The use of children’s literature in the classroom has become so widespread that award-winning literature such as the Newbery books (winners of the annual Newbery Award for best book of the year for children under age 14) can be found in almost every American classroom. Despite the prominence and influence of these works, little attention has been paid to the messages of character implicit in them. At a time when schools are becoming more involved in moral development through character education, it is important to study the character traits demonstrated in these highly influential books. This study is intended to provide new understanding about the intersecting areas of children’s literature and moral education.
Preliminary findings for eight character variables show a significant shift in “respect” between the 1950s and the 1970s and for “responsibility” between the 1970s and the 1980s. In an unanticipated side effect, students expressed increased critical thinking and expressions of responsibility, respect, and other character traits toward classmates as they studied the Newbery literature for these traits using the instrument designed for this study.