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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Early Favorites: the Mock Newbery contenders we’re most excited about

Emily and I touched base this week to compare thoughts about the current year’s Newbery contenders so far.  Here’s our conversation, and we invite others to join in the comments section below.

STEVEN: Welcome to Heavy Medal, Emily!  We’ve got about 60 suggestions so far.  Only a few will earn Newbery recognition, though…and some might not even be published yet! From our large, but incomplete sample, do you see any that strike you as especially strong contenders?

EMILY: Hi Steven, I’m so happy to be here! The one that I’m seeing get so much love is definitely STARFISH. I mean I don’t think I’ve heard anything bad about it yet (anyone feel free to prove me wrong). Betsy Bird put it on her Spring Prediction list before she even read it!

I think I’m reading books really harshly this year- as you’ll see in my upcoming post, “Books I Haven’t Finished.” But I just haven’t been that excited about too many yet. Maybe this will be the year with one winner and no honor books. (I KID, I KID).

STEVEN: I guess I’m at an opposite point so far: lots of honor possibilities, but no clear favorite. I thought AMBER AND CLAY and THE RACONTEUR’S COMMONPLACE BOOK were highly accomplished, in very different ways, but still need to think about how they will resonate with child readers. Several books have done a great job of exploring powerful themes in new ways: GROUND ZERO, PITY PARTY, THE SOUND OF THUNDER, and of course STARFISH. But I’m struggling to identify which does that at the highest level. I’m looking forward to getting more viewpoints on all of these. 

My list is light on nonfiction so far, but I have high hopes for Gail Jarrow’s AMBUSHED (due in October) and Steven Sheinkin’s just-released FALLOUT, which looks like kind of a sequel to BOMB (I was on that 2013 Committee that gave that one an Honor). Anything you’re especially looking forward to, Emily?

EMILY: A few titles you mentioned made my haven’t finished list RACONTEUR’S COMMONPLACE BOOK and THE SOUND OF THUNDER… so maybe they are worth revisiting. That was something fun about being on the committee, you didn’t need to FINISH all the books- but if someone suggested it you were pretty obligated to go back and read it all/ reread it. I feel like the second readings really push me to think more critically.

I’m pretty excited that all three of the 2019 Newbery winners have another title this year: MERCI SUAREZ CAN’T DANCE, DAVINCI’S CAT, and HOW TO FIND WHAT YOU’RE NOT LOOKING FOR. Wouldn’t it be totally surreal if the exact same three authors won? Haha!

And speaking of past winners, we have a DiCamillo/Blackall collaboration coming up with THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY. I’d be remiss to not mention that one. Also, Betsy Bird (who I think I mention in every post) has her first chapter book coming out this fall, LONG ROAD TO THE CIRCUS!

OK, OK I’m getting more excited now and can’t wait to hear everyone else’s thoughts. LET’S TALK BOOKS!

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. Julie Ann Corsaro says

    I think “accomplished” is a great way to describe AMBER AND CLAY, and I agree that it begs the question of audience. Perhaps, the (limited) young audience for the book is the type of kid who loves leaning about ancient civilizations and cultures and will grow up to an academic who specializes in Classics, if the discipline still exists by then! (I have a few adult academic friends — women –who were those kids). Regarding the content of the book, I was fond of the prose section where Melisto becomes part of the Bear clan/cult (I don’t remember the exact term), as well as the part where Sokrates schools us in his “Method.” I thought it was super smart, and funny to boot.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I’m glad you mentioned the humor of AMBER AND CLAY, Julie. I think that might be one of the elements that especially connects with young readers. It has serious themes and uses complex forms, but it’s also a fun book in many ways.

  2. I also really enjoyed STARFISH, and think based on form it would be an interesting win. For me, the strongest contenders that I’ve read are STARFISH, DA VINCI’S CAT, LION OF MARS and SHAPE OF THUNDER. I am looking forward to reading Beatryce Prophecy–especially since my favorite book as a child was the Midwife’s Apprentice.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      Aryssa’s comment about the form in STARFISH reminds me about all of the excellent books this year that use verse or broken lines, or whatever, in some way. AMBER AND CLAY, THE ONE THING YOU’D SAVE, RED WHITE AND WHOLE, REZ DOGS, SEVENTH RAVEN, UNSETTLED, WE BELONG…and there are probably more. Among those there’s a great deal of variety within that broad category. We’ve come a long way since OUT OF THE DUST….

  3. Meredith BUrton says

    Like EMily, I have struggled to find an absolute favorite read this year. Last year, I latched onto a book and rooted for it ferociously. (It won nothing, which might prove how inadequate I am at this, ha, but it’s still such fun).
    In an earlier blog post, I mentioned Just Like That, by Gary D. Schmidt. I think the book would be a likely candidate as all the characters are multi-layered and the plot is complex. Meryl Lee and Matt COffin deal with similar losses, and the book does a superb job at exploring the need to move forward despite tragedies.
    PIty Party, by Kathleen Lane, was a unique read, and I loved the frame story of The Voice. THe other stories, while different, provided the cohesive theme of learning to stand up for yourself. The theme of nonconformity is explored well, too, particularly in the story about the playground. Mixing humor with pathos and horror is brilliantly don on the author’s part. I would enjoy seeing a book of short stories receive recognition as I think it’s a very overlooked genre.
    Of course, Starfish is amazing, and I’ve been unable to forget the book ever since I read it. my only concern is the depiction of Ellie’s mother and her brother, Liam. I found them to be very one-dimensional, and I didn’t really feel that the conflict between Ellie and her mother was adequately resolved. WHile I do know that people like Liam and Ellie’s mother exist, (I speak from experience), I really felt uncomfortable at certain points. The climax where Gigi, Ellie’s dog, is threatened, was horrifying, but I loved the way that scene was resolved. I would be happy in a way to see Starfish win.

    • Julie Ann Corsaro says

      Meredith and everyone: I think there is much to recommend STARFISH, including the honest, engaging voice of narrator Ellie and the free-verse format, which is apt since the book seems to be connecting with many readers on an emotional level, which poetry is made to do. But I also had problems with the book’s secondary characters, not so much that they were unlikable, but that they were undeveloped and like stock figures. I think this was most notable during the book’s climax, where I found the precocious criminals and their actions simply unbelievable. While the neighboring family is much more appealing, they seem to exist mostly as a counterpoint to these bullies, as opposed to more fully-realized characters, even as secondary ones. Given the scarcity of books related to fat shaming and this one’s lovely writing style (I also think it has one of the best covers of the year), I would love to see it get a Notable Books designation. But I don’t think it’s earned the top spot due to these and other flaws in character development and plot that keep it from meeting the high bar of “distinguished.”

  4. Meredith BUrton says

    You asked what books we were looking forward to reading. H have fourof them.

    1. The List of Unspeakable Fears, by J. Kasper Kramer, (seems very relevant to our times, and any book about facing your fears resonates with me).
    2. THe Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo.
    3. Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, by Soman CHainani.
    4. Pony, by R.J. Palacio. Have heard good and bad things, so I’m intrigued by this one.

  5. Julie Ann Corsaro says

    A book I really like, which comes out next month, is Gayle Foreman’s middle school debut, FRANKIE AND BUG, which is set in Venice Beach in Los Angeles in 1987. It’s written in the the third-person, but maintains protagonist Bug’s perspective throughout with some serious issues arising organically out of setting and character (and since it’s third-person, the author’s thoughts and words aren’t misplaced on the child, a not uncommon problem). It has plenty of action, including a mystery involving a serial killer at a safe distance. It’s a well-crafted and engaging story with likable and sympathetic characters.

  6. I know science fiction is seldom a winner with Newbery enthusiasts. But my favorite book this year is The Lion of Mars by Jennifer Holm. Particularly strong in the setting category. As I wrote in another forum, after finishing the book, “I believed that I had actually been to Mars.”
    The virus that attacks the community, the conflict among cultures and survival in a hostile environment provide insights into contemporary issues.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      LION OF MARS is an intriguing one. Kate notes that the genre doesn’t usually show up on Newbery lists. And this one isn’t really typical. There’s some action and suspense, but it really shines in the “conflict of cultures” that Kate mentions. The parallels between the events on Mars and current and past conflicts on earth are clear, but not overstated. This is one where I think the themes come through at just the right level for the intended readers.

  7. Rox Anne Close says

    The following books strike me as possible contenders:
    FALLOUT by Sheinkin
    STARFISH by Fipps
    SUNSHINE by Bauer
    OPHIE’S GHOST by Ireland

    FALLOUT is like a sequel to Sheinkin’s book BOMB. It reads like a spy thriller about the Cuban Missile Crisis, only it is true. It was such an engaging read, that I read it in one sitting. But then, maybe I am biased, as I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis as a little girl, and Sheinkin is ‘spot on’ with capturing the fear and the emotions that the American people felt during that crisis, at least it matched my own experience.
    I loved THE SHAPE OF THUNDER by Warga, with its strong characters and strong plot. It was a heavy story, but it showed the resilience of friendship.
    STARFISH is another strong contender. It had so much heart and emotion, clever language, lyrical style and a timely message that forces the reader to question their own biases about body image. I loved the character, Ellie, how smart and sassy she was, while showing bravery in the face of bullying. I loved her spirited self talk.
    I loved the book SUNSHINE by Bauer. I was amazed at how the author developed in depth characters, especially Ben, and how his imaginary dog, Sunshine, helped Ben grow and change. I was totally intrigued with the character of Ben’s mom, who abandoned him as a kid, yet was so warm, kind and caring while still being distant and reserved.
    I loved the mystery book, OPHIE’S GHOST by Ireland with its unique storyline with many plot twists. The descriptive setting of Daffodil Manor was integral to the story and I felt like it was spooky, but not incredibly scary. I loved the strong characters in this book, especially Ophie, who showed maturity time and time again. This book confronted racism, and showed the many unspoken rules that Blacks must follow to live in a white world.
    I liked RACONTEUR’S COMMONPLACE BOOK by Milford. It is a well written mystery. I was intrigued to connect the dots of all the characters and enjoyed the first-rate storytelling of all the characters. I did struggle with keeping all the intricacies of the characters straight and think that this book may be better suited for the Printz award.
    I still have many books to read on the list of suggestions, including AMBER AND CLAY, but these are my early thoughts!

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I’m glad Rox Anne mentioned SUNSHINE, noting “how the author developed in-depth characters,” and I agree. She did it slowly and subtly, but by the end you really knew Ben and, to a lesser degree, his mother. The twist with the dog was expertly handled as well.

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