Nice, But Not For Newbery…or Are They?
October nominations continue through the 9th, providing a growing list of the strongest Newbery contenders so far, according to Heavy Medal readers. Like many others, I struggled with having to leave off one or two that I really wanted to include. During this year of reading, though, I’ve also read many books that I enjoy and admire, but for one reason or another, I put them aside once it came to the point of nominations.
I wonder sometimes, if I jump to that too quickly. I always remember the time I was in a Mock Newbery planning meeting with librarians and teachers and someone asked if we should include the new Kate DiCamillo book that had just come out. I was the only one of the group who had read it, so I blithely shared my assessment: “It’s nice and I enjoyed it, but it’s not for Newbery.” After all, THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX was just a cute little mouse book, right? Oops.
Here’s a short list of some of this year’s books which I read, enjoyed, and moved right onto my “Not for Newbery” list. Was I too hasty…?:
A CHANCE TO FLY by Ali Storker & Stacy Davidowitz
Ali is one of the most appealing characters of the year for me. She faces the limitations of her wheelchair with a mostly undaunted spirit, but readers see how hard that is in specific, not always obvious ways. The theater setting and the fun cast of diverse characters add appeal. It’s kind of a standard show biz plot (fire at the theater?…that’s okay, we’ll put on our own show!), but it works because the characters are believable and engaging. Most of them are more complicated than they appear to Ali and to readers at first, and we see how her relationships develop. This is as enjoyable as any book I’ve read this year. You don’t find “fun” in the Terms and Criteria, and we know “the award is not for…popularity,” but a case might be made for this book because of its “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”
DARK WATERS by Katherine Arden
Newbery recognition for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, DOLL BONES, and SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES shows that scary stories do have a chance. In this third book of the “Small Spaces” series, Arden does an excellent job of building suspense, as the kids dread the return of the mysterious and ominous smiling man. Along with the near misses and narrow escapes, she captures the thoughts and emotions of the kids, which go beyond the obvious need to just survive. Putting grown-ups into the middle of it, with the kids taking on the role of protectors, is a neat variant. I appreciate her ability to write in a style that consistently creates an aura of suspense, while also developing characters and plot.
LINKED by Gordon Korman
This book brings serious issues into the structure of a regular school story, as swastikas begin appearing on the walls of a small town school. Korman uses multiple narrators, including at least one unreliable one, to explore the impact of hate crimes at school in an intriguing variety of ways. One kid is a prankster, and there’s a bit of comic relief from another who tries to manage the logistics of a huge paper-chain project, but it all serves to explore the ramifications of racism, tolerance, history, and even social media. I like the way this book excels in “development of a plot” and “interpretation of the theme” in ways that are not typical of many Newbery contenders.
WILLODEEN by Katherine Applegate
A new fantasy novel by a Newbery Medalist (IVAN was my year) may not seem like an expected choice for this topic, but my reaction to WILLODEEN was: I enjoyed this and will recommend it to kids, but…not for Newbery. The world-building was done well for middle grade readers: we learn enough about the creatures and the town to get a strong sense of Willodeen’s environment. Willodeen herself is engaging, and the way she forces herself to stand up for the creatures she loves works. The theme of respecting nature and the detective work she does to save the animals come through well…but I think that’s where my hesitation comes. I felt like that end result was too clearly the point of everything else. But I’m not sure. Maybe it was conveyed at exactly the right level for the intended audience. This is a fairly recent release, so I’ll be interested to see if others nominate it. I may have to give this one a good re-read either way.
Was I too quick with my judgment on any of these? Are you second guessing anything in your own “not for Newbery” pile?
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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