Can Newbery Winners Do It Again?
The Newbery Terms and Criteria state that “the committee is not to consider the entire body of the work by an author or whether the author has previously won the award.” So if an author has won before, the Committee can’t say: “she doesn’t need another one.” And if someone has won Honors but no Medal, they can’t think: “it’s time he finally wins the big one.” They also can’t compare this year’s eligible titles to previous books by the author.
On the other hand, when you’re reading like crazy to find the best books of the year, looking for rave reviews, starred titles, and word of mouth, it only makes sense that you also keep an eye out for books by past Newbery honorees. And silver and gold seals aside, I’ll always read almost any new book by Gary Schmidt, Cynthia Kadohota, or Kevin Henkes. So I’ll start my first book post of the year with those three, keeping in mind that their works don’t have to be better than their past works, just distinguished among 2019 titles:
A PLACE TO BELONG by Cynthia Kadohata
The historical setting is a new one to most readers: after World War II Hanako and her family move from a “segregation center” in the US to the village in Japan where her grandparents live, just outside of Hiroshima. Kadohata captures the fear and uncertainty of the situation through Hanako’s point of view. She manages to distill the huge issues of war and prejudice into the specific, personal experiences of the girl: Hanako’s agonizing choices about sharing with Kiyoshi and his sister; her efforts to fit in at school; the way she tries to assure Akira that everything will be fine when she’s so unsure herself. Other characters are distinct and sometimes surprising. I especially appreciate the adults, who are struggling with events as much as the kids are.
It’s interesting to compare this novel to Andrea Warren’s ENEMY CHILD, a strong biography of Norman Mineta’s experiences as a child in an internment camp during the war.
PAY ATTENTION, CARTER JONES by Gary D. Schmidt
The premise of a butler/cricket coach showing up to save a family sounds pretty wild, but Schmidt makes it work. Carter’s funny first person narration, filled with run-on sentences and deadpan humor, carries the book. He drops hints about the deeper problems his family is facing along the way. The balance between humorous moments and serious issues is impressive and the gradual unveiling of the truths that Carter has kept unspoken works very well. The ending, with the extended drama of the cricket match, felt a little too drawn out to me, though. And the Butler’s return seemed a bit gratuitous and maybe even lessened the impact of Carter’s growth. Those may work fine for other readers, and there’s a lot to admire in the writing.
In some ways CARTER JONES reminds me of SPY RUNNER by Eugene Yelchin. Both have missing fathers, mysterious visitors, and highly engaging protagonists who are trying to figure out the confusing adult world.
SWEEPING UP THE HEART by Kevin Henkes
Henkes’ novel about a thoughtful, anxious girl is a bit of a quiet gem. No cricket matches or police chases or anything like that. Instead, it’s powerful moments conveyed in more subtle ways. The simple act of Hannah tying Amelia’s hair into a bun, for example, is moving and meaningful because we come to know Amelia so well. I’m not sure that plot, characterizations, or themes in SWEEPING UP THE HEART stand out on their own, but it’s the way that they’re so effectively and effortlessly intertwined that makes the novel stand out for me.
I’m wondering how this book will fare among 2019’s sizable crop of grief-themed novels. Books like LINE TENDER, CARTER JONES, COYOTE SUNRISE, and EVENTOWN are longer and just feel…bigger. But subtlety and artfulness can count for a lot too, and that’s where the Henkes shines.
More books by past winners are coming this fall. I’m especially looking forward to new books by Steve Sheinkin, Kate DiCamillo, and Jason Reynolds. For now, though, if you’ve read any of the Kadohata/Schmidt/Henkes trio, please chime in with comments below.
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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 email@example.com.
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