Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe
Find more Navigating Newbery
The last decade has seen a marked increase in BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors receiving literary awards and honors, a trend that is celebrated widely within the industry. Within minutes of the ALA’s Youth Media Award announcements, children’s literature enthusiasts begin discussing, debating, and critiquing the books honored by each committee. One thing that stands out to me, however, is that books by white, cisgender, straight authors, are often discussed in terms of writing style and craft, whereas books by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors are judged by their content, allowing a vocal minority—which includes media personalities, commentators, and politicians, among others—to brand the latter as didactic and political.
Didacticism implies that something is educational or made for the purpose of teaching a lesson. While not inherently negative, this term is highlighted in a single yet significant line in the Newbery manual: “The award is not for didactic intent or for popularity.” As Jonathan Hunt, the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education, writes on the Heavy Medal blog, “the didactic intent just cannot be the reason that it earns the award.” This simple caveat has been coopted by individuals opposed to a book’s content, allowing them to create a narrative that links themes of racial injustice, queer and trans inclusivity, etc., to didacticism—and thus the groundwork for dismissing such a book is laid.
With a 100-year legacy, the Newbery Award plays a large role in shaping culture by indirectly prizing the values and messages put forth in its chosen titles. It also connotes whose stories are worth reading and celebrating. So, what does that mean, when the Newbery has predominantly honored white authors, and books featuring mostly white characters? And why is a shift toward more inclusivity and diversity within the Newbery canon being seen as worrisome? Disgruntled parties are increasingly promoting the idea that this move toward greater inclusion is actually the pushing of a liberal agenda, which can be stopped, or at least curbed, by the didacticism defense.
I have been interested in award culture for many years, and the notion of “didactic intent” is something that has fascinated me while I served on award committees—including the 2014 Newbery committee—over the last decade. In 2017, I worked with my colleague Michelle Superle to publish a book chapter in Prizing Children’s Literature (2016), edited by Kenneth B. Kidd and Joseph T. Thomas Jr., on the meaning of excellence and how it can be interpreted within the constraints of book-awards criteria. We argued that there can and should be emphasis on what we considered more politicized elements of literature, including representation of gender, sexuality, race, disability, class, etc.
However, many awards, including the Newbery, are built upon a history of formalism, or the process of looking at structure, form, tone, imagery, and literary devices, rather than content of stories. While these elements are important to textual evaluation, we argued in our chapter that “attempts to separate children’s literature from the ever-evolving culture surrounding children would be of great detriment to discussions occurring within the existing structure of children’s literature prizes.” In my own committee work, I have encountered resistance to this type of approach and have been referred back to caveats about didactic intent over the years.
But just as other criteria have become somewhat malleable in interpretation to allow for different formats such as graphic novels and picture books to win and be honored by the Newbery committee, it is my belief that the concept of “didactic intent” can also be interpreted in many ways, complicating its very inclusion in the manual. Does this phrase refer to books that are meant for use in a classroom? Does it apply to any book that conveys a “message” or “lesson?” At what point does content that can help young readers learn and grow become “didactic?” This ambiguity creates opportunities for some to dismiss books for containing content they deem political or controversial.
With so much pushback on novels by and about BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people, it seems reasonable, at least to me, to consider books that challenge entrenched racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia as potentially worthy of distinction due to their relevance to young people’s lives today. New Kid (2019), by Jerry Craft, is a graphic novel that has been both celebrated for its examination of racism and censured for promoting critical race theory, the rationale for the latter being that the book makes young white children feel bad for their skin color. The irony of this seems lost on these accusers, of course.
In the end, messaging around race, bullying, and good intentions gone awry is likely one of the reasons New Kid—which the committee notes as “distinct, honest, and timely”—was awarded the Newbery Medal and part of what distinguished it from the otherwise very white and normative body of works published that year. It could be argued that the book is preachy and that it’s strong messaging goes against the caveat in the Newbery manual, but as K. T. Horning noted in her 2013 Horn Book article, “Drummer Hoff and ‘Didactic Intent,’” “we preach to children all the time through their books. We preach that they should share with others. We preach that they should be proud to be individuals. We preach that they should not be bullies. We preach that they should learn to be independent.”
We do not want books being awarded necessarily because they might be good to use in a classroom or because they have been created specifically to teach a singular lesson, but if an author is able to teach about diverse and inclusive experiences and people through a well-crafted, entertaining, and particularly distinguished book, then it seems perfectly acceptable to allow its messaging to be a part of committee discussion. After all, John Newbery himself created books that were (and still are) accused of being didactic at the time, and he ended up with one of the oldest and most prestigious awards for children’s literature named after him.
Perhaps it’s time to consider removing this line, and so its potential to be weaponized, from the manual? It is being used as a way of arguing against diversity and inclusion in award winners, after all. And maybe didacticism doesn’t need to be a dirty word, so long as it’s part of more nuanced deliberations.
Rob Bittner is an educator and consultant who works with LGBTQ+ literature for children and teens. He has served on many award committees including the 2014 Newbery.
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe