Moving Up to a Medal?: The Newbery possibilities for short chapter books
We’ve had some great discussions this year about some very meat-y children’s fiction: Books with intricate plots, like A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS and RETURN OF THE THIEF. Books that tackle complex and sometimes disturbing issues, such as FIGHTING WORDS and KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES. But what about the fiction that aims at younger readers? With “first chapter books,” or “moving up” books as some libraries call them, there’s not enough room to dig really deeply into themes and concepts. Plots can’t be too multi-layered and character development needs to happen without that many words. Language may have to be simple, rather than sophisticated or poetic.
It can seem almost unfair to compare a book with these limitations to writing for older readers where almost anything goes. But the Newbery Terms and Criteria remind us to “consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.” That indicates that there’s plenty of room to recognize distinguished writing that’s just right for its intended audience, even one with a narrow age range. The closest Newbery pick we’ve seen in recent years may be Kevin Henkes’ THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER (2015 Honor); it’s over 200 pages, but still written especially for those 2nd – 4th graders I’d say. And if we go back 70 years, there’s one of my all-time favorite first chapter books: MY FATHER’S DRAGON by Ruth Gannett was a 1949 Honor Book, and still one of the titles I recommend most often to kids. I haven’t read as many early chapter books as I’d hoped to this year, but here are a couple that have stood out:
OUR FRIEND HEDGEHOG: THE STORY OF US by Lauren Castillo
Castillo’s engaging illustrations appear on every page and contribute greatly to the book’s appeal…but the writing is awfully strong as well. The plot is appropriately simple and direct: Hedgehog loses her friend Mutty, who’s actually a stuffed animal (though never referred to as anything but a “friend”). She meets new companions as she searches for Mutty, then finds Annika Mae’s notebook that was lost along the way.
The animals each have distinct personalities conveyed by narration and dialogue. Hedgehog’s worries, Mole’s protectiveness, and Owl’s slightly bossy energy show in this passage:
“Guten Tag, Owl! Good day, said Mole. “This is my new friend, Hedgehog. She needs our help.”
“Help?” Owl perked up. “What kind of help?”
“I lost my best friend in the…” Hedgehog trailed off, beginning to weep again.
“Foggy weather is terrible for hide-and-seek, my little hoglet.”
Mole spoke up for Hedgehog. “We are not playing hide-and-seek, Owl. We are talking about a friend in peril.”
“Hmmm, peril?” Owl pondered. “You mean very serious and immediate danger. Well, I do happen to have fast wings and excellent eyes. Maybe I can help! Which way did your friend go?” (39-40)
The inclusion of small details, like the drink Mole offers to hedgehog (“a cup of horchata, her favorite milky drink” (28)) help to ground the book; it feels like a real, fleshed out world even though we only experience a bit of it.
This is a book that hits all the right notes for that reader who’s just beyond “Frog and Toad,” and it has more substance and depth than most popular series for that age range. The illustrations carry a good share of the book’s substance though, and while literary elements like plot and character are rendered effectively, I would struggle to make a strong case that they reach a “distinguished” level.
SKUNK AND BADGER by Amy Timberlake
Though it’s about the same length as OUR FRIEND HEDGEHOG, this book is clearly written for readers who are older and a bit more sophisticated. The language is rich and playful, as when Badger discovers that his kitchen is filled with chickens:
The kitchen did not easily accommodate one hundred chickens. The birds had bunched. One deluge of chickens and behold, feathered life! Badger saw not a a kitchen, but a chicken biome of the Tropical Chicken Forest sort. Every surface burst forth in feathers. Cabinetry quilled. Right angles went soft and blowy. But this wasn’t plant – this was animal. (88)
If I had a list of top 5 sentences of the year, I think that “Cabinetry quilled” would be near the top. And yes, vocabulary and sentence structure are rather complex, despite the short length of the book, but I still feel they work at a level that younger readers will appreciate, especially in a read-aloud setting. SKUNK AND BADGER is not as easy to read as most true first chapter books, but I think it works very well for the next level up.
I also appreciate the setting and the cast of personalities that inhabit it. The characters are both human-ish and animal-ish in charming, playful ways. The door-to-door delivery messenger is “a stoat on the job,” for example, but he’s also a dangerous chicken predator. Skunk appreciates Shakespeare and cooks a fine breakfast, but he’s never not a skunk:
“I am a small animal, and being small is difficult. Sometimes I wish I had a grizzly bear arm to swat, or an alligator mouth to clack. But instead, I am a skunk.” He looked at his tail. “Even when no one is hurt, you get chased out of town…” (47)
The story is fairly straightforward, but filled with neat recurring touches, like the way Badger periodically checks on the status of Rocket Potato (“It will be a test, thought Badger” (30)), and how chickens begin to figure more and more prominently in the community of North Twist.
We learn a lot about Skunk and Badger through their conversation and through Badger’s internal observations. Their feelings towards each other are really the core of the novel. Badger’s lack of tolerance is conveyed in varied levels of intensity as he wavers between selfishness and kindness, then finally goes too far. His internal musing reminded me a bit of the deftly rendered struggles of Fitch and Cash in WE DREAM OF SPACE.
I don’t really see a wrong note in this book. Plot, characters, and language shine, and, without being obvious or didactic, those elements all support the powerful themes of tolerance, kindness, and forgiveness. Reading this book did not make my looming December nominations picks any easier.
If you’ve read either of these, or other notable short chapter books from 2020, please share your thoughts below…
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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