This year, the literary world experienced a moment of surprise, as the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was left unawarded. Over at the New Yorker, Michael Cunningham published a two-part letter discussing the fiction jury's thought processes and methods. It's an excellent read, and some of the things he said seemed both profound and worthy of applying to our discussion of the Newbery.
"And, finally, one must confront the most nervous-making aspect of all the jurists’ and board’s duties: those who award prizes are wrong at least as often as they’re right. There is, for instance, the fact that Pearl S. Buck went to her grave with a Nobel Prize and Nabokov did not. That Dario Fo got one but Borges didn’t. The list of past Nobel winners is formidable—those Swedish prize-givers are sharp—but a list of non-winners would be surprising and not entirely reassuring."
What of those who have awarded the Newbery, who've given their time and effort and concerted energy to find the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children? Is it true that they've been wrong at least as often as they've been right?
With that question in mind, I went back over the list of prior winners to see how many clear mistakes I could see. I tried to eliminate ones where the answer isn't clear (was Julie of the Wolves the right choice in 1973, or should Frog and Toad Together or Tales of a 4th-Grade Nothing have been the winner?), as well as the ones where my personal opinion is a ways off from the professional consensus (I think The View from Saturday over The Thief and Frindle in 1997 was criminal, but my outrage seems to be an isolated instance), and stick to the ones where there's less argument. I consulted Rachael when making this list, but I take sole responsibility for what's on it and what's not. If you disagree with me -- and these kinds of lists are made to be disagreed with! -- I hope you'll leave me a note in the comments.
Anyway, when all is said and done, I count 14 times in the history of the Newbery that the award winner seems to me to have been clearly chosen incorrectly:
1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze beats Little House in the Big Woods. I actually liked Young Fu, but its pseudo-Pearl S. Buck-ness hasn't aged well, and Big Woods is often considered Wilder's finest moment.
1942: The Matchlock Gun defeats Little Town on the Prairie and The Saturdays. The Matchlock Gun is a deeply problematic book that's barely 50 pages long, and doesn't come close to matching up here.
1953: Secret of the Andes beats Charlotte's Web. Probably the worst decision in the history of the Newbery.
1955: The Wheel on the School outpaces Half Magic, The Children of Green Knowe, and The Courage of Sarah Noble. I'm thinking the committee really liked storks.
1958: Rifles for Watie beats Gone-Away Lake. Watie is the kind of book that isn't marketed as a children's novel anymore; its protagonist is 18 at the start of the book, and is joining a regiment to fight in the Civil War. It's also dreadfully tedious; of all the Newbery winners I've read, it might have been the hardest to slog through. (It's that or Smoky, the Cowhorse.)
1960: Onion John beats My Side of the Mountain. Joseph Krumgold has two Newbery medals, and Jean Craighead George has one. Those numbers should probably have been reversed.
1965: Shadow of a Bull wins over Harriet the Spy and The Book of Three. Almost as indefensible as 1953.
1974: The Slave Dancer beats The Dark Is Rising, Socks, Summer of My German Soldier, A Day No Pigs Would Die, and The House with a Clock in its Walls. We've been over this one before, but it's also pretty egregious.
1988: Lincoln: A Photobiography takes the prize over Hatchet. I like Russell Freedman a lot, but Hatchet is an all-time classic. I also question whether a book subtitled "a photobiography" really stands on its text alone.
1996: The Midwife's Apprentice wins over The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963. Apprentice is pleasant enough, but in retrospect, The Watsons was something of a game-changer. Uma Krishnaswami recently cited it in The Horn Book as one of the first books for children to successfully use humor while talking about racial issues.
1998: Out of the Dust beats Ella Enchanted. One of the strangest choices of the late '90s.
2006: Criss-Cross defeats Princess Academy, The Penderwicks, and Each Little Bird that Sings. I'm actually a huge Criss-Cross fan and will defend it vehemently, but the weight of critical opinion is not on my side when it comes to this year's award.
2007: The Higher Power of Lucky wins out over Clementine, A Drowned Maiden's Hair, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Again, I love and will argue for Lucky (Susan Patron signed my copy at this year's ALA!), but I'm not in the majority when it comes to its Newbery-ness.
2011: Moon Over Manifest beats One Crazy Summer and The War to End All Wars. A year hasn't helped this award look better, though who knows what ten more years will bring.
There are some hard-to-live-with choices on that list, but I think overall, we have to give credit to the Newbery committees through the years for making a worthy choice well over the half of the time that Cunningham mentions. And I think, even in those years where the mistakes are clear, we should be gentle, recognizing that the task of any committee for a literary award is somewhere between daunting and Sisyphean.