The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
This is the true story of how children’s books came to be, the brainchild of John Newbery, considered the father of children’s literature. In 1726, there were no children’s books at all. His first book, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, was marketed as a book and a toy! It was a hit! For kids who appreciate Newbery books, have them read this engaging picture book biography, about the man whose name is a book award, but his own story largely unknown. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
I’ve been trying to pick Newbery winners for some time now, analyzing what pundits have picked and noting what books seem to be getting buzz all year. Sometimes this is a good predictor; sometimes not.
I have a few theories about what I think makes a good Newbery pick, but, of course, the actual Newbery committee pays no mind to what I think and has their own criteria which may or may not change slightly from year to year. Who knows?
A Newbery Book Should Have Broad Age Appeal
There’s nothing worse, in my mind, with a Newbery winner that is too high such that only the most advanced elementary school readers can attempt it. The Westing Game is a good example of that for me. It won in 1978.
PickyKidPix tried to read it in October of her 5th grade year. She read at least a year above her grade level at that time, and she wasn’t able to finish it. It was just too hard for her to understand. Her 5th grade teacher suggested that she pick it up again at the end of the year and try again, but she never did. I loved this book myself, but, like From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, when kids are too confused from the first few chapter of the book, they simply move on. I’m sorry to say that this is just the age of electronics and screen time that we live in.
Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures was a Newbery winner that a third grader who read at a third grade level could read, understand and enjoy. It’s funny. Her genius at capturing voice also helps third graders with their own writing.
A Newbery winner that hits that 8-10 year old kid market is spot on, in my opinion. I’d put The Wild Robot, Raymie Nightingale, and Full of Beans in that category of squarely hitting the mark.
A Newbery Winner Does Not Have to be Middle Grade Chapter Book
Last’s year picture book surprise, Last Stop on Market Street, opened up the possibility that other genres are being seriously considered. Both Roller Girl and El Deafo took home Newbery Honor prizes too, putting graphic novels right in the hunt.
Bar is Higher for Past Newbery Winners?
I would say, yes and no. I think a series has a higher bar of winning again. Take The Dark is Rising though as an exception, but it is also an exceptional series. Grace Lin’s quartet of books is not technically a series but I think her latest book, When The Sea Turns to Silver, might appear to be too similar to Newbery honor winning Where The Mountain Meets the Moon.
On the other hand, the lane is wide open for Kate DiCamillo despite multiple wins and I’d be shocked if Raymie Nighingale doesn’t win something. I’m rooting for Full of Beans too. Technically not a sequel to Turtle in Paradise, though it might be perceived to be which could hurt it.
The Newbery Seeks Diversity?
Winning a Newbery does have a significant financial impact for an author which can not be underestimated. This award can affect what might get published in the future, showing that diversity books appeal to a broader audience than the characters they represent. Brown Girl Dreaming is a good example of that in showing the world that a girl about a brown girl would be read by non-brown girls.
But there also might be push back from last year’s controversial diversity picks. Perhaps the awards will swing away from diversity this year? Judges, like my panel on the Cybils, do not like to reward based on political agenda. They simple want to pick the best books. But the reality is that it’s not that black and white anymore.
My 2017 Newbery Predictions
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
I would be surprised if this doesn’t win at least a Newbery Honor. It hits the sweet spot of appealing to younger age kids, with a universally appealing story about the power of kindness.
A robot that gets activated on a remote island, inhabited only by animals. She, the robot, befriends the suspicious animals living there through acts of kindness, making the ultimate sacrifice to save them from more of her kind. This story shows the power of kindness and compassion in a world that can sometimes feel dystopian. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Hatem Aly
For kids who like Percy Jackson, this book is surprisingly similar but with a Medieval history twist, bringing to life stories of the Catholic Saints and Joan of Arc. There’s humor and super powers too. There’s also diversity in the cast of characters. William, the young monk with super strength, is half African. Jacob, the Jewish boy, has healing powers. Jeanne, a peasant girl, has visions of the future. Together they must save the world against all odds. In this case, it’s to save a particular kind of knowledge. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet
An American boy, Noah, with an Astonishing Stutter moves to East Berlin with his parents during the cold war. During these turbulent times, he makes a friend, a girl his age, living downstairs with her grandmother. Things are not what they seem, as is always the case in Communist Germany. As Noah peels away the truth from the subterfuge, he unlocks pieces to puzzles of mysteries that involve everyone he loves. This is historically accurate page turner about true friendships can change the impossible. For kids who like spy books and/or realistic fiction, this is a must-read! [chapter book, ages 11 and up]
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo makes writing look easy which is her particular brand of genius. She captures voice with these quirky yet believable characters … where do they come from? Her genius is also in the smallest details that she reveals, making each scene a small masterpiece of description that builds and builds into a story that weaves the story lines together into a greater whole.
This scene is a good example. She captures Louisiana and her grandmother’s situation with a few lines of dialogue:
“Where’s the furniture?” asked Beverly. She was standing at the threshold to the kitchen.
“I beg your pardon?” said Louisiana’s grandmother.
“I’ve been all over the house and there’s no furniture.”
“Well, why on earth are you going all over the house searching for furniture?”
“I–” said Beverly.
“That’s exactly right,” said the grandmother. “Maybe you could make yourself more useful and find the can opener, since you enjoy searching for things so very much.”
Three girls. One summer. A friendship that changed their lives.
But oh, what girls! What sad and terrible lives they are each living, so resolutely. So determined to change their situations. And despite having goals that compete, how they are able to help one another. How can this book not win? [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager
I loved this realistic fiction chapter book about a twelve year old girl who is uncomfortable with her Mexican heritage. She and her family visit her grandfather at his rundown ranch in New Mexico. She’s never met him before, but they are there to help move him to Assisted Living as his dementia worsens. On some days, he’s not very approachable. On others, he is a wondrous storyteller. She discovers his stories about a magical oasis both bind him to this place, and connect her to the Mexican roots she’s never wanted to claim. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin
This is my favorite book so far out of Grace Lin’s Where The Mountain Meets the Moon books. I thought The Starry River of the Sky was also worthy of a Newbery, but she just keeps getting better and better which is remarkable because her first book was so extraordinary. I recognized two of the stories in When the Sea Turned to Silver which made me happy! I read the lucky/unlucky story in Zen Shorts and it was a story that always stayed with me. The artist whose paintings come to life was introduced to me via The Magic Horse of Han Gan. Lin’s ability to weave Chinese folk tales into a greater whole is the crux of her brilliance. That she weaves this book back to her first is also magical. The power of stories is theme showing up in my Caldecott pick, The Storyteller, also. I think this is an especially cogent and urgent message of learning from history’s past mistakes. I would love for this book to win, but I worry that it will deemed too similar to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon which has already garnered Newbery recognition. Still, win or lose, this was one of my favorite reads on this list. I highly recommend it. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
This book has been compared to a middle grader version of To Kill A Mockingbird and I can see the resemblance. It’s an unflinching but mesmerizing story that unfolds in a pager turner kind of way.
Wolf Hollow is place that is tinged with bad karma … pits are dug to trap and kill wolves and this scenario is also a metaphor of what happens to the characters in this story. Annabelle is a really decent kid, but when a horribly girl bully moves to her town and torments her, her little brothers, and the eccentric recluse war veteran, she’s forced to make choices. Some of these turn out to be the wrong ones.
As events set off into motion and spin out of control, Annabelle learns that people can change, bad things happen, and the pits we create are the most dangerous. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen
There seems to be recent trend in middle grade book around sad books. Ms YingLing Reads noted it and I agree. Neither of us like depressing books for kids.
Twelve year old Peter has raised, Pax, his pet red fox, since he was a kit. With war raging at their doorsteps, his father decides to join the army, forcing him to abandon his fox in the woods and drops Peter off to live with his grandfather. Peter’s mother has died in a car accident, so, no doubt, the father is grieving but there are also hints of his violent nature with possible physical violence against his son. After arriving at his grandfather’s house three hundred miles from home, Peter decides to rescue his fox in the woods.
Both fox and boy have unexpected detours in reunion as each must survive quite a long period apart, but they are both determined to find each other. The story is told in two parts; that of the boy and the fox. This is a moving, well told story, but it’s tinged with a bittersweetness that some kids will appreciate, but not all. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm
I have to admit that I fell in love with The Diaper Gang back in Turtle in Paradise so no one was happier than I was to read this book. Holm portrayal of Key West during The Great Depression feels like a spot on episode of The Little Rascals, particularly with The Diaper Gang and their adventures. Historical fiction has never been so fun to read. This is technically not a sequel to Turtle in Paradise, more of a companion book. While I really loved this book, Turtle in Paradise had a more complex story that made it a Newbery Honor book.
My son and I are reading this book together now. It’s just a really fun and historically accurate adventure of kids that would light up a big screen. If your kids have ever been to Key West, they must read this book! And, if you might want to take your kids to Key West after reading this book! [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan
My arty daughter doesn’t like the softly rendered illustrations in this graphic novel that reimagines Snow White as a Great Depression story. Matt Phelan makes this fractured fairy tale work beautifully! My daughter thinks there isn’t enough contrast with his images which have the monotone of a faded sepia daguerreotype photograph but she didn’t actually read his book or she would realize that Matt Phelan uses color to convey mood like the movie The Wizard of Oz. I’ve always liked his storytelling and I hope this graphic novel wins. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]
Probably Not Going to Win But I’m Rooting For It
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson
I loved this book just as I loved Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Both books made me cry and I thought Wonder would win big time at the ALA awards but it didn’t even win a Schneider. Still Wonder won via The New York Times best seller list and is an iconic chapter book about teaching kids to choose kind.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day has that same raw emotional pull that makes you want to hug this book forever in your heart. Celebrating a teacher that made a difference, it tells the story of three boys who do something out of their comfort zone to let their beloved teacher understand how much she meant to them. The weaving of the three voices as their stories unfold is not as seamless or tightly woven as a Newbery winner tends to be, and that is why I don’t think it will win, but I urge everyone to read it and gift to teachers that you know who are making a difference. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
A WWII internment story hits a little too close to home for me and I tend to resist reading them, as my mother was part of the Japanese Americans forced from their homes, losing everything they built. Still, I was drawn into this story about a young girl forced to Manzanar where an uprising resulted in two men dead. I didn’t know that story at all.
What really brought her story from what could have been simply an objective historical fiction story to, instead, a universal story of loss and resilience was her storyline of how ten-year-old Manami is forced to give up her dog which she tries to smuggle into the camp. The loss of her dog sends her into a downward spiral causing her to lose her voice as well. What’s so powerful about this chapter book is how Lois Sepahban puts the humanity back into a group that was methodically dehumanized through war propaganda. Note that Dr. Seuss was part of this [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds
My son picked this book out at a book event. This historical fiction book brings to life the battles and political intrigue of twelfth century Japan, during a critical time period where the emperor was losing power against the nobility.
This could have been a dull and dusty recounting, but Pamela Turner’s careful historical research combines with fact with action. Still, she tells his story in the third person, never really imagining what he was thinking or doing unless it was backed up by research.
Heart of the Samurai takes more liberties which makes for a better story. Still, his life is a real-life Japanese Game of Thrones, though it might be hard for readers to keep track of all the players involved. It’s not just the unfamiliar Japanese names; there are a lot of complicated relations and relationships going on with shifting loyalties and bloody battles. I hope it wins a Newbery Honor but its reading too high for me to put on my list. [chapter book, ages 12 and up]
Are You An Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by
This picture book is also on my Caldecott watch list. It’s a hybrid poetry/biography picture book about the short and tragic life of Misuzu Kaneko. Her deeply empathetic nature poems are read by every school child in Japan. She’s like the Japanese Pablo Neruda or Emily Dickinson. She’s such an important poet, and yet virtually unknown here in the United States which is why I hope this book gets recognition. Also the hybrid biography/poetry/picture book might be rewarded as a new and powerful format. [biography and poetry picture book, ages 9 and up]
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
I really liked this graphic novel about a sister with cystic fibrosis combined with a Day of the Dead theme. But then I read Deb Reese’s review about the Spanish-speaking ghosts in the Mission being problematic. I think her point is exactly why this book should get attention.
I grew up in Southern California, visiting several missions both there, in San Antonio and in Northern California. Never in the missions or in history class were we ever taught about how the Catholics converted the indigenous people in that area.
“At the missions, life for Native people was brutal. There was rape. Enslavement. Whippings. Confinements. And of course, death. Analyses of the bones at the mission burial sites that compare them with bones found elsewhere show that the bones of those who died at the missions were stunted and smaller than the others.” American Indians In Children’s Literature
In the foreword, written by Valentin Lopez, Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians. He writes:
Until now, the true and full history of the California missions has never been told. When visitors tour the missions, they are usually presented with stories and images of peaceful, loving priests and soldiers who treated the Indians as adored children.
These stories belie the truth of the missions, where Native Americans suffered under harsh and brutal conditions. As a young boy, I listened to stories from my elders about the cruelty of the missions. There were tales of how native women were captured— with their thumbs tied together with leather straps to form human chains— and marched forcibly from their tribal lands to the missions. If the Indians did not cooperate, the soldiers, at times, killed them. In one incident, more than two hundred women and children of the Orestimba tribe (living near what is now the town of Newman) were being taken to Mission San Juan Bautista. When, after passing the summit at the Orestimba Narrows, these women refused to go any farther, the Spanish commander ordered the women and children killed with sabers and their remains scattered.
The oral traditions of our tribal band, the Amah Mutsun, taught us stories of how certain Spaniards would appear when the Indians were first brought into the missions so they could get their pick of the young girls and boys for their perverted appetites, always with the tacit approval of the priests.
Catholics get to write their own version of history? Is that what has happened? There is no accounting or accountability for their history? Is a glossed overview of The Spanish Inquisition all kids will get?
I don’t blame Raina for not knowing this important piece of history or criticize her for lack of research. It has been too long, carefully hidden away, purposefully. I think it is time to bring it to light. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]
Here are criticisms of Ghosts that I found from Ms. Yingling Reads:
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.