by Jerry Spinelli
I found this Washington Post article on problems with Newbery Award winning books via Bookslut. Specifically, critics are debating whether the award winners are "so complicated and inaccessible to most children" that children are being turned off to reading. If only ... After seeing three kids through the K-6 language arts, I think the blame for kids being turned off to reading can't be placed squarely on Newbery's shoulders. There are a web of problems contributing to kids' lack of interest in reading, the least of which is the Newbery books. However, I do think too much emphasis is placed on teachers having their students read Newbury books when there are other equally fine texts that can provide invaluable teaching opportunities and enjoyable reading experiences.
I've spent the last two weeks reading Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee (1991 Newbery winner) to my fifth grade class. I've never read this book before and am enjoying discovering it along with my students. First off, we are doing this book as a read aloud, which may sound crazy, but actually, I can't imagine teaching it any other way. I have lots of students who are English learners and have other learning challenges and if I didn't read this book aloud, they probably wouldn't understand it on their own. Which goes to my argument that leveling books is some kind of crazy project that's keeping a lot of people busy and well-paid but doesn't help me that much in the classroom. This book is leveled for 5th grade readers based on some formula that is unknown to me. All I know is, I have to stop on nearly every page to explain the 1960's urban slang to my students. Even my brightest students are struggling. Newbery winner or not, it should not be published without a glossary. Either that or it needs to be leveled at a much higher level -- for students who have actually studied the 1960's and understand the relevant race issues of that time. My class is 90% latino or mixed-race, in other words, mostly beautiful brown faces stare back at me each day. And imagine how sad I became after discussing how blacks were once called "apes" (from a scene that comes up in the book), when one little boy raised his hand and said, "Well, I'm only a little black." I have a terrible feeling that Maniac Magee and I are opening their eyes to a racism they didn't know existed and I'm not at all sure they are developmentally ready for that lesson. I say, forget about blaming the Newbery, stop leveling books. Teachers should go back to picking books from the school library that they know their students are ready for.