My 10 year old son was reading The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin in his Lit Circle at school. As it is one of those books that I hear about all the time, have been meaning to read, but have never actually read (yes, I know, even after getting my MA in Children's Lit I am not fully literate in the 'classics' of children's books!), I was interested to hear what he had to say about it.
After the first few pages, he complained that it was boring. I thought, okay, he's reading it and the fifth Percy Jackson book at the same time. Hard to compete with Rick Riordan, Newberry medal or not. But as he continued reading it, his dislike grew. I have never had to force my son to read anything (well, okay, that's not true. In first grade he wouldn't read any of the fiction stories his teacher gave him - he only read non-fiction - so I did force him to read a Magic Tree House book to get him into some fiction that had non-fiction elements, and I boast, it worked!) but I had to make him sit down and read The Westing Game, even threatened to (gasp!) take away Percy Jackson if he didn't.
When he'd finally finished, I asked him "So, what was it about?"
His answer: "I don't even know. It was so boring, Mom. You would fall asleep. I bet everyone fell asleep reading it. They probably said 'hey this book is boring. It put me to sleep. Let's give it a Newberry. ' They give all the boring books Newberrys."
I quickly pointed out that Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book won it this year, which my son enjoyed. But, I had to laugh at his comment because I'd heard it before. My oldest daughter had said basically the same thing when she was in fifth grade. She was assigned Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins and hated it. In fact, after that book, she wouldn't touch another that had that pretty gold seal on it. To her, Newberry award = boring.
Before I continue, let me say that I am not putting down any Newberry book. I am not saying The Westing Game, Island of the Blue Dolphins, or any other Newberry winner is boring. That being said, I bet if we had children doing the choosing, the winners would be vastly different.
It sort of comes down to that age-old argument of literary versus commercial, reading for education versus reading for pleasure, writing to enlighten versus writing to appease the masses. Children's books, although written for children, are not published, purchased, or awarded prizes by children. As parents, we try to oversee everything that our children put into their bodies and minds, and literature is no exception. Let them have that cookie (Goosebumps), but make sure they balance it out with some vegis (Old Yeller), right?
As an author that tends to write more on the cookie-side than the vegi-side of the spectrum, I would be a hypocrit if I fed my children only vegis. Too many kids HATE reading because they aren't allowed the cookies. Where is the fun in reading if you don't read what you enjoy?
But, the teacher-mom in me also sees the value in reading the vegis. I have a great many vegis I love - my BA is in English after all, which would have been torturous if I hadn't enjoyed reading all those classics. And for that reason, we have well-meaning adults rather than children choosing the Newberry and other literary prizes. Recently, those choices have come to reflect more of what kids are enjoying than what adults think they should be enjoying - which is how it should be - so I truly commend those who sit on the committees and make the tough choices.
I tried to tell my son all this, even launching into a history of the penny-press and the whole bad rep novels had when they first were introduced to the masses. I was met with glazed over eyes. I think that must be how The Westing Game felt when he was holding it in his hands. So I ended my lecture with a simple, "Everyone has different tastes. Your sister loves fairy books and you can't stand them, right?"
This was met with a grin and a nod and then he asked, "How many fairy books have won a Newberry? (groan) I hope we don't have to read them next." :)