If You Had to Pick a Pair: Share your top 2 Newbery contenders so far
It’s finally time to talk about books! We’ve been gathering suggestions on Heavy Medal for several months, but in that process we only ask readers to list titles and authors, putting off real discussion until the fall. For the next few months, though, we get to start discussing some of those books in earnest. And since this is a Mock Newbery blog, our goal is to identify the “most distinguished children book of the year,” using the Newbery Terms and Criteria as our guide.
To get started, I picked the two books that are near the top of my list so far (at least for today). I’m having trouble identifying a fiction front-runner: I’m torn between several excellent novels. So I’ve got one nonfiction and one picture book for now:
HOW TO BUILD A HUMAN IN SEVEN EVOLUTIONARY STEPS by Pamela S. Turner
I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s previous books (she has a few in the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series), but was surprised by the approach she took with the topic of evolution. She utilizes humor to explore a complex subject and I think it works very well. The funny stuff includes chapter titles (“We Start Talking (and Never Shut Up)” (77)), footnotes (the “first swear word” (30)), and a consistently playful tone:
Neanderthals were shorter but sturdier and stronger, while we were taller and skinnier. In a hand-to-hand fight, you’d bet on the Neanderthal. But hey, we could outrun them.101
The humor is almost always used in service of the facts. She’s not trying to crack jokes for laughs, but rather purposefully engaging readers with references that relate to the ideas and concepts. Behind the informal approach, though, there’s a creative and carefully constructed presentation of information.
In the chapter called “We Get Swelled Heads,” for example, she states that “Large brains are costly” (35). Such an interesting way to lead into the concept of brain size…and one that will stick in the minds of readers. Then she builds on that statement. Readers learn that large brains are smarter, that they need nourishment, and that brains size is crucially linked withy food, tools, and climate. Later, she reminds us about the “large brains” concept during a discussion on digestion (66).
She uses surprising analogies that catch your attention and make sense (brain size and coffee in a blender (37)). And she’s great at identifying seemingly minor (but memorable) facts and tying them into the big ideas. Who knew that pointing was such an important skill?:
Let’s imagine there’s a herd of wild cattle nearby and I want to indicate which animal I think we should pursue. It’s limping and hopefully will be the easiest one to catch. What do I do?57
Revolutionary, right? I can see your eyes rolling from here.
Pointing is actually a big deal…”
And that leads into a fascinating exploration of communication, teaching, learning, and survival.
Not all of the funny bits worked for me…maybe a few too many Star Wars references? But still, I never felt like the humor distracted or detracted from the fresh, creative, and very effective science book.. I give it high marks for “appropriateness of style”: it’s well executed and successfully enhances the “presentation of information” which is so important in nonfiction.
BIG AND SMALL AND IN-BETWEEN by Carter Higgins
This is a creative and poetic exploration of size, perspective, and imagination. A short table of contents (a nice novelty in a picture book) lets us know what kinds of things we’ll be looking at: “Big Things,” then “In-Between Things,” then “Small Things,” and finally: “Everything.” The examples are sometimes whimsical, sometimes more serious, and just about always make you stop and think for a moment. A couple of examples from “Big Things”:
The TROPHY you got for the jump-rope contest because your feet remembered the pattern.
You imagine the the trophy is bit in terms of physical size. But the words also hint at the big-ness of the accomplishment of winning a contest. As well as the big effort it took to prepare for it. That’s followed by a more poignant one:
THOSE KIDS on the playground when you want to use the seesaw and so you swing instead.
Again, the kids are physically bigger that the kid on the swing, but in this case, size equals power, and it has a negative effect on your playground experience. These are layered meanings that are accessible to the younger readers (and listeners, since it’s also meant to be read aloud), which is a pretty tricky thing to accomplish.
Excellence in “interpretation of the theme” is also evident. The individual examples work together to celebrate the themes of perspective, curiosity, and imagination. Each of the first three chapters ends with a different outlook on the repeated elements of castle, hole, and ocean, which adds to that collective unity. The last chapter brings it together even more. It’s called “Everything,” but it’s very short:
The bluest SKY. The bittiest BUG. And you in the middle of it all.
That reminds the reader that it’s not the specific things that matter, it’s the person who sees them and thinks about them. This might not resonate with everyone, but I see it as an excellent example of doing a whole lot with very few words, as the best picture books can sometimes do.
Though I rate both of these books highly, I’m guessing they won’t be #1 and #2 for many (any?) others. Please share your own top 2 (so far) in the comments below, and feel free to delineate some of the reasons that they’re currently at the top of your list…
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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