Speaking Up, Choosing Lanes, and World War II Reflections: Distinguished Themes
Continuing with the plan to group books around the elements identified in the Newbery Terms and Criteria, we’ll jump to “theme or concept” this time (no, I’m not going in order). The Criteria state: “In identifying ‘Distinguished Writing’ in a book for children, Committee members need to consider…interpretation of the theme or concept.”
I seem to need the simplest possible definition of “theme,” so I just think of it as: “what the book makes us think about.” And really, that’s an essential question; it’s pretty hard to evaluate just about any book without thinking about themes and concepts. For this post, though, I picked three books where the central themes are skillfully presented, but in very different ways:
CHIRP by Kate Messner
There’s a lot going on in this book, and a lot of it’s fairly light-hearted. Mia makes new friends, solves a mystery, and saves her grandma’s cricket farm. All of those threads are fun and engaging. But also: Mia was abused before all of that, and as the other events unfold, she gradually figures out what to do about this. Her new friendships and experiences are catalysts that lead Mia to tell others what she’s been through. She develops insights that go beyond her own struggles, even learning things about her mother without being told directly:
She’d told Mia a little about what happened at her first law firm, but this made Mia wonder if there was more. If Mom had her own pin hidden away in a box somewhere. (177)
Abuse is a central topic of other books this year, including FIGHTING WORDS, A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS, and BLACKBIRD GIRLS. I’m impressed by the way Messner works the topic into a novel that seems just a bit less weighty than those three. Not that she treats the subject lightly, but it takes very careful writing to tackle this theme head on without losing the broadly accessible qualities of a more standard friendship story.
ON THE HORIZON by Lois Lowry
Lowry writes about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the atomic bomb. Those events can be almost too big to deal with for a child reader, and the way she approaches them is highly original and masterfully executed. First she brings us into the mind of a child watching a ship from the shore, not knowing that it will be destroyed by a bomb:
We played and giggled: calm, serene.
And there behind us – slow, unseen –
Arizona, great grey tomb,
Moved, majestic, toward her doom. (7)
Separate poems introduce some of the sailors aboard the Arizona with delicate, poignant detail.
Part 2 switches to poems about the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. In “Japanese Morning” she writes about a child who “felt a shudder in the earth /and saw the sky change.” The last stanza reads:
Is this how it ends? The world? This way?
On August sixth? A summer day?
Morning light? A boy at play?
It could. It might. It may. (35)
Very powerful, but the book isn’t about horror or death; it’s hopeful. In Part 3, the girl rides her bike through her new home in post-war Japan, wondering about the war and friendship and common ground. The Author’s note is also a key part of the book, as Lowry provide some background and perspective on the poems. It’s also where she articulates one of the key themes: “to try to find some meanings in the way lives intersect – or how they fail to.” (72). I might return to this one when I look at “style”: her poems and the overall structure are highly effective. But I couldn’t leave it out of a discussion of “theme and concept.”
WHAT LANE? By Torrey Maldonado
Usually I particularly admire authors who weave their themes seamlessly into stories. WHAT LANE? takes a different approach. The “theme and concept” are announced right there in the title. Stephen even has a bracelet with that phrase on it. And throughout the book he’s consciously trying to figure out how he can choose the right lane without giving into peer pressure. Using my Newbery Criteria lens, I started the book with the phrase “the award is not for didactic intent” at the front of my mind. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be strong lessons, conveyed directly. It’s just that the writer has to do this in a distinguished manner.
In WHAT LANE?, the clear message comes through in a very engaging story. Stephen is an interesting character that most readers will instantly empathize with. His first person narration is loose and fun and we can follow right along as he gradually begins to question his choices with more seriousness. He doesn’t trust Chad, but isn’t brave enough to defy him at first. He learns that his friend Dan shares some of those doubts:
I feel better knowing Dan gets it about Chad.
I want to tell him you know. So what now? But the nine-year-old shy me pulls me back.
We’ll see. (64)
I think kids will respond to Stephen and his story and I’m glad to have this book on this topic in our collection. But I don’t quite see it as a Newbery contender.” I wonder, though, if I’m being too dismissive of a book that delivers its theme so clearly, and in a way that’s very accessible to younger readers who maybe haven’t thought deeply yet about the issues introduced here.
Themes also shine in A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS, DRAGON HOOPS, EFREN DIVIDED…and many others. Of the three titles featured above, ON THE HORIZON stands out especially; and in my mind it’s one of the strongest early Newbery contenders. Feel free to share thoughts and opinions about the three featured books; or introduce other titles in which the author excelled in presentation of themes and concepts.
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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