Children’s Books of the Year
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The British publisher John Newbery was enterprising enough to recognize, all the way back in 1744, that books for children offered a potential gold mine. Until then, children’s publishing was largely limited to somber religious tracts, but Newbery broadened his backlist to include alphabet books, poetry, and uplifting stories like The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes.
Despite his foresight, he’d be forgotten today if a New England bookseller hadn’t proposed to the American Library Association that they award a prize to outstanding children’s literature.
“Newbery” would be a good name for it. If the bookseller, Frederic Melcher, had an eye for future profits, he wasn’t wrong: In the 100 years since the ALA instituted the award, only one of the winners has ever gone out of print. The average American with a public school education has probably read at least one gold-medal title.
The Newbery matters as a cultural marker, an indicator of hopes and values for America’s children. Though selection committees have been slow to adopt changing standards, it seems they have arrived.
In 2020 the committee chose its first graphic novel for top honors. Last year’s winner prominently featured a lesbian character for the first time. And one of the books on this year’s Newbery honor list made transgenderism its theme, as the protagonist (influenced by her gay, drag-queen, recently deceased uncle) recognizes she is actually a boy.
LGBTQ-themed books are taking a larger share of the children’s market. Last spring’s Publishers Weekly roundup of LGBTQ titles, compared with the spring of 2020, showed picture books increasing from 12 to 17, middle grade from 10 to 13, and young adult from 44 to 60.
Society seems to have made its peace with sexual diversity per se, but pornography in the school library had parents up in arms last year, as they stormed school board meetings in protest (see "Porn on the shelves," in this issue).
Still, excellent books for children roll off the presses of mainstream publishers every year. Since 2014, WORLD has selected outstanding examples of fiction, nonfiction, and picture books from the previous year to recommend to parents, teachers, and other interested adults. And “interested adults” take note: A good read for kids is probably a good read for grown-ups, too.
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