Weighing In: Digging for Gold

Book Links Mar. 2009 (vol. 18, no. 4)

By Pat Scales

Children love shiny things. Long before my godson could read or understand Robert Louis Stevenson’s
Treasure Island, he wanted a toy treasure chest filled with gold and silver coins. In his game of pretend, he was an evil pirate, ready to raid the next big ship that sailed in a circle around his house. Even at the age of three, my little pirate understood that gold and silver were of great value. Each night when he chose stories for bedtime reading, he almost always picked books with the shiny medals. Among his golden favorites were
The Biggest Bear, Where the Wild Things Are, Drummer Hoff, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and
Officer Buckle and Gloria.
Blueberries for Sal, If I Ran the Zoo, Frog and Toad Are Friends, and
Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse were a few of his silver treasures. By second grade, my godson had outgrown the game of pirate, but he never outgrew his desire to dig through the bookshelves in his school and public libraries in search of books with gold and silver medals. He grew to love such Newbery winners as
A Wrinkle in Time, Julie of the Wolves, Shiloh, and
Holes. In his dig for silver, he discovered
The Great Gilly Hopkins; The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; The Wish Giver; and
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane.

Each year when the Newbery and Caldecott committees announce the winning books, there are critics lurking in the background, poised to criticize the choices. Some say the committees are out of touch with young readers and that the books are too esoteric. Others think the choices aren’t literary enough. There are doctoral students who analyze the winning books based on the sex and ethnicity of the main characters. Shouldn’t there be more books depicting children who live in single-parent homes because that’s the reality of the world in which we live? Then there are those who think that real life is too harsh and that children should be fed warm and fuzzy stories that make them feel good.

It doesn’t matter whether the winning books are warm and fuzzy, have challenging themes, or depict main characters of a specific ethnic group because the real winners are the children. They deserve the best and most distinguished, and they won’t ever know what that means unless we show them. There will be children who only know the books with gold and silver medals because a teacher or a parent chooses to read them aloud. There will be others who choose to read the books on their own. And, as the years pass, some of the medal-winning books will go out of print. Committees aren’t clairvoyant; they don’t know how well these books will stand the test of time.
The Story of Mankind, the first Newbery winner in 1922, and
Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book, the first Caldecott winner in 1938, aren’t read today, but it doesn’t mean that these books weren’t distinguished for their time.

I will admit that there were years when my little pirate dug for gold and silver and came up empty-handed. That doesn’t mean that some of his friends weren’t successful. Not every medal-winning or honor book will appeal to every child. That’s what makes the reading experience so wonderful. Everyone has different reading tastes, and experiences literary growth at different times. The mistake that parents, teachers, and librarians make is to force the winning books upon children. Young readers should be allowed to reject those books that don’t interest them. It is the charge and the challenge of the Newbery and Caldecott committees to dig for gold and put their choices out there. The rest is up to the children.

After 36 years as a school librarian,
Pat Scales is now a freelance writer, children’s literature advocate, and president of the Association for Library Service to Children.