Don’t discount the Newbery

Early on Jan. 26, a writer’s phone will ring. On the other end will be the 15 members of the American Library Assn.'s Newbery Committee, calling after a year of careful reading and deliberation to congratulate “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in English in the United States during the preceding year.” There are “no limitations as to the character of the book,” so authors of fiction, nonfiction and poetry for kids up to age 14 are all eligible. And because there is no short list, the writer may be astonished at the announcement, as I was when I got the call in January 2007. And librarians and the general public may be more than surprised; some will even be dismayed.

Valerie Strauss reported in the Washington Post last month that “the literary world is debating the Newbery’s value, asking whether the books that have won recently are so complicated and inaccessible to most children that they are effectively turning off kids to reading. Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism. Most of the rest deal with tough social issues.”

Does it follow that books dealing with tough social issues turn kids off? Doesn’t whether a book is complicated or inaccessible depend on the age and experience of the reader? Is the criterion that the book be distinguished too elitist? Popularity is important, and there are many state-sponsored “children’s choice” awards, such as the California Young Reader Medal, that allow kids to weigh in. The intent of the Newbery, like certain adult literary awards, is to “encourage good writing,” whether or not the book has broad popular appeal.

I was no great shakes as a young reader. Oh, I knew how to read, but it didn’t seem worth the bother. I spent time reluctantly with Dick and Jane, but their adventures were on a par with multiplication tables. I hadn’t a clue there were good books for kids. Then, one day in the late 1950s, when I was 8 or 9, a librarian from the Los Angeles Public Library visited our classroom to introduce Newbery Medal winners and runners-up, or honor books. She said the library had copies of all of the books that we could borrow. She left “Charlotte’s Web,” not a winner but an honoree, for our teacher to read aloud to us.

I was mesmerized by the way the librarian stroked the books, ran her fingers over the interior pages, smoothed the jackets, hugged them to her chest. It was strange behavior in a grown woman, interacting with books in such a sensual way, as if she actually loved them, and after school it propelled me to the library for the first time. I checked out “My Father’s Dragon,” because it looked easy but good: thin and with pictures.

I discovered, after a few visits, that the librarian could often suggest authors I would probably like -- she did this by building on my previous preferences, a practice known to librarians (I later learned) as “reader’s advisory”: putting the right book in the right hands at the right time. I read a number of Newbery winners and honor books. Looking back now, I see that some of the themes in those years included war, being torn from your family during an invasion, physical disability, losing a beloved dog. I’m grateful my librarian didn’t determine that those award books were inaccessible and too complicated, or that they dealt with inappropriate social issues. I’m glad I got to pick the ones I wanted to read. Even though I was a slow reader and some of the books were hard for me (and some I didn’t like at all), the ones I loved held me in their grip and made me want more.

Meanwhile, our teacher read aloud “Charlotte’s Web” in daily segments. It was such a powerful experience that I had to rest my forehead on my crossed arms, leaning on my desk, so the other kids wouldn’t see my face. It was a story about how the world goes on and on no matter what, in an eternal, reassuring kind of way that you mostly never thought about, and how someone could be such a brave, good friend that it makes you cry and cry. It concerned things nobody had talked to me about, like death, but not as if they were lessons to be learned. The book made me decide to become a writer.

In the 1970s, I began working as a children’s librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library. I visited classrooms with armloads of books for every taste: series, popular paperbacks, sports stories, scary tales, nonfiction. I also “book-talked” award books in those classrooms, although some of my colleagues did not; they said those titles lacked enough broad appeal to circulate well. Some librarians claimed that the population they served would have difficulty relating to the subject/theme/setting/time frame/writing style.

How, I wondered, could all the children in a community have the same sensibilities? Were these librarians looking at a demographic such as income level and determining that none of “their” children would respond to the challenge and reward of what I thought were generally excellent books? That would be a terrible disservice, this undervaluing of kids’ intelligence and curiosity, a devastating insult. In my experience, children who read award books by choice and for pleasure became, as readers, more confident, competent and eager.

In the 1990s, I began writing a novel for 9- to 12-year-olds, a story set in the Eastern Sierra. It took me a long time to find the heart of the story, 10 years and more of weekends and vacations. I knew it wasn’t a book for every child. It concerned loss and redemption. The writing was deep, absorbing work; I mulled over the inner lives of the characters, what they thought and felt. I had a desperate hope that it would get published. I was excited at the idea of anybody reading it, of being able to connect one on one with strangers who had trusted me with their hearts.

Winning a Newbery no doubt increased my book sales; it gave me a measure of fame. But it was well before I won it that the Newbery award transformed me, changing my child-self from nonreader to avid reader, introducing librarianship to me as a career, inspiring me to want to write children’s books and to strive for good writing.

Along with the Newbery and the Caldecott (for distinguished illustration), many other children’s literary awards will be announced Jan. 26, awards that recognize excellence in writing for beginning readers, honor literature by and about African Americans, celebrate the Latino experience, highlight the best nonfiction and the finest media. I’ll be eager to read or view or listen to them all, but especially this year’s Newbery. I know that in the right hands, it could be an important book; it could even change a young reader’s life.

Susan Patron worked in children’s services at the L.A. Public Library for 35 years. She is the winner of the 2007 Newbery Medal for “The Higher Power of Lucky.” Its sequel, “Lucky Breaks,” will be published in March.