Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The One and Only Newbery Winner?

I like to read the new Newbery winners when they are selected. I'd also like to go back and read all the past Newbery's - the ones I haven't already read. The latter might be the better use of my time.

This year, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate was the winner.

Here's a quote from the Newbery Awards  homepage: "The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

Now, you would think that the 'most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" would be a pretty good read, right? I, with C. S. Lewis, believe that “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” - not that I've experienced the age of fifty yet, but hey, I'm halfway there...almost...

Anyway. Most of the children's books that are written today, I would venture, are NOT worth reading again at age fifty, or, in fact, worth reading at all. However, now and then I'll come across one that surprises me with its ability to capture the audience, give them something to chew on, and do it neatly and with proper grammar. You would think any book worthy of the Newbery medal would fall into this latter category. After all, many past winners include books that remain my favorites - A Wrinkle in Time, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and many other worthwhile titles. But apparently, at some point the members of the Newbery Medal committee stopped being the kind of people who know what children like and what's good for them, and became the kind of people in love with 'cute.'

What I'm really saying, in a roundabout way, is that The One and Only Ivan was not a book I'm happy to have spent quality break-time at work on. It was dull, trivial, uninteresting; it failed to captivate, to lure on, to teach, edify, or incite. It was nothing. Unless you are passionate about finger-painting gorillas. The only thing I liked about this book was that it reminded me of a book I was oddly fascinated with when I was small about Koko, the gorilla who learned some sign language and had a pet kitten who had no tail.

The One and Only Ivan was a book that I don't think children would like. Children would rather visit a gorilla in a zoo than distress about trying to get a gorilla out of a stationary circus and into a zoo. They might like a gorilla who paints. But they're not going to fall for a gorilla who makes a billboard sign and somehow gets a little girl and her father to actually put the billboard up. A little dog who is friends with a gorilla is cute, but a cute little girl who precociously calls herself an artist is not. Cute is an adjective that people have assigned to children, and have led themselves to believe that children like 'cute.'

To be fair, I haven't read any other new children's books from the past year, so I cannot definitely say that a better children's book that The One and Only Ivan was written this year. Maybe it really was the best that anyone wrote - I shudder at the thought. But if that were the case, and it was just the least of a great many evils, then why couldn't they simply not choose a winner, as they did with the Pulitzer last year? One must assume the committee really thought The One and Only Ivan was a great book.

Lately, my husband and I have become rather zealous about creating a quality library for our future offspring. Not all the Newbery winners will be included.