Win a Newbery in 150 Pages or Less
Our Heavy Medal Finalist list includes ten conventional fiction books (assuming SNOW LANE and JUST LIKE JACKIE are added…that decision is in process). They’re diverse in content and style, but not so much in length. They average 264 pages. Almost all are in the 200-300 page range (SNOW LANE is 197 and SWEEP and THE PARKER INHERITANCE top 300). And that’s a typical range for a good number of Newbery titles. It’s rare that a chapter book under 150 pages wins the Medal: most recent examples are THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY (134 pages), A SINGLE SHARD (152…close enough), A YEAR DOWN YONDER (130), THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE (122), and MISSING MAY (89!). Those are all pretty sophisticated titles, though, more for the 4th grade and up reader, rather than those just making the jump from early readers. In fact, I was surprised to see the page count was so low on all of these, since the books are so rich and complex. Those are some good writers! But what about shorter books? What does a 150 page book, with larger print and double-spaced type have to be to earn Newbery consideration? Here are a few notable 2018 chapter books that come in close to that 100 – 150 page range. With a limited number of words, the authors have to be artful and efficient to create plots, characters and themes that resonate with readers. Is there enough in these pages to earn notice?
SAVING WINSLOW by Sharon Creech, (who won a Newbery Medal and an Honor for longer works) received two Heavy Medal nominations. With 49 short chapters, most just two or three pages, it’s just right for kids new to chapter books. The story centers around Louie’s effort to save the newborn mini donkey he’s adopted. But it’s also about Louie’s sense of self-worth, and the way he misses both his older brother who’s joined the army and his three-years-older best friend, who’s drifting away from him, and a tentative new friendship with a girl who also appreciates the donkey. Louie identifies with Winslow, and that comes through effectively, as when he’s getting to know Nora, a girl who seems pushy to Louie at first:
Nora looked Louie in the eye. “Our brother was born two months early – ”
“So was I!” Louie said. “I was a pitiful, struggling, scrawny thing.”
Nora touched Louie’s arm with one finger. “But you made it.”
“Oh.” It was surprising, Louie thought, how much one simple sentence could affect your opinion of someone. (31)
There’s a lot packed into this short little book. Even the closing line is economical, but powerful: Louie, after letting his donkey go to his uncle’s farm, leaves him a note that neatly echoes the last line of his brother’s postcards: “Remember me.”
DRAGONS IN A BAG by Zetta Elliott also received two HM nominations. It’s a short fantasy with magical elements that aren’t too complex for younger readers: a magical witch named Ma, three baby dragons, time travel. The story moves quickly, with a quick trip to the Jurassic Era and the introduction of several characters who help Jax on his quest to save Ma and the dragons. Along the way we learn more about the boy’s family and about the nature of magic. It’s the first book in the series, so the plot feels kind of unfinished: Ma returns home, but an escaped dragon is still at large in Brooklyn. The backstory about the nature of magic and the conflict within Jax’s family about accepting or rejecting magic is needed for the series set up, but a little heavily weighted when we look at just this book. I think this will be popular, and it’s great to have a fantasy for young readers with African-American characters, but I’m not sure I see Newbery potential in this one.
FINDING LANGSTON by Lesa Cline-Ransome received just one Heavy Medal nomination, but it’s appeared on several Best of the Year lists. It’s short, but definitely for an older readership than SAVING WINSLOW or DRAGONS IN A BAG. In twenty chapters and just over 100 pages, Cline-Ransome develops a powerful story with a distinct and memorable protagonist. Langston’s first person narration captures the harshness and the beauty of his life in 1946 Chicago:
Daddy ain’t the best company, but ain’t nothing worse than being alone. Not used to coming home to an empty house. The smell of last night’s dinner and Daddy’s sweaty work clothes hanging in the air. Every day I open the door, it takes just a minute ‘fore I remember I won’t hear Mama getting supper started, or her her humming – His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me – and just a little bit longer to remember I won’t see Mama ever again. [I’ve only got the e-book, so can’t cite a page number]
Okay, I guess that example is just the harshness. And the first few chapters are evocative, but pretty grim. It’s when Langston enters that the public library that things get a little hopeful. The solace and inspiration he finds within the building and in the poetry he reads is powerful and sometimes moving. His narrative voice is eloquent and insightful, but still feels like it’s conveying the thoughts of this particular eleven-year-old. As an adult reader, I found the presentation of themes a little too blatant at times, but this might not be an issue for kids. Like when Lymon, the bully, mockingly reads a phrase from a poem, and the passage happens to be the exact same one that Langston just read in one of his mother’s letters. Or when his new friend Clem so elegantly sums up what poetry means to Langston:
“So the poetry you read is a way of putting all the things you feel on the inside on the outside.”
“That’s about it.” Between all he knows about the library and getting my mixed-up words, Clem is a lot smarter than I thought.
Still, it’s an impressive book, with a strong sense of history, convincing family relationships, and an inspiring look at the power of books and poetry. And she did it all in 107 pages!
Are other Newbery possibilities out there for this in-between level of fiction?
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About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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