In Betsy Bird’s recent poll at A Fuse #8 Production, the top picks for picture book and middle grade fiction were not surprising: once again, Where the Wild Things Are and Charlotte’s Web took top honors. But what does that really mean?
Much as I love E.B. White's Charlotte’s Web, I have certain suspicions about its dominance. Consider the following:
w I once taught a fourth grade student, a girl who was a reluctant reader and very much interested in sports. She really liked Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but thought Charlotte’s Web was too slow. Boring, in fact.
w The people voting for Charlotte’s Web and all the other books in the poll are grown-ups, many of them librarians, teachers, and writers.
w It’s traditional for third or fourth grade teachers to read Charlotte’s Web to their classes. I think the kids appreciate it, and well they should. But the book is basically imposed on them.
w My officemate said to me the other day, talking about Charlotte’s Web, “I remember I cried back in fourth grade when Charlotte died, but now? I’m all for squishing spiders.”
The book is brilliantly crafted and the characters are delightful. I guess what I’m questioning is its current dominance as a top pick in 2012—for better or for worse.
Now, we might argue that it’s the job of people like those aforementioned third or fourth grade teachers to read kids books that are brilliantly crafted, thus helping kids appreciate the good stuff. I can testify that, as a first grade teacher, I used to fight not to roll my eyes when the kids brought in their own books for me to read, usually badly written movie or TV tie-ins. (Why Disney can’t afford someone good to write those Winnie the Pooh knock-offs is beyond me!)
But. Still. Which of our classics would make the top of the list if the list were controlled by, I dunno, a committee made up of kids and teachers? Or something like that. And if we were to pick a book that both kids and teachers could agree on, what would it be? Or if we were to just ask for a top book written in the last 20 years? Maybe Holes? Or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Perhaps The Lightning Thief? Of course, the Cybils are supposed to find that happy medium, but I guess I’d like to speculate a bit on my own here.
What do the kids themselves like? Take a look at the Children’s Choices this year, based only on books published in 2011. This joint effort of the International Reading Association and the Children’s Book Council is a list selected by 12,500 young readers. I was intrigued to see that three graphic novels scored high: Sidekicks by Dan Santat, Squish #1: Super Amoeba by Jennifer Holms and Matthew Holms, and Doug TenNapel’s Bad Island. Lost and Found by Shaun Tan and Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt were also big hits.
Looking over the list of Newbery medal and honor books for the last 15 years, I picked out a sampling I think have more kid appeal than the others:
—When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2010 winner)
—The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2009 winner)
—Savvy by Ingrid Law (2009 honor)
—Princess Academy (2006 honor)
—The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (2004 winner)
—Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (2003 honor)
—Joey Pigza Loses Control (2001 honor)
—Holes by Louis Sachar (1999 winner)
—Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1998 honor)
Of course the others on the Newbery list are good books, even great books, but by whose standards? Grown-ups. It’s an ongoing question, I know. I’m bringing it up again because I find myself wondering whether the tide of children’s books has permanently changed. Whether children’s tastes have changed, making many of the classics of the last century, as the publishing industry puts it these days, "too quiet."
I will, however, leave Where the Wild Things Are alone. It worked then, it works now, probably because it’s slyly subversive as well as magical and compelling. For that matter, perhaps that’s why Roald Dahl’s books still continue to charm even reluctant readers like my fourth grade student.
What do you think?