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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

You Can’t Read Them All: Widening the net of the Newbery search

As the year nears its end, mock-Newbery groups like this one focus more than ever on what we surmise are the most likely contenders for the Medal. We’re currently in the last part of the “nomination” process, where participants select their seven top titles. Earlier, we solicited monthly “suggestions” to build a wide list of books to consider from the first eight months of the year.. Our nomination and suggestion practices are modeled on, but not identical to the work of the real Committee.

But real Committee members have to read far more widely than those lists in order to fully explore the full range of Newbery possibilities. If members aren’t sure what books to read at the start of the year, they can turn to the Newbery Manual for this advice:

Begin immediately to read and evaluate eligible books

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Actually, that’s really not so helpful, is it? Or maybe it is, because it gives the Committee a great deal of flexibility around how to cover as many potential candidates as possible, without applying restrictive rules. A single person cannot read all of the eligible books, of course, so the hope is that when fifteen people are reading voraciously and widely for a full year, the combined total of the titles they read (or at least partially read) will be enough to ensure that no hidden gem was left undiscovered. As chair, it’s possible that I used the phrase “trust the process” at an annoying level of repetition.

During my Committee years, the nominations and suggestions were the only lists shared Committee-wide, and I’m pretty sure that’s typical. I did feel like we covered what we needed to beyond that list, though. One helpful activity that some Committees apply at the beginning of the year is to share reading strengths and weaknesses around the group. Members think about their own reading tests, then list the genres and styles that they typically seek out, along with the ones that they are more likely to avoid.

All members will still have to read far beyond their usual fare, especially as the suggestions come in, but it can be very reassuring to learn that there are several people who love nonfiction, even if not everyone does, or that a few people will be especially alert to early readers and short chapter books. You might dig a little deeper into the genres that are your strengths, then have faith that other members are doing the same in the areas that you spend less time on.

With that in mind, I’m thinking about the areas I’ve been especially slack on this year:

Borderline Teen
I’ve been especially lax on keeping up with the young-mid YA books. The ones that are eligible for the award, but skirt the upper edges of the Newbery’s 0-14 age range. In a good year I’ll look at a Mock Printz list or two and will have read about half of the titles. Not so much this year. I’m afraid the only steps I made in this area was to read two of my favorite authors:  Rita Williams-Garcia’s A SITTING IN ST. JAMES was excellent, but I’m doubtful that it would fare well in a Mock-Newbery. SWITCH by A. S. King was interesting, but I fear I didn’t understand it well enough to discuss it (she’s a risk-taking writer for sure).

Picture Books
These can be really challenging in a Newbery year. I know, they’re short, but there are just so many of them. And despite their brevity, it takes a different way of thinking to evaluate picture book texts in Newbery terms. I did read several good picture books this year because a co-worker is serving on the Caldecott Committee and brought in many. That led me to WATERCRESS, which could have a shot, and also MEL FELL by Corey Tabor, which probably isn’t Newbery fodder, but it’s my Caldecott favorite.  I still feel like there could easily be dozens of excellent picture book texts that I’ve missed, though.

Books Like SMILE
I used to seek out graphic novels about middle school kids because Raina Telgemeier is so popular and I needed more books like hers to recommend to readers. Now there are a ton of those coming out, though, and I’m a little burned out. Now I fall back more on authors I know best within that field, like Shannon Hale’s FRIENDS FOREVER, or graphic novels with more unusual style or content, like THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO by Shing Yin Khor.    

First Chapter Books
I felt okay about this category because I read at least three excellent books that fit: HARRY VS. THE FIRST 100 DAYS, MAYBE, MAYBE MARISOL RAINEY, and BILLY MILLER MAKES A WISH. But looking at SLJ’s Best Chapter Books of 2021 list reminds me that I didn’t do a good job of seeking out books by new authors in this area, and probably still should.

Picture Book Biographies
It seems like there have been dozens of these published in the past few years, and many of them get excellent reviews. Among the ones I have read, RUNAWAY is especially impressive, but there are a bunch of others I’ve read about, but haven’t yet looked at myself. 

I’m not sure that I’ll be able to do much to address these holes in my reading for this year. I’ll have my hands full catching up on Heavy Medal nominations. But it’s still useful to acknowledge our reading strengths and weaknesses, and I’d love to hear where other Heavy Medals fall short…

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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 sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Julie Ann Corsaro says

    I think SONA SHARMA, VERY BIG SISTER? by Chitra Soundar is outstanding as an early chapter book. It has particularly strong character development given the limitations of the format and the number of distinctive personalities it presents. It is wryly funny and conveys cultural practices around childbirth among Tamil-speaking Hindus (I think that’s correct) in a way that is approachable and engaging for a child audience. A lot of good books were published late this year and were easy to miss or, at least, miss the attention they merit. This one is a delight.

  2. I have two reading weaknesses that were sorely tested this year: I don’t like novels in verse or ghost stories. I am also quick to define a book as YA if it contains descriptive violence or sexual content.
    I do love science fiction which is a genre often overlooked by Newbery committees. I am always looking for new titles that describe the incarceration experiences of inmates and their families. I am also interested is books that describe how people with disabilities interact with their environment.

  3. I read picture books, but mostly look at them through the lens of Caldecott. I know that I don’t evaluate the text alone. I know that living in a small town in the Midwest with many Amish in my county it is hard for me to see Newbery with violence and sexual content too. I do read a lot of graphic novels, but most this year would lean more toward Caldecott with excellence in illustration.

  4. A reading weakness I would like to remedy is my failure to read many nonfiction titles. My favorite genres are fantasy, folk and fairy tale books, and mysteries. I need to work on broadening my reading horizons. THat’s one way this blog helps me.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I think it’s interesting how sometimes in book discussions (not just Newbery) a person who reads less in a particular genre can have an different kind of impact. A comment like: “I usually think nonfiction is boring, but this one was great” can weigh differently than: “I love nonfiction books like this.” One mark of distinction could be that a book is so well done that it connects with readers regardless of their genre preferences.

  5. I’ve been trying to read more early chapter books as well because they are so popular among series in our library, so I want to catch the next big thing!

  6. Emily Mroczek says

    I’ve been weak with graphic novels this year.. they’ve always been a struggle for me to read and I’ve been so into audio books…

  7. I mentioned looking forward to SHE PERSISTED: CLARA LEMLICH just because it was by Deborah Heiligman. I read it today, and even with this format (first chapter book series biography) it’s as great as you’d expect from the author of Torpedoed and Vincent and Theo. If I’d read it earlier, I’d have nominated it.

    It’s definitely not of the Sheinkin school of writing. It reminds me of something like James Baldwin’s Fifty Famous Stories Retold, which can be seen as bad-old-days “great man (i.e., white, militaristic)” quasi-history. One can argue that non-fiction should not be written this way, but the thing is, though it’s been decades since I read it, entire scenes and sentences from Baldwin’s book have stuck with me. So an alternate view is that heroic storytelling is a time-tested way to acculturate our children–we just need new heroes. You have to accept that and get past elements of the genre like explicit messaging and selectivity (emphasize the heroic, minimize the questionable). Maybe those things even make this more “literary” and in the hands of a master like Heligman, distinguished literature. I can well imagine this sticking with the child reader the same way Baldwin stuck with me.

    • I want to add that of course someone as good as Heligman can have it both ways — effectively selling the message while being nuanced. I appreciated almost throwaway sentences like, “She [Lemlich] might not even want this book about her” (43) and, writing of one of Lemlich’s children, “Martha often wished she had a different mother” (37). Not enough to undermine the Clara-is-a-hero narrative, but adding perspective that’s not just there for the adults, but valuable and understandable to the child reader.

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