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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

2 Escapes, 1 Tragedy, and 13 Meals: picture book nonfiction that could win a Newbery

This year I don’t get to do my usual lament that nonfiction picture books don’t do well under the Newbery lens because last year it happened: BOX: HENRY BROWN MAILS HIMSELF TO FREEDOM won a Newbery Honor! These books still seem like long shots, though. In the best examples of this form, words and pictures work together to convey information, and it can be challenging to identify “distinguished writing,” when the illustrations can also have such a major impact.

The Newbery Terms and Criteria list several “literary qualities to be considered,” but “the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements.” So with nonfiction in picture book format, I try to keep these elements particularly in mind:

  • “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization”
  • “Interpretation of the theme or concept” 
  • “Appropriateness of style”  

Here are a few of the nonfiction picture books from this year that have caught my Newbery eye so far:

RUNAWAY: THE DARING ESCAPE OF ONA JUDGE  by Ray Anthony Shepard, Illustrated by Keith Mallett
This poem tells the story of the escape of one of the Washingtons’ slaves with a rhythmic tone and subtly increasing intensity. The repeated question of “Why you run Ona Judge?” punctuates verses that describe the surface benefits of Ona’s life. The answers to that question are mixed in to the with the verses:

She hauled you to New York

To brush her hair

She towed you

to Philadelphia 

To sew her elegant gowns

Why you run Ona Judge?

Words like “hauled” and “towed” help to steadily build a sense of outrage in the reader, and it’s done on a level that I think will work really well with kids. 

During the escape, the “Why you run..” question is replaced by “Didn’t you know…”  then the questions are dropped and it shifts to active, inspirational statements: “You knew…” and “You dreamed…”  The ending is powerful: The final page turn circles back to the original question: “Then run, Ona Judge, run” 

It’s excellent storytelling that shines in presentation of information and themes. The illustrations do magnify some of the meaning behind the words. We can see Ona’s sadness before it comes through fully in the text, for example. That works just right for the book, allowing varied readers to absorb the deeper meanings in different ways. This book received one nomination from Heavy Medal readers in the first round. 

I’ve tried to convince myself that this excellent book could be a Newbery contender, but I just can’t. The writing is just as it should be: clear, simple, and matter-of-fact. The impact comes from the dramatic true story itself and from the illustrations that do so much to establish plot, setting, and theme.

I tried to do that graphic novel thing where you consider text as not just words, but also the meaning conveyed by illustrations. In this case, though, I feel like the images are just too specific and complex. Here’s the text from one four-page sequence:

Seventy-six children got on the train.

Vera tried not to cry.

She and the other children

did not know what lay ahead.

So they told stories

about the lives they left behind.

The illustrations covering those two spreads fill in so much. Parents walking their children to the station; the packed train; Vera telling a story with cat ears (she was “Queen of the Cats”). Then a wordless spread showing the progress of the train, the kids safe inside, and a background of constellations.  

I might have a lot to say about this book in a Caldecott or Sibert discussion, but don’t see it fitting with Newbery.  

UNSPEAKABLE: THE TULSA RACE MASSACRE by Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by Floyd Cooper.
This powerful book has received two Heavy Medal nominations so far. Weatherford’s words are intentionally understated as she describes the events, allowing Cooper’s illustrations and the horrifying reality of the massacre to capture the highest drama. The repeated refrain of “Once upon a time…” sets it up as history, but also as something fairy tale-ish, hinting that this idyllic community is of a distant, almost unbelievable past. It’s a very effective book; I think the writing is just right, but I’m not sure the text is prominent enough to stand out in a Newbery discussion.

13 WAYS TO EAT A FLY by Sue Heavenrich, Illustrated by David Clark. Picture book science titles are even less common in Newbery world (don’t forget DARK EMPEROR, though), but this one is intriguing. Within the structure of a counting book, the author describes how various animals, including humans (and one plant) consume flies. With just a few sentences per number, readers get just enough scientific information. Doses of alliteration and occasional interjections (“Snap! Bye-bye, Fly!”) add a playful tone. It might be hard to cite the sentence level writing as Newbery-worthy, but this is a highly creative “interpretation of concept,” accomplished with style that’s just right for the child reader. 

I’m also looking forward to I’M TRYING TO LOVE GARBAGE by Bethany Barton, but that one’s not out until November 30th. Are there other books in this format that we should be looking at? Do any of the examples above have a chance? It would be pretty exciting if this could turn out to be the second year in a row in which a picture book nonfiction title receives Newbery recognition.

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. We Are Still Here by Traci Sorrell should be in any nonfiction discussion this year. It’s unique concept and delivery of information is certainly distinguished.

    I would also look at the Across the Tracks: Remembering Greenwood, Black Wall Street and, the Tulsa Race Massacre by Alverne Ball (art by Stacey Robinson) as a counter point to Unspeakable. The comic format really shines when it comes to presentation of information.

    If I were on any on Sibert, Newbery or even caldecott this year I would be considering nominating Across the Tracks so that it was on the table and could be used in comparison with Unspeakable. Both titles shine in their own ways but having them on the table together allows committee members the chance to really parse the strengths and weaknesses of both criteria by criteria.

  2. Leonard Kim says

    Maybe I feel guilty for not picking him in the poll, but I am going to put forward Mo Willems’ OPPOSITES ABSTRACT, even though, as far as Newbery text goes, this would be a hard argument to make. Nevertheless, I believe if one goes strictly through the Newbery criteria one-by-one, the argument could be made.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      OPPOSITES ABSTRACT is fascinating, but I’m struggling with a convincing Newbery argument. Certainly it shines in the area of “Interpretation of the theme or concept.” Using questions rather than stated labels is an effective choice that puts the reader into an active role and invites discussion. The switch from questions to the statement at the end (“This is finished”) is perfect. And some of the individual word choices are surprising, like “intentional” and “accidental” or “broken” and “fixed.” The words seem to get progressively more challenging, which works well. That’s all I’ve got, though, before I move into the specific artistic choices of line, color, space, etc. I’d love to hear more from Leonard or others about how to frame this excellent book within a Newbery discussion.

      • Leonard Kim says

        You addressed three of the Criteria, and I agree with you: Interpretation of the theme or concept, Appropriateness of style (“Using questions rather than stated labels is an effective choice that puts the reader into an active role and invites discussion”), and Development of plot (“The words seem to get progressively more challenging, which works well”, ” The switch from questions to the statement at the end (‘This is finished’) is perfect.”)

        For the others, I will take a stab and not fall back on “literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements.”

        Delineation of character: for 1st and 2nd-person books, I think voice is key. I think OPPOSITES ABSTRACT has a strong voice and thus delineates character well — I get a clear sense of a Socratic teacher, patient and attuned to children but not condescending, an artist who wants to engage and challenge and expand readers’ inner world without imposing. Importantly, I get this from the text, and I do not assume or impute this “character” to be just the author Willems (in contrast to, say, BEATRYCE PROPHECY where the dominating authorial voice arguably detracts from Delineation of character.)

        Delineation of setting: in general, I ask of a book how effectively did it “take me somewhere?” Yes for most books, this is another place or another time. But this is a book specifically about abstraction, and yet I did feel like it took me somewhere – I hope it’s not too cute to say it was some inner-space like in Pixar movies which are “really” about representation of ideas and concepts. Maybe it was to Plato’s cave. I would argue this is provoked by the text and not the pictures. In fact, I would say evaluating the specific pictures is mostly unnecessary and doesn’t matter here. It would be cool if other artists (or children) were invited to make their own pictures around these questions, and it wouldn’t substantially change the book – it might even make the point stronger, because that’s basically the reader experience. The reader is asked a question (and admittedly given a visual cue). To answer the question, the reader must represent in their own mind, say, “what does ‘intention’ look like” in order to compare it to the picture. My representations, at least in my head, felt vivid and sensory and didn’t come from my own memory or previous experience, but from Willems’ text — what is that if not Delineation of setting?

        Presentation of information – as implied above, the experience of this book can be thought and world-expanding in a way characteristic of distinguished Presentatation of information even if it’s not explicit about what that information is. Maybe the information is about abstraction – and certainly the reader is better-informed about it after reading this book, even though this book does not specifically instruct on how to think about abstraction – that’s pretty cool. And I think it’s clearly well-organized (see plot above). Not sure how to talk about clarity and accuracy – though I don’t see how this is unclear or inaccurate.

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