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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Picture Book Palooza

This conversation happens every year, so I’ll try to speed it up- but, did you know picture books are eligible to win the Newbery? They are! The criteria states Newbery books are for readers ages 0-14 and are judged on text. And picture books (for the most part, fit that criteria).

But how can a picture book stand against all these great middle grades you ask? It needs to be REALLY HIGH QUALITY, I reply! For a writer to nail the Newbery criteria in approximately 32 pages (where images take a lot of the space), is no small feat.

Do any picture books of 2021 rise to the ranks to join the (small, but growing) picture book Newbery bookshelf?

Can Matt de la Pena do it again? He won the Newbery for LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET in 2016 and his endearing tale of creativity, perceptions and incarceration may have what it takes. The language used to describe Milo’s emotions, “a shook-up soda,” and “butterflies flood Milo’s stomach when it’s finally their stop,” and “in this tight tangle of familiar arms that he feels most alive,” really convey the strong character of a young boy.

The only spread where I thought the photographs really helped move the story along was when Milo reimagined his drawings.

MILO IMAGINES has many similar themes to LAST STOP with observation and lead-up to an unexpected ending. Also, of course the setting of transportation. But really, it’s a new story with a new theme, new characters, and a new potential to win the gold.

Verse poetry creating perfect images in your head. Embarrassment paired with understanding. Simplicity paired with deep thoughts. Poverty paired with fortune. The stark comparisons are just a little glimpse of the magic of WATERCRESS by Andrea Wang. Each word of the text conveys setting, theme and characterization in a stunning story combining past and present.

“From the depths of the trunk ,

they unearth

a brown paper bag,

rusty scissors,

and a longing for China.”

THE PEOPLE REMEMBER by Ibi Zoboi explains the meaning of Kwanzaa while traveling through African American history. The juxtaposition flows beautifully and the tough themes are eloquently worded to help children understand the past and present along with hope for the future. The setting and theme are very powerful in Zoboi’s language especially intertwined with the pillars of Kwanzaa.

The other two picture books that consideration are DEAR TREEFROG by Joyce Sidman and KEEP YOUR HEAD UP by Aliya King Neil. What are your thoughts on these or any other 2021 picture books?

And don’t forget, nominations are open until Saturday and no picture books are nominated yet!

About Emily Mroczek-Bayci

Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at


  1. Leonard Kim says

    I don’t read as many picture books as I used to (kids growing up and all), so I’ve only looked at MILO of these. However, 2 of the 5 picture books listed in the “How are we doing? What are we missing” post were suggested by me: THE ROCK FROM THE SKY and WE ARE ALL UNDER ONE WIDE SKY. As much as I liked these texts, I don’t believe either actually has much of a chance. Wiles’ book is one where I think the text by itself is stronger than the picture book as a whole (which is *not* a knock on the illustrations.) I also see other people Suggested UNSPEAKABLE and WE BECAME JAGUARS. I admire Weatherford, but UNSPEAKABLE didn’t rise to “most distinguished” consideration for me.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I think WE BECAME JAGUARS by David Eggers is a strong picture book. I appreciated the way the language captures the child’s voice, but with resonance: “I had been in these woods many times, / but I’d never been through them / As jaguars we went through. / As jaguars.” And I enjoyed the use of “jaguar” as a verb: “She laughed / like great thunder and I laughed / like lesser thunder and we jaguar on.”

      UNSPEAKABLE is a powerful book, but I agree that the words don’t rise to Newbery level. The “once upon a time” refrain frames the narrative effectively, but the factual details and the poetic flow don’t always flow just right.

      I don’t really see the Newbery potential in WE ARE ALL UNDER ONE WIDE SKY. I thought the rhymes were a little sing-song and the rhythm wasn’t the smoothest. Beyond that, the words seem kind of like a collection of random rhymes that only gain meaning and convey the inclusive theme through the illustrations. Words and pictures work together the way they should in a successful picture book, but I find it especially hard to credit the text in this one.

      • Leonard Kim says

        Sorry this continues my comment from further down. I enjoyed moments of randomness in WE ARE UNDER ONE WIDE SKY: the bumblebee band or “Nine shadows butter the yard,” but I found the entire book quite orderly in its progression. I actually didn’t realize it was a counting book until a couple pages in because it flowed so naturally from sky to cloud to birds to trees to nests to flowers to sand. I like the shift to the mix of human and natural (trucks and sand, bumblebees and band, clovers and crown). I like how night creeps in (moonflowers, crickets, lanterns). I like how the only named living things before the gigglers and sleepyheads are birds and plants and insects. For sure I don’t think the Committee will consider this book, but I really do think the text excels in all Criteria that apply to it.

    • Dorothy Scanlan says

      I LOVE “We Became Jaguars”!!

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

    I’ll second Emily’s recommendation of WATERCRESS. As in MILO, there are emotions behind the lines that I think work at the level of a child reader. Most of it describes what they do, rather than what she feels, making that moment when she acknowledges her shame very powerful.

    In MILO IMAGINES THE WORLD the pace and plot were especially strong. Learning about Milo’s imagination is interesting, but you get hints of the conflict that’s not expressed directly.. The surprise of his mother’s incarceration at the end makes us realize where that tension behind his trip comes from. It’s challenging to achieve such complex, but accessible storytelling in a picture book format.

    Lynne Rae Perkins’ THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING is another one I’m intrigued by. I like the way it captures the connection between imagination and specific things. Most of the book comes from the idea that imagination can help when the world gets “too loud and too big and too busy,” but the ending adds perspective, when the narrator notes that the noise isn’t always something to escape: “Sometimes I love that.”

    • Leonard Kim says

      I definitely want to take another look at THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING.

      Regarding WE ARE ALL UNDER ONE WIDE SKY: I may have been biased by reading this in e-format. But the relatively few words per page (6 at most) and what felt like a large physical distance between sentences dissipated any sing-songiness for me. Also there seemed to be an unusually large ratio of strong-to-weak syllables. Most words are one syllable and most sentences had at most one syllable that was clearly weak (There are exceptions like,”Ten whirligigs spinning ’round”.) This also felt to me non-sing-songy and lent a weight and grandeur, which I liked. But maybe that contributed to your sense of unsmooth rhythm. I do think, given how we disagreed before on how the poems of I’m Just No Good At Rhyming “sound” that we hear texts differently. As language and as writing, this really did work for me, whereas unlike you I didn’t think much of the synergy with the illustrations.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

        I also think we differed on verse with A LONG WAY DOWN, Leonard, and probably others,. Kind of fascinating how that works. I really appreciate your elaboration on the strengths of the text of WIDE SKY. I did not read it with that level of carefulness and missed that “orderliness” that you point out and I can now see. And the syllable consistency is neat too. I still feel that the first words of a line don’t always fit neatly with the opening clauses beyond their rhyming roles: “four fir trees over there”…”six tulips bloom their best”…”four gigglers in a row” for example.

      • Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

        sorry guys I was unimpressed with WE ARE ALL UNDER ONE WIDE SKY AND MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING (hence neither of them made my top five list). I thought the illustrations carried the book too much in WE ARE ALL UNDER ONE WIDE SKY AND I was bored in museum of everything… I almost didn’t finish that one! (and it was a picture book)

  3. One picture book I keep coming back to this year is Runaway: The Daring Escape of Ona Judge by Ray Anthony Shepard. I was so impressed by Shepard’s use of the rhetorical question (“Why you run, Ona?”) and the pacing of the book (there’s a sudden change in tone/perspective when we stop seeing Ona as pampered and see her enslavement for what it really was). I feel like Shepard shows how a picture book biography can be accessible to children while also delivering literary excellence.

    I’m just catching up witih HM, so I’ll go nomiate it now.

    • Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

      I might have classified Runaway as nonfiction in my head Destinee (genres mean nothing though haha) That one definitely stuck with me and I think the rhetorical question usage was very well done

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