New Kids in Town: Mock Newbery books about leaving one place for another
Looking through out list of Mock Newbery suggestions through August, I noticed that we have several titles that have something do with kids that arrive and have to adjust to a new place: school, community, and/or country. That’s been an element in some recent Newbery titles (WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER, OTHER WORDS FOR HOME, NEW KID) and some older ones (KIRA-KIRA, DICEY’S SONG, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA) and I counted at least eight from this year so far. They’re all pretty different in terms of style and content, but that common theme of newness allows for some creative explorations of culture, language, racism, inclusion, and other powerful topics. Here are a couple that stood out to me:
NEW FROM HERE by Kelly Yang
The outbreak of the coronavirus looms over this novel, in which the Knox family moves from Hong Kong to the Bay Area just as the pandemic is beginning. Yang’s writing is engaging and efficient. I like the way she brings readers right into the plot in the first sentences:
My name is Knox and sometimes I just blurt words out. It drives everyone in my family crazy. I don’t mean to – I just really need to know things. Like right now, when my dad’s trying to explain the coronavirus to us and the reasons why we’re going to America.
It’s safer there,” Dad says. They don’t have the virus.”
“How’s it safer?” I ask.
“He just said!” my brother, Bowen, erupts. “Listen for a change, Knot!”chapter 1 (using chapters instead of page numbers since I only have the e-book)
We learn a lot from that opening: Knox’s impulsiveness and high energy (not identified as ADHD until much later (ch 21)); the reason for the move to California; and the contentiousness between the two brothers. Also, the author knows her readers have lived through the virus, and that they’ll get the irony that hindsight brings to that “safer” in America statement.
Their new town of El Tercera isn’t really new to Knox and his family, since they visit it every summer. But they get an early taste of what they’ll be facing in the ride from the airport when the driver learns they’ve arrived from Hong Kong: “The driver’s smile disappears. He starts scooting in his seat, inching away from Mom” (ch 9). Their adjustment gets more challenging when they start to attend school. They’re driving to their first day of school on the same day that American passengers on a cruise ship are infected with the virus:
Bowen looks at Mom. He hesitates for a second before asking, “you think we should tell people we came from Asia?”
Mom thinks for a minute. “If you want, you can tell them you’re new from here. I mean we sort of are.”
“Why wouldn’t we tell people we’re from Asia?” Lea asks, not understanding.
Bowen shakes his head. “Never mind.”ch 24
While the coronavirus is central, I always felt like Knox and his family are real and interesting, rather than just vehicles to tell a pandemic story…which in the end makes it a really effective novel set in a very recent and memorable time period.
The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye
Contrary to most books dealing with kids in new places, Aref’s move with his family from Oman to Ann Arbor, Michigan is almost all good. He’s worried at first, but he has this irrepressible curiosity and a sense of wonder that makes everything exciting. The third-person narration captures that eight-year-old worldview in an endearing way. I love the way his thoughts mix big emotions in with specific details:
When you were in an airplane, none of your land worries seemed big at all. You forgot what you worried about in the first place. You couldn’t see the hospital with its lit-up windows or the parking lots crowded with traffic or the sad house whose water heater blew the roof off. You were bigger than the biggest bird, holding power inside you.
Anything could happen. Soon you had a little bag of crackers in your lap, and someone was asking if you wanted apple juice.p 7-8
The story continues with short chapters detailing the events of Aref’s first year in Michigan. His existence as an Omani in the U. S. doesn’t define him, but his culture and his past consistently inform his experiences in ways that are insightful and believable. There’s not much serious conflict: New neighbors become good friends, teachers and classmates are pretty wonderful, and the first-graders at his school teach everyone not to bully (240). It’s kind of a vision of what the best world could be for a third-grade kid from another country, and that seems just right for the intended audience of younger readers.
Other 2022 books that explore what it’s like to be new to a country, a community, and/or a school include: GIBBERISH, IN THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY, MOONWALKING, THE SECRET BATTLE OF EVAN PAO, THOSE KIDS FROM FAWN CREEK, and WISHING UPON THE SAME STARS. There may be others I’ve missed. I’d love to hear what others think of any of the above titles. Are authors capturing those experiences in ways that will resonate with readers? And are any of them doing that as such a high level that their books might earn 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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