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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Newbery-ish: Do expectations limit the scope of a search for the most distinguished children’s book?

With our first round of nominations completed, I started to wonder about how much our general sense of what a Newbery book looks like can impact our search for deserving winners. Here are a few numbers based on the sixteen titles that received more than one vote:

  • 8 are set in modern times; 7 are in historical settings; 1 is in a fantasy world.
  • 14 are novels; 2 are nonfiction (one in graphic novel format); 0 picture books; 0 poetry.
  • 15 are mostly realistic (WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER and A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS have elements of fantasy, but are essentially real-world books); 1 is fantasy (though magical elements are a fairly small part of the world in A WISH IN THE DARK).
  • 15 fit clearly into the middle of the Newbery age range; 1 stretches to the upper edge (CHARLES LINDBERGH is the only one that is shelved in some (but not all) YA collections in my local libraries.
  • 7 feature people of color as main characters; 9 feature white protagonists.

Those sixteen books are really strong, but I always wonder how much of our reading and our evaluation depends on what’s won the medal in the past, along with our individual tastes and comfort levels. I’m pretty sure most of us have a vague, but strong sense of what we expect a Newbery book to be like. These might not even be the qualities we like most as readers, but we expect them, to some degree, in award winning books:

  • Fiction
  • Usually realistic
  • Often historical
  • At least one easily identifiable issue as a central theme
  • Written for the grade 5-8 range
  • Language that has a certain level of eloquence

Most of our top 16 fit most or all of those bullet points. WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED is different: a memoir in graphic novel format; and as a non-fiction book for older readers, LINDBERGH could also be seen as an outlier. But the rest, excellent as they are, do share a lot of those qualities.

So is our Nomination list to this point too limited? Are we sticking too closely to the safe, comfortable Newbery-like titles and missing out on books that might be initially more challenging to evaluate, but could ultimately meet the criteria for distinguished literature more completely?

I don’t ask the question to disparage the books that received nominations: there’s an amazing breadth of styles, subject matter, and originality, plus a wide range of diverse content within that group. I’m just wondering if we tend too much towards the familiar. I’m including myself in this, based on my first three nominations: A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS hits all of the bullet points. ON THE HORIZON is poetry, but still tells a historical story. CHARLES LINDBERGH is nonfiction, but it’s the kind of nonfiction that does get noticed, if any does. Clearly, I also need to read more widely and maybe rethink some of the books I’ve already read that lie beyond those expected Newbery touchpoints:

Older Readers: I’m halfway through CLAP WHERE YOU LAND by Elizabeth Acevedo. I’m thinking as I read: Printz maybe, Newbery no. I read Mildred Taylor’s ALL THE DAYS PAST, ALL THE DAYS TO COME earlier in the year and had the same thought. Maybe I should think again about both. My favorite YA book so far is AGAIN AGAIN by E. Lockhart, which uses an innovative narrative technique that seems award-worthy to me…and maybe could fit into the 14 and under age range.

Younger Readers: THE STORY OF US by Lauren Castillo is a standout first chapter book. David LaRochelle’s SEE THE CAT is my favorite early reader of the year, and I think a case can be made for its achievements in terms of literary elements (though I’m not sure). WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS by Carol Lindstrom is one picture book that’s caught my Newbery-focused attention, but I’m sure I’ve missed many others.

Fantasy / Science Fiction: What used to be my strongest reading interest has scaled back in recent years. I think I’ve read too many good-but-not-great books in these genres. RETURN OF THE THIEF fits, though, and I’m looking forward to reading THIEF KNOT and TRISTAN STRONG DESTROYS THE WORLD.

Poetry: Naomi Shihab Nye’s CAST AWAY is a themed poetry collection for upper elementary to middle school readers…we don’t see too many of these, and it’s excellent. David Elliott’s IN THE WOODS is a strong example of picture book poetry. And THIS POEM IS A NEST by Irene Latham sounds very clever, though I don’t have a copy yet.

Non-fiction: I usually do make an effort to read fairly widely in this area. I’m looking forward to WHO GIVES A POOP, which was nominated this month (although to this point in time there has never been a Newbery book with “poop” in the title). Alas, two of my favorite non-fiction books of the year come from Canadian authors: CROWS (in the “Science Comics” series) and EELS (“Superpower Field Guide” series).

Graphic Novels: Along with WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED, several excellent books in this format have been discussed here, including four that received one nomination (CLASS ACT, DRAGON HOOPS, AN ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL, and SNAPDRAGON).

What are some of the other “not-so-Newbery-ish” books that deserve a closer look?

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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 sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. I’ve been also wondering if trying too hard to predict what the committee would do was limiting my reading. THIEF KNOT has been languishing on my TBR pile of books, most likely because it is a sequel Thanks to Leonard’s promotion of the book I plan to read it next. I also am going to try to read more widely during the next few months. I have not read any books for young readers and very few picture books. So I have a plan for my reading in the near future. Thank you for your timely post.

    • I adore the Greenglass house series. Just a warning about Thief Knot: although in some ways it stands alone, it has major spoilers for the earlier books. So if you haven’t read the first book, do try to read it first!

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    Maybe DOODLEVILLE? As in Cardboard Kingdom, I think Sell nails some aspects of childhood imagination in a way that is rarely seen in the literature. My only reservation is the climactic battle scene in the end — as in too many superhero movies, I think it’s perhaps more big and noisy than genuinely exciting (or literary). So perhaps some Plot concerns there.

    Also I think I am holding Timberlake’s SKUNK AND BADGER to an unfairly high standard (because historically, we already have multiple examples of out-and-out immortal odd-couple animal books). But maybe it should be discussed, because objectively it is actually really, really good, and it is for an older audience than Lobel, Willems, & co. so maybe shouldn’t be compared to them (and shouldn’t in a Newbery discussion anyway.)

    And I know I’ve mentioned SAL & GABI multiple times. But come on, I learned the meaning of life from this humorous faux-sci-fi book. How many books since Hitchhiker’s Guide can one say that of?

    I am a bit stumped this year for a picture book text that I could really make a Newbery argument for.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Plot was the question I had about DOODLEVILLE also. The plot works, and it’s a good vehicle for the themes and for the artwork. The whole book works, in fact, exploring themes about some fairly standard themes (cooperation, kindness) and some more unusual (connections between art and emotions), with artwork that expands and strengthens the words. I don’t feel the characters stood out beyond their main characteristics, though, and the story became less compelling as it moved forward. But it’s possible that I’m not looking at this book in the right ways…?

    • Carol Jones says:

      Sal & Gabi are such a phenomenal pair! Definitely worth a read.

  3. What a truly thoughtful post! I definitely think we are all influenced by our own personal tastes, so you make some excellent points. I already know which book I want to win, but I also know that’s probably not fair. I am trying to put my bias aside. It’s also easy to read authors who have won in the past with more expectations.

    I am looking forward to reading The Way Back, by Gavriel Savit when it is released. The excerpt I have read seems interesting. The book does not have the usual format of quotation marks to designate dialogue, which always frustrates me, but the premise seems engaging. I did read a book called The Girl and the Ghost which was very unique, and it is set in Malaysia. Sadly, I don’t think it would qualify as I believe the author is Malaysian, too. My access to graphic novels and picture books is very limited, but more audiobooks are being made available, which has made a huge difference for my reading experience.
    Increasing diverse reading is essential, and I am proud that the committee brings their own diverse reading experiences to the discussions. Even so, awards will always be subjective, I suppose. I do feel that good writing can be recognized, and Newbery committees have done fairly well over the years. Of course, what one person thinks is an excellent winner others might disagree. I always think of the Charlotte’s Web controversy.

    Thank you for helping us all to think more critically about what we read. Outstanding post!

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      It does look like THE GIRL AND THE GHOST would be ineligible, since the author does live in Malaysia.

  4. Another excellent spark to our conversation! It is worthwhile to interrogate that certain “something” that suggest “Newbery” in readers’ minds.Though my knowledge is limited, it think I’ve read of several times when the choice was overwhelmingly for one title, and because the example rising to my mind is fantasy (THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON), I’m wondering if the default stands unless there is a standout? Put another way, maybe genre matters less when the division between contenders is more clear? To me, NEW KID was another example – a clear standout in an always competitive field.

    The other thing I wonder about is how often we default to authors we are familiar with, failing to fully “see” the work in question and judge it on its own merits. And how many debut titles from lesser known presses are overlooked completely in the rush of releases.

    Final thought: I think CLAP WHEN YOU LAND is tremendous, one of the best books I’ve read this year, but I am protective of that middle grade sweet spot. I really want the Newbery to stick to those readers. But maybe I should be more willing to let that go.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      “Familiar authors” is a good point Sara Beth. I hope that an author’s past efforts don’t influence the evaluation of a book (and the Criteria specifically say they shouldn’t). But familiar authors’ books are more likely to be read by more readers, I’m pretty sure. It’s hard to imagine that any Committee member (or devoted Mock-Newbery participant) would not read PRAIRIE LOTUS or ON THE HORIZON, since the authors have won Newbery Medals and have multiple other highly praised books on their resume. A first novel like FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON won’t have that built in readership. And it’s possible that our high expectations for a book by Linda Sue Park or Lois Lowry could, even subconsciously, affect our evaluation. That can work the opposite way too: if you feel THE ONE AND ONLY BOB is an excellent book, but not as excellent as THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, it can be tempting to dismiss it, even though it could still be as good as anything else written this year…

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Lesa Cline-Ransome’s OVERGROUND RAILROAD is one picture book that could fare well in a Newbery discussion. Language and themes resonate, and even plot and characters are strong, which is hard to do in a picture book like this one.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Agree. If I had to pick a picture book text, it’d probably be OVERGROUND RAILROAD.

    • Also in picture books, I just read Julie Fogliano’s My best friend and it was fantastic.

      • After squidnight was also great, but definitely gets into the whole not Newbery-ish thing. It’s a funny horror picture book, not a lyrical poem. But it’s great at what its doing, which *should* be the criteria.

  6. One thing with YA is that most YA is 12+. So *all* of those YA books meet the age criteria based on marketing age. But I don’t see how anyone could possibly read every middle grade *and* every YA! So some of the younger focus is a self-preservation instinct. 🙂 I kind of want them to add a middle grade specific award and maybe a picture book text award and then make Newbery best in show between the top ten of each committee or something. Actually, it would still be good to add both of those awards even if you keep trying to make the Newbery committee read every single book published. 🙂 And if there was a middle grade specific award, I think it’d be easier for people to expand their idea of the Newbery.

  7. ESE Librarian Bob says:

    Terrific discussion—great input from all! I feel the Newbery is (primarily) a MG award and I have no probs with that. My (biracial, trans) ten year old daughter loves winners like A Wrinkle in Time, One Crazy Summer and The Book of Boy.

    I think the categories that often win resonate with a broad cross-section of kids. We know upper middle grade is trending, so past winners like Holes and Out of the Dust seem out of place in Teen sections.

    I’m so glad Stephen brought up lower MG (K-3). I think there have been some truly exceptional titles and creators since Lobel’s Frog and Toad and they’re truly overlooked. This resonates with me because I’ve been an ESE librarian and teacher for years in the Deep South. Kids of the same age are definitely not all reading at the same level.

    I have the opposite of “familiar authors” bias. Because of the books I grew up with and my daughter, I’m hungry for new content and creators. Since you mentioned POC and white authors, we still haven’t seen Indigenous, queer and disability winners. That would be watersheds for those communities. The shock/excitement/dissent of a collection of monologues, a picture book and a graphic novel winning has naturally made those choices seem less daring. I agree fantasy never gets enough love (science fiction ever?) and nonfiction outside of poetry seems to have been dropped altogether.

    I think I Talk Like a River and We Are Water Protectors are picture books with great writing.

    Thanks, everyone, for this great discussion/distraction!

  8. Steven, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Expectations are always involved. How has the Printz Award impacted the selections for the Newbery? Do judges now tend to exclude books for older readers? Is there something intrinsic in chapter books that makes them less likely to be distinguished, at least according to the criteria for the Newbery? What about timing? Is a book which comes out relatively late in the year unfairly impacted? (I’m thinking of Uri Shulevitz’s CHANCE, Debbie Levy’s BECOMING RBG, which would have been eligible in 2019, but also others.)

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Great questions, Emily. In theory, the Printz Award should not impact Newbery selections at all. From the Newbery Manual:
      “It is the responsibility of each committee to consider a work based upon how it meets the criteria of their specific award rather than speculating whether a particular title will receive another award. If a title is recognized by multiple committees, it does not diminish the work of any of those committees; rather, it draws greater attention to a particular work’s excellence.” (p 23)

      In practice, it’s hard to say where each member will land on the age range issue. The hope is that Newbery members will only be thinking about whether the book in terms of how it meet the “understandings, abilities, and appreciations” of readers within the 0-14 age range.

      I actually think the overlap in the age level criteria (Printz = 12-18; Newbery = 0-14) is helpful in this aspect, since there will clearly be a bunch of books that both committees will be looking at. So you can’t just divide up the books into one Newbery pile and one Printz pile.

      And there’s also the impossibility of anticipating what will win another award. I might think that CLAP WHERE YOU LAND should win the Printz, but it wouldn’t make any sense to assume that it would win, and therefore I shouldn’t push it for the Newbery even if I think it fits and deserves it.

      Certainly the idea of Printz possibilities would not be part of Newbery Committee discussion. If it was raised, I would expect the Chair would point to the manual and re-emphasize that part. Still, we never know what’s going on in people’s minds, and how it affects their words and ballot choices…

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Emily mentions the possible unfairness related to books coming out later in the year. I think that gets addressed mainly by the rigorous attention Committee members must pay to the contending books. It’s expected that members will re-read all contending books. The Newbery Manual notes that the nominations “make each committee member aware of which books require their closest scrutiny and which they will need to re-read.”

      A couple years ago, for example, THE BOOK OF BOY came out January; MERCI SUAREZ CHANGES GEARS was in mid-September. Members likely did their first readings of those books 8 or 9 months apart. But in preparation for Midwinter discussions, they surely would have re-read both (at least once), and the re-reading typically takes place in December/January. So it kind of puts the books on a more equal footing. At least that’s been my experience.

      A very late publication could be trickier. If a book doesn’t receive its first nomination until the last round (early December), it’s possible that several members might not have read it and may not even have an available copy. I believe if that’s the case, ALSC would make an effort to contact the publisher to rush copies out to members. That book might not get read twice by everybody, but the late readers would certainly be reading with extra care.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      About ten years ago, Emily, the ALSC Board approved expanded Newbery definitions as a way to address questions that has been repeated posed by committee members; these are in the Newbery Manual, which you can download. One area of concern is books for 13 and14 years olds, or the upper end of the age range that ALSC (and the award) serves. It does bring to mind my children’s literature professor, Zena Sutherland, saying back in the day that’s it’s harder to write a distinguished book for younger than older children because of the limitations in their understandings (Zena was never one to condescend to children). Here’s what the manual says in the context of the definition of children:
      (C) CHILDREN’S BOOK
      CHILDREN’S BOOK – means a book for which children, up to and including age 14, are an intended and potential audience. Books for this entire age range are to be considered. ALSC awards (with the exception
      John Newbery Award Committee Manual – Formatted August 2012 69
      of the Geisel award for books for beginning readers) are given to “children,” defined as “persons of ages up to and including fourteen.”
      Example:
      Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel, was a Newbery Honor Book in 1973, despite the young age of its intended audience.
      In some instances, award-winning books have been criticized for exceeding the upper age limit of fourteen.
      If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible. Questions for committees to consider include these:
      * Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?
      * If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?
      * If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?
      A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee feels that
      * it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book;
      or
      * it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership;
      or
      * it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range

  9. Cherylynn says:

    I want to mention one thing. People commenting on this blog this year keep talking about this is part of a series so it is not likely to win the Newbery. I just want to say that in the past Susan Cooper won for the Gray King and Alexander Lloyd won for the High King. Both were a bit in the past, but I think we should keep rooting for those books that are excellent part of a series or not.
    Steven you mentioned Fantasy and Science Fiction. Beyond the few already mentioned, I have read quite a few this year and they just don’t have the excellence in sentence level writing or character development that I have seen in some of the other books.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Grey King won in 1976, almost 45 years ago. What is the most recent winning sequel? Is it from 2001 when A Year Down Under won the Medal and Joey Pigza Loses Control won an Honor? Can anyone think of or find one since then? If not, then come 2021, it’ll be 20 years since a series/sequel won. And in those 20 years, there have been at least 18 books that won something and then later had a follow-up book. So I think, for whatever reason, it’s an actual bias.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        CRISS CROSS by Lynn Rae Perkins is the most recent Newbery winning sequel (2006), I’m pretty sure. A sequel to ALL ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE. It’s been a while since I read those books, but I’m pretty sure CRISS CROSS stands on its own, as a full story. Kind of like A YEAR DOWN YONDER. Same characters as the earlier book, but not really a direct continuation of the first one.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I agree, Cherylynn, that we shouldn’t discount a book that’s part of a series. The Committee must consider “only the books eligible for the Award,” meaning books from the current year. The hard part is to determine whether or not a sequel has enough distinguished elements, even to a reader who hasn’t read other books in the series. That does not mean (at least in my thinking) that it has to “stand on its own” 100%. If you don’t know the “Queen’s Thief” series, for example, reading RETURN OF THE THIEF will be a different experience than it would be if you already knew Gen and Attolia and their world. But “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “lesser.” It can be awfully hard to figure it out as you’re reading though….

      • I still maintain sequels shouldn’t actually have to stand on their own at all. Part of what they have to accomplish as a book is their role in the series. Just like part of what a picture book text has to accomplish is its relationship with the pictures. I don’t think reading the earlier books in a series in order to evaluate the current book is considering ineligible books, because you aren’t evaluating those books, you’re using them to give you the context to evaluate the current book. I can see why a committee wouldn’t want to take that approach though, since they already have enough to read!

  10. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I agree that they shouldn’t have to stand on their own. But I do think committee members will need to evaluate this year’s book without having to go back and read others in the series. As Katrina mentions, there’s just not enough time. So the current year book can’t be dependent on the previous titles for its distinguished qualities. I remember starting a mid-series book in a fantasy series and feeling lost. The author seemed to be writing only for the readers who already knew the characters and the fantasy world. Which, I think, was probably the correct choice for the author and the way the series was conceived. But not one that fits well into Newbery criteria. Going back to RETURN OF THE THIEF, readers new to the series will be slower to understand Costis and Kamet as characters; readers of THICK AS THIEVES will know a lot more about those two. The question for this year’s committee is: Do those two still work as characters in this year’s book? (I still haven’t decided if they do or not…)

    • Leonard Kim says:

      For me, one of the easiest and best tests of a series book is whether it makes me want to read the earlier ones.

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