Talking About Theme: Newbery Criteria Deep Dive
Today we continue our series of conversations about the literary elements noted in the Newbery Terms and Criteria and how they apply to some 2023 Newbery contenders. We looked at “delineation of characters,” “development of a plot,” and “presentation of information”. Now we’ll shift to “interpretation of the theme or concept.”
Emily: I’m excited to talk about theme and concept today, because I think it is the criteria that is really the backbone of the Newbery award. It doesn’t matter what format the title is in (picture book, chapter book, nonfiction… theme and concept is something that NEEDS to be strongly developed if you want a title to be remembered. And I feel like themes are what actually stick with a reader for years to come (and characters too of course).
Emily: On Heavy Medal, we group books by theme a lot. It’s an easy way to see what is trending. Steven did a post on titles about leaving one place for another. There also seems to be a lot of titles addressing pandemics (COVID or imaginary ones) like AIN’T BURNED ALL THE BRIGHT AND NEW FROM HERE. Are there any other themes you see trending this year Steven?
Stephen: I think the importance of community has come up in a lot of books. In books like ANYBODY HERE SEEN FRENCHIE? and AVIVA VS. THE DYBBUK you have kids in trouble and a larger group coming together to help them out. Even ODDER by Catherine Applegate has some of that. Odder is supported both by other otters in the wild in the aquarium and by the human to try to help him.
Emily: Some authors take one theme and work to make it really strong (for example giving back to nature in BERRY SONG) while other titles may have three to five themes (bullying, friendship, family in NEW FROM HERE). I’m not sure if I particularly think one way works better than the other, though I think it takes a skilled author to balance everything.
Steven:. I do think one theme is usually enough in a picture book. THE YEAR WE LEARNED TO FLY was a good example. Where that theme of using imagination is applied to real world stuff. Which shifts from regular everyday problems to bigger things like the isolation of a pandemic and systemic racism.
Emily: I see a lot of that theme shifting in historical fiction books from this year that take really serious topics like the Holocaust (ALIAS ANNA) or slave ships (AFRICAN TOWN) and add themes of family and growing up that make it relatable to our age audience.
Steven:. Fantasy also does that. THE OGRESS AND THE ORPHANS is a good example of how the themes of fantasy can spill over into our real life. The role of truth versus lies and the idea of passively accepting bad times is a big part of that world of the ogress. And a big part of the world readers are living in today. Some have said that book is too obvious in its themes. Emily have you noticed that tendency in other books from this year?
Emily: Yes, I got that a little bit from LOVE IN THE LIBRARY which others may view as a positive element of the book. And then in HEALER AND WITCH I thought the “finding her way” was a bit drawn out– I ended the book wanting more.
Steven: l was kind of disappointed with the ending of INVISIBLE. I thought the themes were so well developed by the kids’ stories, especially the idea that people aren’t what they appear to be. Then when their story was told, a couple of the grown ups summed it up almost like they were speaking directly to the reader to tell them what they were supposed to have learned.
Emily: Let’s shift to interpretation of concept, which I think is often used for nonfiction books. Of course we have to mention HOW TO BUILD A HUMAN and how they take the concept of evolution and center the whole format of a book around it. I also think of TINY DINO by Deborah Freedman where she combines dialogue and different dinosaurs to teach about them in a unique, kid-friendly manner.
Steven:. I’m glad you brought up concept and nonfiction. HOW TO BUILD A HUMAN has really been the standout for me in that area. I need to relook at some of my nonfiction favorites and see which ones also shine in this area. If I find more I’ll continue this conversation in the comments. And I hope other Heavy Medal readers will join in as well.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci
Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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