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.
THEN VS. NOW
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.
LOOKING FOR YOUNG NEWBERYS
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?
BLOATED CHAPTER BOOKS AND CHILDREN’S NOVELS
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.
CONTENDERS OR PRETENDERS?
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?