By December 16, 2008 2 Comments Read More →

A Surprising New Threat to Children's Literacy

Usually, if I want to read criticism of the ALA and its works, I need look no farther than the Library Journal website. But, this fall, as the Washington Post reports (“Plot Twist,” by Valerie Strauss), attacks have been coming from unlikely quarters:

John Beach, associate professor of literacy education at St. John’s University in New York, studied 30 years of book lists chosen by children and adults. He found that less than 5 percent overlap between the Children’s Choice Awards — named every year by the International Reading Association — and the library association’s annual Notable Children’s Books list, which includes many Newbery and Caldecott winners.

Books prized by children had stories and characters “accessible” to their lives, Beach’s report concluded. “The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children’s publishing,” he said.

I like the way he softened the remark with a “probably”–it’s like saying, “That drunk driver was probably responsible for the deaths of that family he ran over.” Also, it implies that there are other serious contenders. Inquiring minds want to know who they are.

I agree that the 5 percent overlap is worth discussing. And, as we all know, awards, no matter how prestigious, are highly subjective. I’d say they sometimes get it wrong, but every award winner is wrong for some part of its audience.

But, above all–really? The Newbery makes kids hate reading? As I see it from my highly subjective point of view, learning is supposed to be challenging. If the Newbery pick reflected the kinds of books that kids already like and are already reading, what has been gained? Wouldn’t that be kind of like a certificate of participation? Kids are already reading the kinds of books they like to read–adults are supposed to broaden their horizons by trying to pick the best things they can read. Granted, the adults are adults, so there’s a built-in disconnect. But if it weren’t for my youthful attempts to emulate the reading tastes of better readers, I’d still be reading the Hardy Boys. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but, you know.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

2 Comments on "A Surprising New Threat to Children's Literacy"

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  1. nsilverrod@sfpl.org' Nancy Silverrod says:

    I devoured Newbery books as a kid, and still read them every year. I haven’t managed to read all of them yet, but I find that I am getting a lot out of many of the lesser-known winners and honor books as I read or re-read. Newbery books are not too challenging for most readers. Some non- or reluctant-readers may need to be sold through some good book-talking, but that’s our job!

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