Saturday, December 20, 2008

Newbery Award Controversy

All the book blogosphere this week has been linking to this recent article in the Washington Post about the outcry from children’s book advocates that the Newbery Award winners are discouraging children from reading. This is the same argument I essentially touched on back when this year’s National Book Award nominees were released: should awards/nominees be selected on marketing criteria in addition to merit?

The argument begun by Anita Silver is questioning whether the books nominated for the Newber
y Award in the past few years are too difficult or inaccessible to their targeted audience. Backing this up, the article quotes that National Endowment for the Arts is reporting that fewer Americans are opting to read than did twenty years ago, creating social and financial consequences.

The last point first: there wasn’t an Internet twenty years ago nor were the video games interactive and/or complex. It’s no wonder that in a world with more choices, readership has gone down. That doesn’t mean people don’t like to read, just that they like to do other thing too. As to whether the subject matter is too tough for readers, somehow I doubt that in a society with a large divorce rate, reading about a single-parent household isn’t shocking. In a world where we routinely are subjected to explosions on news footage that show people being killed, where we are ‘constantly being hunted by terrorists,’ I don’t think books about death are too close for comfort either.

That said, the most interesting aspect of this debate is the posed at the top of the post: should awards/nominees be selected on marketing criteria in addition to merit? With regards to the National Book Award, I was glad to see a book like Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions nominated even though it was sure to prove unpopular with the average person looking for an entertaining yarn. It was a brilliantly conceived experiment in variable storytelling and typography that deserved to be recognized because it worked so well. From this perspective, I suppose that I would agree that the Newbery should only nominate books worthy of the honor and make their decision separate of marketing.

Yet what awards make decisions like this separate from marketing? The Oscars don’t even pretend to select the best movies of the year, only the best movie to play at least one weekend in Hollywood over the course of a year. In a time when publishers are hemorrhaging money and employees, does it really make sense not to consider how big awards like these affect the business? Newbery nominees sell huge, not only to go in personal libraries but also in public ones. This is a big financial consideration.

But the argument by Silver and others goes further: if kids aren’t fans of the ‘best of children’s literature’ when they are kids, what hope is there to grow into the adult readership that the publishing industry so desperately needs? However, look at the different landscape that exists in publishing today versus twenty years ago: readership down twenty percent. Who knows what it will look like twenty years from now? It’s exceedingly obvious that publishing houses are going to have to refine their models of business long before that if they hope to stay afloat.

I don’t necessarily think that considering marketability when determining an award’s nominees should be verboten. But I don’t think it should be the leading factor either. That said, the problems with creating young readers have almost nothing to do with the Newbery’s selections and everything to do with a rapidly changing media landscape that publishing houses have been loathe to respond to. In essence, this appears to be a non-issue.

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