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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Moving On Up: Princesses, Capers, and Crocodiles

What do you call these books in your library?  Here, in Oakland, we call them “Moving Up” books.  More advanced than easy readers, but not as sophisticated as chapter books.  Featuring lots of pictures, but integrating more complex language.  In any case – they don’t tend to get a lot of Newbery love.  There are three titles, though, this year, that I think are worth mentioning.  Two of them are part of a series, and one a stand-alone.

dark shadows chicken Princess in Black princess cora

Let’s start with DARK SHADOWS: YES, ANOTHER MISADVENTURE, which is the fourth book in Doreen Cronin’s CHICKEN SQUAD series.  This book is funny.  The writing style suits the audience and the story, and the reader is taken on a real caper that almost feels like it is from a different time.  Noir for early readers, perhaps?  It is very sucessful at what it does.  Distinguished, though?  I’m not so sure.  It would take a pretty compelling arguement to push this near the top of my list.

Next we have THE PRINCESS IN BLACK AND THE MYSTERIOUS PLAYDATE, another series book.  Similarly hilarious, and absolutely appealing, Shannon Hale and Dean Hale have written charming characters that really succeed for this age range and reading level.  I worry that the illustrations do too much of the work in this story, and that the text by itself doesn’t distinguish it enough.  Does the book work if you don’t consider the camouflaged monster?  Does that matter?  I think it does.

Last, but not least, we have Newbery alumni Laura Amy Schlitz’s PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE.  Also hilarious.  Also with compelling illustration.  I would argue, though, with a text that does more of the heavy lifting.  Schlitz, as we know, is a master of her craft.  We feel the chaos of the crocodile in the pace of her writing, and we feel Princess Cora’s relief and relaxation.  A single line on a page, “She sighed with happiness,” expresses so much.   The dialogue is biting (pun intended) and hilarious.

I think, though, that the bigger question here, again, is the apples to oranges question.  How do books like these get treated in discussion against more serious titles?  How do you compare a book written for a young reader with limited vocabulary to a book written for an older reader?  How do you judge humor, which is so subjective?  We talk a lot about how to work with titles for the older end of our age range, and how to work with picture books, but this is an equally complicated question.  Where do easy readers and moving up books fit in?

I think that it can be easy to pull out the best of the books in this category in a given year, but it gets much more complicated when you are then holding them up against books that are longer and/or more serious in topic and theme.

So, are any of these actually Newbery contendors?  Heavy Medal readers have nominated PRINCESS IN BLACK and PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE, with CORA getting several nominations.  I don’t think I’d use one of my nominations on any of these titles, but I also wouldn’t mind them showing up at the table.  I think the most hopeful of the batch is PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE.  We’ll have to wait and see if any of them get shiny medals, as that’s the only indication we will ever have in terms of what the real committee thinks.

What do you think, though?

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. Leonard Kim says:


    Actually it was Heavy Medal that made me comfortable advocating a book like this. (Thanks Nina and Jonathan!) In a couple of recent posts, I’ve talked about whether I thought the author pulled off something difficult. I think that’s consistent with the Terms equation of “distinguished” with “significant achievement.” If something seems generally doable, it can hardly be an achievement, right? So this gives me an approach to the apples-to-oranges issue. I think what the Hales accomplished here: a funny, accessible book that’s perfectly at ease with its reader limitations (unlike so many other easy readers by even the best authors which feel straitjacketed by the vocabulary) and still beautifully, poetically written (in the very first line, “it was a clear, crisp, comfortable afternoon” it’s that “comfortable” that really makes the sentence, and I doubt many authors would have gone the distance with that third alliteration and transition to polysyllables) with fractured yet respectful call-outs to canonical writing (“Oh, Princess in Black! Do you want to have a hero princess playdate?” / In the distance, a pony neighed.)

    To me this is the very model of “individually distinct” and if older, longer works aren’t, then this wins in my book.

    And about that monster: I love that the Hales make the repeated point of referring to it as “the sneaky monster”: a perfect, euphonious formulation, not at all dependent on how it’s illustrated.

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    One thing that strikes me about these three books and makes me take them seriously as Newbery contenders is just how much better they are than most of the books that sit beside them on those “Moving Up” shelves. A lot of the other series are based on simple, easy to follow premises, with characters that are easy to relate to (Ivy and Bean) or distinctly different (Franny K. Stein). Some times they present more simplified versions of traditional genres for older readers (Kingdom of Wrenly, Cam Jansen). All these series are successful, and.often just the right book for a particular reader, but it’s hard for me to see them as distinguished. \\

    Something like PRINCESS IN BLACK AND THE MYSTERIOUS PLAYDATE works within the restrictions of the format, including vocabulary, length, and complexity, but rises above the standard. I like the way Hale establishes sustains the distinct tone that’s playful rather than mocking (well, a little mocking, but always fun). Though some of the plot elements are silly, we still care about the characters and the mystery. Princess Sneezewort’s attempts to be a hero are funny, but we also root for her and it’s quite satisfying when she discovers a useful ninja skill and helps to catch the monster.

    The humor comes through in different ways. Sometimes it’s in the way she puts things: “…the sneaky monster had to pretend to be a park bench. Being bench-shaped was uncomfortable. Plus sometimes people sat on you” (p 65). That’s not really a joke meant to make you laugh, but it’s amusing and makes you think. Other times it’s more direct, as when the Princess in Blankets tries cool ninja moves, observed by an unimpressed boy and his llama (57-58). The turns of phrase are also often humorous: “It tried to sneak away. But it was too blankety to sneak” (72). I also appreciate the smaller touches, like the way the Princess in Blankets uses the karaoke microphone with her monster battle (71) and how the P i B is inspired by “Princess Magazine,” but needs a second source, “Ninja Magazine,” to learn what she really needs to know.

    It’s true, though, that the pictures of the hiding monster are key to the main plot and some of the humor. A line like “the monster was nowhere to be seen” (41) is all that’s needed to support the illustrations, but it’s really the illustrations that make it all work. The hiding monster is a key image in several chapter-endings (p 8, 14, 41, 52) But there is more to the book than that plot point, and in most cases it’s the writing that stands out, with the illustrations providing strong support. I’m not sure that the writing in MYSTERIOUS PLAYDATE is as distinguished as some of the other excellent books from this year, but I would definitely want to see it, or maybe PRINCESS CORA, or both, be part of the discussion.

  3. The intentionally inaccurate illustration in Princess Cora (where the Crocodile is described as looking extremely similar to the Princess in the text and in reality, nothing like her) serves as a visual joke that at first I thought was “detracting” from the book and the I thought it as not to be discussed since it deviates from the text.

    Could someone help me understand why Princess Cora and the Crocodile is lauded as distinguished writing? I find the entire story merely serviceable and nothing so remarkable in its concept or execution of the plot or dialogue.

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