HARRY, BILLY, and MARISOL: Can these early chapter books contend for the Newbery Medal?
It seems like every year I search for any early chapter book that might have a shot at the Newbery, and usually come up with just one or two. It can be very challenging to write prose that is of distinguished literary quality, but also accessible to readers who are just beginning to read fiction. Last year I was high on SKUNK AND BADGER by Amy Timberlake. PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE by Laura Amy Schlitz was an intriguing possibility a few years ago. And several books from Shannon Hale’s PRINCESS IN BLACK series have merited consideration. In recent years, though, only THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER by Kevin Henkes has been named by a Committee (2014 Honor).
The three books below all achieve high literary merit within a format that necessarily limits the complexity that an author can introduce. I think any one of them (or maybe more than one) could be a Newbery contender.
HARRY VERSUS THE FIRST 100 DAYS OF SCHOOL by Emily Jenkins
In 100 short chapters, one for each school day from September through February 12, Jenkins creates an engaging world that’s familiar to her intended readers, but also surprising and funny.
The third person, present tense narration conveys Harry’s kid’s eye point of view in just the right ways. The language sounds kind of like a first-grader, without being overdone:
After the videos, Harry and his mom looked at like, one hundred pictures of baby guinea pigs online. There are all different kinds!p 140
Later on that same page, the tone shifts deftly from that enthusiastic voice to show the more reflective aspect of Harry’s personality:
Harry and Charlotte carry Goblin back to school in her travel cage. Harry goes up to the fourth-grade classroom. It is full of seriously huge people.
Harry gets to transfer the guinea pig into her larger habitat. She feels quivery and warm in his hands.p 140
Many of Harry’s classmates have significant roles in the book, which might have challenged readers new to chapter books, but Jenkins handles this just right. We get to know the students a little bit at a time, at different rates…just like it works in real first grade. And the ensemble of students gets to be pretty fun. I laughed out loud when they all tried to reassure Harry that it was okay that he threw up in class. Several of them share their own very funny puking experiences, until Harry interrupts:
“I don’t want to talk about puke!” cries Harry. “I’m sick and tired of puke.”
Mason pats his arm. “It’s so interesting to everyone,” he says kindly. “We can’t help it.”p 130
Plot, characters, style, and themes work so well together in this one, and that’s tricky to manage when you’re writing for a younger fiction audience.
BILLY MILLER MAKES A WISH by Kevin Henkes
Kevin Henkes has already won two Newbery Honors, including one for the first book in this series, but the Newbery Terms and Criteria, clearly tell us that “the committee is not to consider…whether the author has previously won the award.” And while some sequels might read differently depending on whether or not you’re familiar with the first book, that’s not the case here. I barely remember a thing about THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER, except that I liked it, and this one stands on its own just fine.
On his eighth birthday Billy wishes “that something exciting would happen.” That wish frames the series of events that follow. There’s a bat in the house, a minor chimney fire, a mailbox mix-up…tame stuff compared to the high drama in many books on our list, but just right for the beginning chapter book audience. And it’s the characterization and style that really stand out.
Henkes shows the way an eight-year-old brain works, using simple language to convey Billy’s experiences, though Billy himself wouldn’t articulate them in those words:
Billy got a new soccer ball. It came with a pump and a needle that looked like a sleek silver insect that you inserted into the ball to add more air.p 20 [page numbers from ebook edition]
I love that specificity, where Billy is more entranced by the needle than by the prospect of actually playing with the new ball. When he does go out to play with his Papa a little later, that continues:
Billy smelled his soccer ball the way he’d smelled his shirt. It, too, smelled new. And it looked new – the white parts were so white. And it felt new – smooth and shiny and polished.p 28
There’s minimal plot tension and his family is about as close to perfect as you could ask for, but Billy’s inner thinking is exactly right for his age and personality.
MAYBE MAYBE MARISOL RAINEY by Erin Entrada Kelly
As with HARRY and BILLY, Kelly’s writing captures the voice of the main character and provides engaging insights into the everyday challenges of being a kid. Marisol’s challenge is fear of many things, especially the big tree in her backyard.
As we follow Marisol’s trains of thought, that fear is usually somewhere in there, but we also see how her curiosity and imagination are such a big part of her identity, and those qualities eventually help her face it. Her practice of naming things (the tree is “Peppina” and the refrigerator is “Buster”) is especially fun. While the tree is the overt challenge that Marisol thinks about most often, readers will notice that missing her dad and the dart-like words of a mean classmate cut just as deeply.
The elements that lead to Marisol finally climbing Peppina make perfect sense with what we know about her. She has extra motivation because of the bird’s nest (she sees herself as a bird). Jada gives her just the right amount of support (we’ve learned how well their friendship works). She asks her mom to watch, but just from the window (we know she wants to feel brave, not just climb the tree). And once up there, her imagination kicks in as she pictures how others (Jada, her mother, and even Peppina) will react.
From a first read, I see HARRY as the first chapter book with the strongest chance for Newbery recognition among these titles, but all three deserve consideration. It won’t be an easy task to compare them to more complex titles like AMBER AND CLAY, STARFISH, or FALLOUT, but that’s exactly what makes a Mock Newbery so fun. DOGGO AND PUPPER is another title to consider (for even younger readers), and I’m looking forward to reading the SKUNK AND BADGER sequel that just came out a couple weeks ago. Will this be the year when a first chapter book breaks through and earns a Medal?
Filed under: Book Discussion
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 email@example.com.
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