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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Picture Book Newbery

Here we go again. Every year Jonathan and I try to find at least one picture book that seems like a potential Newbery contender.   Though a widespread general assumption pigeonholes the Newbery as an award for older, longer fiction, the award terms state right upfront that “There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work.”  So let’s look at two picture books that have caught my eye and ear.  The challenge: to evaluate the words alone.

Joyce Sidman won a Newbery Honor last year for DARK EMPEROR  This year, from the same publisher, comes SWIRL BY SWIRL: SPIRALS IN NATURE, this time with illustrations by Caledcott-Medalist Beth Krommes.  SWIRL BY SWIRL is very different than DARK EMPEROR; rather than a set of poems around a theme, it is a short text (one could call the entire main text a single poem) for a young audience, and truly a picture book text as the words and pictures work together to depict spirals in nature.  As Jonathan and I have argued re WORDSTRUCK, there is nothing in the Newbery terms or criteria that says the text must stand alone.  In fact:  “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.”  Within the main text of SWIRL, the criteria that are most apt are “Interpretation of theme or concept” and “Appropriateness of style.”  I marvel at how Sidman uses personifying verbs and adjectives to describe what sprials in nature do, somehow without inappropriate personification. “A spiral is a strong shape. / Its outer curves protect what’s inside. / It knows how to defend itself. / A sprial reaches out, too, exploring the world.”  These very simple sentences connect the idea of the shape with how they are applied in nature, in a way that will be understandible for a very young audience.  The choice of words and sounds encourage thoughfulness:  try reading them aloud.  The intended audience for this book will probably be listening to it read aloud, and the text moves slowly.  The first and last lines of the text, “A spiral is a snuggling shape,” suggest an interpretation for how the reader should interact with the book (or the reader and listener!), further encouraging an appropriate reflection on the text.  This style allows for a very complex idea, for a very young audience, to take shape and take hold….just through the words.  We should also consider the text in the notes at the end, which are in a different voice, but which serve their informational purpose well, and further enhance the interpretation of the work.

Full disclosure: I’ve always considered Brock Cole one of the most underrated children’s book authors around.  So a new picture book from him was sure to catch my eye.  THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE is a great example of a picture book text wonderful attuned to its audience, using words to their fullest extent to communicate character, setting, plot, humor and tension all at once.  Here’s the set up in the first few pages: “Ma needed two eggs and a half pound of flour so she could make pancakes for supper, but who could she send to the market? / All the children were busy. Bailey was in the bedroom putting baby Arthur down for a nap. / Bridget was in the parlor pulling basting threads from one of the coats Ma was making for the wholesale trade. / Pearl was on the fire escape hanging out the laundry. / So Ma decided to send Pa. ‘Now just buy two eggs and a half pound of flour,’ she told him. ‘Remember, Christmas is not far off, and we must save every penny.’ ‘I’ll remember,’ said Pa, and he set off with a shopping basket and purse.”   Now, because of the pacing, the reader knows that Pa is not going to remember, or at least is going to make a grave mistake.  Visual clues enhance this (Pa is seen reading the paper while everyone else is working, and the condition and crowdedness of the house suggests how truly important those pennies are), but in these first lines through words alone the reader has met all of characters, understood the family circumstances, and been set up for the ensuing plot.  Pa, of course, comes home with more than two eggs and a half pound of flour–he also brings home a live chicken to raise for Thanksgiving: “Think of the money we’ll save!” Cole’s narrative weaves a tone-perfect sense of humor with a very-clearly dire family situation. (Compare to  OKAY FOR NOW.)  His use of language is very natural-sounding, but also musical. There are no wasted words, no boring words, and there is a sense of rhythm that enhances the story. “So the bird lived in a wooden box by the stove, and the children fed him table scraps. They named him Alfred. / … / ‘Ma!’ cried Bailey. ‘Afred stole baby Arthur’s biscuit!’ ‘Ma!’ cried Bridget. ‘Alfred’s in the oatmeal!’ ‘Ma!’ cried Pearl. ‘Afred’s messed on the clean ironing, and it’s all got to be washed again!’/  Ma sat down with her face in her apron and began to cry. ‘ I knew I should never have let that bird in the door!’ she sobbed. ‘He’s a mess and a glutton. He’s eating us out of house and home!'”  Read this out loud.  The “Ma” chorus harkens in rhythm to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and gets that same effect of a sense of rising disaster, as if the words themselves physically make Ma sit down and cry.  “I knew I should never have let that bird in the door!” releases some of the tension, and then, as if that itself gives Ma the wherewithal she needs: “He’s a mess and a glutton” come out with their forceful condemnation like a bell tolling.    This is perhaps drilling down farther than this text needs, but I do find that whenever I look at it that closely I find a richness in the sound of the words themselves that supports the entirety of the story Cole is telling.  It’s a funny story, an exhausting one, it worries and relieves, it’s a complex story about family and different ways to measure worth in just thirty-two pages, and I think it’s distinguished.

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. Elle Librarian says:

    I’m going to echo what I said about QUEEN OF THE FALLS here, since even though it’s nonfiction, it is still a picture book – and I think it’s deserving of a little attention!

    The imagery in this book simply captures the reader and draws him/her in. I love the first few sentences for this reason: “Imagine being as small as a flea, standing on a sidewalk next to an open fire hydrant. This is how visitors to Niagara feel. The water drops from a height that is as tall as a seventeen-story building, roaring like a locomotive and sending up an endless cloud of mist as it crashes onto the rocks and water below.”

    The illustrations are an amazing compliment to the story, but the text is not dependent on them for strength or beauty. I love that Van Allsburg explores a woman and adventure not widely known. The author’s note, photograph of the real Annie Edison Taylor, and bibliography add credibility to the story, should the reader, like many in Ms. Edison’s time, doubt that a little old lady was capable of a plunge down the Niagara Falls.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I haven’t been able to find any picture books that I’m genuinely excited about. I did like SWIRL BY SWIRL, but from past experience here on the blog, I think most people will find that the text is not substantive enough. THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE is on my radar, but I haven’t seen it yet. THE QUEEN OF THE FALLS (which Sondy and Elle Librarian mentioned on the previous thread) is in transit to my branch library, so I should read that one later today. Still looking . . .

  3. Eric Carpenter says:

    The text of I BROKE MY TRUNK is not dependent on the images and it is hilarious. Is it supstancial enough to warrent consideration?

  4. I wondered what folks thought of Robert Burleigh’s THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN BY HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I liked it on a first quick read, but haven’t gone back to look at it more carefully.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I know when we’ve looked at previous Elephant & Piggie books we couldn’t find enough of the evidence in the text, but I’ll give this one a look. His new easy reader series for an older audience debuted with HOORAY FOR AMANDA & HER ALLIGATOR!, but I didn’t like it as much as Elephant & Piggie, and I don’t think it would make the grade here.

    I liked THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN BY HUCKLEBERRY FINN on a first read, too. Very clever concept with nice use of colloquial language, but I don’t think it would hold up to multiple readings.

    I also forgot to mention that one book I am looking forward to is NEVER FORGOTTEN by Patricia McKissack with illustrations by the Dillons.

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    Like Jonathan, I’m waiting for QUEEN OF FALLS…and now have a bunch more on my hold list.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m really impressed with QUEEN OF THE FALLS. Plot, character, and setting are wonderful–especially for a nonfiction book. And there is some great imagery, from the very opening sentence (as Elle Librarian noted). One of my favorites: liquid avalanche. Love that.

  8. Elizabeth Bird says:

    Ah good. NEVER FORGOTTEN would be my pick, absolutely. Glad it wasn’t for . . . well, you know.

  9. KT Horning says:

    I haven’t yet seen NEVER FORGOTTEN but am looking forward to it after reading your comments here. I was very impressed with the writing in QUEEN OF THE FALLS; however, whenever a picture book is written by the illustrator, I always wonder how much an editorial hand shaped the text. I know many picture book artists are very actively involved in the creation of the text; others have a great deal of help.

  10. Just read THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE and agree with Nina. Superb pacing, humor, language. Sophisticated cumulative story.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I agree. Loved this one, too. I have THE MAN IN THE MOON and PASSING THE MUSIC DOWN on hold. Any other picture books we should be looking at?

  12. I just took another look at The Queen of France by Tim Wadham (he seems to be eligible, the illustrator is Canadian, but I’m thinking that shouldn’t matter for the Newbery, just the author eligibility).
    I see several categories as being quite well done: Interpretation of the theme or concept, Delineation of characters, Appropriateness of style.
    I don’t know that I see presentation of information as being very applicable.
    Development of a plot and delineation of setting are categories I need to think on – the plot seems a little thin, but I think that fits the dreamy, make-believe style and the character of Rose. Setting is hard to evaluate without taking the illustrations into account too much, so, I think I’d reprint just the text before making a decision there.
    I need to mull this one over a little more before being willing to advocate strongly for it, but I liked it a lot the first time I read it and I’m seeing possibilities after rereading it with the criteria in mind. Off to mull (and have lunch)!

  13. Jen B, the Caldecott is “… is restricted to artists who are citizens or residents of the United States.” The focus of the award is indeed on the illustrator not the writer.

  14. Oh, sorry… Forget that — realized that you are referring to Newbery. Duh.

  15. THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE read aloud beautifully. Kids are with me that it is a superb text and Newbery worthy

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I read PASSING THE MUSIC DOWN which was recommended by Leda. It’s got one of those free-versey picture book texts. I liked it a lot, but not as much as THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE which is also my picture book frontrunner at this point.

  17. Didn’t like The Man in the Moon, which seems like a setup for a series and was lacking in plot and style.

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