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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Sibert and The Newbery

Many of you who followed the Almost Astronauts kerfuffle in all its permutations here may have been surprised to see it swipe the Sibert.  Jonathan remarks:

I could have seen a dozen books winning outright which is why I refused to make a prediction here.  ALMOST ASTRONAUTS has taken a beating on this blog in recent weeks, so this is something of a surprise.  I also predicted a mix of picture books and longer books.  I do miss MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, TRUCE, and THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM here, but I do know the Sibert can’t have eight honor books.

I would also like to point out that the Sibert committee has no problem routinely including picture books among the winners.  So when we discuss picture books and fiction in Newbery terms and we say that picture books just can’t compete, then why do they do so well in the Sibert field?

I’ve mentioned frequently that the Sibert Terms and Criteria seem to do a better job of defining "distinguished" nonfiction than the Newbery does; at the simplest level, because they take the whole package into account, not just the text.  But now seems the time to look beyond the simplest level. I’m not going to paste the entire Terms and Criteria here, but just bring out a few points:

The Sibert Award is presented annually to the author, author/illustrator, co-authors, or author and illustrator named on the title page of the most distinguished informational book for children published in the United States in English during the preceding year.

Terms include:

Poetry and traditional literature (e.g., folktales) are not eligible.  There are no other limitations as to the character of the book providing it is an original work.
Though we’re used to saying "nonfiction," the Sibert does not. It’s an award for "informational" books, and to make it perfectly clear, it excludes poetry and folklore.

"Informational books" are defined as those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material.

"Significant contribution" is gauged by how well the work elucidates, clarifies and enlivens its subject.  The committee considers overall accuracy, documentation, organization, visual material and book design.  

The press release for Almost Astronauts notes: "Meticulously researched and handsomely illustrated with archival materials, Stone’s insightful, passionately written chronicle is sure to inspire. ‘Stone has a less-is-more approach that really packs a wallop,’ said Sibert Committee Chair Vicky Smith. ‘Readers will come away with their blood boiling. It’s a heckuva story.’"   Considering those remarks and the definition of "Siginifanct Contribution" in the Terms, I’m less and less surprised about this choice.  I know that the argument against it is that Stone’s unfailingly strong tone distorts the "truth," but I still don’t see that.  I see a tone that "elucidates" and "enlivens" the subject.  In the Mock discussions at my table, I noted that I found the chapter and section headings, as well as the flap copy, to be unneccessarily provocative….and I believe that many of the adult critics of the book are reacting to that surface level tone.  To me, it is a minor flaw, as I believe that any young reader with an open mind who reads the whole book will get everything they need to put this story in context.

Finally, the nitty-gritty criteria:

In identifying the most distinguished informational book for children from the preceding year, committee members consider important elements and qualities:

Excellent, engaging, and distinctive use of language.

Excellent, engaging, and distinctive visual presentation.

Appropriate organization and documentation.

Clear, accurate, and stimulating presentation of facts, concepts, and ideas.

Appropriate style of presentation for subject and for intended audience.

Supportive features (index, table of contents, maps, timelines, etc).

Respectful and of interest to children.

Looking at these, I think it becomes clear how the committee can consider various formats, including picture books, graphic novels, and memoirs.  All have been honored with the Sibert since it’s inception in 2000.  And since it’s inception,   An American Plague, The Voice That Challenged A Nation, Hitler Youth, and now Claudette Colvin have been honored by both the Sibert and the Newbery…far more frequent  recongition for "informational" books by the Newbery than before the Sibert.   These titles though are of a particular type–a subset of informational books whose strength rest almost entirely upont their text–making them equally distinguished for both awards.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nonfiction Newbery Books by Decade




    1988 LINCOLN
    1987 VOLCANO
    1983 HOMESICK (memoir)
    1982 UPON THE HEAD OF A GOAT (memoir)

    While there was an eight year gap between THE GREAT FIRE and AN AMERICAN PLAGUE, I actually think the 1980s were the best decade for Newbery nonfiction: one medal, five honors. That’s the way every decade should look. The twenty teens have gotten off to a good start. Let’s hope it continues.

  2. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, a modest correction. I’d only listed the books that were crossover Newbery/Sibert honorees, but I’d also include GOOD MASTERS SWEET LADIES and CARVER as nonfiction for this decade…which isn’t over until the end of 2010. So this decade’s nonfiction Newberys are actually:


    Right up there with the good ole 80s

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, if we’re talking nonfiction rather than informational then I think the 80s still has the 00s beat.

    1989 JOYFUL NOISE (poetry)
    1989 IN THE BEGINNING (folklore)
    1988 LINCOLN
    1987 VOLCANO
    1983 HOMESICK (memoir)
    1982 A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN (poetry)
    1982 UPON THE HEAD OF A GOAT (memoir)

    And that’s not including A GATHERING OF DAYS and THE ROAD HOME which are technically fiction, but strive for the effect of nonfiction.

  4. “Striving for the effect of nonfiction”? Come on, that’s not even in question! But I think Good Masters, Sweet Ladies and Carver ARE informational (rather than just non-fiction).

    I still have doubts about Almost Astronauts and “excellent use of language”, “appropriate organization and documentation” (I found the organization sort of muddled, and others have commented about documentation), and the “supportive features” (which weren’t anything special, though I don’t think a lot of this is necessary in every book). Overall, I just thought the book was not very well-written in comparison to either Claudette Colvin or Marching For Freedom.

    I rolled my eyes at the book a lot. And there were a couple of things I thought were downright ridiculous–like when Stone uses media comparisons to show how women’s roles have changed. Leave it to Beaver, sure. Later, Mary Tyler Moore, sure. Her examples for 1999? I think she mentioned Cagney and Lacey (off the air since 1988), Friends (not exactly a bastion of feminism), and Mr. Mom (1983). Stone wasn’t listing TV and movies that had come along since the 1970s; she wrote that these were what was showing at the time. One way or another (either writing or research), that was pretty careless.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, A GATHERING OF DAYS is Dear America before that series became popular. THE ROAD HOME is the story of the author’s mother. It’s a fictionalized biography. I don’t consider either of them nonfiction which is why they are not listed as such.

    On the other hand, I am leery of counting CARVER and GOOD MASTERS! as informational books. Yes, they both use poetry in service of history and the latter, in particular, is a hybrid of poetry, monologue, and nonfiction, but I worry that too many people like to list these as nonfiction because “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” In other words, isn’t it lovely to have something to make those dry facts not so dry? And didn’t Schlitz say as much in her Newbery Medal speech?

  6. I’m not getting whatever point you’re trying to make about A Gathering of Days. It’s historical fiction, neither more or less, isn’t it? (I think to say it “is” Dear America is pretty dismissive, but that’s a different conversation.)

    I know Schlitz’s Newbery speech rubbed many people the wrong way, but I’m only interested in the text, and I’d consider that book informational–at least, informational enough–because it provides straight up nonfiction information about the time periods. Why not consider it an “informational” book with illustrative poems instead of a book of poems with supplementary information? That’s how I think of it–though I’m not sure one could say that one or the other is Right.

    Now, what makes you leery of Carver as nonfiction/informational? I was talking with someone who couldn’t agree with the new Bob Marley book as nonfiction simply because it was poetry, but I don’t see why the form should decide that, why poetry can’t be a way of expressing information.

    I just don’t agree with “that’s the way every decade should look”–I hope committees continue considering nonfiction seriously and would especially like to see some non-historical nonfiction honored (I looked once, and could only find one nonfiction title in the entire list that sounded like it might not be history, an art book), I’m only interested in whether they are honoring the best of the best, and i don’t think there “should” be a certain proportion of nonfiction.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, A GATHERING OF DAYS is historical fiction and I do think it is the prototype for the Dear America series, which controversially blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction. I don’t think A GATHERING OF DAYS has the problems that people criticized in Dear America, however. THE ROAD FROM HOME is catalogued in nonfiction in my public library and yet the book is a fictionalized autobiography. The author is telling his mother’s story in first person.

    GOOD MASTERS! is certainly informational, but the monologues which comprise the majority of the book are historical fiction, just as much so as THE ROAD FROM HOME and A GATHERING OF DAYS, in fact. The truly informational parts are the notes and sidebars and such that contain informational text. While the entire book does inform about the middle ages, I do not believe the book would have been ruled eligible for the Sibert Medal because poetry is not eligible.

    Ditto for CARVER. Yes, it’s informational, but I would not classify it with either fiction or nonfiction (although it partakes of both), but rather . . . simply poetry. I do think that nonfiction–other nonfiction–can be written in poetry, but it must adhere to nonfiction standards of documentation and the like.

    It’s not just the nonfiction (informational, poetry, and folklore) I like about the 80s. They have YA novels like JACOB HAVE I LOVED and THE HERO AND THE CROWN. They have transitional books like SARAH PLAIN AND TALL and THE WHIPPING BOY. They have a couple of picture books, too.

    The diversity of the 80s gave way to the homogeneity of the 90s, the decade that Anita Silvey praised so heavily in her article, because it offered up one middle grade novel after another. (The 00s did do much better than the 90s with three nonfiction, two poetry books, one transitional book, and a picture book.)

    I don’t think there should be a certain proportion of nonfiction or picture books or poetry or whatever, but the virtual absence of any of these genres gives me pause. Now you may actually believe that all those middle grade fiction novels in the 90s really were the best books of the year (just like you may really believe that HOMER P. FIGG is better than MOONSHOT or MARCHING FOR FREEDOM this year). But if you believe that I’ve got a bridge in Broo . . . I’m gonna sell you this load of crap, too: THE LION & THE MOUSE by Jerry Pinkney is the first book by an individual African American artist worthy of the Caldecott Medal.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Then there’s diversity. The 00s gave us an African American Medalist and two Asian American Medalists. The 90s seem pretty white in comparison.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am not advocating for putting books in Newbery consideration simply because they provide diversity of one kind or another, but I would hope that diversity would, in fact, arise organically out of the process, and when it doesn’t, I get crabby. That’s all.

  10. Phillip Hoose says:

    I confess. I got hooked on “Heavy Medal” about a month ago, and it soon became a part of my day. I read it each morning after a night’s harvest of comments had come in. Of course I was eager to see how Claudette had fared overnight, but I also banked up the heat of the discussions to get me warm up here in Maine. I learned so much! I’ll miss you both, Jonathan and Nina. I’ll miss the quick-to-respond Wendy and all the others who wieghed in so frequently and so well. It is wonderful to be part of this passionate, literate,tradition-rich, caring community.
    I wish you both, and all your readers, happy times until next season, when you can bet I’ll be right back at my post.
    Happy winter! Phillip Hoose

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