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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Newbery is Not For….

We’ll continue discussion of possible Newbery contenders later this week. Today, though, we’ll check in on the Newbery Terms and Criteria. The Newbery Manual, which describes expectations and requirements for committee members, is filled with reminders that decisions must be “based on the award criteria.” We refer to them with almost every book on Heavy Medal; they’ve already been raised in last week’s discussions of EVENTOWN and Past Newbery Winners.  Here’s a quick look at a few aspects of the Terms and Criteria that we seem to wrestle with most frequently:

The Newbery is not just for 5th graders:  “Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.

Distinguished literature for ages 13 and 14, as well for preschool ages, should be considered. The 2018 awards landed closer to those boundaries than usual, with a picture book (FRESH CUT) and a 7th grade & up novel (A LONG WAY DOWN) both earning honors. From this year, ON THE COME UP by Thomas and VOICES by Elliott are two high quality examples that approach that older age range; on the younger side, I think WINTERCAKE by Perkins is a picture book worth considering.

The Newbery is not just for fiction:  the committee shall consider all forms of writing—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.”

We’ve seen poetry (FREEDOM OVER ME, DARK EMPEROR) and non-fiction (BOMB, CLAUDETTE COLVIN) recognized in the past decade, though it doesn’t happen often. This year, THE UNDEFEATED by Alexander looks like a possible poetry contender. BORN TO FLY by Sheinkin is a non-fiction book to watch. And THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE is poetry and non-fiction.

The Newbery is not for pictures:  “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.”

Illustrated books can win the Newbery, of course. And the words don’t need to be able to stand alone, as if the pictures weren’t there. Distinguished writing can complement illustrations, rather than restate in words what the pictures convey. Also,  “primarily on the text” does not necessarily mean “just words.” A broader definition of “text” could apply to the content and meaning of illustrations. A 2018 post about BEST FRIENDS is one of many examples where we’ve explored this topic on Heavy Medal. In recent years graphic novels EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL earned Newbery Honors while LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET was a rare picture book Medal winner. This year we have some strong GN contenders, including NEW KID by Craft and QUEEN OF THE SEA by Meconis.

The Newbery is not for teachable moments: “The award is not for didactic content.”

“Didactic” can refer to a teaching component; it can also suggest a patronizing element. In terms of the Newbery Criteria, I don’t think this means a book can’t have didactic content. It’s just that you don’t give the award for it. You can’t say: “this book has a great message so let’s give it an award” or “I disagree with the author’s message, so let’s not give it an award;” but you can say: “the message in this book was conveyed effectively through distinguished writing.”


The Newbery is not for high sales and circulation:  “The award is not for…popularity.”

If popularity were a factor, this year’s Newbery would be a four-book race between GUTS and three DOG MAN books. Popular books can win the award, of course, but the comparative size of readership can’t be the reason. The winner still must have child appeal, though. The award is for “excellence of presentation for a child audience,” so it must connect strongly with readers…but those readers can be a small range of children, rather than the millions of 2nd – 5th grade boys who will read the Dog Man books.     

The Newbery is not for diversity:  Members must “consider materials representing diverse experiences”

Diversity matters, for sure, but there’s actually nothing in the Terms and Criteria about the topic. The quote above comes from a section in the Newbery Procedural Manual called “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation” (p. 23). It’s important to note that this section is about Newbery members, not about the books. The manual instructs members to “be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials.” As I read it, it’s not directing members to give more awards to diverse books, but rather to make sure that the books they consider represent a wide spectrum of diversity and to recognize their own “gaps in knowledge and understanding, and biases” that might affect their evaluations. The impact of this direction, though, could conceivably lead to more diverse books getting recognized. The diversity section was added to the manual in 2015, and though we can’t measure its direct influence, it’s fair to say that the five years since then reflect an impressive level of diversity among Newbery winners and Honor books.

These are some of my own thoughts about the Terms and Criteria, but there’s plenty of room for interpretation. Feel free to share your own ideas and opinions below.

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. Hey Steven, it’s not just boys who read DOG MAN. Kids of all genders love Dav Pilkey.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      You’re absolutely right about DOG MAN, sps. I’ve noticed boys being the most vocal about DM, but the books are checked out by all kinds of readers….

  2. The words “Distinguished” and “Contribution” are the ones that I feel trip me up. When I look at a Contribution to children’s literature, I am looking for something that adds something different. So if an author writes the same way that they have written so many books, and the book is the “most distinguished” of the year is it truly a contribution to children’s literature? I look at a few authors who have won because they have great sentence level writing, and they write a wonderful book, but the book has almost the same characters or a similar plot as another book written by them. Should they win a Newbery?

    Of course the word Distinguished can also become kind of subjective. There have been a few winners where I shake my head and wish that I know what the committee saw. I ask questions often because I am afraid I missed something distinguished that someone else caught. I appreciate this blog because often something caught by someone else will change my whole idea about a book. I think that is why it is so important that this decision is made by a committee.

  3. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    The way I read it, “distinguished” means in comparison to this year’s books. The definition of “only the books eligible for the award” tells us that “the committee’s decision is to be made following deliberation about the books of the specified calendar year.” Mr. H pointed out that the protagonist in CARTER JONES resembled an earlier character by the same author, and I was thinking that this shouldn’t be a factor. But maybe it’s not that clear. “Distinguished” is defined in terms of quality (“eminence,” “excellence”…) not originality. On the other hand, the phrases “significant achievement” and “individually distinct” could be interpreted as indicating books that stand out within the field of children’s literature, not just the current year.

  4. How funny — I just commented on the EVENTOWN post about this exact question! Not in terms of a single author repeating themselves, but in terms of a book contributing something to children’s literature that’s unique in some way.

  5. I have always regarded “distinguished” as pertaining to the way an author presents their subject matter. I look for vivid sensory detail, different ways of expressing characters’ thoughts or presentation of nonfiction ideas, ETC. For instance, Kadohata’s use of symbolism in A Place to Belong works well in terms of the character development. The coat and the grandmother’s kimono are such strong symbols that allow us to see inside the characters’ hearts. I find that the Newbery books that stay with me are the ones where ideas are expressed in unique ways that utilize metaphor or other elements of literature effectively. It is fortunate that the award is decided by a committee, but I don’t know how everyone is able to come to a concensus. Readers’ likes and dislikes are so varied. I don’t envy them the task. Some years seem like the decision would be easy and others not. That’s what’s so fun about this blog; getting a chance to hear other readers’ opinions.

  6. Alison the Librarian says:

    I appreciate these distinctions, particularly about a book not winning for being didactic. As adults reading children’s books, I think there can be a bias towards content that we, as full-grown adults, connect with. That’s not always the same content that students will connect to. It’s a tough line to draw.

  7. I might be quite incoherent here — long long days of work makes it hard for me to think and write this clearly but I feel that I need to write:

    Steven — although I am very aware of the fact that all the diversity addendum from 2015 is not part of the terms/criteria, it is kind of striking to see this statement in your post, “The Newbery is not for diversity.” I’ve been contemplating this notion over and over in the past weeks/months/years. And I think it has to do with what we believe to be “literature” and also what we associate when we see the word “diversity.”

    If one considers “literature” to be a thing isolated from the world where the literary works are created and “diversity” to be a thing one does isolated from the rest of one’s existence, then perhaps Newbery as a literary award does not concern “diversity.” But could we truly detach literature from our lived experiences (authors’ and readers’)? And could we truly ignore the many facets of a literary work for young people that are not the conventional literary elements of style/presentation/character/plot/setting?

    I once was a Newbery purist — now I question such conviction.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Roxanne, I fear I was being too flip with the “not for diversity” phrase. The other areas I used the “not for” with are ones that are directly addressed in the Terms and Criteria. It’s the absence of diversity references that led to that phrasing, and I shouldn’t have made them all seem equivalent.

      I’m not saying the Newbery shouldn’t reflect diversity, or that it doesn’t. Just that it’s not delineated in the Terms and Criteria. And that while it’s mentioned in the Manual, I think that mention falls short of directing members to select books with diverse content. But I absolutely don’t feel we can detach literature from lived experiences. And I think the Criteria allow for that in the statement: “the award is for literary quality AND quality presentation for children.” The second half of that provides room for the award to evolve over time and reflect the changing world.

      HELLO UNIVERSE is a good example of how I think of it: Committee members surely looked hard at those conventional literary elements when evaluating that book. But at the same time, in considering “quality presentation for children,” there could well have been discussion about the importance and the value of a story with characters from different backgrounds, family situations, and physical abilities. That could have set it apart from a book of comparable literary quality, with more conventional characters.

      Maybe a better way to put my interpretation is that diversity can play a part in a Newbery decision, and should be discussed…but I still don’t see a spelled out direction towards awarding books with diversity.

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        I really like your interpretation regarding diversity, Steve. The Terms & Criteria, which need ALSC Board approval for any changes, do not say anything about diversity. In fact, the terms and condition’s admonition against “didactic content,” could arguably work against it. As current ALSC Co-chair of the Organization and Bylaws Committee, my understanding is that the statements regarding diversity in the Newbery and other award manuals grew out of a related invitation-only event during an ALA Midwinter Meeting. Since the diversity statement is not part of the Terms & Criteria, ALSC Board approval was not required to include the statement in the manuals. I have also wondered if all other things being equal, if this statement encouraging representation and inclusion might tip the scales. In the end, something has to win.

      • I am really grateful that this addition to the manual was made. Part of ALSC’s strategic plan is to embed equity, diversity, and inclusion into all facets of its work. As Steven pointed out “The manual instructs members to ‘be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials.’” Please tell me more about what you mean by “In fact, the terms and condition’s admonition against “didactic content,” could arguably work against it.”

        Because an idea that this awareness of one’s own experiences shaping responses to works would be at odds with the part of the criteria for “didactic content,” kind of feels like you might saying that readers reading a book about an experience other than their own, are being forced into a didactic way to understand someone outside their own experience. We might have different meanings of what didactic means, but for me it is a way of telling a moral without showing consequences like ”don’t do drugs, drugs are bad,” vs. showing how complicated it can be that they come into a life, like in Jacqueline Woodson’s BENEATH A METH MOON.

        Also, can you tell me more about what you mean by this statement “I have also wondered if all other things being equal, if this statement encouraging representation and inclusion might tip the scales. In the end, something has to win.”? If committee members are working hard to be “aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials,” wouldn’t that help broaden the books that are looked at, that might have been overlooked in the past? And to me, that doesn’t mean it is “tipping the scales,” it means that the approach to committee work is happening with a more equitable focus.

  8. Danielle, you’re speaking my mind. Thank you. I hear more and more adults (even educators) who use the word “indoctrinating” (teaching – a person or group – to accept a set of beliefs uncritically) when they feel forced to teach with a lens of equity and inclusivity. They have very little problem teaching values they believe reflexively. Take the example you use, adults have little trouble urging young people to stay away from hard drugs because there are ample empirical evidence, well established to indicate that doing drugs is harmful to oneself and the society on many levels. And these adults know how to guide the young folks to find such evidence to critically examine this issue. But when we encourage the same adults to teach young people to “stay away from being racists,” they often object. As if young people could not critically examine the issues and see the even stronger empirical evidence how racism causes harms to real people and real communities.

    I believe this is when the implicit and unexamined biases come into play during award committee meetings. A totally fine presentation of a theme could resonate with those with firm grasp of the situation, and does not feel “didactic.” It might, in turn, puzzle those who have little exposure of the subject matter or theme, and thus might make such readers feel that the book is “didactic” instead of illuminating.

    I think it is important to choose books that truly illuminate and present issues while inviting readers to examine many angles and come to logical conclusions. As you said, Danielle, didacticism and indoctrination occurs when such “conclusions” are just told to the readers without reflections from the reader’s part. It’s not about the theme but about the way the theme is presented.

    However, the words used in the Terms & Criteria is “didactic content” and not didactic presentation since the intention of this “side note” is to make sure that the committee members do not award a book simply because it has the “most important topic” among all the titles under discussion. (And I agree with that.) So, I guess Steven is saying that since “diversity” seems to be the most important theme of our time (I can agree with that, too), it might make certain committee members think twice when they vote: does my, and other committee members’, strong favor for such and such book come from appreciating its theme, and thus rewarding its “didactic content,” and not literary merits? This is when this addendum and the attention paid to diversity might be at odds.

    Steven — is that what you mean???

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      “Because an idea that this awareness of one’s own experiences shaping responses to works would be at odds with the part of the criteria for ‘didactic content’ kind of feels like you might saying that readers reading a book about an experience other than their own, are being forced into a didactic way to understand someone outside their own experience.” I didn’t mean that at all. Of course, book award committees should take into account a wide range of experiences and topics (and for me, reading is largely about imaging lives different than my own). I think the issue is whether or not a story is intended to be instructive or has an agenda and how that is realized (or, as I heard a writer friend ask: Are the characters in service to the story? Or is the story in service to the character). I think there was an interesting discussion related to the issues at hand last year with Jewell Rhodes’ Ghost Boys. While this is certainly a good platform for us to express our informed opinions about eligible books, Danielle, I think that what matters most is that the actual book award committees take the necessary time to respectfully discuss the terms and conditions along with other features in the manuals, such as the diversity statements, both at the beginning of their tenure and in the context of their later book discussions.

      • Thanks so much for clarifying Julie, and I so agree that the committee should take the time to have these conversations. Having done some various book committee work, I have found that when a committee takes the time early on in their term, to really dive into the criteria, and come to some understandings together about it, it makes for richer discussion later and strong choices that everyone feels great about. I appreciate how ALSC has the committee work laid out, and how they create opportunities for this to happen. The committee meets twice before any nominations have happened, and ideally they are using that time to work through some of this. A lot of this is led by the chair. One committee I was on the chair had speakers come and talk to the group at the earlier meetings, and I really appreciated how both speakers challenged us readers to understand our biases and gaps in knowledge, and how we were going to work harder when facing material that were in those areas. To some degree this could mean genre or form, like with Roxanne’s new post about poetry, but could also mean cultural knowledge and understanding. For me, I am a middle-aged white woman that had a conservative upbringing that also struggles with poetry and fantasy. Understanding this helped me spend more time on certain books, and asking myself more questions while evaluating. With the addition to the manual that the committee should “consider materials representing diverse experiences,” I feel the aim is to encourage members to be more contemplative in all of their gaps.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Roxanne writes: “Steven is saying that since “diversity” seems to be the most important theme of our time (I can agree with that, too), it might make certain committee members think twice when they vote.” I don’t agree that diversity is the most important theme. There are way too many important themes to rank them. I do think it’s an element of children’s literature that is important, and one that can be a challenge for award committee members who are directed to focus sharply on those traditional literary elements. I don’t know the background of how the Manual addenda was added, but I assume it was meant to address a perceived gap in the selection process. A sense that perhaps members needed extra guidance to ensure that they go through some self-reflection (about diversity) and also cast the widest possible net (looking for diversity) in their year of reading. The result could be that more books with diverse content are honored…but neither the Criteria nor the Manual are saying that more books with diverse content must or should be honored.

      • Sorry, Steven, if I had put words in your writing :p I think diversity (an umbrella term that signifies more than just “books with different kinds of characters”) is one of the most important themes of our time. And I also do believe that an award like Newbery, even in its literary-purest form, can’t help but reflect its time: because the authors create in their times, responding to whatever is going on with the work they make.

  9. Julie Corsaro says:

    P.S. I think many members of ALSC are also pleased with the diversity statements, as they have a commitment to serving all their constituents. But why have an exclusive meeting to insert them, which flies in the face of the association’s commitment to transparency, a quality I prefer in all my governance?

  10. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Also, remember that the addenda on diversity in the Manual (p 23) is part of a larger “Preparation” section that starts on p 22. This section suggests ways for members “to begin to focus on the terms, criteria, and definitions of the award.” It includes reading background material about literature, writing down “your own critical viewpoint,” and writing critical analyses of past medal books. To me, that’s all a way of saying: Yes, you’re on the Committee and you read a lot and know children’s literature…but Newbery has its own criteria and you should develop ways to apply that to your reading this year. The addenda on diversity is a different kind of advice, but it’s still an attempt to guide members towards the practices that will make their Newbery work as fair and as effective as possible. And still falls short (as it should in my opinion) of saying: you must select more diverse books.

  11. Julie Corsaro says:

    Having served on several ALSC Award Committees, and also having been the Priority Group Consultant for the ALSC Award Committees, I do agree with Danielle that the chair is of the utmost importance in leading the way and setting the tone. (BTW: I have heard that Steven was an excellent Newbery Chair!). I think the composition of the award committees is also of paramount importance, with a goal — not always easy to achieve — of diversity across many indicators, including gender, geographical area, type of library, and so on. As far as the insertion of the diversity statement into the body of the manuals is concerned, I asked and received the (spare) answer I shared here from a (then) ALSC board member. While I realize the question wasn’t raised, the expanded definitions at the end of the manuals came out of the diligent work of a task force that addressed common questions that were repeatedly raised by award committees over the years (For instance, what does “originally published” mean in the context of the terms & criteria?). In my role as awards PGC, which is a liaison between the award committees and the ALSC Board and ALSC Office, I was involved in the work of getting these definitions into the manuals, as well as implementing bi-annual training for the awards and “Notables” chairs to help them navigate the committee process. The feedback I’ve received is that many chairs like being part of a group — a class of award committee chairs, if you will — and not just out there on their own.

  12. Are we–as book award committee members or as librarians–looking for “diverse books” or diverse collections? I know that sounds pedantic but the fact is that we don’t need individual books to reflect a diversity of cultures or viewpoints, we need collections (or nomination pools) that do so.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Yes, diverse collections and diverse pools is what we’re looking for. As a librarian, I’m happy to be able to add NEW KID, THE BRIDGE HOME, OTHER WORDS FOR HOME, DRAGON PEARL, and many others from this year. Books that will have readerships (of varied sizes) in my community, while also contributing to broader representation of cultures and stories in our collection. A child browsing our New Fiction shelf in 2019 definitely sees more diverse titles than she did ten years ago. And it’s more likely, I believe, that she’ll be exposed to a wider variety of ideas and experiences than previously. The Newbery pool also should be more diverse due to publishing trends alone; and the Manual’s diversity addenda is an extra push, just in case, to ensure that happens.

      • Annisha Jeffries Annisha Jeffries says:

        When LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET won the Newbery Medal. Reading the press release, I thought it was an error. But then, I had a discussion with other librarians who, like me, embraced that a picture book won the award for children’s literature. The debate we are having reminds me that when the word diverse is mentioned, it has many definitions and is very layered. Children’s literature has grown into many different parts, incorporating middle-grade graphic novels and poetry from cultures and communities that were ignored for many years. Hopefully, this is a trend that will continue for a very long time.

  13. Julie Corsaro says:

    I agree with Roger that as librarians we are looking for diverse collections. In contrast, I also think award committee members are looking for THE book. But, yes, diversity can be defined both narrowly (“race” and ethnicity) and broadly (gender, disability, economic class, etc.), and even include format and genre. I do like to keep in mind the “unbuttoning” (Roger’s term) of children’s literature starting in the 1960s in thinking about how diversity has looked with the awards. Virginia Hamilton, our great stylist, not only won for MC Higgins the Great in 1975, but also had several honor books. Arnold Lobel’s beginning reader Frog and Toad Together was an honor book in 1973. William Steig’s witty picture book, Dr. De Soto, was awarded a Newbery Honor in 1983. I served on the 1994 Newbery Award Committee; Lois Lowry’s milestone The Giver was the gold medal winner, but our silver medalists included Jane Leslie Conly’s Crazy Lady, which looked at mental illness, disability and homelessness, and Laurence Yep’s Dragon’s Gate, which focused on the discrimination suffered by Chinese immigrants building the transcontinental railroad. Since 1998’s Out of the Dust, we’ve had two more verse novels take the grand prize. And we are now seeing the children of the great wave of immigration from Africa and Asia in the 1980s as distinguished writers and illustrators on book award podiums.

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