Chapter books transition readers from easy readers to longer novels. Their audience is typically between first and fourth grade, although occasionally a particular series will achieve popularity beyond fourth grade (e.g. JUNIE B. JONES, CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS). The chapters tend to be short, the plots episodic, and the book designs often include spot illustrations, larger font size, and more generous line spacing. Examples of chapter books from the Newbery canon encompass a range of styles, including a pair of RAMONA books; SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL; THE WHIPPING BOY; and 26 FAIRMOUNT AVENUE.
We’ve just discussed JUNONIA. Some promotional copy for that book stated that now a young reader could follow Kevin Henkes throughout childhood, from his early picture books (e.g. KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON), to his mouse books for older primary grades, to this new chapter book, and then on to his novels for older readers (e.g. OLIVE’S OCEAN). JUNONIA, then, is the epitome of that bridge from easy readers to middle grade novels.
For some people, the title of this post–Chapter Book Newbery–may seem like an oxymoron, but if we consider the needs of this audience more carefully and consider the books on their own merits, we can find several more distinguished books to consider this year. The first three are recently published, and on hold at my public library. I haven’t read them yet, but I’ve leaned on the reviews to help me suggest their best qualities.
The first Alvin Ho book wound up on the the Oakland Mock Newbery list, and we briefly discussed the third one here last year, but some people were troubled by its portrayal of American Indians. Has Lenore Look righted the ship with the fourth volume, ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO DEAD BODIES, FUNERALS, AND OTHER FATAL CIRCUMSTANCES? Kirkus thinks so: “The formula that has worked so well in the earlier installments succeeds here again. Alvin’s frenetic first-person voice as he puzzles it all out is engaging and real, often laugh-out-loud funny, and his family life is touching-sweet and frazzled . . . His eventual ability to contextualize and accept the death of someone he knew evolves naturally, and the madcap scenario that precedes it, exacerbated by Alvin’s anxiety-related inability to talk in school, is at once hilarious and heart-rending.”
Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine series is another one that gets mentioned frequently here in the comments. CLEMENTINE AND THE FAMILY MEETING is the fifth in the series, and the reviews have been similarly enthusiastic. Kirkus: “Pennypacker tackles the oft-written new-baby theme from a refreshing, older perspective; jealousy is not the foremost emotion, it’s vulnerability.” Horn Book: “Clementine is becoming a more complex character, and fans of this fine series will enjoy the nuanced way she has become more trustworthy and grown-up while staying true to herself.”
Few children’s writers are as versatile as Emily Jenkins. She writes picture books, young adult novels (under the name E. Lockhart), and chapter books. TOYS COME HOME, while the third book in the series, is actually a prequel to the first one, TOYS GO OUT. Booklist praised it thus: “The omniscient narrator uses wonderful language, full of rich words and sounds, in descriptions of each adventure, from a pleasurable birthday party to a horrifying encounter with a nasty cat to perhaps the most charming account of puking ever typed—an episode that underscores the importance of close pals.”
Last year, THE LEGEND OF THE KING by Gerald Morris was easily one of my favorite novels, but I read it very late in the fall, and could never seem to build any support for it. A couple months later, Elizabeth Bluemle at Shelftalker praised the entire series, giving Morris the inaugural Shelftalker SUNG (Saluting Unsung Neglected Geniuses) Award and then Horn Book gave THE LEGEND OF THE KING a Mind the Gap Award. So I wasn’t alone in my admiration, after all . . . I resolved to do better by Gerald Morris this year, and read early on THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE, the latest book in The Knights’ Tales, his chapter book retellings of Arthurian legend. Needless to say, I’m very impressed, and will have more to say about this book later, but for now I want to give you a teaser, the opening paragraphs.
Now, everyone who knows anything at all about knights knows that they used to dress in metal suits and bash each other off their horses with pointy sticks called lances. This only makes sense, of course. Anyone who happened to have a metal suit, a horse, and a pointy stick would do the same.
Some may have also heard that knights fought dragons as well, often to rescue damsels. (Damsels are what they used to call women. Don’t ask why; they just did.) This is less sensible because–Well, really now! What would a dragon want with a damsel? Still, if a dragon did for some reason make off with one, then it would be perfectly reasonable for a knight to rescue her.
But what many do not realize is that, at least in King Arthur’s court, knights were also expected to be courteous and respectful. The king was very clear about this. He wanted no bullies at his Round Table. In fact, he said that courtesy was even more important than wearing metal suits and bashing people from horses. Not surprisingly, this notion took awhile to sink in. Knights who had spent their whole lives learning swordsmanship and pointy-stick-bashing did not always see how something else could be more important. Indeed, King Arthur had reigned for several years before he felt his knights were starting to get the idea.
How can you not love that? Distinguished? To the hilt!