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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Can Randolph Caldecott Win the Newbery Medal?

If I’ve heard this once this year, I’ve heard it a dozen times: It’s a weak year for nonfiction.  Actually, this isn’t really true.  It’s an average year for nonfiction, but it seems weaker because (a) last year was so unbelievably awesome and (b) the strong nonfiction this year isn’t the kind that tends to break out of the nonfiction award ghetto.  We’ve already discussed the four Scientists in the Field titles and the ineligibility of adult nonfiction books adapted for children and LOCOMOTIVE which is arguably the best of a strong crop of nonfiction picture books that also includes TRAIN by Elisha Cooper, LOOK UP! by Annette LeBlanc Cate, and BRAVE GIRL by Michelle Market.  We don’t spend much time on nonfiction picture book texts because of the triple whammy of bias (short, heavily illustrated, nonfiction).  Let’s take a quick survey of some of the other possibilities and then we may come back and revisit some of these in greater depth as our interest (or yours) dictates.

We kind of started to discuss COURAGE HAS NO COLOR by Tanya Lee Stone (four starred reviews) on the last post of last season.  I mentioned that, while I think it’s extremely well written and researched, I was expecting the soldiers to see active combat duty, and it felt like the book could have been called ALMOST PARATROOPERS.  That’s first reading baggage that could be dispelled by another reading and discussion, so consider this your invitation to pitch this one to us anew.

EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION by Tonya Bolden (four starred reviews) sort of covers similar territory as last year’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN & FREDERICK DOUGLASS, but the thing I appreciated about this one is the poignant scenes that bookend the main narrative that capture that wonderful sense of anticipation by the African American community, something akin to what the first Obama inauguration was for this generation.  The middle part wasn’t quite as brilliant for me, but that shouldn’t keep it out of our discussion.

RANDOLPH CALDECOTT by Leonard Marcus (four starred reviews) is an extended biographical essay about the life and art of Randolph Caldecott.  Personally, I wished for more information on the second half of that equation, as I’ve come to expect wonderfully incisive art criticism from him, and I just wanted more of that here, even if that might not have appealed quite as much to a child audience.  I’m sure that will be another issue that could be raised with this title, but I don’t think it has any less inherent appeal than George Orr, Horace Pippin, Igor Stravinsky, or some of the other artistic types that have been featured in children’s books this year.

And speaking of biographies, BECOMING BEN FRANKLIN by Russell Freedman (three starred reviews) is a very solid title with many distinguished features.  I wonder if we might subconsciously compare it to (a) Freedman’s own excellent body of work and find it wanting or (b) subconsciously compare it to last year’s ELECTRIC BEN and also find it wanting.  Of course, these are both moot points and not even worthy of bringing up for discussion around the table, but still.

Since I nominated THE ANIMAL BOOK by Steve Jenkins (three starred reviews) and since I’ve expressed interest in THE GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL (three starred reviews) as a graphic novel, I’m going to discuss them at greater length in a separate post.  Suffice it to say, that I think the text can be successfully parsed out from the whole contribution, so the question then becomes: Is the text distinguished?  I think so, but such as answer requires us to reconsider what
“distinguished writing” looks like in various genres, and whether that’s lowering the standard of excellence (as Leonard Kim suggested) or simply acknowledging the conventions of various genres of writing.

Finally, I’m going to mention a couple of personal favorites that haven’t fared quite as well with other readers.  The first one is IMPRISONED by Martin Sandler (one starred review), which is about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  You may remember that I also liked his book, THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, from last year.  It seems like the Martin Sandler fan club is very small.  My other pet nonfiction book is “THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT!” by James Swanson (one starred review), and I think this one makes for an interesting comparison with Sheinkin’s LINCOLN’S GRAVE ROBBERS this year in terms of how each author generates suspense through their respective writing styles: Sheinkin’s showing-not-telling vs. Swanson’s telling-not-showing.


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. In an odd coincidence our book club discussed “THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT!” last Friday. We only picked the date for our convenience not historical significance but we did have plenty of NPR accompaniment. I felt Swanson did a comprehensive job of presenting the information to an audience who may be coming to the topic for the first time. Although most of the facts were documented well, at times he slipped into editorializing which sounded melodramatic to my ears. I, and most of my students, prefer this straightforward narrative to text-boxy non-fiction.

  2. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I enjoyed THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT quite a bit, and agree with DaNae he did a good job of presenting info to a first time audience, but drilling down to Newbery comparison, found it ultimately a little one-note, unuanced.

    I much preferred COURAGE HAS NO COLOR. Jonathan, I think the whole point is that *they* were expecting to see active combat duty too. I think she did a remarkable job of following the story where it went.

  3. What about Thrice Told Tales by Catherine Lewis? Individually the expositions of different literary elements are apt and fascinating (some work better than others, I think, but of course they do) and the supplementary meta-story about the lab and the escape and such that comes together in the aggregate is pretty darn impressive. The (terrific) illustrations aren’t intrusive, and I think they could be dealt with. The illustrator himself is Dutch–does that make the book ineligible? There’s sure a lot to talk about, and if I were on the committee, I’d want to.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I love THRICE TOLD TALES, but I haven’t read it straight through yet. It has two starred reviews, and like I mentioned it doesn’t fit into our stereotypical Freedman/Murphy idea of what Newbery nonfiction should be. Also with two starred reviews is SCALY SPOTTED FEATHERED FRILLED by Catherine Thimmesh, GO: A KID’S GUIDE TO GRAPHIC DESIGN by Chip Kidd, and DIEGO RIVERA by Susan Goldman Rubin. In fact, here’s my nonfiction starred review tally for books longer than 64 pages with multiple starred reviews.

      five stars–

      MARCH: BOOK ONE by John Lewis et al (memoir)

      four stars–

      THE TAPIR SCIENTIST by Sy Montgomery
      RANDOLPH CALDECOTT by Leonard Marcus
      COURAGE HAS NO COLOR by Tanya Lee Stone
      THE ANIMAL BOOK by Steve Jenkins

      three stars–

      ERUPTION! by Elizabeth Rusch
      BECOMING BEN FRANKLIN by Russell Freedman
      THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX by Leon Leyson et al (memoir)

      two stars–

      THRICE TOLD TALES by Catherine Lewis
      THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY by Pamela Turner
      DIEGO RIVERA by Susan Goldman Rubin

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Don’t forget to check out Roger Sutton’s interview with Steve Jenkins about THE ANIMAL BOOK.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    The YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award shortlist was announced today–


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