Can You Win A Newbery in 32 Pages or Less?: How picture books might fare in the race for the Medal
One of the most challenging pieces of the Newbery Terms and Criteria, and one that can generate much discussion on Mock-Newbery blogs like this one, is this definition: “Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.”
This can inspire all kinds of philosophical questions, at both extremes of that age range. We’ll look at books for older readers in a future post, but for now let’s explore the challenges that come up related to titles for the youngest readers.
- Can a perfectly written picture book (or board book or early reader) convey an equal level of excellence to that of much lengthier books aimed at 10-14 year olds?
- Since the Newbery is based “primarily on the text,” how do we account for the impact of illustrations in a picture book?
- How do Committee members, who must read and evaluate hundreds of books for older readers, also cover the huge amount of picture books published each year?
Acknowledging that first “practical challenge” above, I have not read widely on either end of the age scale, but I have found several intriguing possibilities. I’ll start with a couple on the younger side:
SEE THE CAT by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Here’s a book that does an excellent job of “display[ing] respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” The intended audience is kids who are just learning to read, which means their “abilities” are limited, but their capacity for “appreciation” is pretty high. The interplay between narrator, dog, and illustration sets up humor that’s just right for the audience:
In the first story, the narrator describes a “blue cat in a green dress riding a pink unicorn,” while the illustrations show an increasingly irritated dog, who finally screams:
There is no cat!
There is no dress!
There is no unicorn!
There is just me!
Three page turns show that the cat and unicorn really are there, and the chapter ends with: “See the red dog,” who adds: “I am so embarrassed.”
I think about “appropriateness of style” with this one. The use of a character communicating with the writer, as well as the reader, is not new, but it’s done to great effect. The narrator sets it up in a deadpan tone; the dog reacts; and then the page turn shows why the narrator is actually correct. Plot shines as well, as long as we recognize that complexity in that area doesn’t really work with this format. The joke shifts with each chapter, so readers anticipate silliness, but can’t quite guess what’s next. It’s all completely successful for the intended reader, but I’m not sure it stands so far above the best early readers that it would merit true Newbery consideration.
BEING FROG by April Pulley Sayre
I mentioned the lack of love for picture book nonfiction in an earlier post in relation to HONEYBEE. April Pulley Sayre addresses an even younger audience with BEING FROG, but she sure says a lot in just a few words. Short sentences that mostly rhyme follow a frog through its day. The point of view shifts between observational and questioning:
It cools in shade
beneath a flower
It hides underwater.
Bath or shower?
In her Author’s Note, she explains how “wondering and imagining are part of science too.” She subtly captures this in her verse, inviting readers to wonder, while providing facts and letting the photos provide visual details. Looking at the Newbery Terms and Criteria, you might argue that this book achieves excellence in the areas of “interpretation of theme or concept,” “presentation of information,” and “appropriateness of style.” You can’t say much about plot, characters, or setting, but the Criteria also notes that “Because the literary qualities…will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements.” Still, it’s certainly challenging to compare a book of just over 100 words to a 480 page novel like RETURN OF THE THIEF or a lengthy nonfiction title like ALL THIRTEEN.
WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
Theme and concept stand front and center in this lyrical picture book. The young narrator weaves her grandmother’s wisdom and the stories of her people into an inspiring plea to defend nature:
Now the black snake is here.
Its venom burns the land.
Courses through the water,
Making it unfit to drink.
She acknowledges the sadness (“Tears like waterfalls stream down”) and the challenge (“It will not be easy”) of the situation, but the tone is hugely inspiring:
We are water protectors.
The black snake is in for the fight of its life.
It’s the girl’s voice that really makes the text work (we’ll leave the excellent illustrations for another committee to talk about). The message is big,and delivered powerfully, but it’s clearly coming from a child’s point of view, not that of a preachy adult. Along with “presentation of theme,” this book stands out for “appropriateness of style” and “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciation.” I’m not convinced, though, that the words themselves carry enough of the excellence to fare well in Newbery terms. Especially compared to the next book:
OVERGROUND RAILROAD by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome
Here’s a picture book where plot, characters, themes, and settings are all vividly realized. It’s told through the voice of Ruth Ellen as her family travels from North Carolina to New York. Though her tone is thoughtful and low-key, the magnitude of their journey resonates throughout.
On just the first page we learn that their trip is part of a larger movement:
But we took the train north.
That it’s risky:
Me and Mama and Daddy got to the station
crack of dawn early
before anyone could see us leave.
And that it’s important:
Daddy holding tight
to me with one hand
three tickets to New York in the other.
The things she sees along the way add to that context. She watches people working the field “just like my grandaddy / but not anymore for my daddy.” The Frederick Douglass autobiography that she reads provides expanded perspective as she compares his journey “to Freedom / North” to her own.
Just about every page on this book has lyrical, natural language, compelling storytelling, and layers of deeper meanings. Of the books I’ve read for younger readers so far, OVERGROUND RAILROAD is the one that I am likely to name as one of my seven nominations. Could this one (or any others in this age range) join LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, CROWN, and THE UNDEFEATED as picture books with Newbery recognition?
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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