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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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The Age Question

Ah, the weekend.  Housecleaning, tomato canning, and anticipation of the NBA Longlists to be announced 9am Eastern Monday morning.

I’m completely opportunistic regarding the National Books Awards.  If I like them, I salute them, if not, I dismiss them.  (My loss.) I think this is easier to do with awards that have no posted criteria and a small judge panel, than with the elaborately procedurally-documented Newbery.  Still, one thing I always appreciate about the NBA choices is that the books tend to be…writerly.  (Recall my insistence on solid prose?)  I wonder, with the advent of the “long” list and inclusion of “other experts” along with writers on the judging panels, whether we will see that change? Whatever is on the list…Jonathan and I will be eyeballing it for possibilities to consider for Newbery.  The NBA Young People’s Literature category, however, stretches all the way through YA, and in recent years there have tended to be mostly “truly YA” titles on there.

As recent YA literature and the Printz award have really grown in to their own in the past decade, I find more and more people eager to assign books as either “potential Newbery” OR “potential Printz”, ignoring the overlap in the award criteria (12-14) and the obvious truth that there is no clearcut gateway between childhood and young adulthood.   Let’s look for a moment at what the Newbery criteria tell us about the audience for eligible books:

2. A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.  

The Newbery Manual’s appendix  then goes on ad infinitum to interpret this, basically keeping the net as broad as possible (from p.77):

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 to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.


Yet, everyone seems to have a slightly different personal interpretation of what the criteria means (or, what we want it to mean?).  My own mental shorthand is “consider the 14 year old child reader; not the 14 year old adult reader.”  I know 14 year old individuals who drift between one and the other, depending on the context.

In some earlier comments on another post I brought up THE CANNING SEASON by Polly Horvath as one of my favorite non-Newbery-winner titles of its year (it did win the National Book Award), and I was immediately challenged on it not being a children’s book.  We didn’t get into it there...  but the most common arguments I hear on why CANNING SEASON is not for a child audience has to do with one of the aunts who is clearly (though never called out to be) alcoholic, and the use of the word “fuck. ” (Specifically, one aunt describing her own childhood teacher, who was horrible, and as explanation quoting her having said: “I can’t wait for the day when I have enough saved so that I can buy my dogs and say goodbye to you little fucks.” p.64.   Ratchet, the child protagonist of this book who is listening, is appropriately alarmed.)  Ratchet is 13, and through the entire book floats between being a 13 year old child, and a 13 year old young adult.  She’s had an unusual childhood, with less obvious love in it than the ones we usually see in children’s books, and she gets dumped for a summer with her even more unusual aunts….  who are able to demonstrate the most peculiar but also most obvious and voluminous amounts of love and respect that Ratchet has ever witnessed.   It’s a see-saw summer for Ratchet, but one in which she is able to start to understand why she feels the way she does, and transition from childhood to young adulthood.

THE CANNING SEASON can be a very different read, depending on the age and maturity of the reader.  Ratchet is in many ways a very young 13 year old.  A similarly young 12-13 year old reader could read this book and experience–because of the quality of its prose–exactly what Ratchet experiences that summer.  A more mature 13-90 year old might read it from more of a point of observation, in which case the story takes more of a bittersweet tone, rather than a psychedelic one.   Either way, I find it distinguished.  And, therefore, Newbery-eligible.

Every year, Jonathan and I try to have a least one title on our own long shortlist that will “challenge” the Newbery age criteria, just to keep it interesting, and relevant.  Maybe we’ll find this year’s on Monday.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. When I was on the Committee I consulted with our school psychologist (I’m in a 4-8 grade middle school) about development when dealing with cusp books. He was incredibly helpful at helping parse things out with such titles.

    My feeling is that there are always going to be kids who can read completely anything. Kids who are sophisticated, who have a personal depth that results in their “getting” what they read in a remarkably adult-like way. I come across kids like that now and then at my school. I think of one of our students who at age 13 adored Mal Peet’s LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM which many saw as a book mostly adults would appreciate. (He has been one of our two Kid Commentators on BOB — RG—and you can read his enthusiastic pick for LIFE to win it here: But that doesn’t convince me that the book is for his age group. He and his cohort read more as adults do, they have developed quicker than their peers. That they love and appreciate these books does not convince me that they are for their chronological age group.

    This year I’d put Tom McNeal’s FAR FAR AWAY in this category. I don’t know what you and Jonathan think about it and whether it will be on your discussion list, but it is getting Newbery buzz and I’m trying to work out if it is within or above the age range. The reason I lean toward above is that while there are certainly kids 14 and younger who will read and enjoy the book (always are, after all) it seems to me that the darker elements in the latter part of it will be better understood by those older with slightly different orientations on life, more experience so to speak. That is, I think that you can truly get the whole gestalt of this book if you are beyond 14 by and large.

    Nina, I actually think you are on to something similar with HOKEY POKEY — in my experience, those who enjoy it and seem to get it are out of childhood, be they 50 or an 8th grader. So it may be out of Newbery age range. (That said, someone here — can’t remember who, sorry — wrote that it is being very much enjoyed by younger kids around her. That hasn’t been my experience, sadly.)

    • Well stated, Monica. FAR, FAR AWAY strikes me as a book, like many where children are in danger, that will appreciated differently by adults and children. I feel it does stand solidly for a child’s understanding in it’s plotting and resolution and is a satisfying read for the age, much like SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS last year. I do think there is a chilling layer for adult readers that will be lost on most children. I know I’m not going to get the quote exactly correct, but Neil Gaiman said it best when it comes to scary books: “Adults see a child in danger and want to protect them. Children see a kid rising to the occasion.” But of course in FFA, the kids did not save themselves, so might have just contradicted myself.

      • And so the question is about FFA, does it matter if that horrific layer is missed by young readers? I guess I feel a book should have readers that can get it in its entirety and so if there is something that you have to be an adult to truly get (while otherwise still enjoying the book) is it absolutely for kids up through 14? That kids like horror I get, but there is something deeper here that feels YA and up for me.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Monica, I have kids who read A Series of Unfortunate Events as tearjerkers rather than humor, but that doesn’t make them NOT children’s books because the children didn’t fully “get it.” Children miss all kinds of things–vocabulary, inference, allusions, etc.

      • It’s a good question without a concrete answer. I wish the committee well on this one.

      • Right, Jonathan! The trick is then determining if there is indeed a core audience of kids (not YAs) who get the bulk of it. In my experience with the Snicket there were. I agree that kids read at all levels — teasing out the core audience for a book on the cusp such as Far Far Away is not so certain. I’m one who liked the book, but I’d need more firsthand feedback from 14 year olds, I think, to be certain it is for them.

  2. Hi Monica! Actually, I was the one with Hokey Pokey – a handful of 4th graders in the book club I co-run loved it. From speaking with them (and this was about 6 months ago, so take this with a grain of salt) I got the idea that most of the HP fans were really enchanted by Spinelli’s use of language more than anything. We had just finished reading Maniac Magee in Book Club, and so I booktalked Hokey Pokey. Perhaps the fans liked it because they were still under Spinelli’s… spell? (Excuse the pun.) Anyway, I’m not certain these readers caught many of the thematic undercurrents that we discussed over in the HP thread, but they most definitely enjoyed the book overall. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the committee discusses this one!

  3. I’m not as widely read as you all, but I did read Far Far Away and had mixed feelings about it. I was impressed by the plotting, and the characterizations. On the other hand, the self-consciously old-fashioned style and the author’s constant calling of attention to how literary he was being put me off. I admit to a bias against such writing, but I wouldn’t put the book in a Newbery “shortlist.”

  4. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Here’s the longlist everyone:

    Definitely more books for younger readers this year. And what do I think of all of them? Well….

  5. Eric Carpenter says:

    National Book Award Longlist:

    Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp – Newbery Potential

    Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures – Newbery Potential but illustrations may be problematic

    Lisa Graff, A Tangle of Knots – Newbery Potential

    Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Summer Prince – Haven’t read, assuming it is YA.

    Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck – Newbery Potential

    David Levithan, Two Boys Kissing – YA

    Tom McNeal, Far Far Away – Newbery Potential

    Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone – YA?

    Anne Ursu, The Real Boy – Newbery Potenial

    Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints – YA, two books, amazing

    • Yes, Eric, the Rosoff is certainly a question! The protagonist is (a precocious) twelve-year-old, but most of the characters, and the central theme of the book, are adult. At least that was my reading of it.

      I have been categorizing Far, Far Away as YA and hoping it gets Printz consideration, but if people think it has Newbery potential, more power to it. It’s definitely one of the best novels I’ve read all year.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m back and playing catch up.

    1. I definitely think FAR, FAR AWAY is this year’s title that will give us fits in regard to the age question. I strongly disagree with Monica’s assessment of the audience. There are many, many children who want scary books–and I think this one fits the bill for a middle school audience. Many kids who need to move on to adult horror–Stephen King, for example–because they can’t find what they need in children’s literature. Having said that, while I enjoyed this book, I can’t say that it’s head and shoulders above the other half dozen contenders that I’m mulling over for my mock October nominations.

    2. I’m generally pleased with the longlist. I’ve read six titles. There are some I like, and some I don’t like, but that’s true of any list of this nature. I would’ve like to see more diversity in the kinds of books picked. They did have a graphic novel, but no nonfiction, poetry, chapter books, easy readers, or picture books. I had hoped that by going to a longlist we would see more of these kinds of titles. Oh, well.

    • I’m having a hard time finding stand-out Non-fiction this year. Did last year suck it all up?

      • Scientists in the Field have given us two fantastic NF titles this year: Eruption & Tapir Scientist

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        There is certainly less of it. My best includes ERUPTION!, IMPRISONED, and “THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT!” We’ll get to the nonfiction eventually.

      • I just saw the review for THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT yesterday. My students are still crazy about his Lincoln book. I forgot about IMPRISONED. Once I get it processed I will proceed with it.

  7. I’m really surprised to see A TANGLE OF KNOTS on the long list. Though the writing was good and the plot was interesting and twisty, I thought the setting, themes and characters were given short shrift. It seemed to be a fun but ultimately shallow read. I wonder if landing on this NBA long list means it deserves a second look…

    • TANGLE OF KNOTS had me scratching my head too. I haven’t gotten the FLORA or THE REAL BOY yet, but I’m pretty crazy over the other middlie-grade that made the list.

  8. You know, Monica pointed out over on 100 Scope Notes that publishers have to pay to submit their books for the National Book Award and now I’m wondering if that affects the diversity. Traditionally, at least lately, the NBA for Young People’s Literature has skewed fairly YA, so maybe publishers figure it’s not worth it to pay $125 and go through the trouble to submit chapter books, easy readers and picture books, etc? Sounds like it would be a pittance to any corporation to me, but I don’t know a ton about the publishing world. And several people have noted that it’s not a particularly strong year for non-fiction in general. The publishers appear to have loaded everything into 2012 and hopefully 2014 on that front! And given how well premiere graphic novels have done lately – Stitches made the shortlist recently, and Yang’s own American Born Chinese getting a Printz, it’s not surprising to me that publishers would be willing to bet on those. It is nice to see a good selection for grade school kids in there this year though!

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      Hearing both Susan Cooper and Christopher Paul Curtis speak a few weeks ago they both mentioned how much they disliked being judges for the NBA. They told us that they simply received far too many titles to read in the deep manner that one expects newbery/printz/caldecott committee members to read. CPC said that during his year the judges agreed on an incredibly small number of pages (i forget now the number he mentioned, maybe Laurel recalls and can chime in) to read of a book before giving up on it if the book wasn’t working for them. This along with the lack of guidelines made the whole process difficult. Both CPC and Cooper agreed that awards might be better left to the professional readers (librarians, teachers, reviewers, etc).
      This is not to disparage the award because I do believe that each year’s set of judges do manage to select a group of excellent titles.

      • I didn’t know that about the fee. It does seem like it might have a narrowing effect on the kind of books we see. A publisher is only going to submit the books it deems “likely” candidates. Either because they’re already getting buzz, or because they resemble the kind of books rewarded in the past. As time goes by, this could really limit what gets considered.


  9. The NBA fees don’t end with the submission! If you DO get shortlisted the publisher gets dunned for tickets to the banquet and the one thousand dollars that goes to each finalist (for “the promotional campaign”) It can add up to a lot.

  10. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    But another thing about the NBA–if I remember correctly–is that the judges can request titles that are not submitted. So if publishers are not submitting formats because they have not historically been recognized the judges have the power to overcome some of that.


  1. […] Lindsay over at Heavy Medal has just posed this perennial question with her post, “The Age Question” and I’ve already written the following comment. I look forward to others weighing in […]

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