How Fare Poetry Books at the Newbery table?
Taking a quick count of the past 3 decades or so, one could see an upswing of poetry books (collection, single poem, or verse novels/nonfiction) being recognized by the Newbery committees: from 1987 to 1997, only 1 out of 42 books awarded was a poetry collection, the 1989 medal winner Joyful Noise, by Paul Fleischman. From 1998 to 2008, 3 out of 43 books were poetry (Carver, Show Way, and Out of the Dust) – 4, if we count Good Masters, Sweet Ladies (monologues, but poetic.) The number doubled between 2009 and 2019. 9 out of 41 books – More than 20% – received high honors. They come in all forms: picture books, Last Stop On Market Street; Crown: And Ode to the Fresh Cut; verse novels, The Crossover; Inside Out and Back Again, Long Way Down; verse nonfiction, Brown Girl Dreaming, Freedom Over Me, The Surrender Tree, and a poetry collection, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night. Verse narratives dominate this list.
What changed? Is it simply that the notion of what is considered great children’s literature has been expanded? Are there a lot more titles published to choose from? Or are there inherent advantages that verse narratives hold over prose narratives? I know that for certain teachers and readers, verse novels/memoirs, etc., are more palatable due to the amount of white space on each page: less daunting somehow, and faster to consume. When page-count matters to your reading log, a 200-page verse novel that contains about 100 pages of text seems an easy way to fulfill a quota.
This year, several highly praised titles are poetic works, including the following three:
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson;
This Promise of Change, co-authored by Jo Ann Allen Boyce & Debbie Levy; and
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga.
All of them share themes of the struggle against injustice caused by racial intolerance, mistrust, and ignorance, presented in ways that invite thoughtful reflection from young readers.
When Kwame chants, “This is for the unspeakable” three times, it forces readers to pause and consider all the past (and present) violent acts exacted on the black bodies and souls. When Jo Ann declares, “John Kasper/is minister of no church/but he preaches to the people/from the altar of racism,” readers would feel a fiery anger deep down the pit of their stomach: how many still use such tactics to incite racial intolerance in our time. And young readers might be made aware of their own biases when Jude wishes, “I wanted her to understand/that we’re happy here,/even if we don’t look like what she thinks of as happy” after a woman has accosted her mother and proclaims that in America, Jude’s mother no longer needs to wear her hijab because she is now “free” — never believing that the wearing of a hijab could be a choice and a time-honored cultural practice, not a sign of bondage.
Out of the three, I believe one is more distinguished, with more textual merits than the other two, and might have a shot at the Newbery. Have you read them? Is one or more Newbery-worthy? Let’s discuss!
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at email@example.com.
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