The Newbery Medal and Speculative Fiction

Another Newbery Medal ceremony has come and gone, leaving the usual mixture of cheering, grumbling, and perplexed head-scratching in its wake. Strictly speaking, you could say that about any award ceremony, but the Newbery—informally known as “the Oscars of children’s literature,” and mandated to choose works based on distinguished literary quality rather than popularity—is notorious for picking dark horses, and this year’s medal winner, Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, is no exception. (Here’s the complete list of ALA award winners and honor titles announced yesterday morning.)

The award is also notorious for slighting speculative fiction in favor of realism, especially earnest historical realism, and again this year is no exception. And no surprise, either; it’s a practice that reflects the adult literary establishment’s long-established habit of tossing speculative fiction into a genre ghetto and discounting its literary seriousness, but it’s always a disappointment: one reason I love kidlit so is that, compared to the adult book world, it’s relatively un-ghetto-ized: science fiction and fantasy and historical fiction and contemporary problem novels and mysteries and classics and queer fiction,  etc. generally mingle happily together onto the children’s or YA shelves and review pages, providing lots of opportunity for serendipitous cross-genre exploration (Leaving aside the question of reading level, which is a whole other jar of pickles).

So it’s not a huge surprise that there were no science fiction or fantasy titles among the recently announced 2012 Newbery medalists. But what about past years?  Let’s take a look at the past couple of decades, back to 1990:

2011: Nothin’.

2010: A good year. Gold medal to the wonderful and genre-crossing New York City story When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, which is historical and futuristic and realistic and speculative all at the same time. Honor medal to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin: a young girl on a quest, a dragon who can’t fly, a talking fish— yep, this is fantasy, all right. It’s lovely, too.

2009 Gold medal winner: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. I don’t need to say any more about this one, do I? I mean, you’ve all read it, right?

Actually 2009 was another good year for speculative fiction in the Newbery: Savvy, by Ingrid Law, won an Honor, as did Kathi Appelt’s magical-realism-ish animal story The Underneath.

2008: Nothin’.

2007: Not a thing.

2006: The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale won an Honor! Love that book. If the word “princess” makes you think you’d want to skip it, think again. Whittington, by Alan Armstrong, could be considered fantasy too, if you count talking-animal stories.

2005: Nope.

2004: The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, a dark mouse-and-princess-and-soup story with fairy tale elements, won the gold.

2003: Honor medal to House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer. The first science fiction sighting so far.

2002, 2001, 2000: Zero, zip, zilch.

1999: Gold medal to Holes, by Louis Sachar. Ah, Holes. Is it fantasy? Is it historical? Is it contemporary? Is it all of these? There are certain mystical coincidences in the story that span generations. And a curse that does seem to actually be effective. And there are those jars of preserved onions that mysteriously don’t cause fatal food poisoning when ingested a hundred years later. So…yeah, maybe. Sort of. Holes is the Uber-Newbery Winner anyway: beloved by kids and adult literary types alike; easy to read but deep and complex; expectation-busting in all kinds of ways. So why shouldn’t it be realism and fantasy at the same time, too?

1998: Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, won an Honor. Clever and sprightly “Cinderella” retelling with a twist. Nice if you’re looking for kickass girl stories, too.

1997: The Moorchild, by Eloise McGraw, and The Thief, by Megan Whelan Turner, both won Honors. The Thief was the first in Whelan Turner’s “The Queen’s Thief” series whose fourth volume, A Conspiracy of Kings, was released this summer to a reception whose enthusiasm it would be fair to call rabid. Nice call, Newbery Committee!

1996: Nothing. (The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman won the gold, but just having a medieval setting doesn’t count.)

1995: Honor Medal to The Ear, The Eye and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer. This was Farmer’s first novel, and broke boundaries in many ways: one of the few children’s speculative works set in Africa, and a rare Newbery nod to a science fiction title. Also, it is just a wicked strange book.

1994: Gold Medal to The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Oh, did I say there hasn’t been much science fiction attention from the Newbery? How could I have forgotten The Giver, a/k/a My Very First Dystopia for the squillions of kids who read it in middle school English class?

1993: Honor medal to The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, by Patricia  McKissack. Ten Southern African-American ghost stories. Most are folktales rather than original fantasy, but what the hey.

1992, 1991: Nope, nothing.

1990: Nothing really, though Afternoon of the Elves, by Janet Taylor Lisle, which won an Honor, does have the word “elves” in its title and the concept of elves as a central plot element. But it’s one of those faux-fantasy books where (um, spoiler alert) the kids were just making it up all along.

So…is fantasy and science fiction well represented among recent Newbery award winners? To know for sure, you’d have to do a statistical analysis of how much speculative fiction was published for children as a percentage of the total books published, vs. how many got Newbery notice. (Has someone done this? I wouldn’t be surprised.) And even that figure would be further complicated by the murky “do talking animal stories count as fantasy?” question.

I think it’s fair to say that the Newbery committee does an at-least-okay job of recognizing some of the best and most enduring speculative fiction for kids (The Giver, Ella Enchanted, House of the Scorpion). However, there’s a lot—a LOT—that they miss.

What’s your favorite Newbery-winning fantasy or science fiction book? Or your favorite that should have won, but didn’t?

Elisabeth Kushner is a writer and librarian living in Vancouver, BC. She hasn’t even read any of this year’s Newbery winners. YET.


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