What Did We Miss? Six books that should be in our Mock Newbery conversation
So far this fall we’ve discussed a bunch of books on Heavy Medal. 43 to be exact, ranging from fairly brief introductions to longer, more involved conversations. We still have three more Guest Blogger posts to come in November and will fit in a few other titles from late fall. Meanwhile, this is a good time to look back and see how many of the most highly praised books of the year we’ve missed.
I looked at our own nomination list, then checked Jen J’s Booksheets, a fantastic resource that tracks starred reviews (and more) for youth literature every year. I picked out half a dozen to briefly introduce. They all received at least four HM nominations and/or 4 starred reviews, but have not yet been featured here yet. Four of these, incidentally, are by authors with previous Newbery recognition.
AN ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL by Robin Ha (1 HM nomination, 4 starred reviews)
This memoir in graphic novel format covers the author/illustrator’s abrupt and painful move from Korea to Alabama at the age of fourteen. She captures the struggles of trying to adjust to a new family and a new country as a teenager, interjecting memories from her younger life in Korea. The graphic format works very well. The illustrations contribute a lot to characterizations and setting, but the writing is also excellent. The use of thought bubbles to show Robin’s internal responses to the comments and attitudes of others are particularly effective. This book certainly shares some qualities with EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE, yet the two are so different in the ways they explore themes and concepts.
BECOMING MUHAMMAD ALI by James Patterson & Kwame Alexander (4 HM nominations, 5 starred reviews)
The fictionalized story of young Cassius Clay, told in alternating sections of prose and poetry, is highly engaging. Alexander’s poetry captures Clay’s energetic spirit while also painting a vivid picture of his community and his family. He mixes up styles and storytelling approaches, injecting humor, suspense, and information into the verse narrative. Patterson’s prose interludes, told from the viewpoint of a friend and future writer, also work well. Lucky shares and directly observes some of Cassius’ experience, but also offers a broader perspective. An interesting, and very different addition to this year’s novels in verse, which include BEFORE THE EVER AFTER, ON THE HORIZON, and CLAP WHEN YOU LAND.
BOX: HENRY BROWN MAILS HIMSELF TO FREEDOM by Carole Boston Weatherford (0 HM nominations, 5 starred reviews)
Here’s another excellent, but very different example of storytelling in verse. Weatherford presents over fifty six-line poems that tell the true story of Henry Brown from his point of view. The consistent length and rhythms work like a series of snapshots from his life. And they’re pretty harrowing. The examples of the horrors of slavery, including Henry’s own experiences and those of others, come through powerfully. The tension and triumphs of his escape are especially involving, though the poems about his later career as a reenactor and magician are less so. The true story pulls readers in, and the poems, whose six lines reflect “the cubic structure of a box,” provide distinct perspectives on Henry’s life and times. Interesting to pair this with OVERGROUND RAILROAD, which depicts a very different journey to the north.
DARLING DARLEEN, QUEEN OF THE SCREEN by Anne Nesbet (0 HM nominations, 4 starred reviews)
I only just started this one, so can’t really say much, but I’m hoping others may have read it and can share opinions. It’s set in 1914 New York and centered around a 12-year old stunt performer in early film melodramas. The breezy writing style and historical setting has me intrigued so far. And I think there’s going to be a kidnapping! Might be interesting to compare the tone of this to the other more serious historical fiction from the year, like PRAIRIE LOTUS, BLACKBIRD GIRLS, or A CEILING MADE OF EGGSHELLS.
WE DREAM OF SPACE by Erin Entrada Kelly (6 HM nominations, 5 starred reviews)
Kelly builds an involving story around the Challenger disaster, told by the alternating narratives of three siblings. Plot and character development are excellent. We get to know all three kids in different ways, at different paces, and they all change through the events of the book. These kids will continue to struggle in their own ways, and the parents’ relationship seems doomed, but that moment where the three decide to eat dinner outside, together, without their feuding parents is surprisingly powerful. Like THE LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE, it’s a book that deftly explores the subtle intricacies of family relationships and friendships.
WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohhamed (9 HM nominations, 5 starred reviews)
This book almost made into a few of my earlier posts and has been cited several times in comments. It’s a true story in graphic novel format, told with a deceptively casual style. It reads like Omar is just telling you his story in a matter-of-fact, conversational way. Which he is, but it’s a story that’s filled with hardship and loss. The authors let readers take it all in, without trying to ratchet up our emotions. They stick to Omar’s point of view, so it’s not like he’s explaining everything to American kids. (A different approach from EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE, where the narrator is specifically trying to do that…and both work very well). The hardships are never glossed over, but at the same time, themes of family, friendship, and community shine through. Illustrations certainly play a big role, particularly in providing the setting, but the writing is also highly effective.
There’s more to say about these books than the brief introductions above. If you’ve read any or all, how do you think they compare to your own favorites from the year?
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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