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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Nice, But Not For Newbery…or Are They?

October nominations continue through the 9th, providing a growing list of the strongest Newbery contenders so far, according to Heavy Medal readers. Like many others, I struggled with having to leave off one or two that I really wanted to include. During this year of reading, though, I’ve also read many books that I enjoy and admire, but for one reason or another, I put them aside once it came to the point of nominations.

I wonder sometimes, if I jump to that too quickly. I always remember the time I was in a Mock Newbery planning meeting with librarians and teachers and someone asked if we should include the new Kate DiCamillo book that had just come out. I was the only one of the group who had read it, so I blithely shared my assessment: “It’s nice and I enjoyed it, but it’s not for Newbery.” After all, THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX was just a cute little mouse book, right? Oops.

Here’s a short list of some of this year’s books which I read, enjoyed, and moved right onto my “Not for Newbery” list. Was I too hasty…?:

A CHANCE TO FLY  by Ali Storker & Stacy Davidowitz
Ali is one of the most appealing characters of the year for me. She faces the limitations of her wheelchair with a mostly undaunted spirit, but readers see how hard that is in specific, not always obvious ways. The theater setting and the fun cast of diverse characters add appeal. It’s kind of a standard show biz plot (fire at the theater?…that’s okay, we’ll put on our own show!), but it works because the characters are believable and engaging. Most of them are more complicated than they appear to Ali and to readers at first, and we see how her relationships develop. This is as enjoyable as any book I’ve read this year. You don’t find “fun” in the Terms and Criteria, and we know “the award is not for…popularity,” but a case might be made for this book because of its “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”  

DARK WATERS by Katherine Arden
Newbery recognition for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, DOLL BONES, and SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES shows that scary stories do have a chance. In this third book of the “Small Spaces” series, Arden does an excellent job of building suspense, as the kids dread the return of the mysterious and ominous smiling man. Along with the near misses and narrow escapes, she captures the thoughts and emotions of the kids, which go beyond the obvious need to just survive. Putting grown-ups into the middle of it, with the kids taking on the role of protectors, is a neat variant. I appreciate her ability to write in a style that consistently creates an aura of suspense, while also developing characters and plot. 

LINKED by Gordon Korman
This book brings serious issues into the structure of a regular school story, as swastikas begin appearing on the walls of a small town school. Korman uses multiple narrators, including at least one unreliable one, to explore the impact of hate crimes at school in an intriguing variety of ways. One kid is a prankster, and there’s a bit of comic relief from another who tries to manage the logistics of a huge paper-chain project, but it all serves to explore the ramifications of racism, tolerance, history, and even social media. I like the way this book excels in  “development of a plot” and “interpretation of the theme” in ways that are not typical of many Newbery contenders.

WILLODEEN by Katherine Applegate
A new fantasy novel by a Newbery Medalist (IVAN was my year) may not seem like an expected choice for this topic, but my reaction to WILLODEEN was: I enjoyed this and will recommend it to kids, but…not for Newbery. The world-building was done well for middle grade readers: we learn enough about the creatures and the town to get a strong sense of Willodeen’s environment. Willodeen herself is engaging, and the way she forces herself to stand up for the creatures she loves works. The theme of respecting nature and the detective work she does to save the animals come through well…but I think that’s where my hesitation comes. I felt like that end result was too clearly the point of everything else. But I’m not sure. Maybe it was conveyed at exactly the right level for the intended audience. This is a fairly recent release, so I’ll be interested to see if others nominate it. I may have to give this one a good re-read either way.

Was I too quick with my judgment on any of these? Are you second guessing anything in your own “not for Newbery” pile?

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. Leonard Kim says

    The one book that *I* liked that I haven’t even bothered to bring up “for Newbery” is THE CARDBOARD KINGDOM: ROAR OF THE BEAST. I think the Cardboard Kingdom books are special, but I figure it’s mostly me and that issues people have with the first book, they are going to have with this one too.

  2. I still have mixed feelings about SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith which is a contemporary retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The author is a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation and decries the use of the derogatory term “Injun girl” to describe the character Lily.
    It is an ambitious undertaking to re-write a classic, even a flawed classic. I didn’t go back to the original since this book should stand on its own. However many scenes are familiar, and readers may respond to these motifs from our culture.
    Some characters, particularly Peter Pan, behave quite cruelly. Whether this results from the wish to Never Grow Up or from the violence in his books is not clear. The author breaks the fourth wall throughout the storytelling, further involving the reader in analyzing the meaning of the imagery.

  3. Rox Anne Close says

    WILLODEEN was a beautiful heartfelt book. Willodeen, the protagonist, was strong, kind, brave, empathetic and a good friend. I loved the hummingbears, I just wanted to cuddle with them. I even grew to love the screechers, and was proud of Willodeen for fighting for them. I would recommend this book to children, and Katherine Applegate is one of my favorite children’s authors, but I would not recommend this book for a Newbery. In my opinion, the ending was a bit too predictable, even though there was a creative solution to the problem. I felt that the environmental theme was a little too heavy-handed, but it was a great story to show our need for one another and our dependance on nature. Overall I did enjoy the book, and loved the character Willodeen. I think many children would like this book.

  4. Meredith Burton says

    I had similar feelings about A Chance to Fly. I loved the story, (as I do any book with excellent disability representation). I especially loved the evolving friendship between two of the characters and how real the friendship became.
    I would not recommend A CHance to FLy for Newbery, though, because I think some of the plot points were contrived. THe fire bothered me as it got all the adults conveniently out of the way so that the kids could put on their own show. Also, (and I hate to even say this as I would love things like this to happen in real life), but I found that Ally being able to play Elfaba was unrealistic. I loved that part of the book, but I just didn’t think it was realistic. I have participated in plays, and I just don’t think something of that magnitude would happen, especially with that particular role. Ally Stroker does well at exploring this aspect of the plot in her narrative, but I just had problems suspending my disbelief. Of course, my disability is different from Ally’s, so perhaps I am looking at the whole thing wrong. I loved the theme of anything being possible, (and ALly Stroker herself is a wonderful example of this fact).

    I am struggling with a particular title right now. I just finished Pony, by R. J. Palacio and loved the book very much. I am trying to decide whether to nominate it the next round. THe writing’s not the absolute best I’ve encountered this year, but the plot is intricate, and the characters are engaging.

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