Honestly, I read all the Newbery winning and Newbery honor books every year. I'm lucky that it benefits my profession (teaching) and hugely benefits me as a writer, especially considering my genre of interest is MG fiction.
I recommended Newbery books to students all the time when I taught 4th Grade. Some they would read, some they wouldn't. One thing that is good for all of you to know is that many students who fall in the MG range do read the back or inside flaps of books. They want to know what the book is about in the least amount of time possible. They want quick information and they want it now (relates to our information overload society). That's more of a marketing platform from the publisher though, I would guess.
But here's the part that affects us as writers. Kids will put a book down after the first few pages if they don't like it or if it doesn't hold their interest. They feel no conviction to finish a book just to finish it (unless they have to read it for school). Hence, the four or five novels crammed in their desks. They start them and don't finish them. Sometimes I battle with the same issues when I read. I'll start a book, usually a middle grade novel, and won't make it halfway through because it just doesn't connect with me on any level. Maybe it's because I'm 30 years-old and not 10. Maybe it's because the character doesn't have much to offer the reader. Maybe it's because the writer is taking me along on his journey at a tortoise pace. Or maybe it's because the writer's voice is not getting through to me.
Do any of you set books aside after starting them? Just curious.
So how does this fit in with the Newbery Award and the books that are being adorned with the medal year after year?
Well, the Newbery committee loves historical fiction, I mean loves! If you write a terrific novel and it falls into historical fiction, chances are it will be reviewed by the Newbery committee, and reviewed very seriously. For some reason, they just love historical novels. Look at the Newbery winner and honor books from last year, all four books were historical fiction. After looking at the list of Newbery winners and honor books from 1922-Present, historical fiction is represented more than once nearly every year. Usually 2 or 3 of the Newbery selections fit this assumption. Coincidence? I don't think so. But my burning question is, where is fantasy? Where is all the contemporary fiction? (Okay, okay, The Higher Power of Lucky, we all know about it) Where are the books that become popular with the readers (children) who represent this award? Where is Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, a book that broke the traditional novel format and reached out and touched so many young readers. That book is certainly different and stands out. Is it not historical enough for the Newbery committee to recognize it? Is it not serious enough? Or is it not seriously historical enough?
The problem is that kids who read middle grade don't really dig (sorry, I'm up to my ears in lingo from teaching The Outsiders) historical fiction. In this time of cell phones, iPods, and text messaging, historical fiction has become far detached from 10 year-olds. It takes a fantastic opening chapter to really pull a 10 year-old into historical fiction these days. It also takes a voice that kids can identify with. The argument could also be made that it takes a teacher to facilitate the reading of historical fiction. This could explain why so many students and young readers grow to love historical novels when read in a classroom setting, where their questions and misunderstandings can be answered and clarified.
So the equation looks like this...
Newbery winners = historical fiction (usually great books that adults can relate to, but young readers struggle with more and more)
historical fiction = little independent readership from 8 - 12 year olds.
I've seen this equation in the classroom. I've witnessed it over and over again.
Could this mean that some authors write historical novels for young readers because they know historical fiction receives attention and often pretigious recognition? Could this mean that some authors write historical novels because they know if their book is recognized it could be taught in schools year after year?
This may sound like a mission statement of some kind, but honestly, I'm only raising questions that fit a logical theory based on literary evidence from the last 90 years or so. Also, I still feel the Newbery Award is the most prestigious award given to authors of literature for young people. I am not denouncing their ways or methods of choosing books.
I would just like an explanation of their intense love affair with historical fiction.
P.S. By the way, I love Christopher Paul Curtis but I could not get through his Newbery honor book Elijah of Buxton. Tough dialect to handle. Can't imagine a kid trying to plow through it. That kind of choice makes me wonder about Newbery selections. I'm sure someone may read this (if I'm lucky) and think to himself, "Is this person stupid? Can't they read? Elijah of Buxton was a remarkable piece of literature. What that person is forgetting is that it might be remarkable according to adults, more specifically the Newbery committee, but not so much for children.
P.P.S. To play devil's advocate, Shannon Hale's Princess Academy (Newbery Honor book) was a huge hit last year in my fourth grade classroom. Apparently it is a wonderful story, I still need to read it. The girls really connected with it and recommended it to each other.
P.P.P.S. This is also interesting.... Last year when I went to the Sayers lecture at UCLA, Sid Fleischman and Cynthia Kodahata (both Newbery winning authors) said they do not consider their audience when they write. They don't even think about kids reading their work while they are writing it. I found that mindnumbing. I just couldn't believe it.
Happy writing and shoot for the moon, I mean, the Newbery Award.