YA Round-Up: Are These Books Too Old For the Newbery?
For today’s Wednesday Round-Up, we’ll look at those books that push up against the upper age range of the Newbery Medal. According to the Newbery Terms and Criteria, the Medal goes to “A book for which children, up to and including age fourteen, are an intended and potential audience.” The Newbery Manual provides a little more guidance, including “Questions for committees to consider”:
- Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?
- If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?
- If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?
To me, that first bullet point opens up the award to almost anything. There are certainly 14-year-olds reading the more mature YA books (and YA books can be really mature these days) as well as adult fiction. So when I’m reading with Newbery in mind, I do better when I focus on the phrase “intended audience.” I try to look at what the author does, or doesn’t do, to make the book work for readers who are 14 and under.
I would also think about the other people in a committee of 15. Maybe I can convince myself and 1 or 2 more people that this book clearly written for ages 16 and up could be appreciated by some 14-year-olds…but in a group of readers with varied backgrounds and opinions, will most of them agree?
Two of my favorite books of the year could be seen as too old for Newbery by some (including myself), so we’ll look at those first, then survey some other titles that kind of skirt that line:
BUFFALO FLATS by Martine Leavitt
This is a beautifully written pioneer story set in Canada during the 1890s. The writing style is excellent, with evocative descriptions of land, well-timed plot developments, and just the right amount of humor. Rebecca is a distinct and memorable character. She’s also 17, which is not that common in Newbery world, though we’ve seen a handful of books with 16-year old protagonists in the past couple decades, including HATTIE BIG SKY, HOPE WAS HERE, and PIECING ME TOGETHER. But a historical 17-year-old somehow seems like less of a jump for a middle-school reader to me. And although Rebecca is moving towards marriage, the treatment of romance works for younger readers; so do the complex, but not too complex relationships between characters.
GATHER by Kenneth M. Cadow
I really tried to convince myself that this book fits the Newbery age range, because it shines in every other area of the Newbery criteria. Ian is a unique and memorable character and the other people in his story, as seen through his eyes, are also well-drawn. The beautifully depicted setting of the land and nature that Ian loves is woven into every other element. It has a riveting plot; I love the way Ian as narrator foreshadows by addressing the reader: “the worst hadn’t happened yet. If you need a break, now’s the time to take it.” The writing style is Ian’s voice that sounds so true. Multiple themes stand out, but I especially admire how this book makes readers think about the ways that people are judged and valued.
There are 14-year-olds who would appreciate this book, but I still think its best audience, and the one it was aimed at, is slightly older. The roundabout way Ian tells his story, jumping around in time and following seemingly random trains of thought works best with more experienced readers. The language goes beyond any Newbery winner we’ve seen to this point in terms of swear words, though it’s an essential part of Ian’s telling, and as Ian notes: “I went in and took out a shit ton of swears.” Ian’s a tenth-grader, and though he does share lots of stories about his childhood, there’s clear distance between his younger days and the present, where he has to deal with truly grown-up things. I’d love to delve deeper into this book, and would for sure, if only this was a Mock Printz blog. I am curious if anyone who has read GATHER thinks it belongs in our Mock Newbery discussion (and can talk me into it).
Now that I’ve got a bit of my GATHER rave in, here’s a quick look at a handful of other titles that might be on the upper-age borderline for Newbery:
DOOMED: SACCO, VANZETTI AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN DREAM by John Florio & Ouisie Shapiro
A nonfiction account of Sacco and Vanzetti. I didn’t see anything that rules this one out for Newbery consideration, though I didn’t think it was as engaging as some of the other nonfiction for older readers from this year.
FOR LAMB by Lesa Cline-Ransom
Another excellent historical fiction novel by Cline-Ransom. The main characters are teens and it deals with some mature themes. It feels like more of a stretch than BUFFALO FLATS to me…maybe a Printz this year (if it’s not GATHER).
IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE by Steve Sheinkin
We looked at this excellent historical nonfiction book in our Nonfiction Round-Up. The true accounts of Auschwitz violence are hard to take, but done in a way that does not put this out of Newbery range, in my opinion at least.
IT HAPPENED ON SATURDAY by Sydney Dunlap
The topic of human trafficking is a harrowing one, but I think the author clearly writes for an audience that includes readers slightly younger than the 13-year-old protagonist. It’s an engaging and useful cautionary tale.
NEARER MY FREEDOM by Monica Edinger & Lesley Younge
Emily noted that this book might be ineligible in terms of “original work” in an earlier post. Could it also be aimed mainly at that over-14 audience? I think it fits pretty solidly in the middle school reader range, though the form can make it challenging for some.
PAPER PLANES by Jennie Wood
A well-conceived graphic novel set in a camp for troubled youth. It has strong storytelling and interesting characters/relationships. The protagonists are just entering high school, so I think it fits pretty clearly.
RACE AGAINST DEATH by Deborah Hopkinson
Like IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE, this is a true World War II story with plenty of suffering and death. I think Hopkinson clearly adjusts her telling to reach under-14-year-olds, employing a conversational style (“here’s the map of Luzon again, so you can see the route…”) and generally foregoing graphic descriptions (“All three were killed in extremely brutal ways”…but no details).
STATELESS by Elizabeth Wein
This historical mystery built around a pre-World War II air race could work for Newbery in the same way that BUFFALO FLATS does in terms of age range. Both protagonists are 17-years-old, but the writing and storytelling style make them work for younger readers.
SUNSHINE by Jarrett Krosoczka
In this graphic novel memoir, Jarrett is 16 and working at a camp for kids with serious medical conditions. Readers get a strong sense of the challenges and rewards of the work Jarrett loves, and also the heartbreak of loss that comes with it. I don’t really see anything in this book that puts it out of range for 13 or 14 year old readers, though it certainly has a more serious tone than most of the graphic novels we’ve discussed so far this year.
I’m sure there are books I’ve missed in this category, possibly because I dismissed them as “too old” without giving them a chance, so feel free to add to the list and discuss. And let us know which (if any) of the “almost ya” titles should be given strong Newbery consideration…or none at all.
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.
SLJ Blog Network