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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Elizabeth Bluemle has taken to occasionally posting a list of books earning multiple starred reviews from the various review journals (Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal).  Thus a book can earn up to six starred reviews.  Wendy wonders, in a previous comment, how the number of starred reviews correlates to Newbery success.  The answer is that . . . it depends.  Let’s take a look at the past five years and then we can talk about it.
SAVVY (three stars)
ELIJAH OF BUXON (four stars)
THE WEDNESDAY WARS by Gary Schmidt (four stars)
FEATHERS (two stars)
HATTIE BIG SKY (two stars)
RULES (no stars)
CRISS CROSS (five stars)
HITLER YOUTH (six stars)
SHOW WAY (four stars)
WHITTINGTON (two stars)
KIRA-KIRA (two stars)
GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! and CRISS CROSS both earned critical praise in advance of their Newbery wins yet many people were surprised by their selection when, had they been more informed, they really shouldn’t have been.  Neither KIRA-KIRA nor THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY had that same critical consensus; they were genuine surprises.  THE UNDERNEATH and THE SURRENDER TREE, a pair of last year’s honor books, only had a starred review apiece, but both also won numerous prestigious awards in spite of the fact.  So starred reviews cannot always be a reliable predictor of a book’s award possibilities.  Besides what fun would it be if all the favored books won?  It’s the mix of expected books and unexpected ones that make it such fun to discuss the Newbery.  It’s only when all of the books come out of left field that we get our noses bent out of joint . . .
When I’m reading for an award, I keep a list of starred books like the one that Elizabeth has been compiling.  Since my strategy is to read the best available book at any given moment, I often try to first read the books at the top of this ever changing list.  I also give top priority to books suggested and nominated by other committee members and my own personal favorite authors and genres.  Do you think this strategy unfairly favors the books with the most buzz?  Not necessarily.  I never said those were the only books I read, just the ones I try to read first.  I am also constantly asking myself these kinds of questions: What is the best book that has not gotten a starred review?  What’s the best book by a small press?  What’s the best book for children published by an adult house?  What’s the best book by or about various ethnic minorities (African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, South Asians, East Asians, Arab Americans, etc.)?  What are the best books in various genres (picture book, easy reader, poetry, nonfiction)?  And so on.  There are fourteen other people on the committee and each of them have different reading strategies so we all complement one another in our diversity.
If we can compare starred reviews to the suggestion process of the Newbery than perhaps we can compare the best books to the nominations.  Stars and suggestions are on-the-fly assessments while best books and nominations not only allow for more reflection, they challenge you to seperate the best books from the good books.  Being the obsessive bean counter that I am, I already have compiled this year’s best books lists to see where the overlap is.  When Horn Book announces their Fanfare choices next week, I’ll post my composite list here, and then update it in January when the Bulletin Blue Ribbons are announced.
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Actually, I wasn’t interested in how stars compare with Newbery success (although of course that’s something worth talking about; I’ve just been there before), but rather how this year’s starred books compare with their current Newbery buzz. Of the twelve books on the list with the most stars, I count six that are generally Newbery possible (YMMV). Claudette Colvin and WYRM are probably the most buzzed-about (yes? no?), and I continue to be surprised that Moonshot isn’t getting more consideration, with all those stars. I think there may be some picture-book prejudice as we’ve talked about previously; it seems like people see “pictures” and think “better for the Caldecott” even if, as I think, the prose is what stands out in that book. Three stars seem to be where it’s at for most of the other buzz-books. It’s exciting to look at that list and basically know the winner (and probably all the honors) are on there. What is this year’s Surrender Tree?

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    While I’m not crazy about MOONSHOT personally, I do think it’s a book that lots of committees will be looking at (Caldecott, Geisel, Sibert, Newbery).

    I think WHEN YOU REACH ME and CALPURNIA TATE are the most buzzed-about, but CLAUDETTE COLVIN is up there, too . . .

  3. When I chaired the Newbery for the Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! year…I spent my hours on the reference desk at work (when I wasn’t helping someone!) checking on every single starred review in the “major” journals, and making sure I saw the book if it was eligible. Picture books, easy readers, everything. Though I knew that stars are not the only indicators of Newbery credibility…I just wanted to make sure that I’d seen everything that *some* critic out there thought was worthy of note.

    Upshot?: I didn’t find much correlation between the stars and what rose to the top of the Newbery pool (although, you’ll see that our year’s winners all had lots of stars!). Meaning…the really outstanding books were the ones we’d already found, despite the starred reviews, and I didn’t come across anything else in my perusals of stars that I ultimately thought I’d bring to the top of my list. I still thought it was a worthy exercise, as it helped me keep the perspective of the many different ways a book can distinguish itself, and what marks a strong book in various formats and genres.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    People often speculate whether or not the National Book Award choices affect the Newbery and/or Printz committees, but when I served on them, I already had multiple readings on many of the shortlisted titles, and already had my own idea of whether or not they were sufficiently distinguished. The same holds true for starred reviews. You will often read and evaluate a book before all the reviews have trickled in. It certainly may cause you to examine your response to certain books more closely, but I don’t think it forms your opinion.

    On the other hand, I will say that on one award committee, we found a small press title at the eleventh hour because of starred reviews it got in December. We did not recognize the title, but I was a very big fan, and would have been very happy to do so.

  5. Thinking about all these stars and top ten lists, is there a chance that great reviews or great press can hurt a books chances of being awarded the medal? Is there a chance of a critical (or more likely contrarian) backlash against a title which is universally loved. I am thinking here of WHEN YOU REACH ME, my favorite from this year (decade? ever?). I think it would be a superb choice for the medal, I know the title was discussed some months ago and Jonathan had some fantasy genre related reservations about the title (the reservations must be pretty slight as the book made it into his NPR list), which didn’t really buy. My question is: Can all the praise this title as been receiving hurt it at the committee meeting. Will members leave the title off their initial ballots not because they don’t feel it deserves the award, but because they are all assuming their peers will include it on their ballots?

  6. Hm. I don’t think so. As Jonathan alludes, when you’re on the committee, you’ve got an ear out for all the public praise and criticism of titles, but you’re really forming your own opinions in balance with other titles on the table. There’s certainly an awareness of what might have strong support at the table when it comes time to ballot, but I think that when there’s a book a member feels strongly is IT, it gets their vote. The winner really has to rise high on the ballot, so it requires people to really throw their weight behind it.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t think outside opinions and expectations necessarily affect the committee. I think in the heat of the discussion all of that kind of stuff goes out the window.

    It is possible to have a very positive discussion about a title and then not have the subsequent voting represent that, perhaps because members are assuming other people will vote for it, preferring to cast their vote to keep other books alive (because once a book receives no votes on a ballot it’s removed from contention). I don’t think you lose the Medal winner that way, but you can lose honor books (or books that outsiders perceive as a Medal book). Does that make sense?

    WHEN YOU REACH ME just does not resonate with me at all, I’m afraid, but I’m willing to acknowledge that I am part of the problem, so my contention has always been that WHEN YOU REACH ME is a Newbery Honor book rather than a Newbery Medal book. My students, on the other hand, very much think that WHEN YOU REACH ME is a Medal book.

  8. (I had a dream last night in which I saw WYRM on the Newbery Medal homepage as the winner. But the honor books were below the fold and I couldn’t figure out how to scroll down in my subsconscious state.)

  9. Fascinating. Thanks.

    The year that OWL MOON won the Caldecott, it was published late. (I think in November.) And hadn’t had any reviews except two–one was a wild rave in the NY Times moments before the committee decided. Any stars it got were after the fact.

    The next year DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC was published and there were stars and huge buzz about the book. The pblisher fully expected a big award. And while it won a bunch of smaller awards and twenty-one years later is still in print, not only wasn’t it a Newbery or Honor Book, it wasn’t even a Notable.

    So your piece here confirms my long-held suspicions. Stars are markers only and sometimes mean something but often do not.

    The giving of stars, like reviewing itself, is an arcane and personal art that often tells us as much (or more) about the reviewer than the book.

    “Tonstant weader fwowed up” indeed.


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