We used to check in with our readership several times a year about their top choices, mimicking the nomination process that the real committee experiences wherein they nominate three books in October, two in November, and a final two in December. Since we don’t post quite as frequently now as we used to, we are combining those posts into a single one, asking for your top five books. As I sit down to write my own personal list, I’m only certain of two books: SAMURAI RISING by Pamela Turner and WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. It’s easy for me to identify those as standouts in their respective genres, head and
shoulders above the rest, and thus easily in the conversation for most distinguished contribution for American literature for children. The fiction, on the other hand, is a bit harder for me to parse out on a single reading. I seesaw between GHOST and AS BRAVE AS YOU by Jason Reynolds, thinking first one book deserves my nomination, and then the other; perhaps I might throw up my hands and nominate both. But truthfully, there is a deep field of middle grade fiction: WOLF HOLLOW, RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, PAX, THE INQUISITOR’S TALE, THE BEST MAN, BOOKED, FULL OF BEANS, ASHES, GHOSTS, WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY, and THE WILD ROBOT–all books that have at least four starred reviews (to say nothing of the many fine and worthy books that have fallen short of that arbitrary mark). I enjoyed each of these books, but how to choose among them? I find that process of rereading immeasurably helpful in sorting these out.
Another tool that always helped me was to reread Deborah Stevenson’s Horn Book article, “Finding Literary Goodness in a Pluralistic World,” from the 2006 September/October issue. It used to be available online for a number of years. Alas, no longer. Perhaps most relevant to the point I would make here is Stevenson’s correct assertion that the more one reads in a particular genre of literature the more reference points one has to place the book within a critical context, and the harder it is for books to really and truly distinguish themselves from the rest you have read. Thus, while the Newbery committee may only compare particular books to those published within the same calendar year, their notions of what constitutes excellence in the specific criteria are formed by every single title they have ever read. Stevenson reasons that when we find great books with few reference points (her example is CARVER; mind-glowingly great or merely excellent?), it’s hard to know how good the book really is. Thus, I find that SAMURAI RISING and WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES compare very favorably to their genre counterparts in the Newbery canon, while the fiction books that I have mentioned above? Not quite as well. I know some of you will disagree with me, but here’s my comeback. SAMURAI RISING and WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES would rank in the top five in their genre if they were selected as Newbery books. As good as the fiction is, I wouldn’t make a similar claim about any of them. Are any of them top five Newbery novels of all time? Hmmm?
So I’ve decided for the time being to add GHOST as my obligatory Jason Reynolds nomination, and to go with a couple of more strategic nominations. We have not discussed FULL OF BEANS or MAKOONS here, nor have I heard buzz about them elsewhere, but I think they are strong contenders and worthy of our consideration. In alphabetical order–
FULL OF BEANS
WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES
As tradition dictates, Sharon and I will release our Mock Newbery shortlist in a couple of weeks, and we will be looking over your nominations very carefully to make sure that we have not missed anything.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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