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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Picture Book Biographies and the Heavy Medal Early 6

In mid-December, we’ll be forming a committee of volunteers to make up the Heavy Medal Award Committee. Details are in our October 25th post. In December we’ll announce a full list of books that that group will be discussing, but meanwhile we’ve chosen six titles that will be on that list for sure. If you’re thinking you might volunteer, this may help you weigh your decision; if you’re sure you’re going to volunteer, you can get a head start on your reading. The Early 6 titles are:

  • THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE by Jo Ann Allen Boyce & Debbie Levy
  • NEW KID by Jerry Craft
  • TORPEDOED by Deborah Heiligman
  • LALANI OF THE DISTANT SEA by Erin Entrada Kelly
  • THE TOLL by Neil Shusterman

We’ll continue to discuss more potential titles for the final list, starting today with picture book biographies. This is a format that has not fared well in the world of the Newbery Medal. Unless I missed something, there’s never been a Medal or Honor biography in a traditional picture book format. This makes sense, since the best picture book biographies rely on the interplay between illustrations and text to succeed, and that can be tricky when it comes to Newbery Criteria. Not that there aren’t distinguished books being produced. Eight picture book biographies have earned Caldecott recognition in the past decade; ten (or so, depending on how you define the format) have been Sibert winners or honors. The two books below have earned a combined nine starred reviews this year…but only one Nomination each so far from Heavy Medal readers.

THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN  by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby

Barnett draws on MWB’s own style, including her “Important” books, to inform his distinctive writing voice, and it works wonderfully well. The short conversational sentences and questions to the readers capture the essence of her books, while also conveying just the right amount…and the right kind, of information about her. The choice of anecdotes, like the flower cart purchase (p 15-16) and the skinning of the rabbit (8) seem perfect for the subject and the reader. The playful tone and light humor set up the more serious conflict between Brown and Anne Carroll Moore. The telling of her death leads seamlessly into the concluding idea that strange lives and strange books are important: very impressive “interpretation of theme or concept.” This one really stands out in terms of style, theme, and information. 

LET ‘ER BUCK! By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James

Another picture book biography where “appropriateness of style” plays a key role. Nelson uses just enough lively language to get us into that rodeo world, without overdoing it. Similes are especially fun: George “took to their ways like a wet kitten to a warm brick” and “it was as plain as the ears on a mule he was born to ride.” Rather than try to cover his whole life, she structures  the presentation of information to lead up to the Saddle Bronc Championship. With that climactic event, readers get the glory of George’s ride, the disappointment of the decision (“George took it like a cowboy. He’d felt this sting before”), and the “people’s champion” conclusion. Then uses four pages of fascinating back matter to extend the historical information.

Other noteworthy picture book biographies include TWO BROTHERS, FOUR HANDS by Jan Greenbergs & Sandy Jordan, THURGOOD by Jonah Winter, and Sue Macy’s BOOK RESCUER. Should these, or any other picture book biographies be part of this year’s Newbery conversation?

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Thanks so much for highlighting LET ‘ER BUCK! I really think that of the picture books this year, this hits the Newbery criteria the most. In what seems effortless, there is so much intention in each word used to tell this story. The examples of text that Steven highlighted are great ones in that they aren’t just fun language, they add just as much of a time and place in the world building as they do characterization. This also has such great pacing.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    I think this is a great list so far – thoughtfully put together to ensure both range and respect for your readers’ nominations. Thumbs up!

    I think picture books would be the perfect genre to let the eventual Mock Committee select which they want to discuss. There are a lot of really good options that all received 1-2 Nominations. And there is no danger in deciding last minute. If someone hadn’t read the final selection, they could in minutes.

  3. I’m a big fan of THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN, but it brings up the audience question for me because I’ve heard a lot of my esteemed colleauges say they loved it but they think it’s written for adults. So I’d love to hear from someone who has shared this with children and how they reacted. (My kindergartener didn’t like it at all and it doesn’t seem like a good choice for my regular story time.) I can imagine it working for older kids who may enjoy discussing what kinds of books younger children should read and deeper questions about the meaning of a life.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      You’re right Destinee, that’s really the big question. I do think it might be more for older kids, as you say. The whimsical voice may work best when you’re old enough to know it’s whimsical (if that makes sense?). Even though it seems to be addressing younger readers directly.

    • I’m using THE IMPORTANT THING in my Mock Caldecott this year, so I will be reading it to second, third and fourth graders. I read it to fourth graders this Thursday. Unfortunately, it’s quite a bit longer than most of the books I read to them, and since I only have 15 minutes with each class, we didn’t have a chance to have a really good discussion. That said, the classes that I did read it to all responded positively. They laughed in the right places, and their facial expressions during things like the skinning of the rabbit or staircase tea party said they were engaged with the text. They particularly reacted to the part where the book talks about the narrator stopping to ask questions, and then the next sentence is “Now don’t you think that’s a strange thing to do?”

      Plus, I read it five times in a row and still enjoyed reading it, which is always a good sign to me.

      That being said, I think this is one of those books where you get very different things from it depending on your background knowledge. I was already familiar with, say, Anne Carroll Moore, and so those sections meant more to me than it likely did to the students. I think adults familiar with Margaret Wise Brown’s work are going to better appreciate the homages to her style, but I don’t think that means kids won’t appreciate them, just in a different way, and that’s true of most books anyway.

    • One of my colleagues used it for Banned Book Week. I liked the idea that it shows how librarians can also be censors. It’s still doubtful a child reader would seek it out, but that is the case of 95% of picture book biographies. Although many enjoy them when they are read to them or assigned.

  4. I read THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN to a bright group of fourth graders, who enjoyed it greatly–the narrative voice made them giggle, and they were interested to learn about the author of GOOD NIGHT MOON and THE RUNAWAY BUNNY, which all of them knew well. (I followed up the biography with THE STEAMROLLER, which they didn’t know and liked even better.) They were indignant that MWB wasn’t invited to the tea; they thought that was mean. After I read the book, I asked them what they thought was at the heart of the book, and they thought it was essentially a book about being yourself and not conforming to what other people expected of you.

  5. Gabrielle Stoller says:

    I had the opportunity to hear Mac Barnett read “The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown” out loud. While I had been skeptical of it at first, his reading made me want to attempt reading it. Now I’m gonna try it with a group of Kindergarten kids (who actually really enjoy picture book biographies) and we will see how it goes. MWB is a tough book to categorize–considering it was a reading of it that drew me in, you could argue it is better for Newbery. But Caldecott might give it more love….

  6. Brenda Martin says:

    A little surprised to see so much love for LET ‘ER BUCK, here and in other places. While I’m glad the book is out there and the content is worth sharing, it has a number of issues that I feel make it less than award-worthy. The design, for one, is sometimes problematic… the white on black font is occasionally difficult to read. Content-wise, I feel that there was an odd pacing issue with readers wondering “what came next” for the riders featured. A lot of rodeo terms went unexplained, which I think is a disservice to the vast readership who have never seen or experienced a rodeo. That said, the back matter was very dense, maybe too much so.

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I actually thought the use of rodeo terms was just right. There seemed to be enough of the basic rules, without separating from the folksy narrative style: “Bronc busters stayed on as long as they could or until the animal bucked out.” A few terms are set off by quotation marks: “buck” and “outlaws” without being defined, so the marks just indicate that they don’t have their usual meaning. While “pulled leather” is in quotes followed by a definition. I too am unsure about the dense back matter. There’s so much content that you wonder if it doesn’t belong in a book of its own, for older readers. And I’ve never been sure how to weigh back matter like this under Newbery Terms and Criteria: Equal to the main text? Discount it? Consider only if it detracts? I guess it depends on the book…

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