Picture Book Biographies and the Heavy Medal Early 6
In mid-December, we’ll be forming a committee of volunteers to make up the Heavy Medal Award Committee. Details are in our October 25th post. In December we’ll announce a full list of books that that group will be discussing, but meanwhile we’ve chosen six titles that will be on that list for sure. If you’re thinking you might volunteer, this may help you weigh your decision; if you’re sure you’re going to volunteer, you can get a head start on your reading. The Early 6 titles are:
- THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE by Jo Ann Allen Boyce & Debbie Levy
- NEW KID by Jerry Craft
- THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF COYOTE SUNRISE by Dan Gemeinhart
- TORPEDOED by Deborah Heiligman
- LALANI OF THE DISTANT SEA by Erin Entrada Kelly
- THE TOLL by Neil Shusterman
We’ll continue to discuss more potential titles for the final list, starting today with picture book biographies. This is a format that has not fared well in the world of the Newbery Medal. Unless I missed something, there’s never been a Medal or Honor biography in a traditional picture book format. This makes sense, since the best picture book biographies rely on the interplay between illustrations and text to succeed, and that can be tricky when it comes to Newbery Criteria. Not that there aren’t distinguished books being produced. Eight picture book biographies have earned Caldecott recognition in the past decade; ten (or so, depending on how you define the format) have been Sibert winners or honors. The two books below have earned a combined nine starred reviews this year…but only one Nomination each so far from Heavy Medal readers.
THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby
Barnett draws on MWB’s own style, including her “Important” books, to inform his distinctive writing voice, and it works wonderfully well. The short conversational sentences and questions to the readers capture the essence of her books, while also conveying just the right amount…and the right kind, of information about her. The choice of anecdotes, like the flower cart purchase (p 15-16) and the skinning of the rabbit (8) seem perfect for the subject and the reader. The playful tone and light humor set up the more serious conflict between Brown and Anne Carroll Moore. The telling of her death leads seamlessly into the concluding idea that strange lives and strange books are important: very impressive “interpretation of theme or concept.” This one really stands out in terms of style, theme, and information.
LET ‘ER BUCK! By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James
Another picture book biography where “appropriateness of style” plays a key role. Nelson uses just enough lively language to get us into that rodeo world, without overdoing it. Similes are especially fun: George “took to their ways like a wet kitten to a warm brick” and “it was as plain as the ears on a mule he was born to ride.” Rather than try to cover his whole life, she structures the presentation of information to lead up to the Saddle Bronc Championship. With that climactic event, readers get the glory of George’s ride, the disappointment of the decision (“George took it like a cowboy. He’d felt this sting before”), and the “people’s champion” conclusion. Then uses four pages of fascinating back matter to extend the historical information.
Other noteworthy picture book biographies include TWO BROTHERS, FOUR HANDS by Jan Greenbergs & Sandy Jordan, THURGOOD by Jonah Winter, and Sue Macy’s BOOK RESCUER. Should these, or any other picture book biographies be part of this year’s Newbery conversation?
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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