Newbery-ish: Do expectations limit the scope of a search for the most distinguished children’s book?
With our first round of nominations completed, I started to wonder about how much our general sense of what a Newbery book looks like can impact our search for deserving winners. Here are a few numbers based on the sixteen titles that received more than one vote:
- 8 are set in modern times; 7 are in historical settings; 1 is in a fantasy world.
- 14 are novels; 2 are nonfiction (one in graphic novel format); 0 picture books; 0 poetry.
- 15 are mostly realistic (WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER and A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS have elements of fantasy, but are essentially real-world books); 1 is fantasy (though magical elements are a fairly small part of the world in A WISH IN THE DARK).
- 15 fit clearly into the middle of the Newbery age range; 1 stretches to the upper edge (CHARLES LINDBERGH is the only one that is shelved in some (but not all) YA collections in my local libraries.
- 7 feature people of color as main characters; 9 feature white protagonists.
Those sixteen books are really strong, but I always wonder how much of our reading and our evaluation depends on what’s won the medal in the past, along with our individual tastes and comfort levels. I’m pretty sure most of us have a vague, but strong sense of what we expect a Newbery book to be like. These might not even be the qualities we like most as readers, but we expect them, to some degree, in award winning books:
- Usually realistic
- Often historical
- At least one easily identifiable issue as a central theme
- Written for the grade 5-8 range
- Language that has a certain level of eloquence
Most of our top 16 fit most or all of those bullet points. WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED is different: a memoir in graphic novel format; and as a non-fiction book for older readers, LINDBERGH could also be seen as an outlier. But the rest, excellent as they are, do share a lot of those qualities.
So is our Nomination list to this point too limited? Are we sticking too closely to the safe, comfortable Newbery-like titles and missing out on books that might be initially more challenging to evaluate, but could ultimately meet the criteria for distinguished literature more completely?
I don’t ask the question to disparage the books that received nominations: there’s an amazing breadth of styles, subject matter, and originality, plus a wide range of diverse content within that group. I’m just wondering if we tend too much towards the familiar. I’m including myself in this, based on my first three nominations: A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS hits all of the bullet points. ON THE HORIZON is poetry, but still tells a historical story. CHARLES LINDBERGH is nonfiction, but it’s the kind of nonfiction that does get noticed, if any does. Clearly, I also need to read more widely and maybe rethink some of the books I’ve already read that lie beyond those expected Newbery touchpoints:
Older Readers: I’m halfway through CLAP WHERE YOU LAND by Elizabeth Acevedo. I’m thinking as I read: Printz maybe, Newbery no. I read Mildred Taylor’s ALL THE DAYS PAST, ALL THE DAYS TO COME earlier in the year and had the same thought. Maybe I should think again about both. My favorite YA book so far is AGAIN AGAIN by E. Lockhart, which uses an innovative narrative technique that seems award-worthy to me…and maybe could fit into the 14 and under age range.
Younger Readers: THE STORY OF US by Lauren Castillo is a standout first chapter book. David LaRochelle’s SEE THE CAT is my favorite early reader of the year, and I think a case can be made for its achievements in terms of literary elements (though I’m not sure). WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS by Carol Lindstrom is one picture book that’s caught my Newbery-focused attention, but I’m sure I’ve missed many others.
Fantasy / Science Fiction: What used to be my strongest reading interest has scaled back in recent years. I think I’ve read too many good-but-not-great books in these genres. RETURN OF THE THIEF fits, though, and I’m looking forward to reading THIEF KNOT and TRISTAN STRONG DESTROYS THE WORLD.
Poetry: Naomi Shihab Nye’s CAST AWAY is a themed poetry collection for upper elementary to middle school readers…we don’t see too many of these, and it’s excellent. David Elliott’s IN THE WOODS is a strong example of picture book poetry. And THIS POEM IS A NEST by Irene Latham sounds very clever, though I don’t have a copy yet.
Non-fiction: I usually do make an effort to read fairly widely in this area. I’m looking forward to WHO GIVES A POOP, which was nominated this month (although to this point in time there has never been a Newbery book with “poop” in the title). Alas, two of my favorite non-fiction books of the year come from Canadian authors: CROWS (in the “Science Comics” series) and EELS (“Superpower Field Guide” series).
Graphic Novels: Along with WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED, several excellent books in this format have been discussed here, including four that received one nomination (CLASS ACT, DRAGON HOOPS, AN ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL, and SNAPDRAGON).
What are some of the other “not-so-Newbery-ish” books that deserve a closer look?
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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