Picture Book Round-up: Newbery-level content in 32 pages (or slightly more)
Evaluating picture books can be especially challenging for the Newbery Committee. The award is given “primarily for the text,” which makes it tricky, since in a good picture book, illustrations carry some of that load. And comparing a picture book of a few hundred words to a 3,000+ word novel can also be daunting. The Newbery Terms and Criteria help a lot. Whether it’s a novel, an information book, or a picture book, the Criteria guide us to look for excellence in specific literary elements (theme, information, plot, characters, setting, and style) and to consider “consider excellence of presentation for a child audience,” among other things. When a picture book achieves this, it looks different than it does in a novel, but can still earn Newbery recognition.
And that’s happened fairly regularly in recent years. Since the 2016 Newbery Medal was awarded to LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, we’ve also seen CROWN, THE UNDEFEATED, and WATERCRESS named as Honor books.
So what about this year? Of the 32 books that received nominations in October, I think only two are picture books (excluding picture book nonfiction): MERMAID DAY and A WALK IN THE WOODS. I haven’t made it to the first one yet, but the second is one of the four top Newbery picture book possibilities on my list:
AN AMERICAN STORY by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dare Coulter
Kwame Alexander is one of the few authors who has already won a Newbery recognition for a picture book (THE UNDEFEATED, 2020 Honor). In this one, he takes on a challenging and important topic, using free verse and a carefully crafted structure. It starts out by introducing the horrors of slavery, but the repeating phrase, “How do you tell a story about…” hints that it’s not just that story: it’s how to tell it. Then we start getting interludes from the classroom, as the kids react to what they’re hearing. There’s a great moment when the teacher is stuck and the children give her encouragement, drawing on advice they remember from adults (including the teacher). That restores her drive, and she finishes by finding the best answer she can give them:
You do it
by being brave enough
to lift your voice
in one hand
in the other
It’s carefully crafted, and at the same time highly emotional. The illustrations are equally powerful…maybe it could even duplicate THE UNDEFEATED by earning Newbery and Caldecott recognition?
BIG by Vashti Harrison
This is one of five finalists for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and the only picture book. It’s a pretty powerful picture book, but I think will be a hard sell for Newbery recognition. The text is just right, but interacts with the illustrations almost inextricably. The words in a Newbery picture book don’t have to stand alone and work independently of the illustrations, but in this case I have trouble saying anything about the words without referring to the pictures.
Here’s the text from one spread:
She grew and learned and laughed and dreamed and grew and grew and grew.
And it was good..
Three illustrations show the girl happily playing and dancing, with positive words flowing around her (“caring, considerate, smart…”) On the page turn, the main text is just:
Until it wasn’t
And the illustrations now highlight her size in comparison to the other kids. The pictures carry the most powerful elements, as her size gets bigger, finally overfilling the spreads in a wordless interlude. She breaks out of that in a highly effective gatefold illustration.
The words at the ending are perfect. She’s reclaimed her self-worth and returned the hurtful words to those who said them….
but they still couldn’t see
that she was just a girl.
And she was good.
That textual refrain of “it was good” frames the story nicely. Words are also used effectively as part of illustrations. The text is understated, providing room for the considerable emotional impact of the illustrations. Which seems like just the right choice for this book. I can definitely see BIG as a strong Caldecott contender…but it’s those Caldecott-level illustrations, used so effectively to convey plot, character, and especially themes, that take it out of the Newbery discussion for me.
EVERGREEN by Matthew Cordell
With 48 pages and six chapters, there’s room for more plot and character development here than we usually see in picture books. The narrative voice is conversational and engaging. We learn that “Evergreen was afraid” at the beginning, then see her reluctant bravery and increasing confidence emerge over the course of her adventures. As when she is captured by a hawk, then befriends him:
Evergreen collected herself and then found her way back to the trail. How frightening Buckthorn is, she thought. And yet, she had rather enjoyed the adventure.
The climactic plot twist, where the bear who makes “the loudest, scariest, ground-shaking-est noise of the day” turns out to be friendly Granny Oak, is excellent. Evergreen’s “Yes, Mama…I can!” at the end cements the theme that we can be braver than we think we can.
This is a successful picture book, with a strong plot, an engaging protagonist who develops through the course of her adventures, and themes that emerge directly from the action.
It’s been 40 years since an animal picture book won Newbery recognition (DR DESOTO). Is EVERGREEN strong enough to be the next one?
A WALK IN THE WOODS by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney & Brian Pinkney
This is a highly effective picture book about a son grieving for his father, even when you put aside the real-life connection: illustrator Brian Pinkney had recently lost his own father, co-illustrator Jerry Pinkney. As a boy follows the treasure map his recently deceased Dad left him, he encounters animals and places that he’d met with his father. Some of those lead to reflections about his loss. He sees a brood of grouse:
I’m tempted to pick them up,
but know it’s best to leave them be.
I hope their mother returns.
Not every parent does. Or can.
But he also starts to come to terms with his grief in the course of the walk:
…just past the ancient stone
left centuries ago by a tribe
of the Mohican Nation.
What was it Dad used to say?
There’s always something
When the boy finally finds the treasure, it turns out be drawings and poems Dad created when he was a boy in the woods:
I close my eyes,
and feel Dad next to me,
his hand on my shoulder,
light as leaves.
My heart feels lighter, too.
So much to like about this one. The boy’s voice is kind of lyrical and shows his appreciation for nature, but he also sounds like a real kid. His Dad’s animal poems towards the end are evocative, while at the same time extending the connection between parent and child.
What do you think the chances might be for these, or any other 2023 titles, to be the next Newbery picture book?
[REMINDER: There’s still time to cast your votes in our “Debating Decades” poll, where we ask readers to choose among the best books of the 2010s. Cast your votes here…the poll closes after Friday, October 19th, with results revealed on the 26th]
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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