My definition of “distinguished” children’s literature

As surely as wasps follow your fruit salad, the announcement of each year’s Newbery Award winner signals the arrival of another installment of “sez who?”

The annual Newbery Award goes to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” courtesy of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. The selection is often criticized, partly because the award does not define its main criterion.

As Kathleen T. Horning points out in an excellent history of Newbery controversy: “Rather, the focus for the Newbery Medal has always been on distinguished books—whatever “distinguished” means to the group of children’s librarians making the selection each year. From the beginning, the term was left intentionally vague…”

Too bad. That discussion would’ve done a great service to children’s literature. Although no one has asked me for my take on what “distinguished” means in the context of children’s literature, here it is. I believe that:

  • A distinguished book respects its audience–its intellect, emotional maturity, and empathy.
  • A distinguished book breaks new ground by drawing attention to little-known subjects or revealing new truths about familiar ones.
  • A distinguished book invites readers to examine their values and assumptions, not to “correct” them, but to reaffirm them or revise them.
  • A distinguished book contains surprises that bring a renewed, albeit different, delight upon re-reading.
  • A distinguished book remains distinguished, despite changes in society in general or literary fashion in particular.