Sunday, January 24, 2010

When You Reach Me

So, some (or most or all--I have no idea who reads this) of you know that When You Reach Me recently won the prestigious Newbery Award. For the second year in a row, the award was given to a book that I'd read. I actually finished When You Reach Me about 24 hours before the win was announced, so it was fresh in my mind when I heard the news. It made me think about award-winners and how they're chosen.

Last year I was on the committee that chose Steinbeck's Ghost by Lewis Buzbee for the YA category of the Northern California Book Award. The committee communicated by email to nominate titles for a longlist and then choose a shortlist, which each member was supposed to read. One day I came to work and found a poster advertising Steinbeck's Ghost as the winner. This was news to me. We'd had a brief discussion about Lewis Buzbee and his relationship to the Indie Bookseller community, but as far as I knew we hadn't reached a decision about the award. I wouldn't have voted for it. I loved the book, and it was Northern Californian through and through, but it was hard to sell because kids weren't interested in Steinbeck. Whomever had chosen the winner had not taken young readers into consideration, which was supposed to be the reason I was on the committee.

I'm sure that the Newbery committee doesn't operate this way, but it makes me wonder what criteria are considered when the award is given. I have read several books in the last year that I would call Newbery-worthy. But do kids love them? Do they ask deep and important questions? Do they teach us anything? Will they still make an impact in twenty years when kids read them in school? Will kids even want to read them in twenty years? I imagine that these are the questions that the Newbery committee asked while they were choosing a winner. Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me checked all the boxes.

I remember reading other Newbery winners when I was in elementary school. I loved each and every one. Whatever the criteria, they are tried and true. I have no doubt that When You Reach Me will hold its own in the ranks of Newbery award-winners.

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