2 Escapes, 1 Tragedy, and 13 Meals: picture book nonfiction that could win a Newbery
This year I don’t get to do my usual lament that nonfiction picture books don’t do well under the Newbery lens because last year it happened: BOX: HENRY BROWN MAILS HIMSELF TO FREEDOM won a Newbery Honor! These books still seem like long shots, though. In the best examples of this form, words and pictures work together to convey information, and it can be challenging to identify “distinguished writing,” when the illustrations can also have such a major impact.
The Newbery Terms and Criteria list several “literary qualities to be considered,” but “the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements.” So with nonfiction in picture book format, I try to keep these elements particularly in mind:
- “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization”
- “Interpretation of the theme or concept”
- “Appropriateness of style”
Here are a few of the nonfiction picture books from this year that have caught my Newbery eye so far:
RUNAWAY: THE DARING ESCAPE OF ONA JUDGE by Ray Anthony Shepard, Illustrated by Keith Mallett
This poem tells the story of the escape of one of the Washingtons’ slaves with a rhythmic tone and subtly increasing intensity. The repeated question of “Why you run Ona Judge?” punctuates verses that describe the surface benefits of Ona’s life. The answers to that question are mixed in to the with the verses:
She hauled you to New York
To brush her hair
She towed you
To sew her elegant gowns
Why you run Ona Judge?
Words like “hauled” and “towed” help to steadily build a sense of outrage in the reader, and it’s done on a level that I think will work really well with kids.
During the escape, the “Why you run..” question is replaced by “Didn’t you know…” then the questions are dropped and it shifts to active, inspirational statements: “You knew…” and “You dreamed…” The ending is powerful: The final page turn circles back to the original question: “Then run, Ona Judge, run”
It’s excellent storytelling that shines in presentation of information and themes. The illustrations do magnify some of the meaning behind the words. We can see Ona’s sadness before it comes through fully in the text, for example. That works just right for the book, allowing varied readers to absorb the deeper meanings in different ways. This book received one nomination from Heavy Medal readers in the first round.
NICKY & VERA: A QUIET HERO OF THE HOLOCAUST AND THE CHILDREN HE RESCUED by Peter Sís
I’ve tried to convince myself that this excellent book could be a Newbery contender, but I just can’t. The writing is just as it should be: clear, simple, and matter-of-fact. The impact comes from the dramatic true story itself and from the illustrations that do so much to establish plot, setting, and theme.
I tried to do that graphic novel thing where you consider text as not just words, but also the meaning conveyed by illustrations. In this case, though, I feel like the images are just too specific and complex. Here’s the text from one four-page sequence:
Seventy-six children got on the train.
Vera tried not to cry.
She and the other children
did not know what lay ahead.
So they told stories
about the lives they left behind.
The illustrations covering those two spreads fill in so much. Parents walking their children to the station; the packed train; Vera telling a story with cat ears (she was “Queen of the Cats”). Then a wordless spread showing the progress of the train, the kids safe inside, and a background of constellations.
I might have a lot to say about this book in a Caldecott or Sibert discussion, but don’t see it fitting with Newbery.
UNSPEAKABLE: THE TULSA RACE MASSACRE by Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by Floyd Cooper.
This powerful book has received two Heavy Medal nominations so far. Weatherford’s words are intentionally understated as she describes the events, allowing Cooper’s illustrations and the horrifying reality of the massacre to capture the highest drama. The repeated refrain of “Once upon a time…” sets it up as history, but also as something fairy tale-ish, hinting that this idyllic community is of a distant, almost unbelievable past. It’s a very effective book; I think the writing is just right, but I’m not sure the text is prominent enough to stand out in a Newbery discussion.
13 WAYS TO EAT A FLY by Sue Heavenrich, Illustrated by David Clark. Picture book science titles are even less common in Newbery world (don’t forget DARK EMPEROR, though), but this one is intriguing. Within the structure of a counting book, the author describes how various animals, including humans (and one plant) consume flies. With just a few sentences per number, readers get just enough scientific information. Doses of alliteration and occasional interjections (“Snap! Bye-bye, Fly!”) add a playful tone. It might be hard to cite the sentence level writing as Newbery-worthy, but this is a highly creative “interpretation of concept,” accomplished with style that’s just right for the child reader.
I’m also looking forward to I’M TRYING TO LOVE GARBAGE by Bethany Barton, but that one’s not out until November 30th. Are there other books in this format that we should be looking at? Do any of the examples above have a chance? It would be pretty exciting if this could turn out to be the second year in a row in which a picture book nonfiction title receives Newbery recognition.
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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