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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Picture Book Possibiities

We haven’t talked too much about picture books yet this year, and I wanted to check in and see where everyone was in terms of picture books with potential. After LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET took the gold, I think we are all thinking even more about the text in picture books and how it can compare with other longer-form types of writing.

It is hard hard HARD to separate the art from the text in picture books, and I’d argue that you don’t have to entirely in order to consider it for the Newbery.  While the writing is what’s being considered and the author is the one who receieves the award, you have to honor each book for what it is doing within its format, and I think we can look at picture books just like we can look at graphic novels.

One trick, though, with picture books that doesn’t work with graphic novels, is to actually pull the text out and read it on its own.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into any of these titles in this post.  It’s almost Thanksgiving, and I just want to give you some eye candy and hear your thoughts on what picture books have been on your mind as Newbery potentials.

These are the ones I’ve been thinking about:

after the fall her right foot legend of rock paper scissors rooster who would not be quiet secret project  welcome when's my birthday

  • After the Fall by Dan Santat
  • Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers
  • The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Adam Rex
  • The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy
  • The Secret Project by Jonah Winter
  • Welcome by Mo Willems
  • When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano

Let’s talk quickly about AFTER THE FALL.  There is no doubt that the illustrations are stunning, but I would argue that the text is also beautiful on its own.  This description of trauma and the after-effects is child-friendly, relatable, and deeply honest.

“Fortunately all the king’s men managed to put me back together.  Well, most of me.  There were some parts that couldn’t be healed with bandages and glue.”

Similarly, THE SECRET PROJECT approrpiately explains an extremely complex issue – the creation and testing of the atomic bomb – at a child’s level in a picture book format.

Those are the two that most excite me.  What do you think? What did I miss?  And are there any of these titles that you’d like to see a deeper discussion of?

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. I hate to be negative, but what REALLY didn’t work for me about After the Fall is that an unhatched egg would die if it gets cracked like that. Sorry, but if Humpty got put back together, he pretty much had to be hard-boiled. Also, birds don’t fly a second after hatching. I hate it that those details ruined my suspension of disbelief completely. The idea is nice – but the execution just didn’t work for me.

    The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet – so wonderful, though! Just right in the folk tale, repetitive form.

    And Rock Paper Scissors is brilliant for what it does, too – though the illustrations are a big part of that. And it doesn’t feel serious enough – though I realize that’s a fallacy right there.

    • The problem is that there is no chicken-and-egg CJW (chicken justice warrior) lobby sending out storms of Tweets about misguiding inauthenticity. 🙂

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I, on the other hand, had no problem suspending disbelief for AFTER THE FALL, and I’m betting most children won’t either. I also note that it just won NCTE’s Charlotte Huck Award, competing against all kinds of fiction, including novels. I’d like to take that as an encouraging sign! 🙂

  3. I would love to see discussion on CROWN: ODE TO THE FRESH CUT. The writing stands alone and takes you into the moment.

  4. There’s a thoughtful post (with links) by Lolly Robinson on THE SECRET PROJECT over on Calling Caldecott following by lots of discussion (with more links).

    What Lolly said about the book when thinking about it for the Caldecott also holds true, for me, when thinking about it as a possible Newbery contender:

    “I am among the vast majority of people in this country who do not know enough about its indigenous populations. I wish my elementary-school geography and history lessons had devoted as much time to the actual history and roots of this land as they did to Columbus and the “discovery” of the New World. If they had, maybe everyone involved in creating and reviewing this book would have caught the errors Reese points out before the book was printed. I think the real tragedy of this situation is that our collective ignorance may have sunk what would otherwise have been an amazing and groundbreaking book.”

    Here’s the link to this post & the discussion:

    • That conversation about THE SECRET PROJECT was actually unfortunate, because it gave the impression that cultural missteps and miscues happened when in fact the vast majority of what was raised by the critics was debunked by the facts

      I fear committee members and people will look at the long back-and-forth and think that where there is smoke there is fire, but sometimes where there is smoke there is nothing but a dry ice machine. The “errors” Reese pointed to just weren’t supported by the facts of the book and its art, and were based on assumption, though SJWs as a rule never give an inch in a discussion.

    • Heather,

      While Reese’s review is definitely thought-provoking, I’m not sure how any of it would apply to a Newbery conversation around THE SECRET PROJECT. Committee members would be tasked with discussing the text of the book as it is, not as Ms. Reese would have liked to have seen it. Criticisms such as the desolate appearance of the school in the illustrations and the color of the road heading into Sante Fe, would not be brought up around the Newbery table because they are not relevant when discussing the text of the story.

      Another one of Reese’s criticisms of the story was the Winters’ decision to feature a member of the Hopi tribe making kachina dolls (although she later clarified this) over their choice to not mention a different Native American group (Pueblo) that lived much closer. Again, I’m appreciative of her for adding context to the discussion, but I don’t see how this impacts a Newbery conversation around the title. The Hopi people did make kachina dolls. That is not inaccurate. The fact that she would have liked to see the author acknowledge another Native American group that lived in the area is not something that would be allowed to be discussed around the table. The discussion would have to be around the choices the author DID make and how those choices are distinguished or not.

      Lolly mentions “errors” in THE SECRET PROJECT and I would caution the use of this word. Nothing brought up in criticism over the text of that book was in regard to any historical inaccuracies within the actual text.

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    I nominated WELCOME and favor it over the others.

    Interpretation of theme: The mock-hospitality message and the humor is a welcome twist in an often two-note (sentimental or grandiose) genre and yet, if anything, convey more sincerity than its genre-mates.

    Information: the book presents what life has in store – clearly, accessibly, without fanciful sugar-coating: (“There is unkindness and fighting and wastefulness”)

    Plot: structurally respects the announcement conceit, but offers lots of little discursions, some funny, some almost unhappy, which help it avoid both getting one-note and the genre’s tendency towards desperate piling-it-on.

    Character: somehow manages masterfully to blend the voice of the bland concierge, the Willems inimitable wit, and EveryParent (“of our current offerings I can personally recommend your being right here with me”)

    Setting: again it’s quite the trick how the book evokes both an impersonal travel setting (the feeling of waiting for the plane to take off or checking in to lodgings) and the cozy, attention-on-just-me feeling of bedtime, hugs, and being read to.

    Appropriateness of style / Quality of presentation for children: See here – unlike other books in this genre, this isn’t just for parents who want fine and grand metaphors for their feelings. There is “pooping and more pooping.” Eventually, toddlers will get the “picture of a cat” comment and being sung a not-great song. Eventually, as children they will get the whole announcement conceit. They will get the login joke. I think this book could reward revisiting throughout 0-14 to see how you’ve grown and what came true. It’s like a response for when my children want to know with genuine interest what they were like as babies, before they could remember, and what I think they can be.

    • I loved this picture book, too, Leonard, and I think it definitely hits all the categories as well. I agree with you that it especially elevates itself in terms of appropriateness of style.

  6. steven engelfried says:

    I think the text of THE LEGEND OF ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS accomplishes quite a lot in some interesting ways. The mock-heroic style is fun, and at just the level that elementary schoolers will get: “In an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard…” It’s maintained throughout, and goes a step further to add many funny moments. Sometimes with plot details, narration, and especially dialog: : “‘Ugh, I am smooshed!” [says Apricot] “And yet, smooshing you has brought me no joy.” [says Rock].

    The plot has a clear pattern, but varies enough to provide surprises. The second battles of each of the heroes become more ridiculous each time. And the dialog builds on the humor of the situations. “I have come from the far reaches of Kitchen to battle you, o bizarre and yummy breaded dinosaurs” [says Scissors] “Bow before our child-pleasing shapes and flavors, sword master…” [say the Dinosaur-Shaped Chicken Nuggets].

    The words contribute so much to the style, plot, and characterizations. But so do the illustrations. When rock meets “a warrior who hung on a rope, holding a giant’s underwear,” [a Clothespin], the words are just right…but the illustrations on both pages that show the conflict rising really take the humor to another level. This is one where I admire the text greatly, but struggle to identify just how much the words contributes to the book’s excellence….I know it’s a lot, but is it enough?

    A DIFFERENT POND by Bao Phi also stands out. The illustrations are also excellent, and so are the words. The story describes an early morning father and son fishing excursion, but subtly tells other stories too: about the father’s childhood in Vietnam; the son’s response to being teased at school; the family’s financial struggles; the boy’s pride at his place in the family. Except for the boy’s sadness when his parents leave for work, no feelings are described in the text, yet it’s packed with emotion. This is probably the picture book I’d consider most strongly so far for Newbery consideration.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      I 100% agree with you on A DIFFERENT POND. The text is so efficient. When I covered the images and read just the text, I found the pathos and emotion comes through very strongly.
      It’s also worked really well as a read aloud with students as young as first grade and as high as fifth.

    • I’m rooting for A DIFFERENT POND. Every word is perfect.

  7. I was a bit disappointed with WHEN’S MY BIRTHDAY. After loving WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES last year. BIRTHDAY is a cute book, but not really one to talk about at length here.

    I thought WELCOME was brilliant. Would you expect anything less from Willems? A few quibbles though. What age of reader is this aimed at? It’s kind of ironic because an infant is not going to get a darn thing out of this book. Or is that the point? Infants like to look at colors and shapes. Yet this book is quite literally a welcome guide to the world. I read it to my 5 and 7 year-old children and they giggled at parts but didn’t seem to “get it” at the same time. Or is this really for adults? Also, is it a problem that much of the text relies on images and symbols and a few mirrors?

    I thought THE LEGEND OF ROCK PAPER SCISSORS was hilarious. Maybe my favorite of the bunch above. My 5 year-old son laughed hysterically. The Battle Royale style is fun. The pacing and structure is great. I think it could have done without the “children today” bit at the end. A bit redundant. Overall, really clever though.

    Perhaps my favorite of this bunch, in a Newbery discussion though, is THE SECRET PROJECT. I read it once and was blown away. There were subtle things I picked up on that I thought were brilliant (nameless scientists, for one). Then I read through Debbie Reese’s 1-star review on Goodreads and gave it another read. I still liked it. Reading Debbie’s review reminded me of the conversation around GHOSTS last year. The bulk of her criticism appeared to come down to choices she wanted the author and illustrator to make but didn’t. That isn’t fair game in a Newbery discussion, right? Don’t we have to talk about the distinguished qualities of the text as it is presented? Not what we wanted it to be?

    As Sharon said initially, I think the way Winter made this complex topic mysterious, symbolic, and accessible is impressive. A lot of reviewers on Goodreads who are a lot smarter than I am, have pointed out and articulated a lot of impressive features of Winter’s text. I’m going to think on this one some more and maybe compile some of its most impressive selling points in a later comment.

    • Mr. H, you asked, “The bulk of her criticism appeared to come down to choices she wanted the author and illustrator to make but didn’t. That isn’t fair game in a Newbery discussion, right?” That is absolutely right. We can talk about what we wish the authors have put in a book or have taken out of a book, when we have personal conversations with friends or even in professional settings — like when I talk books with my students. However, there are pretty strict expectations that Committee Members discuss the BOOKS as THEY ARE, and not what they might be, could have been, would be better if…, etc.

      However — if there are factual misrepresentations or glaring mishandling of information, especially when it comes to nonfiction, it should not be off limits to point those out for consideration. After all, the criteria document does call for “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization.” I would imagine this falls under “accuracy and clarity” consideration. No?

      • I’m so glad you clarified that, Roxanne. It would be very disappointing to me if books weren’t discussed because they don’t reflect what we *want* them to be rather than what they *are*.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I bought WELCOME for a friend, and she just sent me a picture of a very happy 1-year-old and his dad reading it together. You read it to your kids who “giggled at parts but didn’t seem to ‘get it'”. I think these examples and others get at one of the points I was trying to make about this book. I think a child of any age, even 14, gets something out of WELCOME but not everything. Children will get even more out of it as they grow and revisit it. That to me is a sign that a book is distinguished. My own all-time favorite books were loved by me as a child, even though I didn’t get everything there was to appreciate about them. And they remain “distinguished” to me now, because though I have grown, I have found more to appreciate in them. Isn’t that a sign of great literature? Being inexhaustible?

      • Thanks for addressing my “age of reader” question, Leonard. I would agree with you. I thought the book was great!

      • In fact, I’m falling more in love with some of the picture book titles offered this year than many of the fiction novels or nonfiction titles!

  8. Sara Coffman says:

    So much to chew on with this list and these comments! My favorite is still HER RIGHT FOOT. I handed it to my administrator/colleague/friend on the exhibit hall floor at AASL and warned her it was a doozie. Even with the warning, she gasped and began to cry at the end. The writing is powerful – and not just for the adult reader, as many others have mentioned already.

  9. I haven’t seen Welcome yet but it sounds similar to Oliver Jeffers’ Here We Are: Notes for Living on Earth. How do they compare?

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

      I haven’t looked as closely at Here We Are, and that’s an interesting comparison. They definitely seem to have a different tone, and perhaps a different audience, but are similar in content. I’ll get my hands on Here We Are, and try to give a more thorough answer soon! Anyone else read both?

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