BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Next Monday, the 87th annual Newbery Medal will be awarded for the most distinguished children’s book of the year. The Association for Library Service to Children, the division of the American Library Association which gives the award, has been criticized in the past for its selections. For instance, parents have often challenged the 1994 Newbery winner The Giver for its troubling subject matter, including euthanasia and infanticide. And 2007 winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, took heat on taste grounds over the word “scrotum” on its first page. But according to an article by editor, author and former children’s book publisher Anita Silvey in the October 1st issue of School Library Journal, the biggest problem with recent Newbery winners is that they're just no fun to read. Silvey spoke to librarians and others who believe that the Newbery Commission values sensitive subject matter and stylistic eccentricity to a fault. Pat Scales, a retired middle school librarian, is president of the Association for Library Service to Children and a past chair of both the Newbery and Caldecott Award Committees. She joins us. Pat, welcome to the show.
PAT SCALES: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: What is the actual intent of the Newbery award?
PAT SCALES: The Newbery award awards for the most distinguished book for the year for children. Popularity is never considered. It is a book that is distinguished in the same way that you might judge an adult book; plot development, character development, delineation of theme, literary style. I do not believe that we have to give up literary merit to get what children will read. A lot of the Newberys have been popular with kids, including some of the ones that Ms. Silvey says that aren't.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s a piece by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post. She looked at all the titles from the period of 2000 to 2005.
PAT SCALES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: And of the 25 honored books, 4 were on the subject of death, 6, the absence of one or both parents, 4, mentally challenged characters, including those with autism -
PAT SCALES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - and many of the remainder dealt with difficult social issues. I can kind of see why kids don't necessarily want to curl up with this. Does the committee not err on the side of seriousness over – you know, I almost hesitate to use this word – entertainment value?
PAT SCALES: It’s not being fair to the intelligence of children to think that we've got to award for literary merit something that’s popular or warm and fuzzy. But in regard to those subjects you just named, let me just say, that’s life, and it’s life that kids today are exposed to. And what a good work of literature does, it helps them along and helps them deal with these things. This is why Bridge to Terabithia has been such a popular book with kids, too. It’s a book about friendship, it’s a book about family, and it’s a book about death. But death is part of life, and these kids are exposed to it a lot.
BOB GARFIELD: I think one of the reasons that this is a kind of sensitive subject is that children’s book purchases aren't necessarily made by children. On the contrary, they're made by parents [LAUGHS] and librarians and so forth. And there’s probably a tendency to see that embossed gold on the cover and go, ah, well, that’s kid-safe, and it’s got the, you know, Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
PAT SCALES: I think we're putting too much emphasis on saying to a parent that just because it’s got a gold medal means it’s for every child. It’s not, no more than if a parent walked into a bookstore and they're looking through books for themselves and they pick up one with the Pulitzer Prize-winning label on it. Libraries are about choice. And what my theory is, and I've always told children this, if you don't like a book, put it down, because there are too many good books to try to read a book that you don't like.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess the onus is as a parent – you know, I've got a seven-year-old. I want her to encounter challenging material, but I want her to do it at the right time. At some point, obviously, I want children to learn about the Holocaust but I don't want them to do it in My First Golden Book on the Holocaust.
PAT SCALES: There may be a seven-year-old out there who has family members that were victims of the Holocaust, and maybe their parents want them to read a book like that. I can remember many years ago that we had a child that had been abused, and it was discovered in gym when she dressed out and there were bruises all over her. Within an hour after that gym class - I had six copies of a particular book about child abuse – all six of those copies went out to her friends. So it’s them trying to grasp normal parts of life, and these kids needed to know what had happened to their friend. What we also have to know is that not every book is for every child. So it doesn't mean that they're always books that they're going to curl up with at night. Kids have wide tastes and they read them when they're ready for them. And I actually had a child say to me once, last year I didn't like this book. This year I love it. And what she was saying to me is that she grew up.
BOB GARFIELD: Pat, thank you very much.
PAT SCALES: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Pat Scales is president of the Association for Library Service to Children.