The Perils of Forgetting Your Audience

The Newberry Medal is awarded each year to the best book aimed at children. The award is the oldest and most prestigious of all the awards given for children’s literature. When it is announced each January, bookstores sell out nationwide and English teachers often scramble to tweak their syllabi to get the new book in rotation.

There are many classics on the list; I notice that the ones I remember reading all fall in the 1970s, though the best of them are still on the shelves today. Every child should read Robert O’Brien’s 1972 winner, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

A couple of recent winners, 1999’s Holes by Louis Sachar and 2004’s The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo have been made into films, with Holes launching Shia LaBeouf’s career and Despereaux set to slash its way into theaters in a few weeks.

But there has been some grousing that most of the other recent winning books are simply too advanced for the young readers they are supposedly aimed at, leading the talking head set to wonder if these highly-hyped, yet largely inaccessible books are having the very undesirable effect of turning children away from reading. 

This may be the result of the “bigger, better, faster, more” philosophy that seems to underlie so much of American culture. The thought process goes like this, “if last year’s winner was dizzyingly complex and deals with very mature themes, I’m going to have to top it by making it even less comprehensible and more mature.” 

It seems to be working. The Newberry Award committee is impressed, but children have not been reading. Noticeably absent from the Newberry List: The words Harry Potter.

It’s hard to imagine that the biggest children’s publishing phenomenon in the history of history doesn’t merit, but it doesn’t. The good news, at least for parents and teachers, is that Harry Potter has turned millions of boys and girls onto the joys of reading a good story and this is where the Newberry Committee seems to have lost its way. It forgot who its audience is. With the decentralization of power in today’s publishing world, and a profusion of other “best of lists,” this disconnect from the audience can quickly spiral even the most stalwart institution into irrelevance.

‑Jonathan

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