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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

How Fare Poetry Books at the Newbery table?

Taking a quick count of the past 3 decades or so, one could see an upswing of poetry books (collection, single poem, or verse novels/nonfiction) being recognized by the Newbery committees: from 1987 to 1997, only 1 out of 42 books awarded was a poetry collection, the 1989 medal winner Joyful Noise, by Paul Fleischman. From 1998 to 2008, 3 out of 43 books were poetry (Carver, Show Way, and Out of the Dust) – 4, if we count Good Masters, Sweet Ladies (monologues, but poetic.) The number doubled between 2009 and 2019. 9 out of 41 books – More than 20% – received high honors. They come in all forms: picture books, Last Stop On Market Street; Crown: And Ode to the Fresh Cut; verse novels, The Crossover; Inside Out and Back Again, Long Way Down; verse nonfiction, Brown Girl Dreaming, Freedom Over Me, The Surrender Tree, and a poetry collection, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night. Verse narratives dominate this list.

What changed? Is it simply that the notion of what is considered great children’s literature has been expanded? Are there a lot more titles published to choose from? Or are there inherent advantages that verse narratives hold over prose narratives? I know that for certain teachers and readers, verse novels/memoirs, etc., are more palatable due to the amount of white space on each page: less daunting somehow, and faster to consume. When page-count matters to your reading log, a 200-page verse novel that contains about 100 pages of text seems an easy way to fulfill a quota.

This year, several highly praised titles are poetic works, including the following three:

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson;

This Promise of Change, co-authored by Jo Ann Allen Boyce & Debbie Levy; and

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga.

All of them share themes of the struggle against injustice caused by racial intolerance, mistrust, and ignorance, presented in ways that invite thoughtful reflection from young readers.

When Kwame chants, “This is for the unspeakable” three times, it forces readers to pause and consider all the past (and present) violent acts exacted on the black bodies and souls. When Jo Ann declares, “John Kasper/is minister of no church/but he preaches to the people/from the altar of racism,” readers would feel a fiery anger deep down the pit of their stomach: how many still use such tactics to incite racial intolerance in our time. And young readers might be made aware of their own biases when Jude wishes, “I wanted her to understand/that we’re happy here,/even if we don’t look like what she thinks of as happy” after a woman has accosted her mother and proclaims that in America, Jude’s mother no longer needs to wear her hijab because she is now “free” — never believing that the wearing of a hijab could be a choice and a time-honored cultural practice, not a sign of bondage.

Out of the three, I believe one is more distinguished, with more textual merits than the other two, and might have a shot at the Newbery. Have you read them? Is one or more Newbery-worthy? Let’s discuss!

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Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Though we’ve had recent precedent with picture book poetry, as Roxanne mentions, I can see some wrestling with the impact of Kadir Nelson’ illustration in an UNDEFEATED discussion.
    The “unspeakable” refrain that Roxanne mentions works just right verbally…but it’s those illustrations on the three page turns that make that moment unforgettable. We’ve discussed how images might fit the definition of “text” in terms of graphic novels (and will again, I’m sure)…for some reason that’s harder for me to grasp in this picture book, where the poem and the illustrations seem more like separate creations, though perfectly matched. Putting that aside, though, there’s a lot to like about the words. The flow of the language and careful word choices convey the struggles and triumphs of history very effectively. The inspirational language plays against the suffering and injustices that are sometimes stark (“…the ones who didn’t”) and sometimes more implied (“Unspoken but no longer untitled”). The structure, with each section starting with “This is for the…” paces the poem neatly. These vary in length and in tone, but together form a cohesive forward momentum. With a book like this, it’s important to remember the note in the criteria that “because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements.” In this case, plot, setting, and characters aren’t really relevant to this book’s purpose, and that’s fine. But you could still argue that it is distinguished in the areas of “interpretation of theme or concept” and “appropriateness of style,” which are the areas in which it would need to excel.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Steven and Roxanne, I would put up THE BELL RANG against THE UNDEFEATED. It shares the theme Roxanne mentions, “the struggle against injustice caused by racial intolerance . . . presented in ways that invite thoughtful reflection from young readers.” Ransome makes the literary decision to keep to the narrator’s viewpoint, which I think is both more dramatically effective in its concreteness and the stronger invitation for thoughtful reflection in its “large writ small” approach. And I think the text is just as effective as poetry while being less dependent on the illustrations.

      • Thanks, Leonard, for reminding us that The Bell Rang is also favored by many readers.

        I have similar reaction to Undefeated — love both the text and the images and feel that they are not quite separable: and that could be a detraction for Newbery consideration.

      • Annisha Jeffries Annisha Jeffries says:

        Undefeated is my favorite. Well, I did two things: I flipped through the book without reading the text. Then I read the book as I carefully digested every part of the book. Difficult? Yes. But extremely compelling.
        I would like to mention: Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. Although it is not a book of poetry, this book has rhythmic, playful language with a bit of Spanish. Blending a beautiful tribute to a trailblazer in the library profession.

  2. I found Other Words for Home’s vivid sensory detail and candid exploration of injustice to be unforgettable. I loved when Jude describes her uncle’s house as sharing her feelings. The concise poems delve deeply into Jude’s feelings, and she’s one of the most unforgettable voices I’ve encountered this year. I believe that the book holds tremendous potential and deserves to be considered. Use of character, symbolism and sensory imagery as well as the relatability of Jude’s story make Other Words for Home a true stand-out.

  3. I listen to a lot of works on audiobook. If it’s an award contender I will make a point to pick up the physical book and skim through (or “skim through” with quotes, because I end up re-reading wide swathes sometimes). Which is a preface to say that I listened to Other Words for Home, and then was very surprised when I picked up the actual book and realized that it was free verse poetry. This is a case where I’m going to have to re-read the entire book because craft choices such as line breaks do make an impact on the reading experience. But my question at large is, is that a point in the book’s favor, a point against it, or a completely neutral point, that when read aloud it did not feel like poetry to me in any way? I’m usually more on the ball and know ahead of time when something is free verse poetry and make sure that I read the physical book in those cases rather than listening, so I’m not sure to what degree this is true of some/all verse novels.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I agree, and it’s hard for me not to see it as a negative. I was grumpy with OTHER WORDS FOR HOME for about the first 1/2 or so for the sole reason that I didn’t see why it had to be in verse, and I didn’t really consider it to be verse. Eventually, I settled in to enjoying it as a sympathetic adjusting-to-school novel.

      I agree with Kari that THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE had stronger writing, both as writing, and as verse.

    • Alys, I had the same experience with OTHER WORDS FOR HOME. My library’s copy showed up the same day my Overdrive hold came in. I didn’t open the book as I processed it, but noted that it was on the hefty side. Imagine my surprise when the audio was over in an afternoon of cleaning my house. Never once did I suspect from the verbal text that it was a book in verse. I also don’t know if it’s a weakness, but I did forget everything that happened in the book fairly quickly. If may have resonated more if I’d seen the text on the page.

  4. Between the two longer books, I thought the writing was strongest in THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE. I wonder how it will be evaluated with two authors? I liked OTHER WORDS FOR HOME a lot but thought the strengths were in the story and the characters rather than just the writing.

    I am not sure how to compare it to THE UNDEFEATED because they are doing two very different things. I agree with Steven above about how powerfully the words and the pictures combine to make something unforgettable.

  5. I haven’t read Change yet (none of my libraries have it yet for some reason), but I loved the other two!

  6. I want to give all the awards to UNDEFEATED. Granted, the illustrations bring an extra emotional depth to text that is already drowning in emotion. It’s a book that almost transcends any reading experience I’ve had this year. Every line break, every bit of punctuation, is perfect.

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Interesting to hear about listening to OTHER WORDS FOR HOME, rather than reading and seeing the line breaks. I think its fine that the lines don’t sound like poetry. I’ve quoted Virginia Ewer Wolff’s description of her “Make Lemonade” trilogy on HM in past years (at least once), where she says: “I think of them as written in prose, but I do use stanzas….I wanted there to be ‘room’ – breathing opportunities to receive thought and have time to come out of them before starting again at the left margin.” I think OTHER WORDS FOR HOME uses line breaks for “breathing opportunities” effectively. THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE employs actual structured poetry forms, and it’s tempting to give it more credit for poetry…I just don’t think the authors are attempting to use verse in the same way. In OTHER WORDS, the style sort of isolates sentences in ways that give them more prominence. It happens a lot at chapter endings, which seems pretty common in this style. Sometimes they highlight thematic elements: “It is a tiny street / but it feels like the whole world / is living there.” (134); “Hoping / I’m starting to think, / might be the bravest thing a person can do.” (175). This can get heavy-handed if it’s overused, but I think it’s done judiciously enough here, and also represents the reflective way that Jude thinks. The author also uses those last-sentences-of-the-chapter for plot development: “But at the last minute, / I grab a tryout packet too.” (155); ““I was wrong about not / wanting to be in Mrs. Ravenswood’s room.” (112) Those lines are straightforward prose, but the line breaks give them extra weight. Character development comes in some of those last lines too: “..my uncle hasn’t been showing me / all his fancy stuff to impress me, / but to convince me. // To convince himself.” (126) I don’t always appreciate this style, but I feel it’s a good choice for this book and executed very effectively.

  8. Julie Corsaro says:

    I appreciate Steven’s analysis of the free verse form in Other Words for Home. When I began reading it, I wondered like Alys about that choice. It wasn’t a bad thing. I think some novels in verse read like outlines, but not this one. It was fleshed out with an engaging protagonist who grows and changes over the course of the story.

    Meredith noted that Jude is relatable. I couldn’t agree more. What kid hasn’t felt like an outsider? Maybe, not as a refugee (though some, of course, will), but more like when you’re rejected by the cool kids, or ostracized because you don’t look or dress the right way. As Jude notes on both accounts, “ My cousin Sarah is/chunky platform sandals that/clomp clomp/on the hardwood floors of the old house.”

    Despite serious themes, I found the story to be quite funny at times, especially concerning Jude’s observations about the ways Americans communicate: “ I shrug off Layla’s warning, because in America, I have perfected the shrug.”

    I admit that one of my pet peeves is when first person narrators in children’s books sound more like the adult writer than the young protagonist. It wasn’t exactly my problem here (well, maybe a little). I think Warga’s use of repetition, contrast, and similes, as well as the sparse cadence that comes out of the free-verse form, is effective in creating a believably youthful voice. One thing I did find jarring, however, was when Jude’s ESL classmate Grace talks about her problems with homonyms. Jude admits, “that we relate to what Grace said/but so relieved that there is someone else/in this school/in this city/in this country/who feels the same way/about knight and night.” At the same time that Jude struggles with English, she is also telling an eloquent story. Maybe, it’s the overall premise that I am struggling with.

    In addition, a member of my children’s literature book group also asked if the ending was too pat or easy. With the violence off stage and the most innocent intimations of a first romance, it situated the story for me more at the fifth and sixth grade level than for upper middle school. That’s fine.

    In the end, I really did like the story, not least because of the distinctive perspective of a young Syrian refugee. I look forward to reading it more closely a second time.

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