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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

In Search of a Young Newbery

Now we turn our attention from picture books and easy readers to those transitional chapter books that not only prepare children for longer, more sophisticated novels, but which also often turn them onto the joy of reading.  We’re looking at those books typically marketed for and read by readers in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.  By the way, the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois sponsors the Gryphon Award which recognizes the best books for K-4 readers.  No, it doesn’t have the prestige of the Newbery, but it still fills a void, being slightly older than the Geisel.  Check it out.


When I think back to my earliest recollections of independent reading in third grade, I can remember the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  I probably remember these because they are series, and the comfort and familiarity of a series is actually a good thing.  When a struggling or reluctant reader finds a series, then we–as the gatekeepers–do not have to sell each individual title in the series.  Hallelujah!

These aforementioned books were also my first taste of genre reading–mystery and fantasy–and so a good plot was obviously essential to my reading pleasure.  When I read individual titles that were not part of a series, I preferred to read humor with good characters and dialogue.  I can’t recall specific titles, but I know I read some Judy Blume and I think also some Beverly Cleary.

When I contrast the books I read in second and third grade with what my students checked out, I notice a decided shift toward books with more visual aspects.  Where I read the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Chronicles of Narnia, my students were reading Babymouse, Bone, Captain Underpants, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  As excellent as these books may be for their intended audience, their graphic nature sabotages their Newbery eligibility.


If we comb through the list of Newbery winners in the past four decades, we find two Medal books pitched to young readers in this age group: SARAH PLAIN AND TALL (1986) and THE WHIPPING BOY (1987).  I also find the following Honor books: THE HUNDRED PENNY BOX (1976), ABEL’S ISLAND (1977), RAMONA AND HER FATHER (1978), RAMONA QUIMBY, AGE 8 (1982),  SUGARING TIME (1984), 26 FAIRMOUNT AVENUE (2000), and WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON (2010).  So it’s more in the past couple decades that the Newbery committee has sorely neglected to recognize books for these younger readers.  Why?


If the increasingly visual nature of the best transitional chapter books is one thing that explains their absence from the Newbery roster, perhaps another is that like young adult novels and children’s novels, transitional chapter books have become bloated, almost beyond recognition.  Take WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, for example.  It’s clearly a 2nd or 3rd grade Newbery–we held it to a different standard in some of the literary elements because of the youth of its audience (and rightly so, I might add)–yet it’s double the length of either of the Ramona Newbery Honors.  While it does read young, the length and the pacing of the story push it beyond the reach or interest of many young readers who might otherwise embrace it.

While THE DREAMER, KEEPER, and COUNTDOWN don’t read quite as young as WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, they each have the ability to reach down and captivate the occasional reader younger than fourth grade, although perhaps not as well as, say, TURTLE IN PARADISE, THE FANTASTIC SECRET OF OWEN JESTER, or something like THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY or WHITTINGTON (which have young characters and short page counts, but not necessarily gobs of reader appeal).  Even though the younger audience for these bigger children’s novels (i.e. DREAMER, KEEPER, COUNTDOWN) would probably grow if the page count shrunk, the Newbery committee is not at all concerned about this kind of thing.

Still, when you ask where are all the good books for younger readers, I think you have to say that (a) some of the best ones disqualify themselves because of their heavily graphic format, (b) publishers are not publishing them as much thanks to the current trend toward bloatedness, and (c) committees have become increasingly enchanted with the pleasures of more sophisticated books.  I think all three of those are factors.


With that said, there is one book that that falls under the novella category like SARAH PLAIN AND TALL and WHIPPING BOY and that is THE NIGHT FAIRY by Laura Amy Schlitz.  I’ve seen this one mentioned here and there as a Newbery contender, but since I don’t see it, I’ll just mention it here, and allow others to defend it.  Betsy?  Eric?  DaNae?

And here are some school story books in the mold of Ramona.  CLEMENTINE, FRIEND OF THE WEEK by Sara Pennypacker gets mentioned most often as a Newbery contender, but what about ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO BIRTHDAY PARTIES, SCIENCE PROJECTS, AND OTHER MAN-MADE CATASTROPHES by Leonore Look, BOBBY THE BRAVE (SOMETIMES) by Lisa Yee, CALVIN COCONUT: DOG HEAVEN by Graham Salisbury, JUDY MOODY, GIRL DETECTIVE by Megan McDonald, or STINK: SOLAR SYSTEM SUPERHERO also by Megan McDonald?  Any love for these?

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. It’s been a while since I read The Night Fairy, but I thought it was good–crisp, clear prose, good sense of plotting, well-defined setting. I’d be pleased, though not thrilled, to see it on the Honor list. While I think it’s good on its own merits, I have doubts that it would have been much noticed if not for the author’s name. It looks, otherwise, like just any fairy book (and most of those are–well, not literary, I guess you’d say) and it’d be hard to get people to read it. By which I mean that I probably wouldn’t have read it.

    The most recent Clementine book dragged a little for me; I thought it was a little message-heavy and light on plot. Besides Ramona, she also reminds me of Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy back in the olden days–I wonder why there was never Newbery love for Haywood, who was the queen of books for this age group?

    The newest Alvin Ho book isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, and though I like to think I have a little bit of thick skin for these things, I was startled to find that a major part of the plot is about children playing cowboys and Indians, complete with Indian Princess and Indian Chief costumes. Children may still play cowboys and Indians somewhere (I can’t think that I’ve ever seen it outside of Halloween costumes, but sure), but I certainly don’t expect to see it featured in a book these days.

  2. I’m thrilled to see Alvin and Bobby on your list. Might I also suggest BINK & GOLLIE by Kate DiCamillo? Or is it that too much illustration thing again? How did SHOW WAY by Jacqueline Woodson make the cut?

  3. Nina Lindsay says:

    I find the challenge of discussing these younger books at the Mock Newbery table fascinating. Here’s the thing: we forget (and maybe many of us never knew, if we were always strong readers) what it’s like to be learning to read a longer book. Try to imagine being unfamiliar with a complex narrative arc, with staying attuned to character development. Can you? I’m not sure I even can, but I can make a vague grasp at it. It’s utterly disorienting. I picture it like the way I can *barely* keep up with a conversation in Spanish. I understand pieces of it. I have a remarkably hard time stringing those pieces together to make sense, and because of how hard that is, I get emotionally/mentally exhausted and lose attention.

    This is where predictability, repetition, stereotype, and obviousness suddenly become *valuable* attributes in literature. When was the last time you used one of these words in a positive way in book discussion? Yet these are exactly what are employed to distinguished effect in, say, an easy reader. They start to get refined in the early chapter book level…but there, perhaps, it’s even harder for us to remember how to distinguish them, because once we recognize that there’s a character arc and a narrative arc….we just want things to progress in a certain way, and if we compare a purposefully simply one against a purposefully complex one, the value distinction seems obvious to us. But we’re just reacting in a *biased* way, as readers who are adept with complexity.

    I was so proud of our discussions at last year’s Mock Newbery…that we were really able to recognize the distinguished elements in the short-narrative-spurt/episodic structure of the Grace Lin book, and that what one person might call an obvious and simple character development was actually perfectly suited to the book and its audience. And even more pleased that the actual committee seemed to recognize this too.

    I may come back later and make another case for City Dog Country Frog. 🙂

  4. Angela K. says:

    I first read The Night Fairy in galley form. This was unfortunate because the galley didn’t really show the true beauty of the illustrations – several were left out and the ones that were included were not in full color. While the book is not dependent on the illustrations, I think they do add to the experience of the book.

    Like Wendy said, I probably wouldn’t have read a book about “fairies.” but the author recognition compelled me to pick it up. I love this book in part because even though it is for the younger set, it is sophisticated. The fantasy world Schlitz has created is well-developed, despite its novella length. There’s day fairies, night fairies, magic spells, and wings that grow back / repair themselves with time, etc. The imagery and word choice is just gorgeous and unexpected for this age group. Take for example, “The fountain was splashing in the sunlight, and the water was frothy with bubbles and alive with gaudy orange fish.” Sentences like this make the world come alive in my head, but aren’t so over-the-top that they will overwhelm or confuse the young reader.

    With a subject like fairies, you’d probably initially bring to mind something like Barbie Thumbelina. But, this is much more than that. Not only does it have beautiful word choice, it has a pretty compelling adventure. The feisty Flory battles with a dagger and saves a hummingbird and her babies, among other things.

    To me, this is the best offering for this age group this year. Will it win the Newbery? Highly doubtful. But, to me, it deserves some recognition and discussion.

    NIGHT FAIRY is more “literary” than the others you’ve mentioned here, so I think it has the best shot at any Newbery medal (honor included), out of those mentioned in this post. Out of the school stories, Clementine stands out at the top for me, though I agree with others that the latest Clementine book is not the best out of the series.

  5. anne m petty says:

    Even though the book is longer than most transitional young reader books, the novel by Pam Muroz Ryan, DREAMER, would make a good choice for the Newbery, espeically since it is enhanced with simple line drawings by Peter Sis and has fairly large print and more white space between the lines. Older, more well-read students could be asked to read from Pablo Neruda’s ODE TO COMMON THINGS (1994) as a companion to the fictionalized poet’s biography, DREAMER which is available already in Spanish as well. The odes in Nerada’s book are presented by side-by-side English and Spanish versions. A nice combination of literature, biography, poetry, art, and a different culture available in both languages.

  6. I liked “Night Fairy” a lot – though I probably never would have picked it up, except for the author.

    It was good, very good – but just not great for me. I would be happy to see it win Honors.

    It is a fun book to compare and contrast with “Miss Hickory” – the weirdest Newberry winner I’ve read (I still have ten of the Medal winners to finish to read before I can say I’ve read them all, but based on their popularity and the excerpts, I don’t think any of them hold a candle to Miss Hickory when it comes to the surreal).

    There were actually a few things I liked in Miss Hickory, but Schlitz took those elements and made them more interesting without the weird. 🙂

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    SHOW WAY was recognized by the Newbery committee for the text, not the illustrations. I think BINK & GOLLIE, like ELEPHANT & PIGGIE, is too dependent upon the illustrations to carry key elements of the book (namely characterization and humor).

    I also wanted to mention two more Medal winners with youngish appeal: NUMBER THE STARS (1991) and THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX (2003). These are definitely within reach of many 2nd and 3rd grade readers.

    I’ve been thinking about the evolution of design in children’s books, particularly as it relates to these books. Used to be that you’d be hard pressed to find a book over 300 pages despite the word count. For example, THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper had 82,000 words in 216 pages. THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Rasking had 50,000 words in 185 pages. And THE HERO AND THE CROWN had 87,000 words in 227 pages. Very compact book design. In contrast, THE DREAMER has 28,000 words in 372 pages. COUNTDOWN has 59,000 words in 377 pages. KEEPER has 53,000 in 399 pages. A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS has more words than all of them (76,000), but the fewest pages (316).

    We mentioned novellas for younger children (SARAH PLAIN AND TALL, THE WHIPPING BOY), but what about novellas for older children (ON MY HONOR, MISSING MAY). Anybody seen a book published recently for 4th-6th grade with less than 100 pages? Can’t think of one off the top of my head. Anyone?

  8. Huh. I was going to suggest The Magician’s Elephant, but it’s 201 pages. Do you have a word count on that?

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    TIGER RISING (19,000)

    Clearly, Kate DiCamillo almost single-handedly fills this niche, but where are the other writers?

    By the way, these page counts come from AR Book Finder. At least there’s one good thing about that &^%$ing program!

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    And DESPEREAUX is the longest at 32,000.

  11. I thought characters, setting, and style were all distinguished in The Night Fairy. The way Flory develops over the course of the short narrative is believable and poignant. In Schlitz’s hands, a backyard becomes an entire world, teeming with danger and beauty. And it’s her well-crafted prose that brings it all to life. Lovely book. It’s my dark horse, I guess.

    I liked it a lot better than Dreamer, which I thought was self-consciously literary and doesn’t take its audience enough into consideration.

  12. Angela K. says:

    Francesca Block’s House of Dolls is only 61 pages – it’s intended for grades 3-6.

  13. Angela K. says:

    I can’t say I had even heard of the Gryphon Awards and I even get the Bulletin as one of my reviewing journals. I can’t say I agree with several of the choices (Franny K. Stein, etc.), but good to know it’s out there, anyway. In my opinion, there’s still a major void in recognition for the best writing in the K-4 group. Even the Geisel award only recognizes K-2 and so many quality picture books now have reading levels of 3 or 4 (and many are intended for 3rd grade-ish), so they’d largely be left out on this award, too. The Geisel is very limiting in that they want words to be repeated, simple sentence structure, illustrations that support the text, etc. – they are recognizing only truly simple K-2 books. And the Gryphon Award committee looks as if they’re favoring selecting the early chapter books by the selections they’ve made so far. So still, chances are, if books like Snook Alone, What If, etc. can’t be distinguished with their illustrations, they won’t obtain any awards at all, (majorly recognized or otherwise).

  14. Angela K. says:

    Also – Gary Paulsen has had several shorter novella-length books. More recently, Lawn Boy, Lawn Boy Returns, Mudshark, The Time Hackers, etc. – all are under 100 pages.

  15. Last years Dream Stealer by Sid Fleischman (ill. Peter Sis) is just over 100 pages but would probably fall under your definition of a novella for grades 4-6. I really enjoyed this one and was somewhat surprised that it got so little notice considering is a reteaming of the author and illustrator of The Whipping Boy. I think its a much more successful book than Fleischman’s Chaplin bio. At some point I’ll comment more in depth in the appropriate post about my problems with the Sir Charlie.

  16. Genevieve says:

    I liked the earlier Clementine books, but thought this one was a standout for the Newbery criteria of delineation of characters and delineation of theme or concept. Clementine’s grief for her lost kitten is portrayed so beautifully and so true to the age group and to her character, and I couldn’t remember reading anything like that part before. I wish I had a copy here to quote from — her parents at first camp out in the living room with her (so they can hear if the cat comes to the door), but then she’s horrified that they start to do ordinary things in a couple days like read the Sunday paper and do some yoga. She tries to think of other things but everything keeps reminding her of her kitten (described very well and not in cliched fashion – so sorry I don’t have a copy handy). She spends a lot of time drawing him in his different poses. It was such a good and original illustration of a child’s way of dealing with (to them) extreme loss, really looking at her emotions beyond ‘she’s heartbroken.’ Lots of books portray grief (usually at loss of parents or a sibling), but not so originally.

    Mary Lee at “A Year of Reading” did a nice analysis of this one: Among other things, she says, “. . . Sara Pennypacker has used plot and subplot in as sophisticated a way as Stieg Larsson. Pennypacker uses ONE plot (friend of the week) and ONE subplot (Moisturizer the kitten), rather than six or seven of each, but she makes plot and subplot mirror and resonate and foreshadow and dovetail.”

  17. I did posts on Clementine Friend of the Week,
    and Alvin Ho,

    I also have a list of Top 10: Beginning Chapter Book Series at

    I wish there were more great books in this genre. It’s such a struggle to find them for my kids!

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, I forgot about Block’s HOUSE OF DOLLS. Booklist starred it. Anybody read it?

    Huh? I found DREAM STEALER kind of pedestrian whereas I found SIR CHARLIE even better than his Houdini and Twain bios. I’m planning to reread SIR CHARLIE later this month. Will look forward to your comments, Eric.

    Also, PW Best Children’s Books came out today. No transitional chapter books made their list, but they did include several Geisel candidates: BINK & GOLLIE, LING & TING, and BUNNY DAYS.

  19. My issues with Sir Charlie perhaps stem from my expertise in film history (the field in which I earned my BA and first MA, so about 6 years of my life devoted to classic hollywood cinema including viewing every Chaplin short and feature multiple times). Fleischman’s account of Chaplin’s life has some major omissions and I believe he makes some errors in critical judgement throughout.

    First off the biggest omission in Sir Charlie is that the book carelessly notes that his many brides were “teenage” or “former child stars” but not that they were 16 and 17 years old and that many of Chaplin’s non-martial relationships also involved minors. This is a pretty major aspect of Chaplin’s life but the book negligence in this area makes light of this serious character flaw.

    In the last quarter of the book Fleischman makes Chaplin’s reactions to his decline in popularity because of alleged communist sympathies (not that there is anything wrong with that) into a pretty big deal, and to be fair they were at the time. What Fleischman fails to do however is to view KING OF NEW YORK as Chaplin’s response to these allegations. Instead he simply calls it a “very bad film”. The film is in fact quite interesting and in no way bad just not as funny as one expects from Chaplin.
    In a much more skilled analysis Andrew Sarris (1960s village voice critic, and most influential american film critic of the 1960s) writes of KING OF NEW YORK “a film widely misunderstood as an anti-American tract. For Chaplin, however, America is like Dawn Addams [actress/love interest in KoNY], a fantasy and a delusion, a marvelous world that he may yet revisit but that he will never reconquer.”

    Similarly forgot in Fleischman biography is Chaplin’s 1923 feature A WOMAN OF PARIS the first of two feature films Chaplin directed but did not act (except for a small cameo). This is an important film in Chaplin’s oeuvre for a number of reasons not only does the film immediately precede THE GOLD RUSH, a era in which Fleischman spends considerable pages. The lack of attention to A WOMAN OF PARIS is extremely noticeable. In fact Fleischman only mentioned the film once in the course of the book and out of chronological order at that. The one time the film is mentioned is in reference to Chaplin’s treatment of actors with his countless retakes.
    To make matters worse the film is not noted at all in the lightly annotated “Selection of Chaplin Films” at the end of the book. I can understand the omission of many of the Chaplin’s 1 and 2 reel shorts from this filmography section but not the omission of a film consider to be the best American feature of 1923.
    Why Fleischman would not take the time to mention the film in its correct temporal order and make note of Chaplin’s decision not to feature himself in the film of curious. I fear that readers will think of Chaplin first as a actor and second as a filmmaker because of Fleischman’s omission of this discussion.

    I also thought the founding of United Artists by Chaplin, Griffith, Pickford and Fairbanks was not fully explored. United Artist and their business model might be Chaplin’s biggest or at least longest lasting contribution to the motion picture industry. The concept of a studio acting as the distributor of independently produced films was created by UA and is now the current norm in Hollywood.

    All this said I did mostly enjoy reading Sir Charlie, and especially appreciated Fleischman’s handling of Chaplin’s life prior to Hollywood. As I read the book however I wondered if my enjoyment of Fleischman’s Twain bio was predicated on my general lack of knowledge about Twain’s life and works other than Tom and Huck.

    How does the committee handle accuracy in nonfiction titles? Do committee members do their own research or do they elicit opinions from scholars in the field? It is probably not too difficult to check facts and figures in a nonfiction title but errors of omission would likely require more than source checking.

  20. While I appreciated the point of view of Flory as she viewed the backyard, I had a couple of concerns about this book. Handy magic spells and curses seemed to be given to her just as she needed them to solve a problem. An example is providing warmth for the eggs. The convention in such fantasies in my experience is for the character to solve the problem, not the magic, and especially not magic conveniently added as the story progresses. This points toward my second misgiving, which is that I did not really find the character development convincing. Even at the end, she seemed to act more out of selfish motives.

    Another younger book (that I would peg at 4th and 5th grade level) that has a lot to offer is What Happened on Fox Street.

  21. Angela K. says:

    I did read House of Dolls – it was simple, and frankly a tad forgettable. The main character is jealous of the dolls’ family unit and their fancy clothes, so she takes the boy dolls out of the dollhouse and takes away the girl dolls’ dresses. After the grandmother talks with the girl and makes her a new dress, the girl is no longer jealous and the boy dolls are returned and the girl dolls get their dresses back. It’s predictable, but somewhat sweet. The illustrations are beautifully done by Barbara McClintock and do add something to the story.

    Our school does have the Accelerated Reader program, so our students will circulate this one like crazy simply because it’s as short as they can get and still fulfill their teachers’ reading requirements! The shorter books like this (and Gary Paulsen’s, etc.) are all gone off the shelves towards the end of the marking period as grades come due.

  22. I think “errors” is rather a strong word to use about Sir Charlie. IMHO “choices” is more accurate. If there were substantial misstated facts I’d be concerned about that, but how do your concerns play into the Newbery criteria? I thought, myself, that the treatment of Chaplin’s involvements with minors was tastefully done, neither dwelling nor glossing.

  23. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A couple more from Kirkus Best Children’s Books–

    JUSTIN CASE by Rachel Vail
    DRAGONBREATH (volumes 2 and 3) by Ursula Vernon

    Anybody read these?

  24. When I originally commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the same comment. There has to be an easy method you can remove me from that service? Appreciate it!

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