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Award-Winning Books . . . Says Who?

by Nancy Lohr

Take a walk through the children’s section of your local library or retail bookstore and you will see a variety of foil medallions on the covers of some of the books on display. These medallions identify award-winning books—books that will be front and center in stores and libraries now and on suggested—or required—reading lists in the future.

If these books are going to be high-profile titles in the world of children’s literature, it is reasonable for parents and teachers to learn whether or not they complement the education and biblical nurturing you desire for your children.

So let’s begin with a short history lesson. Two of the most prominent awards given to children’s books are the Newbery Award and the Caldecott Award. These are presented by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).

The Newbery Award is given annually “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” This literature award is named for the eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery (1713–67), who was the first to focus on books for children that were not strictly for educational purposes.

Before Newbery’s time, the category of children’s literature was virtually nonexistent. The first Newbery Award was given to The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon in 1922.

The Caldecott Award is given annually “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” This illustrator’s award was named for Randolph Caldecott (1846–86), a Victorian-era illustrator. The first Caldecott Award was given in 1938 to Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book, illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop.

That’s all well and good, and the full list of winners and honor books might serve as a list of books you want to take a look at. But there is wisdom in taking a step back and asking yourself, “Award winners? Says who?”

Who makes up the parent organization giving the award? What is the purpose of this organization? What criteria are they honoring? The answers to questions such as these can offer critical understanding to the meaning of the award.

A knowledgeable librarian, bookseller, or even your own Internet search can help you learn more about the nature of various book awards. In the case of the ALA awards, it is helpful to read the ALA policy manual, one critical element of which speaks to the concept of intellectual freedom.

This is a topic that can lead to spirited, if not heated, debate—employing terms such as “equal access,” “protection from censorship,” and “access to information for all”— over whether individual book choices constitute censorship. In the minds of some, this translates into making all materials available to all patrons (or buyers or students) with no restrictions or limitations based on the nature or age-appropriateness of the content. And as applied to ALA book awards, intellectual freedom leads to honoring books that are widely diverse in content, philosophy, and propriety—good reason to proceed with caution.

This is an area where the current worldview is at odds with a biblical worldview. Parents and teachers have a biblical mandate to teach, protect, and nurture their children by providing discernment (Phil. 4:8) until the children are able to discern and exercise caution for themselves. Developing biblical discernment is one aspect of sanctification.

So what does this mean when you are standing in the aisle by a bookshelf? It means that while the award-winning book in front of you may be very well written from a literary perspective, the content may be on a topic that is not compatible with your goals—maybe not yet, maybe not ever.

It may mean that you will find the theme or philosophy to be at odds with your beliefs, but even so a good vehicle for raising talking points—a book to read together, to analyze, and to discuss, modeling discernment in action.

And it may mean that a newly written, award-winning book is on all fronts a fine book for enjoyable and profitable reading.

But how do you know? You can read it yourself, evaluating the content and theme through the lens of Scripture, or you can evaluate reviews by others who hold the same biblical standard. A thorough review will give a brief synopsis of the content of the book; it will share pros and cons found in the book; and, ideally, it will give some thought to the underlying philosophy that is conveyed by the content of the book.

A review leaves the conclusions up to you. A recommendation differs in that it ends by recommending an acceptance or rejection of the book, and that is valuable to you only if you agree with the assessment of the book.

There are many awards given by a variety of organizations, and parents and teachers are wise to bear in mind that winning an award does not make a book an automatic winner for you. Some thoughtful evaluation of the award-winning title can be a kind of literary panning for gold that allows you to identify the truly worthy books.

Says who? Says you.

For further reading, see Breaking the Code Through Thoughtful Reading

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