What do you want from a Newbery title?
As we progress through this season of Heavy Medal, Jonathan and I will be putting together a shortlist of titles that we’ll use in an in-person Mock Newbery discussion. There, we’ll model the actual committee deliberation process to determine our Mock Newbery Winner. (Hold the date: Sunday, January 12th, Oakland CA. Not near Oakland? Check out some of the other Mock Newbery Sites in the sidebar, below the ad, for one near you. Or get one going! ALA sells a downloadable toolkit that is very handy.) We haven’t settled on any titles yet, and will, of course, let you know as soon as we do. We strive for a shortlist that people can actually get their hands on and read, and that provides a broad and interesting discussion. We also want to include titles that we really think are good contenders, and your comments help us figure this out.
Some comments are more helpful than others, so in the spirit of helping you phrase them, here’s an exercise that many Newbery chairs use when their committee first assembles.
What do you want from a Newbery title? Think of your favorite Newbery, and think about why it is your favorite. Try writing it out. How many time have you used the word “love?” That’s a word that doesn’t mean much at all at the Newbery table. It’s hard not to use it (I know I use it!), but just be aware that all it says is that you respond emotionally in a positive way to this title. That, however, has no bearing on the Newbery criteria, since you’re not the intended child audience.
Now, take it one step further. What do you “want” from a Newbery title? Your answer is probably different if you respond as the individual reader you are, versus the practiced committee member you might be. I’ll go first, and I’m going to allow myself three titles, so you can too…..Don’t invalidate how you respond to the title. Just examine it. What evidence in the writing itself provokes your reader response? And how does that evidence connect to the Newbery criteria? Once you identify this…does this help you to see how your reader preferences color your reading, and response, to titles? This is a particularly handy exercise with the actual committee because it allows the committee to get to know each other as readers, and makes them better at interpreting each other’s comments, and helping each other to the point.
I “love”(!) The Westing Game, When You Reach Me, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. All of them are “smart” “puzzly” books, and that’s what I like most as a reader. They have intricate, hefty plots, suspense, and nice chewy prose. Yum. Give me anything like that and I’ll immediately think “Newbery material” before I’ve really considered it.
So, considering them a little closer….
The Westing Game stands out for an artfully developed plot; characters are almost stock, but they serve a purpose in a “mastermind” scheme, and they surprise, and are funny, and individual. You have a sense of a grand manipulation by the author, but you can never quite spot it–and that’s a hallmark of distinguished prose.
When You Reach Me has that same sense of grand manipulation…I can see it a little more, but I think I’m supposed to, as a reader. The most distinguished element here to me is theme, which Stead is able to bring out throughout various plot elements…like a theme in music that keeps sounding in different places, in different ways. It’s done in a way that respects it readers–expects them to be smart, leads them along step by step to an amazing revelation.
Mrs. Frisby & The Rats of NIMH is not a manipulating story. There’s really no puzzle, either, but suspense and a mystery that is revealed, through story-within-story, to Mrs. Frisby and the reader. Mrs. Frisby & the Rats of NIMH stands out to me as one of the very few Newbery titles that is truly outstanding in every single way, without being flashy about any of it. (Westing Game and When You Reach Me are flashy, but good flashy.) Plot, characters, setting, all vivid and distinct, and all serving a theme that feels so true that the reader is physically changed, inside, by the end of the story, and believes it could have happened in actuality (which I never do, quite, with the others, and that’s ok). It might be a perfect story. For me 🙂
You all might have to tell me what this means about me as a reader.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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