I thought this article, What makes a good Newbery novel?, from The Horn Book really nailed the definition of a Newbery book:
“At the heart of every Newbery is a remarkable character.”
“Rich, textured, fascinating worlds — stages on which wonderfully original characters can play. And live out their usually most unusual lives.”
“Character and place are inextricably linked in a Newbery book.”
“Arcs of action. Powerful beginnings that draw a line in the sand for the character, rising middles created by a hero or heroine faced with more and more demanding choices, and turning-points and climaxes, moments of decision, that at their peaks may well contain “the catch in the breath” that becomes something like reality itself.”
There is something about a Newbery, the librarian said. “Just something about it.”
Her list of Good Newbery Novels all fit the criteria:
Sounder (Harper & Row, 1969) by William H. Armstrong; illus. by James Barkley
Crispin: The Cross of Lead (Hyperion, 2002) by Avi
Walk Two Moons (HarperCollins, 1994) by Sharon Creech
The Midwife’s Apprentice (Clarion, 1995) by Karen Cushman
The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003) by Kate DiCamillo; illus. by Timothy Basil Ering
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Atheneum, 1967) by E. L. Konigsburg
The Giver (Houghton, 1993) by Lois Lowry
Sarah, Plain and Tall (Harper & Row, 1985) by Patricia MacLachlan
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Atheneum, 1971) by Robert C. O’Brien; illus. by Zena Bernstein
Island of the Blue Dolphins* (Houghton, 1960) by Scott O’Dell
*The portrayal of American Indians is problematic in this book.
A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001) by Linda Sue Park
Bridge to Terabithia (Crowell, 1977) by Katherine Paterson; illus. by Donna Diamond
The Great Gilly Hopkins (Crowell, 1978) by Katherine Paterson
The Higher Power of Lucky (Jackson/Atheneum, 2006) by Susan Patron; illus. by Matt Phelan
Hatchet (Bradbury, 1987) by Gary Paulsen
Missing May (Jackson/Orchard, 1992) by Cynthia Rylant
Holes (Foster/Farrar, 1998) by Louis Sachar
Maniac Magee (Little, Brown, 1990) by Jerry Spinelli
Wringer (Cotler/HarperCollins, 1997) by Jerry Spinelli
Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) by Clare Vanderpool
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
This is my frontrunner. Varian Johnson weaves stories from two different timelines into a tightly fraught puzzle. It’s actually hard to choose which timeline story is more compelling so it’s really satisfying when he connects the dots. In addition, Johnson explains how Jim Crow “slavery” worked (similar to loansharking), racism in the South, and the reality of economic opportunities for African Americans both in the past and probably now as well. Using The Westing Game as his template, he has exceeded that excellent puzzle-solving mystery and modernized it to reflect America today as reflected by its past. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Ghost Boys by
I feel like this is a really timely book and perfectly explains the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I also think that Jewel Parker Rhodes consistently writes really excellent books but hasn’t really gotten recognition in step with that. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Amal Unbound by
Saeed brings child slavery in modern time Pakistan front and center in this really compelling story that explains the politics and power structures of that country. Amal is a character that stays with you long after you finish the book. [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
The Night Diary by
This is another timely war refugee story though set in the past, it’s relevant now more than ever. It’s a powerful story of one family’s journey to relocate during Partition from what will become Muslim Pakistan to Hindu India. Hiranandani portrays the violence that now erupts even though different religious groups had lived peacefully together for centuries. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Front Desk counters the myth of Asians being the affluent Model Minority with a story of an impoverished Asian immigrant family who is exploited when running a motel by another Chinese immigrant.
Booked by Kwame Alexander
I loved this book but it’s too similar to his Newbery winner Crossover to get more accolades. Otherwise, how can you explain why Grace Lin didn’t win a Newbery for Starry River of the Sky?!
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
This semi-autobiographical graphic novel chronicles Vera’s childhood as she seeks to fit in and make friends as a socially awkward kid. We don’t really understand why she’s having trouble socially. Vera thinks her failed slumber party is because her family is too Russian and poor but it’s more likely something else since her younger brother has no issues socially. Vera’s friends all go to sleepaway camp, a luxury denied her because her single mother is in college getting her accounting degree. When she discovers that her Russian Orthodox church has a church camp and gives financial aid, she persuades her mother to send her and her brother. Vera struggles socially at the Russian camp also, but it’s because of the age differences between herself and much older girls. Vera uses her artistic skills to win over her roommates but that backfires. Vera is determined to make her camping experience successful and we root for her as she makes her first friend and becomes her camp’s heroine by beating the boys at Capture The Flag. I hope that Vera’s adventures continue with a sequel as she and her family head to England for her mother’s new job.
Graphic novels have never been honored with a Newbery but I hope this year is different. Fans of Smile, Drama, and Roller Girl will enjoy this tween girl journey of finding yourself and fitting in. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman
This is a spectacular book that reflects the incredible accomplishments of Maria Merian, an artist who also should be known as the Mother of Ecology who lived in 17th century Germany when such interests could be punishable by death. In the same way that Maria lured people into science through her gorgeously painted and etched artworks, Joyce Sidman seamlessly combines Maria’s story with science and art. The artwork is carefully chosen to showcase both Maria and her family’s pieces as well as how her art influenced others both in her time and beyond. Maria’s careful observations of the life cycles of insects and amphibians came at a time when the general population believed in spontaneous generation. Sidman cleverly breaks this book up into chapters that reflect Maria’s life cycle categories, showing her own evolution from dependence to independence. After reading this book, it’s not a stretch to realize that Maria Merian was the female equivalent of Charles Darwin of her time, notwithstanding that she inspired him!
I hope that this book wins a Newbery and Silbert. It is most deserving. But awards aside, give this book to girls as a female STEM inspiration. [nonfiction chapter book, ages 8 and up]
I haven’t read these books yet but they are popping up on the Newbery prediction lists time and time again:
Harbor Me by
The Journey of Little Charlie by
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by
Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle by
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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.