Captain Underpants Doesn't Need a Newbery Medal
In defense of the premier award in children's literature.
Occasionally, a book comes along that pleases almost everyone. It effortlessly blends compelling conflicts with endearing characters, dramatic tension with peppy pacing. Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux is just such a book. It paints a lush and complicated world in which an adorably puny mouse-hero must suffer tremendously at the hands of a cruel cartel of rats—for the crime of allowing a princess to admire his huge ears—before rallying against his oppressors and claiming his place, literally, at the royal table. The Newbery isn't above awarding books like this; Despereaux took home the medal in 2004. (The movie version opens in theaters today.)
But literary awards should do more than simply affirm books that are easy to love and would likely find fans regardless of a medal. They also serve as inspiration for authors to take creative risks, push boundaries, and even reinvent the form. In 2007, American Born Chinesebecame the first graphic novel to receive the ALA's Printz Award for Young Adult literature. The award recognized the author, Gene Leun Yang, for his funny and edgy trilogy of comic-style stories, but it also demonstrated new respect for the rapidly evolving field of illustrated narratives for teens.
According to children's books historian Leonard Marcus, in his new book, The Minders of Make-Believe, promoting innovation in the children's books field was the reason the Newbery medal was created in the first place. Frederic G. Melcher, head of the National Association of Book Publishers, initially proposed the award's creation to the American Library Association and championed it as children's literature's own Pulitzer Prize. Marcus notes that while Melcher was pleased that the award generated "publicity of the best kind," his motivation was to provide the nation's best authors with an incentive to write for children.
As an author myself, I find it far more inspiring when the award committee picks a relative underdog like 2006 winner Criss Cross than when it picks an already popular book like The Tale of Despereaux. Every January, the kid-lit blogosphere buzzes with the Cinderella story of the Early-Morning Call that woke the Unsuspecting Writer and catapulted her into the spotlight. We all want to be her. But the only message the Newbery committee sends us: Follow your inner muse.
That message is particularly necessary in the current economy, which has forced the publishing industry to prioritize the bottom line more than ever. In a time of publishing industry layoffs and cutbacks, when commercial promise is king, the Newbery medal continues to offer hope for those of us who want to write and publish the odd, offbeat, and not always pretty stories that we believe in our hearts children will want to read. Regardless of the gripes Silvey reports, the Newbery medal still has the power to elevate a book's status and spike its sales. And this power still tempts publishers to take creative risks, even at a rocky economic moment. All award-winners may not soar, but I appreciate the Newbery for choosing unconventional books and giving them a fighting chance. From what my students tell me, they do, too.