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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

YA? Why Not?

So, what about YA?  We talked about this quite a bit in the comments of our post about the National Book Award Longlist, which was heavily Young Adult.  It’s come up in other places too, including in one of our very first posts this year, about VINCENT AND THEO.  There are quite a few titles this year that are quite strong, and also lean into the Young Adult category.  So, how do we consider these?  For complete transparency here, I’m just going to mention that I was on the Caldecott Committee that selected THIS ONE SUMMER as an Honor Book and have written extensively about why and how that was an eligible title.

Of course each committee’s conversation around this is going to go differently and is going to depend, largely, on which particular books are nominated.  We have some guidelines to go by in the manual, including:

Definition 2:  A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.

These are things that don’t matter to me at all when thinking about whether a book should be considered for a Newbery in regards to potential age level:

  • Whether or not it is eligible for a YALSA Award, like the Printz
  • Whether or not it has a curse word or something else potentially offensive to some in it
  • Whether or not the primary audience starts at the upper-end of our age-range (0-14) and continues outside of it
  • Whether the book won’t be relatable to some people in the age range (0-14)

These things all seem clear to me, based on Definition 2 above.  (My final point speaks, also, to a diverse audience and remembering that just because some 12, 13, and 14 year olds might find a book challenging to read and outside of their experiences, that doesn’t mean the book isn’t excellent, and intended for a child audience.  The 12, 13, and 14 year olds for whom the book is written also count.)

These are things that do matter, to me, also based on Definition 2 and the Criteria:

  • Excellence in presentation to a child audience (up to and including age 14)
  • That children (up to and including age 14) are an intended audience

There are quite a few excellent titles this year that span that in-between area.  That space of early YA, or even just plain old YA, but where 14-year olds are definitely an intended audience.   Some of the ones I’m thinking about are AMERICAN STREET, BULL, THE HATE U GIVE, THE PEARL THIEF, VINCENT AND THEO, and maybe THE 57 BUS which I’ve just gotten my hands on (so, will keep you posted).

american street     514UQFha0qL  hate u give  513hvygv82L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  Vincent and theo  download

Of those, I would argue that any of them *could* be considered eligible based on age range, except, perhaps, AMERICAN STREET.  Some are, I think, more likely to be considered seriously by the committee.  VINCENT AND THEO, and THE HATE U GIVE are high on my list for that.  We haven’t talked much about THE PEARL THIEF here.  Is it strong enough?  Is it for children?  Where does it fit in with our other mysteries?

I intend to give THE HATE U GIVE a full post of its own in the near future, as I think it merits a deeper discussion.  Which others?

I’d love to know which ones you think are likely contendors, from my list, or that I’ve missed, and which you think are just truly out of the range of the award.  What do you consider when making that call?  Are there any of the above mentioned titles that you think deserve further treatment on this blog?

Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at


  1. Meredith Burton says:

    I would argue that Bull might be above the age range for Newbery consideration as the subject matter is quite disturbing and the profanity is excessive. I know these facts should probably not be illiminating factors, but I, for one, would be very disturbed if this book won a Newbery. I did think that Asterion’s poems were profound, but the author relied too heavily on Poseidon’s point of view, (I might be biased because I despised his character). However, I think his cynicism is frightening and would be reluctant for a child to take those views of the world to heart.

    I do think that The Hate You Give, while violent and heavy on profanity, is more worthy to consider for the relevance of the subject matter. Also, the characters experience growth, which I didn’t think happened in Bull.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      Can you expand on what you mean by “worthy to consider for the relevance of the subject matter”?
      I am can’t figure out how subject matter (relevant or not) has anything to do with the newbery criteria.

    • Meredith, please correct me if I’m speaking out of turn or misinterpreting you, but I think by “relevance” you are referring to the book’s timeliness?

      I do indeed agree that The Hate U Give is a timely topic, though “timeliness” does not fit into the Newbery’s criteria. I think, though, that many (not all, but many) Newbery winners do reflect the zeitgeist of the year in which they were awarded.

      • Joe — this is a fascinating proposition. That the awarded titles reflect the time(s). Is it the result of the types of books published or the mindset of the committee members? My two winners: A Single Shard (post 9/11) and The One and Only Ivan (2013… not sure how to succinctly describe this year… Obama Era?) don’t seem to specifically fit the mold of your theory here. Could you pin point specific titles and their publishing/awarding year to illustrate your point further?

      • Sure, Roxanne.

        Let’s take the most recent Newbery year (though I’m happy to remark on other years where I see this pattern – SINGLE & IVAN, as you point out, do *not* fit into my observation).

        GIRL, as I read it, was very much about control of information and isolation (hello, election, “build a wall”); INQUISITOR reflected oppression of religion and, one could argue, redemption through religion – regardless of religion – (hello, anti-muslim, anti-semitism sentiments in election); FREEDOM reflected our ongoing conversations about race in this country and allowing people of a culture the freedom and agency to tell the stories of their culture; WOLF was very much about kindness to outsiders and resistance against bullies. All of these, to me, very much reflect 2016.

        Please believe that I am not saying that these are *why* the books were chosen. But they do very much represent the zeitgeist of 2016. And this could just be my English degree reading waaaaaaaaaay too much into the choices. I fully own my reader biases and analyses on this one. 🙂

  2. Meredith Burton says:

    One other YA book I might consider would be The Language of Thorns, by Leigh Bardugo. Think it’s for ages twelve and up. The subject matter is disturbing in places, but the author is very eloquent, and each story makes you think about our growth and developing maturity.

  3. I definitely will want to discuss Strange the Dreamer and Piecing Me Together.

  4. Meredith Burton says:

    I apologize if my comments were misconstrued. I am an English teacher and not a librarian, so I might not be as familiar with all the requirements for choosing a Newbery title. I simply meant that, while themes themselves should not be a basis for choosing a particular title, I could not help but feel that the subject matter of The Hate You Give was relevant to the news headlines of today. The characters’ responses to the shooting as the book progresses show how they change. So, I think that title might generate more discussion simply because the topic of police violence is on peoples’ minds.

    In Bull, Elliott did a creative but fairly straightforward retelling of the Minotaur. I enjoyed the book but was not particularly moved by it. Asterian seemed to be the only character with substance, (Ariadne began well, but I felt that she grew flat when theseus arrived on the scene).
    By contrast, The Hate You Give gave me something to think about. I do not think I would nominate it for Newbery, either, but out of those choices, it would get my vote.

    Again, I apologize if I am causing confusion. It just seems, as Mr. Joe so eloquently explained, that you cannot help but think of a book’s relevance and its themes when you discuss it.

    • Meredith, I absolutely agree with you (and I think I kinda got what you were saying, too!).

      As for you being an English teacher – your views are totally welcomed and embraced by this blog! FWIW, I’m a former English teacher – eight years in those trenches! Many participants here are not librarians, and I hope you didn’t feel like there was any combativeness in my tone. I personally try to contribute positively and in a way that inspires discussion, instead of shutting it down. Do accept my apologies if I came across otherwise.

  5. I’m really thinking about this – because I’m about to start my Newbery reading for the 2019 Newbery committee…. You start wondering if you can narrow down your reading! No, I don’t have specific books in mind yet (or I wouldn’t say a word) – but I’m thinking about the criteria in general. It sounds like I should be reading for myself the books that *might* have an audience of 14-year-olds instead of simply deciding I can skip YA books. Of course, I’m looking forward to hearing what my committee chair and other committee members have to say about it when we first meet in February.

    • I love some YA books and definitely want them to have a shot at Newbery once in a while — however, I also think it is super important to celebrate the unique talents and literary abilities of authors who know how to connect well with middle grade readers in those crucial years of forming reading habits and taste. I think Newbery is the best vehicle for that.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Determining whether a book reaches the upper end of the 0-14 range as an “intended and potential audience” is so challenging. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but in some cases I lean towards “not for Newbery” if it seems like the author isn’t really trying to address that younger (14 and under) reader, even when the book is potentially accessible to that reader. Two examples that come to mind are BULL by Elliott and NEIGHBORHOOD GIRLS by Foley. In both cases, I feel like the authors are writing directly for older readers and not taking any care at all to soften anything: language, content, themes. Not that they should have, but they possibly could have, if they had been concerned with creating books that would be distinguished for 13-14 year olds. I’m not saying there aren’t 13-14 year olds who won’t find the books distinguished, but that the authors’ choices were not made with those readers in mind.

      Something like DISAPPEARED by Stork seems different. Even though the characters are older, and there are mature elements in the plot, the author tells the story with a tone and language that kind of open it up to those younger readers. I get the sense that in this case the author is specifically trying to reach them and made choices with that in mind. I felt Heiligman made choices like that in VINCENT AND THEO too (though others have made good arguments that this one still may not fit the Newbery range well enough).

      Just to clarify, I don’t think that the nuances I’m trying to describe impact the quality of the books….just how well they fit the Newbery criteria. BULL is one of my favorite books of the year; NEIGHBORHOOD GIRLS seemed excellent….I didn’t finish it only because I put it into that “not for Newbery” pile. And DISAPPEARED was very good too. I think all three authors knew who their intended audience is and made the right choices for their intended readers, but those intended readers are not Newbery committee members.

      • “I lean towards “not for Newbery” if it seems like the author isn’t really trying to address that younger (14 and under) reader, even when the book is potentially accessible to that reader.”

        Steven, I agree with this. In fact, I think the checks and balances found within the criteria support this. If a child is “defined” within the criteria then language in the criteria like, “displays respect for children’s understandings” holds that language accountable. We can’t really discuss a book like BULL because we as adults think some 14 year olds out there should be able to handle it. The book clearly was not aimed at 14 year olds and under, therefore I would argue that the writer could not have displayed a respect for children’s understandings. Didn’t have to because it wasn’t the audience he was writing for.

        This is the way I look at it anyway…

      • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

        My approach is quite similar, I think. If the book seems like that upper age of children is part of the intended audience, then I look at how distinguished it is for that audience. If the book happens to have appeal for that age range, but isn’t necessarily written with them in mind, it also tends to fail in “distinguished” for that age range.

  6. Cherylynn says:

    Piecing Me Together is excellent in its presentation to a child audience. It has similar themes to The Hate You Give, but I think speaks more to a middle school student. I question whether middle school students would understand the implications of parts of Bull, American Street, and Vincent and Theo. The Pearl Thief I could see in either group I just did not find the book to be very strong in any of the criteria. I have not yet seen the 57 Bus.

  7. Meredith Burton says:

    Thank you, Mr. Joe. That’s quite all right. I did not feel like I was being criticized. I just wanted to try and clarify.

    And, how terrific that you were an English teacher! Did you teach mostly middle or high school? Sounds like we are both members of POEM, (Professional Organization of English Majors. Ha!) I teach middle school so am always reading the middle school titles before YA, but this year there seems to be more “in-between” titles that could be effective for both middle school and high school ages. Have a wonderful day.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Sharon, can you elaborate on why it doesn’t matter “at all” if a book is “offensive to some” or “won’t be relatable to some people”? You mention the diversity section of the Manual to support this, but my sense was that section is there to remind committee members that it does matter if other people have issues with a book that one personally may not find offensive or unrelatable or insensitive or unsuitable for children. I was very impressed by Sara Coffman’s comment that in her specific community THE HATE U GIVE was a “risk” even for the high school library, even though others may feel the book is for children. And I have said that VINCENT AND THEO seems obviously suitable to me, but I am yielding to the reservations of others and am backing off forcing it down anyone’s throat. I think it’s a question of whether the Newbery is better served, all other things being equal, by preferring books that are inclusive of more and different readers without excluding others. That fits my notion of inclusiveness more than choosing a book that can only reach a small audience (such as particularly mature 12-14s). The latter strategy to my mind is viable when selecting a slate of books (like the Notables) where you can have diversity and inclusion across the entire list, not when selecting a single book like the Medal.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      Leonard, I don’t believe that the committee is tasked with choosing a title that best serves the newbery award, but rather a title that according to the criteria is the most distinguished contribution to american literature for children. The committee should not be be concerned with how many readers the book includes or excludes. Legacy and popularity are not part of the committee’s task.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Eric, I agree with everything you wrote except “the committee should not be concerned with how many readers the book includes or excludes.” I think that the addition of the section on inclusiveness in the Newbery Manual means that the committee does have to be concerned about this, even though it may not be the determining factor in their decision.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        Leonard I think what I meant, but did not clearly articulate, is that committee members shouldn’t be thinking about whether or not any libraries or schools might hesitate to purchase a book because of its content. There are certainly a number of private schools in evangelical areas that would not consider purchasing The Girl Who Drank the Moon because of its magical content. I would hope that the newbery committee would not concern itself with this. Similarly I’m sure middle schools in some areas of the country would hesitate to purchase THUG because of its content. Here too I wouldn’t want the newbery committee to concern itself with this.
        This One Summer was determined by a committee of 15 library professionals to be one of the most distinguished picture books of 2014. Just because we may not find this particular honoree in the elementary libraries where we would find other caldecott recognized titles, does not make this title any less distinguished. I would hope that newbery committee members would similarly not pigeonhole books.

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      That’s a good and fair question, Leonard, and I will definitely clarify. I mean this solely in regards to the arguement (often heard) that a book is “too old” for the Newbery because it has a bad word in it or talks about topics that some find inappropriate for children (sex, drugs, rock n roll). I see, totally, though, how it could be read to also mean that if a book is seen as offensive for its treatment of a marginilaized group of people (etc.) I don’t care, and absolutely, I do. I think that all needs to be part of the discussion. BUT I don’t think disqualifying a book as “too YA” instantly because it says the word sh*t or because it acknowledges the existance of sex, as examples, is fair to the older end of the 0-14 readership.

      I always read the diversity statement as a call to consider including books (that maybe were seen as not speaking to the audience when the audeince is defined too narrowly). But you are quite right that it also is a call to exclude books (that perhaps don’t treat a particular audience with respect).

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