and a first kiss. If your protagonist is female, the chance of a Romance plotline occurring rockets up to around ninety percent.

But don’t expect blue skies and happiness – somewhere along the line, usually at the halfway point or three quarters’ mark, the penny drops, the shoe falls, the blow you’ve all been waiting for. Alas for the Animal Friend and/or the Wise Soul. Death By Newbery Medal collects its grim quota.

Why? Because the book has got to end, but growing up is so damn complicated. There are leaps in maturity followed by regressions. There are uneven strides in different areas of life. It’s a solitary journey, and the boundaries of adulthood are murky (and seem to get murkier all the time). Adolescence takes a decade, but innocence can be killed with the stroke of a pen.

The Death by Newbery Medal throws the Kid Hero into maturity with one fell swoop, as they learn about the cruelty of the world, the circle of life, the power of love, possibly a little something about the afterlife, and finally emerge as a stronger being with the power to endure capricious fate. You know… character development. And hopefully, the reader has imbued these same lessons, without the inconvenience of actually losing someone dear to them in real life.

The narrator uses their camera of words to pan over the same Small Town where we started, now with a new light of understanding shining on it. Our hero is ready to step over the threshold into adulthood. “The End,” and blank pages for whatever comes after. Close the book, the story is done, the formula played out.

* * *

If what I’ve written out seems trite and ironic, that’s not a blow against the Newbery Formula itself. There are books that I love and treasure that fill out this formula eerily well. But if you wonder if there’s a connection between the ubiquity of Newbery winners in libraries and classrooms, and a decline in interest in reading among American schoolchildren, this may help provide two answers (out of the dozens of possible answers to that problem).

The first problem with the Newbery Formula is its Sameness. Even with variations, the overall arc is always the same. Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves – after a while it all becomes so monotonous. There will always be death, and the specter of adulthood will always loom over the narrative. The Newbery Honor books cover a wide range of genres, but those that adhere very closely to the Newbery Formula seem to prepare children for literary fiction, you know, the “improving” books that are grim and monochrome and that you should be reading when you sneak in a fifth reread of that fantasy adventure you adore.

The second strike against the Newbery Formula is Shallowness. I am not advocating for literature that tries to shield its readers from the cruelty of the world. Count me in Sherman Alexie’s camp, treasuring “books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language,” that teach children “how to battle the real monsters” in life. To the children who are looking for adventures between the pages, and children looking for weapons to arm their spirits, the Newbery Formula, at its worst, is trite and insulting. It shows a brief, predictable adolescence hinging on a single tragedy, populated by Audience Surrogates rather than living characters.

Monotony and shallowness, when joined, can become poisonous. No wonder Wallace Wallace rebels.

I do want to clarify, books that have never come near a Newbery sticker in their lives can still follow the Formula to a tee. For example, The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I remember the shock that greeted me when I brought The Yearling into my high school drama practice, and said I was reading it for fun. For most of the actresses, The Yearling had been an assigned text, and not a single girl remembered the book being the slightest bit interesting. I, meanwhile, am tearing up just remembering it.

The Formula and the Newbery Medal are very closely linked. This affiliation is the result of almost a century’s worth of selection. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that the prevalence of the Newbery Formula arose first out of a sense of obligation, and a desire to reward improving, mature literature for children. Then, once that trend began, the inertia of history settled on the Award, and the kid-meets-catalyst-meets-death story became simply the kind of story that wins Newbery Medals. Systems perpetuate themselves.

But believe me when I repeat that the Newbery Formula is not universal. I’ve read many Newbery winners, from each decade and many different genres. They range from the breathy cadences of Sarah, Plain and Tall (by Patrician MacLachlan, 58 pages, hardcover) to the long scope of war in Rifles for Watie (by Harold Keith, 352 pages). The Kid Hero sometimes isn’t – meet the crotchety, retired Professor Sherman of The Twenty-One Balloons (by William Pène du Bois). There are even books over which Death by Newbery Medal hath no dominion.

From what I can gather, the past decade has seen something of a push against this formula, with greater variety of genre, style, and plot. Next month, I plan to begin my series proper with the most recent book to win the John Newbery Medal – Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, a novel in verse, following in the tradition of Out of the Dust and Laura Amy Schiltz’ Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! After that, I will turn my sights to the very beginning of the Newbery, to 1922’s The Story of Mankind, by Willem Van Loon. I intend to move forward in time from there – watch this space for the complete reading list! – with one book per decade.

Children’s literature is an art form where influences, echoes and responses may take years and years to develop, but be all the richer for the wait. One of the best things about reading is that you don’t voyage alone – you share your journey with everyone who read the same book as you. That’s what ‘fandom’ means. For all of you who’ve read even one book with a gold sticker on the cover and a doomed dog on the last page, please pull up a chair, a bowl of popcorn, and maybe some tissues. I want to hear your opinions, both those utterly detached and those drenched with sweet nostalgia. Reader, let’s have some fun!


Catherine F. KingCatherine Faris King is a Los Angeles based writer who studied English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing at Whittier College, and French Literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris. The Ninety-Ninth Bride from Book Smugglers Publishing, is her publishing debut.

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  • Anonymous
    March 19, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    This is going to be an awesome and thought-provoking column. Good luck and may the force be with you! 😀

  • Monica Edinger
    March 19, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Just to clarify, the award committee is chaired not by the president of ALA, but someone appointed to the position for that one time.

    As someone who served on the committee (for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!), pays a lot of attention to the award and its criteria (I’ve a “Thoughts on Newbery” series on my blog), and just overall appreciates good discussion around the award (there’s a lot out there), I look forward to your posts.

  • Ana
    March 19, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    @Monica Edinger – thanks for the clarification, we will edit it!
    As an aside: I followed the link to your blog and was welcomed by the news of a new Laura Amy Schlitz! SO HAPPY!

  • tanita
    March 19, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    This made me both laugh aloud and wince – I am looking forward to this column and exploring the whole Newbery thing – I like the idea of there being a formula – of some sort – because I’ll admit sometimes the choices baffle me!

  • Gabi
    March 19, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    I’m looking forward to this! I’m often disappointed by award winners now, but as a kid I loved them. I liked going to the bookstore’s Newbery shelf and seeing how many of them I’d read. Some of them were, and still are, my favorite books. Some of them . . . not so much. It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen in love with a Newbery winner. I’m excited to see you take a closer look at these books!

  • YS
    March 21, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    Kudos Catherine!

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