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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

What do you want from a Newbery title?

As we progress through this season of Heavy Medal, Jonathan and I will be putting together a shortlist of titles that we’ll use in an in-person Mock Newbery discussion.  There, we’ll model the actual committee deliberation process to determine our Mock Newbery Winner. (Hold the date: Sunday, January 12th, Oakland CA.  Not near Oakland? Check out some of the other Mock Newbery Sites in the sidebar, below the ad, for one near you.  Or get one going!  ALA sells a downloadable toolkit that is very handy.)  We haven’t settled on any titles yet, and will, of course, let you know as soon as we do.  We strive for a shortlist that people can actually get their hands on and read, and that provides a broad and interesting discussion.  We also want to include titles that we really think are good contenders, and your comments help us figure this out.

Some comments are more helpful than others, so in the spirit of helping you phrase them, here’s an exercise that many Newbery chairs use when their committee first assembles.

What do you want from a Newbery title? Think of your favorite Newbery, and think about why it is your favorite.  Try writing it out.  How many time have you used the word “love?”  That’s a word that doesn’t mean much at all at the Newbery table. It’s hard not to use it (I know I use it!), but just be aware that all it says is that you respond emotionally in a positive way to this title.  That, however, has no bearing on the Newbery criteria, since you’re not the intended child audience.

Now, take it one step further.  What do you “want” from a Newbery title?  Your answer is probably different if you respond as the individual reader you are, versus the practiced committee member you might be.  I’ll go first, and I’m going to allow myself three titles, so you can too…..Don’t invalidate how you respond to the title.  Just examine it.  What evidence in the writing itself provokes your reader response? And how does that evidence connect to the Newbery criteria?  Once you identify this…does this help you to see how your reader preferences color your reading, and response, to titles?   This is a particularly handy exercise with the actual committee because it allows the committee to get to know each other as readers, and makes them better at interpreting each other’s comments, and helping each other to the point.

I “love”(!) The Westing Game, When You Reach Me, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.    All of them are “smart” “puzzly” books, and that’s what I like most as a reader.  They have intricate, hefty plots, suspense, and nice chewy prose. Yum.  Give me anything like that and I’ll immediately think “Newbery material” before I’ve really considered it.

So, considering them a little closer….

The Westing Game stands out for an artfully developed plot; characters are almost stock, but they serve a purpose in a “mastermind” scheme, and they surprise, and are funny, and individual.   You have a sense of a grand manipulation by the author, but you can never quite spot it–and that’s a hallmark of distinguished prose.

When You Reach Me has that same sense of grand manipulation…I can see it a little more, but I think I’m supposed to, as a reader.  The most distinguished element here to me is theme, which Stead is able to bring out throughout various plot elements…like a theme in music that keeps sounding in different places, in different ways.  It’s done in a way that respects it readers–expects them to be smart, leads them along step by step to an amazing revelation.

Mrs. Frisby & The Rats of NIMH is not a manipulating story.  There’s really no puzzle, either, but suspense and a  mystery that is revealed, through story-within-story, to Mrs. Frisby and the reader.   Mrs. Frisby & the Rats of NIMH stands out to me as one of the very few Newbery titles that is truly outstanding in every single way, without being flashy about any of it.  (Westing Game and When You Reach Me are flashy, but good flashy.)  Plot, characters, setting, all vivid and distinct, and all serving a theme that feels so true that the reader is physically changed, inside, by the end of the story, and believes it could have happened in actuality (which I never do, quite, with the others, and that’s ok). It might be a perfect story. For me 🙂

You all might have to tell me what this means about me as a reader.


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. Can we use Honor books? I’m using Honor books, especially since Nina stole my two favorite winners (MRS. FRISBY and THE WESTING GAME).

    I’ve been reading RAMONA QUIMBY, AGE 8 to my daughter and absolutely marveling at it for so many things, but especially “excellence of presentation for a child audience”–this is a book that absolutely inhabits the mind of an 8-year-old. “Ramona had reached the age of demanding accuracy from everyone, even herself. All summer, whenever a grown-up asked what grade she was in, she felt as if she were fibbing when she answered, “third,” because she had not actually started third grade. Still, she could nto say she was in the second grade since she had finished that grade last June. Grown-ups did not understand that summers were free from grades.” Perfect. And that’s on the second page of the book – it only keeps going from there.

    Jumping off from that point, it’s just characters, characters, characters all the way. Ramona’s friend Howie; Howie’s younger sister (nemesis to Ramona); Ramona’s parents–especially her father; and of course Beezus. All are perfectly drawn and you don’t need to have read any of the prior books to understand them fully (I hadn’t read any of the previous books in decades when I started rereading this one).

    The plot is largely episodic, which I find very appropriate for the audience, and each of the episodes is very strong (especially the Hard-Boiled Egg Fad and the The Patient, when Ramona is sick). But also moves through the year as Ramona gets a bit older and a bit wiser, and there is a through line about Ramona’s concern that she is a “nuisance” to her teacher which is concluded in a very satisfying way.

    I could probably go on and on about this book – even the setting is well done – but I’ll stop there.

  2. Leonard Kim says

    Nina, it’s funny you start a sentence about the Westing Game with, “characters are almost stock,” and end the same sentence with, “they surprise, and are funny, and individual.” The Westing Game is one of my favorite books, and probably my favorite Newbery-eligible book of all time. I actually think characterization is so strong in the Westing Game that it’s one of the main reasons I still re-read it. Its achievement is all the more striking because the cast of characters is so large and the author has so little space to develop each one. One example: before the will-reading, Flora Baumbach says “he said, ‘it’s snowing’” at the same time as Theo. Just that one sentence tells you so much about her character (and Theo’s), a minor character at that. And the whole novel is like that. Hell, I’m getting teary right now thinking of Turtle crying, “Baba, Baba, I don’t want to play anymore,” and it’s all because of the way Raskin developed Turtle’s character, and Flora Baumbach’s, and their relationship, as well as Turtle’s to Sandy and Grace. Any other author would need an entire book to cover just that.
    What’s more, all this was assuredly way over my head when I encountered the book in elementary school. Back then, the still unsurpassed game and its solutions were the thing. The book grabs you one way as a kid and then other aspects grow with you as you mature without diminishing what you initially loved. In contrast, some of the puzzles in Mr. Lemoncello are engaging, but beyond that I’m not sure how much there is there to chew on. At another extreme, Hold Fast admirably handles a weighty theme that kids hopefully can take with them into adulthood, but the “hook”, the mystery and solution (basically, the plot), is simplistic and I feel undistinguished (though maybe enough to keep kids reading.) Don’t get me started on Water Castle, where I felt the resolution (such as it is) felt like a complete betrayal of what seemingly promised to be an intricate and interesting mystery and its other elements don’t make up for it.
    I read the Newbery criteria again to make sure this isn’t inconsistent. Absolutely a Newbery book has to work on the initial kid read. As an adult, I personally enjoyed all of the books posted here, but with a few exceptions, I rarely felt the urge to press them into the hands of my children thinking they would love them. But I think it’s hard to argue that a book is distinguished if you have to be in a narrow age range to enjoy it. A distinguished book should not lose its greatness as a reader matures. My 3rd-grader still thinks Elephant and Piggie are great, as do I. OK, they do not have a Newbery, but Frog and Toad do. Yes to Ramona as well. If I had to answer, “what do you want from a Newbery title,” in one sentence, it might be, “A Newbery title is one you don’t outgrow.”

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

      Leonard, that’s an interesting take at the end. I’m not sure your argument is inconsistent with the idea that a Newbery book *could* be one for a narrow age range. Frog and Toad certainly is. So is Ramona Quimby: the episodic plot is pitched to that age. It doesn’t mean they can’t be appreciated by someone older, but they’re not for someone older, necessarily. I think what you’re suggesting is that a distinguished book, for the right reader, remains distinguished forever. But a 10 year old coming across Elephant and Piggie for the first time might not find it distinguished…yet it’s distinguished.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

        (I like “A Newbery title is one you don’t outgrow,” as opposed to a more commonly phrased twist on the same idea…”A Newbery title should be timeless.” I don’t think the latter is true; great books can age poorly, and I don’t think we can predict, in the present, what will remain “timeless,” so that new readers can approach them freshly. But the idea that a distinguished book grows up with its reader… that I believe.)

      • Leonard Kim says

        Nina, yes that’s it. (I go on too long, so I’m glad I’m understandable and that you summarize my views so neatly here and elsewhere.) And it’s basically why I’m not sold on either Penny or Billy Miller. Yes, Henkes nails certain things, but I don’t see either my 4-year-old daughter or myself coming back to Penny now or when she’s older. I think the books lack both the initial appeal and the appreciate-when-older depths of Lilly. Anecdotal sample of one, I know.

  3. Eric Carpenter says

    What do I want from a Newbery?
    Simply put I want Excellence with a capital E. I want to be blown away by some aspect of the book so much that I immediately want to read it again. Sometimes that is excellence in plotting (Westing Game, Holes) sometimes it’s excellence in characterization (Mixed Up Files…) and sometimes it is excellence in sentence level writing (The Underneath). But honestly its usually a combination of a number of these thing such as in True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Bottom line I want to feel the intense need to read the book again as soon as I finish the last page. Last year BOMB did that for me, the year before it was OKAY FOR NOW, this year i think HOKEY POKEY best fits that description for me personally.
    Side note: to answer the unasked question, What do I not want from a newbery title? I don’t want even a hint of a message or a moral or a teaching opportunity.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    I agree with Leonard on THE WESTING GAME. The characters do start as stock characters, but by the end of the novel Raskin has breathed life into them. Of course, Turtle is the most fully realized, but every member of that ensemble grows and changes over the course of the novel. Remarkable.

    What I do look for in a Newbery ? I want to feel like I am in the hands of a master, somebody who is in complete control of their craft (rather than vice versa).

    • I am struck by your comment Jonathan because that is exactly what I don’t want in a Newbery. Now don’t get me wrong, I want to be in the hands of a master, but I want to forget there is an author and simple sink into the characters, setting, plot, characters and be there with them. Too much authorial voice and yes, manipulation, and I am pulled out of the story.

      Maybe this ‘what I want’ thing makes it tougher for me to appreciate nonfiction. Although great nonfiction like “Bomb” and “Moonbird” etc. will so pull me into the topic that I also forget there is an author too. But it’s much harder.

      i completely agree with Nina that wanting to reread it immediately– even if there is no time– is another trait of a Newbery that I want. My favorite Newbery is “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and that is because I have read it and reread it and I notice new and amazing things each time. It has a depth and complexity that pulls me in each time.

      • I can’t speak for Jonathan on this, but I consider that an author who has complete control of their craft is the one who can make you forget they exist. Megan Whalen Turner is an excellent example of this. I completely lose myself in her books while I’m reading them, particularly the first time. The reason I have immediately reread each of them upon finishing the first time is so I can go back and appreciate the craft of what she has done, because I intentionally have to look for it rather than just exist in that world she’s created. And even AFTER analyzing it, I can still lose myself on rereads. This is also true for HOLES, THE WESTING GAME, and A WRINKLE IN TIME.

  5. Nancy Baumann says

    This is the first time I have written a comment but can’t resist the topic. I agree with Leonard about not outgrowing a Newbery. Beautiful language, characters that make you feel like you are peeking into their lives as you read and you think about afterwards. My Newberys are A single Shard and Shiloh. Both have beautiful language and memorable characters. I still cry when I re-read them. And I know the stories well but I am completely whisked into the lives of the characters.

  6. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

    Nancy, I’m always pleased to find fans of A SINGLE SHARD. This is one that I appreciate because it does nothing show-offy or fancy. No intricate, puzzly plot, no mind-blowing suspense…. but it is a perfectly structured story, utterly balanced, and with elegant prose. As Jonathan says…you feel like your in the hands of a master (in more ways than one. :))

  7. The Westing Game makes me feel not very bright. I have to take it on faith and the opinions of many readers I respect that it deserved its award, because I simply don’t know how to read it.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

      Well, first advice on how to read it is: twice in a row. Which, now that I think of it, is another reason I appreciate it. Only other Newbery title that did that for me is THE THIEF. Closed it; sat still in chair feeling both stupid and elated for about 15 minutes, opened it back up to page one and started again.

      • THE THIEF remains the only book I’ve ever started over immediatly, and for just that reason. I knew something was slightly unreliable about Gen, but when all the pieces fell together at the end, I just had to go back to see which of the clues I’d missed the first time around, and which ones I had noticed but not been able to put into the proper context.

    • Jonathan Hunt says

      Roger, get the audiobook from Recorded Books. The narrator is fabulous and will help you see the book in an entirely different light.

  8. I finally have free time! So here I am commenting on all the posts I have been missing.

    I agree with Eric’s comment completely. When I read the post last week I started thinking right then about my favorite winners and what I appreciate about them is often very different. I have been super frustrated this year because I haven’t really found that book yet. The book that I feel is Excellent. I don’t know if I’m burning out or getting cynical or if it is just an off year for me as a reader.

    I would add that Voice is important to me as well. Whether it is the omniscient narrator hitting just the right tone (HOLES) or a first person narrative where that narrator becomes a real voice in my head (THE THIEF), I need it to work with the narrative in exactly the right way. Now what that “right” way is would be harder for me to define.

  9. DPatermorrow says

    Yes! to the feeling that as soon as you finish the book, you want to reread it again immediately.

    Something I’ve noticed over the years regarding my favorite Newbery winners is that they don’t wear out for me. For example: My first experience with MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH was when my fourth grade teacher read it aloud to the class. (After the first chapter, I stopped resenting the fact that *my* suggestion of Trixie Belden and the Castaway Children for the next read aloud was not selected.) I’ve read it myself, subsequently, about once every two years or so. I’ve read it aloud to my classes, as a teacher myself. I’ve read it with my sons, repeatedly. In all of these readings, I’ve never felt bored; the writing and story have never felt tedious from familiarity. I always cry. I always smile at the wit.


  1. […] what Nina said in discussing Heavy Medal’s Mock Newbery criteria:  ”We strive for a shortlist that people can actually get their hands on and read, […]

  2. […] Lastly,  I am providing a link to another blog, SLJ’s “Heavy Medal,” where there was a post that was particularly helpful in defining my own expectations when looking at a possible Newbery contender.  ”What do you want from a Newbery title?” asks some great questions:   […]

  3. […] What makes a great book? The School Library Journal holds a fascinating discussion on what makes a book Newbery-worthy. […]

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