Does the best children’s book published in the United States win the Newbery Medal every year? I don’t know anyone who would say that it does. Of course words like “best” or “most distinguished” are objective and matters of opinion, so I guess the question I really want to ask is, does the book that a majority of the members of the Newbery committee think is the best win every year? I would argue no. If every member of the committee had the same level of influence and there were no librarian politics, bullying or intimidation then yes, it would be a simple matter of numbers, but it’s not that simple. Committees are made of people and people are flawed. They have egos and alliances and feuds. It can get messy.
The biggest example, I think, of egos and feuds getting in the way of objectivity and in the end hurting the credibility of the Newbery medal was the 1953 Newbery award. We will never know exactly why Secrets of the Andes won over Charlotte’s Web. We do know a few things though. We know that Anne Carroll Moore, who was head the New York Public Library system’s services for children didn’t have a great relationship with E.B. White or his wife. (You can read about it here, but let me warn you. It’s loooong.) She tried, unsuccessfully, to block the publication of Stuart Little, which led to some nasty letters between Ms. Moore and Mrs. White. She kept Stuart Little off of the shelves of NYPL for as long as she could, and her influence kept it from getting any Newbery recognition. Even after she retired, she continued to attend library meetings on a regular basis. Her successor even tried to move the location of the meetings at the last minute, but she always showed up. When it comes to influence in the kid lit world, in the early half of the 20th century, no one had more than Anne Carroll Moore. We know that she was vocal about her dislike of Charlotte’s Web. She complained that Fern (who I see as as an almost minor character in the scope of the whole novel) was not developed as a character. Maybe she had no influence with the 1953 committee. Maybe they really loved Secret of the Andes, but if you ask me, a lot of them couldn’t conceive of getting completely behind a book that Anne Carroll Moore had openly attacked. We don’t know. However, since things were done differently back then , we do know that Charlotte’s Web was first runner up. So there does seem to have been a group of librarians, in the minority, on that committee who did champion CW, but there weren’t enough of them.
I would like to say that those days are long behind us, but I still see things among those in my profession that really disturb me. After this year’s announcements, in which my favorite picture book of the year won a Caldecott honor, I saw an extremely prominent and influential librarian hold up the book in her post-awards show, and tell the 2015 Caldecott committee that they were wrong (while she and her cohost were shaking their heads sadly) and that the book was neither the author’s or the illustrator’s best work, and that neither of them needed another Caldecott honor. I admit that I was angry and a bit sad. I turned the video off. I was pulling for that particular book to win the Caldecott medal not just an honor, and her she was telling us that it didn’t even deserve that. Is her opinion worth more than mine because she has a bigger job? It’s obvious the committee disagreed with her, and maybe, just maybe, there was something about the book that they saw that she didn’t see. I thought her comments were hurtful to not only the author and illustrator, but also to the librarians who championed the book and the children who loved it. Sorry. I didn’t mean to go off on a rant there, I was just trying to make a point that even today, committee members risk being shamed or chastised for their choices if they don’t coincide with what the “big” librarians think should win.
I read both Charlotte’s Web and Secret of the Andes for this Newbery Pie post, and I think for the sake of fairness, I’ll review them both separately.
I have a long, and kind of passionate history with this book. I first read it in 3rd grade, and I transformed from a person who likes books to one who loves them. It touched me in a deep, personal way, and up until that point, I didn’t know books could do that. I read it several times in 3rd and 4th grade. I remember the school librarian begging for me to return the book so other students could read it, and reluctantly I would hand it over only to check it out again a few weeks later. I wish I could go back in time and tell the school librarian at Crestmont Elementary in Northport, Alabama to just order an extra copy and to leave that little boy alone. Couldn’t she see that I was experiencing something life-changing and profound? Anyways, I didn’t read CW again after 4th grade. I know it seems weird. I always reread my favorites over and over again, but not that one. There was something sacred about it, and I didn’t want to spoil the memory. I still considered it my favorite book for the longest time, and I could tell you what happened page by page, it was like the book lived in me, but I didn’t pick it back up. Like Fern, I grew up and kind of moved away. I didn’t visit it any more, but I knew it was there, and I loved it.
When I saw that Secret of the Andes, the book most famous for beating out CW, was next on my Newbery list, I knew it was time to return to the world Wilbur and Charlotte, and I wasn’t disappointed. If anything I saw things that I didn’t notice back then, and I love it even more now. Charlotte’s Web is, and will probably always be my favorite book.
I give it five out of five Newbery Pies
Secret of the Andes
To be fair, I didn’t come into this book ready to judge it objectively. I knew from the start that it wasn’t better than Charlotte’s Web. There wasn’t any way it could be. I had a really hard time with the first 30 pages. Then, I kind of got used to the style, and found myself enjoying it a little. The writing was very lyrical, almost poetic, and I loved the llamas especially Misti. I liked the story, a boy leaving home, to try to find home, only to realize that it was back where he started. I thought it was lovely. It definitely isn’t my least favorite Newbery up to this point. There is a lot to like, but no, it isn’t nearly as good as Charlotte’s Web. To even compare them to me is laughable. I don’t think that people in the 50’s thought it was better. I really do believe that a lot of this decision came down to Anne Carroll Morre and her minions’ dislike of E.B. White and CW, but really, Ann Nolan Clark had nothing to do with that, and Secret of the Andes, really is a charming book.
I give it 3 out of 5 Newbery Pies.
There’s a scene in Charlotte’s Web that I think is very fitting for what happened between Charlotte’s Web and Secret of the Andes. Wilbur has been entered in the county fair, and is eligible to win the “best pig” prize. There’s another pig in the stall next to him. Charlotte checks him out, and he’s huge and in a normal year, would probably take home the prize. But this isn’t a normal year. Because of Charlotte’s word weaving, everyone knows that Wilbur is a spectacular pig and everyone expects him to take home the blue ribbon. He doesn’t. For whatever reason, the big pig in the next stall over takes home the prize. Understandably, everyone is devastated. But then, a voice calls over the loud speaker inviting everyone to come and see Wilbur win a “special award.” This award ends up being even better than the yearly, best pig award. It comes with regard, fame and a pretty hefty cash prize. (Well, it’s 25 dollars, but that would buy you like 155 hamburgers at Mcdonald’s in 1953) Isn’t that what happened to Charlotte’s Web? Secret of the Andes took home the yearly award, but Charlotte’s Web received something different and better. While Secret of the Andes is rarely read by adults who aren’t reading through the Newbery winners, Charlotte’s Web is read by tons of adults and children every single day. It consistently ranks in the top spot of polls of best children’s novels. It has had not one, but two very successful movies created based on it. Even ALA finally recognized White by giving him the Laura Ingalls Wilder award in 1970. Does it make up for them not recognizing Stuart Little at all or for slighting Charlotte’s Web? Of course not. But I am very glad that they recognized him in some way during his lifetime. This post isn’t a poor, E.B. White post. He came out of it all the clear winner. Charlotte’s Web has achieved lasting success, and I think it is going to be around for a very long while.