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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

What is this thing called Newbery?

In my earlier post, Mocking, I outlined in the roughest terms the process for the Newbery committee.  In many of the comments on the recent post Shortlist and Discussion Details Announced!, and from some of the questions from new participants who have RSVPed for Dec 12th, I’ve realized we should talk a little more about how the Newbery discussion is framed around the criteria, and how discussion participants may want to prepare their thoughts

First, please read the Newbery Criteria in full before proceeding with this post.

Discussing and considering titles for the Newbery is more focussed than most children’s book discussions tend to be.  For instance:

“The committee in its deliberations is to consider only the books eligible for the award, as specified in the terms.”

This means that only eligible books published that year may be considered, and only considered against each other. The committee is looking for the one book of that field that rises to the top. Therefore, they do not compare the eligibile books to books from any other year.   Whether KKK is Bartoletti’s best book is not a consideration for this committee. How it compares to the other eligibile books is.  Whether ONE CRAZY SUMMER is the best avaiable introduction for kids to the Black Panther movement is not a consideration.  Whether Williams-Garcia succeeds in her “interpretation…” and “presentation…” is.  This is very different than how we usually think of evaluating a book for purchase.

“Committee members need to consider the following:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.” [emphasis mine]

Jonathan addressed this in an exchange with Mr. H on Monday’s post.  This is the “apples and oranges” dilemma.  Having distinguished qualities in more areas than another book is not the question.  The question is: is the book distinguished in all areas that are pertinent to it?  That is: Is Bartoletti’s nonfiction work distinguished in “Interpretation of theme or concept,” “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization,” and “Approriatness of style”?  We wouldn’t expect a nonfiction work to have elements plot, characters, or setting.   However, we’d ask if KEEPER, for instance, is distinguished in plot, character, setting…and probably style.  DARK EMPEROR, I’d suggest, we’d be looking at “interpretation of theme or concept,” “appropriateness of style,” and “presentation of information…” since there is an informational aspect to this book.

Of course, when you get down to it and have to ask which is “most” distinguished… DARK EMPEROR, KKK, or KEEPER (as a “for instance”) it becomes extremely difficult, and this is where you really need face to face discussion and 15 well developed opinions.  Most importantly, committee members will have developed those opinions by paying close attention to their own reading prefernces and biases, and guarding against those.   The justification statements submitted with each committee member’s nominations are a way for–for instance–a committee member to make a case for a poetry book to others who may be having difficultly seeing it as distinguished.   Remember that a lot of us in this field tend to be “fiction” readers.  A majority of Newbery honored titles are fiction…and specifically, novels.  However, there is nothing in the award that suggests it is only for ficiton. It is for literature.

Those of you who weren’t with us last year might review the Dunderheads Dilemma for an approach on apples and oranges.


“Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.

Note: The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity. “

This is probably the hardest thing for participants to separate out of the discussion, since when considering a book we’re usually very focussed on popularity, and/or didactic intent.  But the award challenges us to think of a “child audience” that is not necessarily a wide audience.  It also challenges us to consider the book only for what it is, and for how well it presents itself to its audience. Not whether we think it’s important for children to read it. Committee members ask themselves: who is the best, or intended, audience for this book and how well does the author speak to them?  That audience may be most 3-6 year olds. Or a narrow subset of 9-10 year olds. Or 13-14 year olds. Etc.

Angela said in a comment on Monday’s post: “Perhaps most noteably, as an elementary librarian, serving grades K-6, I feel KKK isn’t appropriate for this age group. I would hope that the book that takes home the Newbery gold would appeal to children of a wider age group than the YA or “tween” set.”

I think many of us have similar hopes, but they’re somewhat unfounded.  The award is for a book for any part of an audience of 0-14 year olds. The committee does not deliberate on how wide this audience is. 

When you combine this common, unfounded hope with the “test of time question”….

(Again, Angela from Monday. Not picking on you Angela, you just are most-recently asking the pertinent questions that come up repeatedly!) “It would be nice if the book that wins THE medal really and truly has the elements of a classic and stands the test of time (which I know is subjective). I’m sure the committee that selected “Secrets of the Andes” over “Charlotte’s Web,” for example, would wish to rewind time and debate a little more.”

You’ve got the age-old “Has the Newbery Lost its Way” debate.  And since this post is long enough for now, I’ll point to a comment I made last year on that can o’ worms.

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. Wow. So reading back through the comments I made yesterday, and thinking a lot about this last night (on my birthday nonetheless) I think I can definitely see why I was exasperating Jonathan. I jumped to the conclusion that I understood the criteria better than I truly did and probably looked a little foolish . . .

    However, I think I’m getting a better handle on them and still want to practice arguing my case for TURTLE IN PARADISE. If I were on the committee, in some hypothetical dream-like universe, that book would be one of my 7 titles and alongside THE DREAMER, one I’d argue for the most. I just need to figure out how to do it now!

    Thanks for the detailed explanation Nina, and thanks Jonathan for your patience!

  2. Angela K. says:

    Hello again. I know in our librarian groups we are always wondering why books like “KKK” (at the top of the Newbery eligibility age bracket) are discussed thoroughly in Mock Newbery groups, but distinguished books for younger readers are never really looked at that much. I’ve heard some talk of “Night Fairy” being a distinguished book that may be discussed by the committee, but the younger books never get quite the same “buzz” as longer or YA chapter books. When was the last time a “younger” book won the Newbery? Picture books and beginning chapter books seem to automatically be a “dark horse” category as well (in addition to nonfiction and poetry).

    And yes, we do talk all the time in our school library system about the “Has the Newbery Lost Its Way” debate that was featured in SLJ sometime in the last 4 years that I’ve been a librarian. But, the link to your comment on that “can o’ worms” is not working. As I also noted earlier, I know that books are not considered on whether they will stand the test of time (which is perhaps partly why people wonder if the Newbery has lost its way), and only on their distinguishedness. It’s just my own wish/bias and I do try to just evaluate on the facts, but at times, yes, it is difficult when I know that the book that is selected may turn into a “why the heck did they choose Secret of the Andes over Charlotte’s Web” situation down the road.

  3. Ok, I just had a shudder worthy thought when two thoughts collided in my brain while reading Nina’s well explained post. With the caveat that didactic content cannot be considered, what if a very well written book, clearly for a child audience, with documentation and lovely prose sang the praises of the KKK. What would the committee do?

  4. Lose out on its presentation of information and/or interpretation of theme or concept, I think. A similar, though more realistic, discussion occurred about last year’s A Season of Gifts and whether, if it could be agreed that it had racist or offensive content, that would somehow be able to knock it out of Newbery contention.

    Angela, since I sense you’re only interested in Newbery gold, the closest thing to what you’re looking for is probably 1942’s The Matchlock Gun or 1931’s The Cat Who Went to Heaven. A case might be made for 1987’s The Whipping Boy, but I don’t think that’s quite as young as you’re thinking of; or Joyful Noise (1989) or A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (1982); or 1945’s Rabbit Hill or 1947’s Miss Hickory. To my eyes, what we think of as a standard picture book has never won.

  5. I know we covered this last year but I’m still having trouble seeing where in the Newbery criteria the committee can consider the topic (or interestingness of said topic) of a nonfiction book. The way I read the criteria you can consider how distinguished the plot of a fiction books is, but not the topic or focus of a nonfiction book. Last year the committee awarded Hoose the newbery honor for Claudette Colvin but according to the criteria it had nothing to do with bring such an important and inspiring historical figure to light but only because of the way Hoose did so (presentation, style). Presumably had Hoose written an account of Rosa Parks with the same superb style and presentation it would have also earned the award.

    The way I’m reading this an author can create a work of nonfiction that is in no way interesting to anyone except a hypothetical lone 14 year old child but if it is done so with distinction in presentation and style above the distinction of all other books (nonfiction or otherwise) published that year it should win the newbery medal.

    So the committee can NOT say that Bartoletti did a distinguished thing by writing a book about the early years of the KKK only that Bartoletti used distinguished style and presentation in conveying information about some topic.

    I can’t imagine that a committee would really interpret the rules in this way. Do they? And if not what part of the criteria can the use to discuss a nonfiction books topic?

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    Angela: I fixed the link, I think. I share your view re younger fiction. It’s an “apple” or “orange” (depending on how you look at it) that seems to have a hard time up against “weightier” stuff. Every year Jonathan and I are on the lookout for strong young fiction to include in the shortlist (such as last year’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon). This year we didn’t quite find it. Night Fairy just didn’t make our cut. One could say that The Dreamer and/or Dark Emperor are for a younger audience though.

    Mr H: Happy birthday!

    Eric: You’re actually on the right track. Do you think that, for instance, the discussion for Joyful Noise or Good Masters Sweet Ladies was more about the uniqueness of the content, or the qualities of the *presentation* of the content? You might be interested in reading the interpretations of the criteria that are in the appendix of the Newbery Manual. Go Here:, open a copy of the manual, and scroll to the end for some interpretations on narrow audience and the age range in particular.

  7. Barbara Kerley says:

    Hi Nina —

    Great discussion going, as always. ( I look forward to Heavy Medal season all summer long 🙂

    I had a question about your comment: “The question is: is the book distinguished in all areas that are pertinent to it? That is: Is Bartoletti’s nonfiction work distinguished in “Interpretation of theme or concept,” “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization,” and “Approriatness of style”? We wouldn’t expect a nonfiction work to have elements plot, characters, or setting.”

    I’m wondering how your comment relates to narrative nonfiction. I’m curious how discussions of works of narrative nonfiction might work with the actual committee. I’ve not yet had the chance to read KKK, though I am a big fan of Bartoletti’s work, so I’ll pull a few examples from a recent work of narrative nonfiction — Deborah Heiligman’s CHARLES AND EMMA. Even though it is a work of nonfiction, Heiligman did a superb job delineating character, for example — you really feel like you know Darwin and his wife by the end of the book. She also does a wonderful job of evoking setting: his house, with his study and garden and worms on the piano. I might even argue that, while the ‘plot’ of the book is real events, it is presented quite skillfully — she frames the thrust of the book (how Charles and Emma’s marriage influenced his work as a scientist) — from the first page, and builds dramatically to the last.

    So I’m curious if the Newbery committee would, say, apply more criteria to a work like that (ie, criteria that one might usually expect to apply only to works of fiction). And, to add even further to the ‘apples and oranges’ issue, perhaps scrutinize such a book even more closely as it has, perhaps, even more pertinent areas than, say, another work of narrative nonfiction that might not be as skillfully written?

    Interesting stuff, this!

  8. Angela K. says:

    The way I read the Newbery criteria, a picture book technically is eligible, correct? I think you had a post on City Dog, Country Frog earlier this year? It is frustrating to me, to some extent, that there seems to be a “gap” in awards for books for young children. Picture books may be eligible, but they are dark horses for sure. Without winning a Caldecott medal for illustrations, many very good, “distinguished” books will fall through the cracks. There are many picture books each year that get 5 starred reviews from all the best journals, but for most, that is all that they can hope to achieve (aside from perhaps a “notable children’s book” designation from ALA).

    What will happen to Ballet for Martha; Snook Alone; What If; and Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse and others this year that all have 5 starred reviews? Do you even see them mentioned anywhere in Mock Newbery discussion groups? Mirror, Mirror I’ve seen mentioned once or twice, but most who mention it know that it probably won’t be a “serious” contender.

    I know there have been many debates about whether the audience age range for the Newbery should be lowered. Personally, I’m all for it – or for the creation of another award specifically addressing this younger set that so often gets ignored. The YA audience already has the Printz award for ages 12-18, so why can’t the Newbery be lowered to birth through age 11? (Or have another award for this age group)

  9. Angela K. says:

    Before someone mentions it – yes, I know Geisel Awards are supposed to address the younger set. But, to me, it doesn’t seem to have the same prestige as a Newbery or a Printz. More notably, the audience is only supposed to be up through grade 2, so grades 3-5 are largely left out.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Eric, technically the committee should not be swayed by the topic of a book, a book on the history of furniture should have just as much of a chance as a book on the history of a civil rights figure, but if you look at the nonfiction books that have been recognized there often seems to be a very compelling–if not “important”–human element to them. But I also think this kind of bias applies in fiction, too. Don’t you think a book about the Black Panthers or Pablo Neruda is more “important” than a school story about a red-headed third grader named Clementine?

    Barbara, I do think that nonfiction can often be judged on plot, character, and setting, but it depends on the book. Plot is merely the arrangement of events in the story so plot in fiction is essentially synonymous with organization in nonfiction.

    Angela, my next post will be about looking for younger books. Stay tuned . . .

  11. Nina Lindsay says:

    Barbara, thanks for clarifying. I shouldn’t have said “We wouldn’t expect a nonficiton book to have plot, setting, character.” I should have said, “I wouldn’t expect KKK to have…”. You’re absolutely right re narrative nonfiction, and we did indeed discuss those elements re CHARLES AND EMMA.

    Angela, we considered all those short titles for our shortlist, several right up to the very end. I do expect the actual committee to be considering all of those. I’ll wait for Jonathan’s post because I have a lot of thoughts about this….

  12. It seems to me that a book about the history of furniture that even entered the conversation would have to be VERY well written. And would, if it held my interest at all, impress me.

  13. I think my point, if i even have one, is that buzz around books generally comes (especially in nonfiction) from the books subject matter. Last year I think Claudette Colvin was read and enjoyed by so many first and foremost because it told an unknown story (and therefore was “important”). What i’m struggling with is how the committee can ignore this reaction to the text as an exciting story which the reader had little to no knowledge of before hand. Almost Astronauts might be an even better example. From my prospective it wasn’t an extremely well presented book and had a problematic style but the information was novel and exciting so the book got lots of buzz and notice mostly for an aspect of the work that the committee had to ignore.
    On the opposite end of the spectrum we have books like Freeman’s Lincoln bio, Nelson’s We Are the Ship or Partridge’s John Lennon bio which certainly don’t offer any new or exciting information for adult readers but shine because of their style and presentation.

    Fiction doesn’t face this dilemma b/c the work is wholly original (expect in the case of retellings like Hamilton’s In the Beginning which do face this problem)
    in both story and plot. So the committee can appreciate both. Right?

    Actually I don’t really think about “importance” when selecting books for my classroom library or recommending books to my students. For my purposes books are for enjoyment not building knowledge. Students are learning to enjoy reading period. If that mean self selecting No David! and the Elephant & Piggie books every day for 180 days that fine (i’ve had students that have done this).

    If reading a book about the Black Panthers or Pablo Neruda contributes to the creation of a life long reader then that book is important. If Clementine makes a student laugh aloud during SSR which in turn causes 6 more kids to pick up a copy of Clementine the next day then said book is equally important.

    As Martha V. Parravano wrote “”Given the chance, kids will read the same way adults do: for themselves. Don’t think of books for young people as tools; try instead to treat them as invitations into the reading life.”

    As for Clementine, the more I think about it the less I think it has a shot at recognition. Mostly because I think as a part of a series a lot of the emotional and comedic pay off is from the character work Pennypacker did in earlier books. (not that there isn’t wonderful character work done in the new book, I especially like how more of Clementine’s classmates were fleshed out.) The characters are so well developed in the first 3 titles that Pennypacker does not have to retread and can instead hint or reference at jokes and conflicts which works wonderfully for the book but presumably not for a committee table. It’s like a late episode of Arrested Development, all they needed to show is half a punchline and the viewer did the rest of the work. Jonathan I think you owe it to yourself to take some time after award season is over and this blog goes on hiatus to read all four Clementine books. I think you’ll find them as distinguished and hilarious as the best of Cleary though maybe not in a way that the Newbery committee can consider.

  14. Nina Lindsay says:

    Eric, I had laugh because I find so much fiction to be anything but “wholly original.”

    I see what you’re saying, but recall that we’re kind of trapped in the buzz. The committee, I promise you, isn’t. Sure, they may have heard about the Hoose early and often, but they would have found it anyway, on their own, even if it had been about the history of furniture.

  15. I wonder… how do members of the committee manage to avoid being affected by the buzz? Hard to imagine, in this zipping, buzzing, clicking world, that anyone can manage to find isolation/solitude at all.

  16. Happy birthday, Mr. H!

    Personally, I think a well-done book on the history of furniture would be *awesome.* Of course to be Newbery-worthy, it would need to be truly distinguished in a way that didn’t require looking at the art/photos/other graphic elements…

  17. Nina Lindsay says:

    Laurel, the members aren’t necessarily avoiding the buzz…but they’re reading so much more widely and deeply than anyone else, that they just have a bigger scope/perspective on it. With that bigger perspective, they’re able to moderate how much they’re affected by it.

    There is something naturally isolated/solitary about finding time to read hundreds of books. 🙂

  18. Sounds like such an intense experience…

  19. Nina Lindsay says:

    Rereading Eric’s long comment, I still never really addressed his question in detail which is:

    “I think my point, if i even have one, is that buzz around books generally comes (especially in nonfiction) from the books subject matter. Last year I think Claudette Colvin was read and enjoyed by so many first and foremost because it told an unknown story (and therefore was “important”). What i’m struggling with is how the committee can ignore this reaction to the text as an exciting story which the reader had little to no knowledge of before hand.”

    So, taking the Hoose again as an example, here’s how I would approach the discussion. The audience for this book has little to no knowledge of the subject before reading it. Whatever the subject is…yes, the committee should take into account what the child audience’s reaction to it will be, to evaluate the effectiveness of the presentation. But this is still a little different that the adult-critic reaction to it being an “important” book.

    This really gets refined in discussion. Eric, if you and I were sitting at the Newbery committee table right now discussing the Hoose, and you said (I’m putting words in your mouth, excuse me) “young readers I shared this with were so excited because they’d never heard this story before…it’s so wonderful that it’s available to them” I might say, “ok, whether or not this is the first book on the subject…given that they’re new readers to it, what was it in the text that they reacted to so powerfully?” You might say, “Well, the way she stands up in the courtroom as a teenager despite the fact that she’d been discredited by the movement…” and I might say “…well, show me where in the text this comes up. How does Hoose present it, and how is it that he elicits this reaction?”

    Of course: it’s going to be easier to engage an audience over Colvin’s story that over the history of furniture…I know I made light of that. You of course have a point. My point is that the committee will always try to recognize this distinction, and so be rigorous about bringing the discussion always back round to the criteria. The committee *cant” “ignore” the buzz…but they can analyze it for where the buzz correlates with the Newbery criteria, and where it doesn’t.

  20. Genevieve says:

    Here’s your well-written, humorous history of furniture — but for an adult audience.

    Bill Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything) turns his attention from science to society in his authoritative history of domesticity, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. While walking through his own home, a former Church of England rectory built in the 19th century, Bryson reconstructs the fascinating history of the household, room by room. With waggish humor and a knack for unearthing the extraordinary stories behind the seemingly commonplace, he examines how everyday items–things like ice, cookbooks, glass windows, and salt and pepper–transformed the way people lived, and how houses evolved around these new commodities. “Houses are really quite odd things,” Bryson writes, and, luckily for us, he is a writer who thrives on oddities. He gracefully draws connections between an eclectic array of events that have affected home life, covering everything from the relationship between cholera outbreaks and modern landscaping, to toxic makeup, highly flammable hoopskirts, and other unexpected hazards of fashion. Fans of Bryson’s travel writing will find plenty to love here; his keen eye for detail and delightfully wry wit emerge in the most unlikely places, making At Home an engrossing journey through history, without ever leaving the house. –Lynette Mong

  21. I have always been taught that an interdependence between text and illustrations mark our best picture books. Both elements contribute to setting, character, plot, etc. So it seems unlikely that many outstanding picture books could be eligible for the Newbery since considering mainly the text would limit interpretation… and delineation…. On the other hand, in illustrated books, which can include early readers and chapter books as well as poetry, the text may be enhanced by the illustrations, but can stand on its own.

    P.S. Mr. H – I am also enthusiastic about Turtle in Paradise – vivid characterization, fully realized setting, and a plot with twists and turns, actions convincingly based on the place, time and characters as presented. Certainly can be discussed using the Newbery criteria.

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