There is no stipulation that the Newbery be fiction, nor that it be long, though it tends to happen that way. Some exceptions from the lengthy category include a 1973 Honor for FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER, a 1983 Honor for DOCTOR DE SOTO, the 1989 winner for JOYFUL NOISE, and the 1982 Medal for A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN, which also took home a Caldecott Honor (and is the only book to place in both awards). This year, I find several “a-typical” texts that are Newbery-consideration-worthy, and which also qualify for Caldecott consideration as picture books.
JOSEPHINE by Patricia Hruby Powell is a biography in verse, and verse that sparkles with the verve that typified its subject’s fame. At the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium a month ago, Powell stood on her chair on stage to demonstrate how the rhythm in the first page of verse IS actually the Charleston in literary form. The free verse allows Powell to give an overview of Josephine Baker’s life, while bringing the emotional and dramatic narrative to the forefront. It’s an effective use of style to make this biography engaging and accessible for its audience, and the text can certainly be evaluated separately from the visual presentation. I think that Robinson’s achievement here is even more distinguished, and assists the text in making its most dramatic impact, but none of this detracts from the text’s own distinguished qualities.
THE COSMO-BIOGRPAHY OF SUN RA is (to depart from Newbery criteria for a sec) Raschka’s most successful jazz musician biography, I believe, since CHARLIE PARKER PLAYED BE-BOP. The perfectly un-dramatic layout and square presentation suggest a a straightforward delivery of a straightforward but strange man, and Raschka gets this across best in his text. He starts with what is the most important part of this story for young readers: “Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn. / Now you know and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn. // And yet. If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much. / Let’s say he did come from Saturn.” Then he tells a very stripped-down version of Sun Ra’s musical life, without further disputing Sun Ra’s claim. Because that suspension of disbelief is essential to appreciate and understand Sun Ra, so the text is able to communicate his genius through a remarkably short and straightforward text. I understand that many adults may think this book is “weird.” I think that’s the point…but it so plainly normal and weird at the same time, I find it distinguished, and I’d be curious to here if anyone has tried this with younger readers.
IVAN: THE REMARKABLE TRUE STORY OF THE SHOPPING MALL GORILLA could be called a “companion” to THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, but it doesn’t seem intended to be. It’s more just Applegate taking the true story that was the nugget of her Newbery Medal winning book, and presenting it on its own merits to a different audience. Her poetic prose is present here as well, and I think works even better in this short form. It reads like any picture book text, but one in which the line breaks are clearly deliberate, and the rhythm of words from page to page pack an emotional punch. As I noted in the Horn Book review, Applegate’s text never anthropomorphizes Ivan; rather she presents his situation in a way that taps a young reader’s empathy. This approach is highly respectful in a way that is rare for this particular audience (ages…4-7?). Of course, Karas’s masterful illustrations do an equal amount of the work, but the text and illustrations each can be easily separately parsed for distinguished qualities, and if I had to pitch for one book to follow in A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN’s footsteps, this might be it.
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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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