Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Awards as predictors of quality

Here at Through the Magic Door, we are always playing with different ideas about how to identify books that are likely to be of lasting interest to children. Recently one of the questions that arose was: How good are the mainstream awards at predicting lasting interest in a book?

So we decided to look into it.


We settled on a handful of awards based on their longevity, consistency of application, availability of the information, etc. We included both primary winners (Medal) as well as runners-up (Honor awards). Based on these criteria we used the following awards:

Bank Street (and its later specializations)



Horn Book Fanfare

Kate Greenaway


We used "ready availability" as a proxy for "lasting interest", recognizing the drawbacks associated with that definition. "Ready availability" we defined as available through a major distributor in a standard format. In this instance we used Baker & Taylor. We excluded from ready availability those books only available; through used book venues, as on-demand print versions, and those through high-end/very specialized publishers. We recognize that there is a capriciousness in equating lasting interest to only those being available at this particular snapshot in time but think that it is as viable an approximation as the many alternatives and has the benefit of being readily determined in objective fashion.

With these definitions, we then went back and looked at the award winners from 75 years ago (1932, 7 titles receiving awards), 50 years ago (1957, 15 titles receiving awards), 25 years ago (1982, 31 titles receiving awards), 10 years ago (1997, 40 titles receivng awards), and 5 years ago (2002, 29 titles receiving awards).

We then looked at which of those were still readily available at all (in any format such as paperback, hardback, library binding, etc.), those that were only available in a single format (such as only in paperback or only available in hardback), and finally those that were out-of-print.


The results of this analysis were as follows:

Out-of-PrintSingle FormatMultiple Formats
5 Years8%32%60%
10 Years20%25%55%
25 Years55%19%26%
50 Years53%7%40%
75 Years86%0%14%

Two or three things leap out at me.

Attrition Rate is Pretty Steep

75 years after their recognition, 85% of the winners are out of print. In this instance, among the seven Newberry Award winners of 1932, only Rachel Fields' Calico Bush is still in print. Of the other winners that year (Marjorie Hill Allee's Jane's Island, Mary Gould Davis's Truce of the Wolf and Other Tales of Old Italy, Dorothy P. Lathrop's Fairy Circus, Eloise Lownsbery's Out of the Flame, Eunice Tietjen's Boy of the South Seas, and Laura Adams Armer's Waterless Mountain), several sound interesting but I don't recognize many/any of them and don't see them among the many lists of favorites that I routinely review. Calico Bush I do recognize, know it is still read in schools as assigned reading but is also read by children under their own volition and is generally well liked by those that have read it. So, it sounds like the Newberry folk got it about right seventy-five years ago.

None-the-less, there is, to me, a surprisingly high attrition rate such that more than half the award winners just a generation ago (1982, 25 years) are out of print.

Data Anomaly Regarding Awards from 25 and 50 Years Ago

Bucking the general trend of steady declines in availability at different points over the seventy-five year period, there is a plateau at the twenty-five and the fifty year mark where approximately 45% of the original winners remain in print. I think the anomaly here is the fifty year mark and my specualtion would be that there is a false high level of in-prints owing to publishers marking "50th Anniversary" type milestones with re-releases. This is perhaps coroborated by the fact that there is a steady decline in the number of books in single formats but there is a reversal of the trend in the number available in multiple formats at the fifty year mark, which is what you would expect if publishers were re-releasing special edition hardbacks in addition to the available paperbacks.

Increasing Message Density

There seems to have been a break point between twenty-five and fifty years ago where the "message density/sophistication" of children's books suddenly took a leap forward. Among the eleven winners (even restricting it to Caldecott, Newberry, Greenaway, and Carnegie) in 1982, you do not find any real counterparts in 1957 to Chris van Allsburg's Jumanji, Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn, Siegal Aranka's Upon the Head of the Goat or Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There. You might argue that some of those are darker books but there were some dark winners in 1957. It strikes me that the distinctive difference is that some are darker in a different, more primal way but more than that, they are visually more sophisticated, they imply an expectation of a greater level of world knowledge than earlier winners, and that there is a much more subtle/nuanced perspective in the stories than is prevelant earlier.

Author/Illustrator Gender

Not really sure what to make of it but it is notable that 100% of the author/illustrators that were winners seventy-five years ago were female. From the fifty year mark onwards, the proportion of author/illustrator award winners that were male has varied up and down at each milestone between the ranges of 35 and 45%. Was there a sudden flood of men into the field of children's literature? Were the awards captive to a gender bias for a while early on? Was 1932 just an anomaly? Interesting questions.

The dog that didn't bark

When analyzing data, you always look for what's not there. In this instance, we know the numbers and titles for the books that were given awards and which of them have lasted. But what about other books published in each of those years that might not have received awards but that are recognized as enduringly popular?

That's quite an exercise in data analysis which I will put off for another day. Just as a quick reality check though, there are some interesting highlights. I have aggregated the bibliographies of a dozen or so 20th century children's authors/illustrators and done just a quick spot check.

For 1932, even with this tiny sampling, there are a couple of books that probably ought to be noted as more persistent in popularity including Kurt Wiese's illustrated version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and certainly Walter R. Brooks' Freddy the Detective.

Looking at fifty years ago we see John Langstaff's Over in the Meadow as still being available, along with Walter R. Brooks' Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans, and Rosemary Sutcliff's The Silver Branch.

Down the road then, we will construct a database that lets us look at books published in the respective years and will then capture those that are still in print and are readily acknowledged in hindsight as being superior books whether or not they ever received an award.

Next Steps

We will at some point, as described above, look at what books printed in the past, escaped the attention of award programs but which have endured and won popular attention over time. With this information we will then be able to see the balance effectiveness in the past of identifying great books that would last over time.

The other project we will pursue is to collate the winners of the various awards for 2007 and invite TTMD community members to identify which of the award winners will last how long into the future (using the degradation map we have already developed) as well as which non-award winning books might most likely remain popular into the future.

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