Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Penny and Her Marble (and Other Easy Readers)

Aside from the comparative simplicity of the text and the interdependence of text and illustrations, the biggest problem the committee faces in evaluating easy readers for Newbery recognition is that most publishers simply do not submit them, leaving committee members to find–and champion–them on their own.  That’s easy to do when you have big names like Mo Willems, Kevin Henkes, David Macaulay, Grace Lin, and Kate DiCamillo.  But unless a lesser known name generates some starred reviews (and easy readers as a whole tend to be understarred compared to their younger and older counterparts), the committee will likely have a difficult time noticing such a book.

Mo Willems has his 19th and 20th Elephant & Piggie titles out this year, A BIG GUY TOOK MY BALL and I’M A FROG.  David Macaulay has the 3rd and 4th entries in his How It Works series, TOILET and EYE.  BEST FRIENDS FOREVER by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee is the third book featuring Bink and Gollie.  LING AND TING SHARE A BIRTHDAY is the second book featuring these Chinese-American twins.  Not that I’m going to argue for these, but if you feel the need to have the best easy readers of the year–Newbery criteria be damned!–you will also want to seek out BENJAMIN BEAR IN BRIGHT IDEAS by Phillipe Coudray, ODD DUCK by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon, and FAIRY TALE COMICS edited by Chris Duffy.

However, PENNY AND HER MARBLE by Kevin Henkes probably has the best shot at being the long shot.  We considered PENNY AND HER DOLL and PENNY AND HER SONG previously and the nice thing about only having one Penny book this year is that it doesn’t divide the Penny fans into factions.  Moreover, this one happens to be better than either of the previous books with the introduction of Penny’s ethical dilemma over stealing the marble.  Henkes is so attuned to the inner workings of young children and his treatment of this issue is superb.  The one thing that gives me pause is the external circumstance that sets up the whole situation.  If you wanted to give a marble away to some child, would you really leave it on your lawn?  This seems unrealistic and silly, but if we see this fuzzy logic once in a novel, we see it a dozen times.  It seems magnified here because of the brevity of the text.  I understand that, of course, but it doesn’t make it any easier for PENNY AND HER MARBLE to claim one of my October nominations.



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. I adore this one. Henkes manages somehow in his spare text to perfectly capture Penny’s emotional journey as to ethics and morality. Seems pitch perfect to me. As for the issue of leaving the marble, it seems way outside; that is, to me this is an deeply, deeply interior story and as such wonderfully done. I suppose that question about the leaving of the marble could be a deal breaker around that Newbery table and don’t have any way to defend it other than the way I just have. Interior not exterior:)

  2. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Does it cheapen Penny’s dilemma when we learn that she didn’t really steal the marble? I’m still trying to decide what I think about this. You just have to accept some things in a story, and this is probably one of those. For the sake of comparison, we really liked I BROKE MY TRUNK here, but Gerald’s explanation for lifting hippo on his trunk was simply because. Not the strongest character motivation there either. Novels are filled with this kind of stuff, but we just accept it on good faith.

  3. I was mad at the adult leaving the marble on the ground. She could have spared Penny all that anguish. Someone in our critique group suggested the adult saw Penny’s dilemma and made up the story later, but that’s rather unsatisfying, too.

    Other than that, it’s a wonderful book. But it’s kind of a major “other than that.” Just my opinion? Or a deal-breaker? Does it make the plot weak that it can all be fixed by an outside force? Of course, Penny *does* overcome her scruples to return the marble.

  4. Sheila Welch says:

    I haven’t read PENNY AND HER MARBLE, but Henkes has another one that just came out: THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER. It’s getting a lot of comments and stars on Goodreads. It’s much quieter than Cleary’s or Pennypacker’s books for readers in early elementary school. This story has an emotionally honest core that’s solid. Henkes always stays tuned to the inner lives of children. His Billy is an appealing second grader, part of a loving family, who reminds me a lot of our granddaughter who had her own second grade issues. Anyone else read this one yet?

  5. The idea of the neighbor leaving the marble in her yard for someone to take jumped out to me too, Jonathan. But I also agree with you Monica – I don’t think it changes what’s most important in this book.
    I guess what I’m saying is while I think the book is strong, I wouldn’t be surprised if the marble in the yard was a hangup for the Newbery folks.

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    It’s fairly common for an adult to do something with good intentions and completely not anticipate how the child will react. In this case, I don’t think it implausible that the adult imagined Penny would be more excited to “find” the marble than to have it given to her. So I don’t hold this against the book and in fact might argue that this is another example of the author’s sensitivity. I’m going to break the rules here and point out that Henkes used almost the exact same plot device in his novel Junonia, when a well-intentioned adult leaves a shell out for the child to “find” and later feels it was the wrong thing to do. I do have problems with this book, but not because of this.

  7. By chance I’ve been reading this book all week to first graders. Each time I read it several of my listeners suck in shocked breaths when Penny first takes the marble. For a quiet story told in such a direct and simple way I’ve been surprised at how captive my little listeners have been. It’s been said before,but Henke does understand a child’s heart.

  8. Ok, just looked at the book again and I want to weigh again on the problem some have with Mrs. Goodwin leaving the marble for someone to take. And I again agree with Leonard about this. Mrs. Goodwin might have a playful streak in her and just thought of doing it this way rather than handing it directly to a child. I had two grandmothers who did this sort of thing all the time for my sister and me. In fact, if you wanted to push the thinking I see Mrs. Goodwin’s actions as quite selfless as she did it in a way that would have resulted in no thanks to her. She was thinking it would be a random act for someone, not that it would create a moral dilemma.

  9. In our town it’s a common practice (a tradition really) to leave things outside with the hope that someone (adults and children) might find it useful and take it home.

  10. I really think that plot holes should be looked at with the age of the book’s readership in mind. The fact that Mrs. Goodwin leaves the marble out doesn’t strike me as a huge black mark on the book’s effectiveness – this is a book for very young readers after all. I’ve read it aloud often to my 4-year old, and while I know she is on the younger end of the age range I wouldn’t see this as a sticking point even for the oldest beginning readers (say, 7- or 8-year olds).

    • That’s probably the best reason to overlook it that I’ve heard, Sam. The book is very centered on Penny’s emotions and perspective, and she wouldn’t be bothered to wonder why Mrs. Goodwin did that, I must admit.

  11. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I have I BROKE MY TRUNK firmly established in my head as a benchmark book for easy readers in terms of Newbery distinction, but PENNY AND HER MARBLE is excellent in a different way, and–referencing Vicky’s post here–I cannot discount what Henkes has done here just because I personally happen to like funny more than sensitive. Still, is there anyone here that would put this one in their top three books? Anyone?

  12. Is that a gauntlet I see, Mr. Hunt? Well, yeah, I’ve got Penny and Her Marble as #3 on my current goodreads Newbery list.

    I think what Henkes has done here is outstanding, expressing perfectly for the intended audience of very young readers a painful and complicated journey that many youngsters take. This isn’t a journey of a moment, but one that feels endless to Penny and, no doubt, to many of her readers. I have vivid memories of such moments as a child. For instance, my parents were very strict about the amount of candy we were allowed, one item on Saturday and one on Sunday, and that was it. But they also kept hard candy for themselves in a low drawer I could reach and I remember stealing from it (on weekdays!) and the emotional torment that caused.

    There are so many books for kids of all ages that encourage reflection on ethics and morality. There are fairy tales that are designed to be that way, but so many others that have an earnest well-intentionality that will certain cause young readers to think, but don’t nail the situation as perfectly as Henkes has done here.

  13. I found it totally plausible that Mrs. Goodwin would leave the marble there for Penny to find, because this exact kind of thing is always messing with my parenting. I tell my kid not to pick up stuff that doesn’t belong to her, only to have adults say, “Oh, I leave those out for children to take,” or some equivalent. Usually with objects that have much higher value in a child’s mind than in an adult’s.


  1. […] mind and his creative process as he detailed the development of the three books that make up the “Penny” series of first […]

Speak Your Mind