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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

HARRY, BILLY, and MARISOL: Can these early chapter books contend for the Newbery Medal?

It seems like every year I search for any early chapter book that might have a shot at the Newbery, and usually come up with just one or two. It can be very challenging to write prose that is of distinguished literary quality, but also accessible to readers who are just beginning to read fiction. Last year I was high on SKUNK AND BADGER by Amy Timberlake. PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE by Laura Amy Schlitz was an intriguing possibility a few years ago. And several books from Shannon Hale’s PRINCESS IN BLACK series have merited consideration. In recent years, though, only THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER by Kevin Henkes has been named by a Committee (2014 Honor).

 The three books below all achieve high literary merit within a format that necessarily limits the complexity that an author can introduce. I think any one of them (or maybe more than one) could be a Newbery contender.


In 100 short chapters, one for each school day from September through February 12, Jenkins creates an engaging world that’s familiar to her intended readers, but also surprising and funny. 

The third person, present tense narration conveys Harry’s kid’s eye point of view in just the right ways. The language sounds kind of like a first-grader, without being overdone:

After the videos, Harry and his mom looked at like, one hundred pictures of baby guinea pigs online. There are all different kinds!

p 140

Later on that same page, the tone shifts deftly from that enthusiastic voice to show the more reflective aspect of Harry’s personality:

Harry and Charlotte carry Goblin back to school in her travel cage. Harry goes up to the fourth-grade classroom. It is full of seriously huge people.

Harry gets to transfer the guinea pig into her larger habitat. She feels quivery and warm in his hands.

p 140

Many of Harry’s classmates have significant roles in the book, which might have challenged readers new to chapter books, but Jenkins handles this just right. We get to know the students a little bit at a time, at different rates…just like it works in real first grade. And the ensemble of students gets to be pretty fun. I laughed out loud when they all tried to reassure Harry that it was okay that he threw up in class. Several of them share their own very funny puking experiences, until Harry interrupts:

“I don’t want to talk about puke!” cries Harry. “I’m sick and tired of puke.”

Mason pats his arm. “It’s so interesting to everyone,” he says kindly. “We can’t help it.”

p 130

Plot, characters, style, and themes work so well together in this one, and that’s tricky to manage when you’re writing for a younger fiction audience. 


Kevin Henkes has already won two Newbery Honors, including one for the first book in this series, but the Newbery Terms and Criteria, clearly tell us that “the committee is not to consider…whether the author has previously won the award.” And while some sequels might read differently depending on whether or not you’re familiar with the first book, that’s not the case here. I barely remember a thing about THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER, except that I liked it, and this one stands on its own just fine. 

On his eighth birthday Billy wishes “that something exciting would happen.” That wish frames the series of events that follow. There’s a bat in the house, a minor chimney fire, a mailbox mix-up…tame stuff compared to the high drama in many books on our list, but just right for the beginning chapter book audience. And it’s the characterization and style that really stand out. 

Henkes shows the way an eight-year-old brain works, using simple language to convey  Billy’s experiences, though Billy himself wouldn’t articulate them in those words:

Billy got a new soccer ball. It came with a pump and a needle that looked like a sleek silver insect that you inserted into the ball to add more air.

p 20 [page numbers from ebook edition]

I love that specificity, where Billy is more entranced by the needle than by the prospect of actually playing with the new ball. When he does go out to play with his Papa a little later, that continues:

Billy smelled his soccer ball the way he’d smelled his shirt. It, too, smelled new. And it looked new – the white parts were so white. And it felt new – smooth and shiny and polished.

p 28

There’s minimal plot tension and his family is about as close to perfect as you could ask for, but Billy’s inner thinking is exactly right for his age and personality.


As with HARRY and BILLY, Kelly’s writing captures the voice of the main character and provides engaging insights into the everyday challenges of being a kid. Marisol’s challenge is fear of many things, especially the big tree in her backyard. 

As we follow Marisol’s trains of thought, that fear is usually somewhere in there, but we also see how her curiosity and imagination are such a big part of her identity, and those qualities eventually help her face it. Her practice of naming things (the tree is “Peppina” and the refrigerator is “Buster”) is especially fun. While the tree is the overt challenge that Marisol thinks about most often, readers will notice that missing her dad and the dart-like words of a mean classmate cut just as deeply. 

The elements that lead to Marisol finally climbing Peppina make perfect sense with what we know about her. She has extra motivation because of the bird’s nest (she sees herself as a bird). Jada gives her just the right amount of support (we’ve learned how well their friendship works). She asks her mom to watch, but just from the window (we know she wants to feel brave, not just climb the tree). And once up there, her imagination kicks in as she pictures how others (Jada, her mother, and even Peppina) will react. 

From a first read, I see HARRY as the first chapter book with the strongest chance for Newbery recognition among these titles, but all three deserve consideration.  It won’t be an easy task to compare them to more complex titles like AMBER AND CLAY, STARFISH, or FALLOUT, but that’s exactly what makes a Mock Newbery so fun. DOGGO AND PUPPER is another title to consider (for even younger readers), and I’m looking forward to reading the SKUNK AND BADGER sequel that just came out a couple weeks ago. Will this be the year when a first chapter book breaks through and earns a Medal?

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. Emily Mroczek says

    I just finished Billy Miller Makes a Wish and I enjoyed it, and I never read THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER! but I don’t think it rises to the top. I think the plot was well developed (drama that can realistically happen, but really is a lot for four days) and also appreciated the characterization of Mama, Billy and Val. Did I miss a part that explained why Billy was switching to calling his parents mom and dad? That was a hole for me. I LOVED Marisol, but think it ranks pretty equal to Billy Miller- well written strong characters, but just not ENOUGH. I guess that’s the struggle with beginning chapter books winning it all? And of course the one book I didn’t read was HARRY and now I feel obligated to read it. Thanks a lot Steven

  2. I recently saw an article that referenced Martin Amis’s infamous statement about writing children’s books, “I would never . . . write at a lower register than what I can write.” Without giving credence to Amis’s insulting tone (I didn’t quote the infamous part) I do think it is helpful to ask how authors handle writing constraints and whether it feels they would have written things differently and “better” without them. One sees this critique for poetry (when you think an author chose a less-than-perfect word just to rhyme or scan) but it’s a consideration for young-audience books like these too. I think Henkes is a good writer, but in the first Billy, I couldn’t shake the audience-is-holding-him-back feeling. I have only read the first chapters of the new BILLY and MARISOL (I do a lot of first chapters to decide what to read) but they gave me similar concerns. That’s why I think HARRY is kind of miraculous. Like good poetry, I never got the feeling that the writing was constrained, that Jenkins had to compromise or make concessions or was prevented from doing her best writing. Not only that, I feel like the writing was still more comprehensible and age-appropriate than other “literary” chapter books. (One complaint I had about Princess Cora was that it seemed to me only superficially for young readers, and that its writing was arguably too advanced even though or perhaps because Schlitz is a great writer.) Anyway I am with Steven and hope the Newbery and Mock Newbery take a close look at HARRY. It’s my current frontrunner.

  3. These three books are certainly valuable additions to all our collections. Deceptively simple since we know easy to read is not always easy to write. I like the unique elements each author incorporates. The diary-like entries for Harry’s daily activities. Marisol’s providing proper names to inanimate objects. And Billy learning lessons such as teachers go to the grocery store, grandchildren grow up and adults can do silly things. They certainly all rank high in presentation for a child audience.

  4. Meredith Burton says

    I loved Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey, particularly how the book addressed the theme of facing fears so well. Marisol’s friend was such an engaging character. I loved Billy Miller Makes a Wish, too, although I think THe Year of Billy Miller was stronger. (Ms. Emily, Billy’s decision to address his dad and mom in different terms is explored more in the first book).
    I look forward to reading the Emily Jenkins book.

    I do think that authors should write for the age level they feel most comfortable, but a good author for early readers can often make issues for young readers come to life. You’re no less of an author if you write for very young children. It’s shameful if someone else mocks other authors.

  5. Julie Ann Corsaro says

    Harry is still in my pile (I’ll move it up). However, I read and liked the other two.

    I think Billy Miller is a master class in building character in just a few words, and with other constraints — like young children’s understandings — that early chapter books can bring. Given such constraints, Henkes’ literary style is also impressive, including his artful use of repetition, which helps readers grow in confidence. There was also enough action and suspense to keep novice bookworms engaged.

    Like other Erin Entrada Kelly books, which the actual committee can’t mention, I found the beginning of Marisol Rainey a hump I had to get over, but am glad I did (I’m a fan of her oeuvre). It’s a little quirky, but grew on me with its strong characterization, including the personification of inanimate objects (so, I ended up liking the quirk). I appreciated in a way that Marisol’s father dismissed her anxiety because in the real world, not all parents are understanding like Billy Miller’s, and we need that kind of representation in this format, too.

    Each book did a stellar job of presenting kids’ emotional realities, with gentle humor helping the more challenging situations go down smoothly.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    The illustrations in these books play a part in their success, at different levels. Which leads to that tricky part of the Terms and Criteria: “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.” We’ve discussed in previous years how the definition of “text” might be broadened to encompass more than just words, especially in graphic novels and picture books. The illustrations in BILLY, by Henkes himself, are easy to deal with, since they aren’t frequent and just depict objects mentioned in the text.
    Pete Oswald’s illustrations in HARRY, though, play a more prominent role. They contribute to the setting, with visual reference points for the school especially. And to character development to some degree. But really, like Henkes’, they serve more as representation of the words, rather than adding anything new. The illustration on page 132, for example, shows us how reluctant Harry is to meet the guinea pig, with his sweatshirt pulled up to hide his face. The text, though, describes that exactly. Images that reinforce text can be helpful to new readers of chapter books, so they accomplish exactly what they should. So even though there are 50+ color illustrations, it’s still the literary elements of the text that make the book distinguished.
    Kelly does her own illustrations for MARISOL, and some of these add more content than we see in the other two books. On page 88, for example, the text reads: “Sometimes she gets so lost in her imagination that she sits and stares for a really long time. Only, her mind isn’t sitting still at all.” On the opposing page, the illustration shows “Marisol’s Mind” features a bunch of thought balloons that spell out the kinds of things that her wandering brain thinks about, To me, that’s a good example of how images (along with the words in the thought balloons) can be seen as that broad “text” mentioned in the Criteria. Even if she hadn’t drawn it herself, we would assume that the content of that picture is the author’s creation. I think.

  7. I’m reading HARRY right now and loving it! I am a little confused, though. My copy has a publication date of 2020. Doesn’t it have to be a current year book?
    I look forward to the start of Heavy Medal season every year!

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      You’re right, Emmy, it would need a 2021 publication date. I don’t have a copy in front of me, but a couple of websites I checked do list the pub date as June 29, 2021…

  8. Rox Anne Close says

    Steven and Emmy, I have a copy of HARRY in my hand and the copyright date says 2021. I’m reading the book right now.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I’ve got my copy now. It does list 2020 down in the Library of Congress CIP part. But at the top of that page it does say “Text copyright” 2021. So we’ll declare it still eligible, unless we learn otherwise…

      • That’s good to know! 🙂 It’s a great book! Goodreads has First Published July 7, 2020. That’s the publication date in my book too and it’s what they put in our library’s catalog record. But Amazon has the publication date as 2021, though it does say Illustrated edition. That’s why I was a little confused. I wonder if it has to do with the pandemic? I know a lot of books got their publication dates pushed back because of that. Either way I’m enjoying it!

  9. Rox Anne Close says

    Of these three books, MARISOL, BILLY MILLER and HARRY, my favorite was BILLY MILLER MAKES A WISH. Henkes is a master of delineating characters through telling details. Billy letting his little sister use his new birthday markers even before he uses them himself, tells me exactly the kind of kid Billy is. Henkes gets the innocent feeling and worries of an eight year old just right, such as when he capture Billy’s embarrassment of running into his teacher at the grocery store while he was watching his little sister Sal. You can just feel his embarrassment as he tries to distance himself from Sal playing with her erasers (the Drip Sisters) under the misters in the produce section. Henkes portrays relatable events in a very humorous way, from Sal’s tattoos, making symphony cards to delivering mail, and through these events he captures Billy’s ‘up and down’ feelings of caring for his sister while still living up to his dad’s wishes of helping his mom. This book is great for newly independent readers that want to read chapter books It has large font, short chapters with interspersed pictures. I agree with Steven that this book is strong in characters, plot, style and themes and how well Henkes works them all together.

  10. Rox Anne Close says

    In the book MAYBE MAYBE MARISOL RAINEY Erin Entrada Kelly did a great job of delineating the setting. I could just place myself sitting or climbing in Peppina, the magnolia tree, on a hot summer day. I knew every branch and envisioned how I would climb it. I thought the characters of Marisol and Jada were developed well. Kelly showed Marisol’s cautiousness and fears, yet she also showed Marisol’s determination to overcome those fears. I loved how imaginative Marisol was with her naming all those inanimate objects, it was humorous and it lightened the load Marisol carried around with her anxiety. I loved Jada, Marisol’s friend, how thoughtful she was and her unquestioning acceptance of Marisol’s quirks. And like Meredith stated, this book did a great job of addressing the theme of facing fears. The writing is funny, intelligent and an easy read for newly independent readers.

  11. Rox Anne Close says

    I just finished reading HARRY VERSES THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL and it was a delightful read. It was comical and heartwarming to watch Harry’s growth throughout the year, and I was so happy that he finally got to be a line leader. At first, I thought the book’s format (journal style) might get tedious, but Jenkin’s strong writing style, wry humor and insightfulness of kid’s experiences in first grade kept me engaged and laughing. I loved how in-depth I got to know the personalities of each kid that sat at ‘goat’ table, from their ‘Sharks and Minnows’ games to their antics at lunch time, to projects at their table that lead to talk of boogers that lead to silliness, just like a real first grade class.

    I did think this book was a bit long for an early chapter book, (I’m talking from experience of 30 years teaching first, second and third graders). Maybe it would be a great read aloud.

    I did see some discrepancies that I was concerned about. The children’s writing seems very sophisticated for a first grader. Harry is able to spell ‘cake’, ‘card’, ‘disappointed’ and ‘friend’ correctly in November (p. 105), and could spell ‘tired’ and ‘died’ correctly in December (p. 150). Yet in January (p.169) Harry struggled with reading higher level books with CH and SH sounds and more silent E. Maybe all these words were on the sight word wall or the sparkly word wall, and I am being too picky, (I’m probably thinking too deeply about how the reading, writing process develops). Also Harry seems like a young first grader at age five. In my experience most first graders are age 6 going on age 7.

    Over all I thought Jenkins captured how kids in the early grades think, speak and behave and the characters, writing style and plot are definitely strong in this book.

    • Leonard Kim says

      That is an interesting observation about spelling. For those without the book in hand, the cited examples are not part of the main printed text, but pictures of the kids’ handwritten assignments. I think it’s a fair question (that has been asked of many other books) whether it is more appropriate for things like this to have misspelling for “realism” and suspension of disbelief or for it to be correct. I can see people arguing both ways on the grounds of the Newbery’s “appropriateness of style” and “presentation of information including accuracy” criteria as well as “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” At least “tired” is explicitly cited as a sight word the kids were to use.

    • Leonard Kim says

      re: Harry’s age, another astute observation! I googled it, however, and it is not impossible. Harry goes to Public School 48 in Brooklyn (page 1) and the internet tells me New York City has one of the latest age cutoffs in the country, December 31, meaning ~1/3 of NYC kids start kindergarten at age 4. It is on December 12/13 (page 147-150) that we read both Harry and Mason are five, but that would be OK if they both have birthdays by the end of the year. Mason’s birthday party does occur over the holiday break (page 164), but nothing is said about Harry, so maybe an actual inaccuracy?

      • Rox Anne Anne Close says

        Leonard, thanks for googling about the age cut off for NYC Brooklyn schools. You are right, a first grader could be five entering first grade as long as they turn six by December 31, so this may not be a discrepancy. Great observation of noticing that Mason celebrated his birthday over the holiday break. Now I wonder when Harry’s birthday is? Or maybe that doesn’t matter at all.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      Rox Anne mentions that HARRY might be “a bit long for an early chapter book.” I actually thought it would hold the attention of those readers and that accomplishing that in a book of this length adds to its distinction. The short chapters, built into the 100 days structure seem to make it manageable. The recurring elements that pop up, like Fluff Monsters and Monday job assignments, along with relationships that develop and change over the months (Harry and Wyatt, Harry and Abigail) could potentially young readers too much to keep track of, but I think they actually work as touchpoints which could make the reading experience easier. This is where I start to question myself, though, since I don’t have that experience of working directly with kids at this reading level. I do think that the author does a lot to make it accessible to a wide range, though.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      Thanks for pointing out that reading/writing discrepancy, Rox Anne. I never even thought to pay attention to that. Questions of accuracy in fiction often pop up in books for older readers, especially historical fiction, but getting learning levels right seems pretty important for a book that’s all about first grade. It’s an element that probably wouldn’t have any impact on the intended reader, and the book is so very successful about presenting a fully developed 1st grade classroom setting in other ways. But it’s still going to nag at me….

      • Rox Anne Anne Close says

        Steven, I hated to even bring up the picky point about the kid’s writing in HARRY, but it really nagged me as a teacher, especially since the book was all about first grade. You’re right, this element probably wouldn’t have an impact on the intended reader, and I agree that this book is very successful in presenting a fully developed 1st grade classroom in other ways. The characters, writing style and plot are definitely strong in this book.

      • Leonard Kim says

        Steven and Rox Anne, just to be clear, are we only talking about spelling? I am not sure I agree the sentences are otherwise too sophisticated to be written by first graders, but I do agree they are improbably free of misspelling. This reminds me a little of the Junie B Jones problem (though in reverse)–as already suggested by you two, it seems like an adult reader issue, and had Jenkins and Oswald instead chosen to incorporate deliberate misspellings for the sake of verisimilitude, I think that would’ve been a concession to adult, not child, readers. So I am not sure on what Newbery grounds this is penalizable except maybe Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity — and it seems to me a bit tortured to argue that accurately spelled words are actually inaccurate, unclear presentation of information (to child readers.)

        On another topic, I agree with Rox Anne. As great as this book is, I think for first graders, it’s a read aloud (especially if they’d previously experienced Rosemary Wells!) I personally don’t believe that should affect its Newbery evaluation, but I’ve sometimes wondered whether the Newbery committee’s librarian-heavy makeup favors emphasizing independent readability when interpreting “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”

  12. Leonard Kim says

    I just finished the new Skunk and Badger, EGG MARKS THE SPOT, and like the first one, I strongly feel it’s for older readers (like 47-year-olds), even though it has fewer pages than BILLY and HARRY and as many as MARISOL. I am struggling a bit with how to evaluate it. 2/3 of it is a glorious work of genius with laugh-out-loud, quirky expressiveness and just a completely distinctive and winning authorial voice. But I guess certain types of scenes (e.g., action scenes intended to be exciting rather than humorous) have less room for those strengths, and I did feel it to the extent that I think a handful of chapters could’ve been cut or condensed.

  13. Leonard Kim says

    Just finished BILLY. I have four comments.

    1) In my opinion, BILLY is not a Newbery book. Forget about HARRY, a much more comparable book that I preferred is Renee Watson’s WAYS TO GROW LOVE.

    2) I’ve seen other people say Billy seems young for his age. I don’t know who’s correct, but Billy’s character isn’t that different from HARRY’s, but Billy is more than 2 years older. Billy’s “baby” sister Sal is actually closer in age to Harry than Billy is.

    3) As an adult reader, I saw Henke’s foreshadowing Mama’s pregnancy less than halfway into the book (definitely by p.78-79 when she says, “I don’t think I have the energy to tackle this project right now.”) If this is supposed to be an excellent early chapter book, I think this is either too much literary sophistication for a younger reader, or the book will feel otherwise too young for readers advanced enough to get it.

    4) Along the same lines, I thought Billy’s reaction to Mr. Tooley’s death (p. 26) lacked an immediacy that felt unchildlike to me. Yes, he is waking up and wondering if he’s dreaming, but after being given the news, there’s a slow, Henkesian paragraph about the soft light in his bedroom and noticing Sal is already dressed. It is only at the end of the chapter (p.30) that Henkes makes the dubious claim that Billy’s “world–including himself–had seemed to shift and unravel, to dissolve into a million pieces.” I think neither Billy nor his readers would engage in this sort of “how did I feel when I got the news” musing. This is the thing I loved about HARRY – it captured the way I remember childhood thinking actually felt like.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      Good observations from Leonard. Though I’m the one that paired BILLY and HARRY (and MARISOL) in this post, it’s fair to argue that they are two wildly different books, from authors who took completely different approaches to presenting the world of young kids for readers who are around the same age. Jenkins does it through dialogue and direct descriptions of Harry’s days. I don’t have a copy in front of me, but I believe she rarely describes emotions, and instead creatively conveys them in other ways. Like in the quotes above, where he responds to guinea pig pictures and to holding a real one, and we know what he feels (excitement/surprise, tenderness) because of what he says and does.. Really well done.

      I believe Henkes does want to describe emotions.. I think maybe that’s what he wants to do most of all. Here’s a paragraph from chapter 1 when Billy is approaching Mr. Tooley’s home:

      It was strange. It was as if the excitement Billy had felt about his birthday had been shut up inside him and a different excitement – because of the police car and the ambulance – had been stirred up and had taken over. There was another feeling that was jumbled with it, becoming stronger. It was a certain uneasiness because Papa was going on a trip tomorrow. He was going to an art camp fro grown ups. He’d be gone for four nights. Billy wished he could go with Papa.

      That’s a pretty involved trip into Billy’s head, covering probably just a few seconds of real time. I feel like Henkes is trying to get at the subtle complexities of the thoughts and emotions of a child like Billy. I agree with Leonard that “neither Billy nor his readers would engage…” in that kind of analysis…and that’s why an author might try to provide it. I do feel like Jenkins’ book is ultimately more successful and distinguished, but I believe both earn a place in the discussion despite their very different styles.

  14. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    And I do wonder about reader-age for books like these. HARRY isn’t really just for 1st graders, is it? 2nd and 3rd graders read Ramona the Pest and Junie B. Jones, even though they’re about Kindergartners. And then there’s the read-aloud factor. Is the intended audience for a book like BILLY “6-8 year-olds who are listening to it being read aloud by an adult?” Leonard’s point #3 about the actual reading audience age seems right to me…

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