Debut Books and the Newbery Medal: Will a first-time author win the Medal again?
When a new Newbery year starts and we start to identify potential contenders, I always start with authors I know. Previous Newbery winners, kids’ favorites, writers whose past books I’ve rated highly. But debut authors rarely get onto my radar right away. Starred reviews, word of mouth, and, of course, recommendations from Heavy Medal readers can lead me to read brand new authors. Real Committee members also work hard to identify new voices as they read throughout the year.
Last year’s awards are the perfect example: Both the Medal winner (FREEWATER) and one Honor book (IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL) were by first-time authors. By my count, there have been another five Newbery Honor or Medal books by new voices in the past decade. In some cases, an author’s first book comes with a bit of fanfare. Jerry Craft’s NEW KID was one of the most talked-about books of the year well before its Newbery victory. But other titles, like IVELIZ or PAPERBOY (2014) come as big surprises to most readers…even the ones who have been reading for a Mock Newbery blog all year.
Which brings us to this year. From our nomination list of 52 titles, I count eight that are written by first time authors, unless I’ve overlooked someone. Four of these made SLJ’s just-announced Best Books of 2023 list. We’ll look closer at that list, and other best-of-the-year lists in a future post. For now, though, here are the books by first-time authors that Heavy Medal readers have identified as possible Newbery contenders:
GOOD DIFFERENT by Meg Eden Kuyatt (an SLJ Best Book of the Year)
This has been mentioned in our Verse Round-Up and in a few comments. I thought was an innovative way to look at the struggles of a neuro-diverse character. The verse format shows only Selah’s point of view. We get vivid, first-hand impressions of her struggles to try to be a “normal person.” At the same time, readers realize before she does that she’s dealing with undiagnosed autism.
IT HAPPENED ON SATURDAY by Sydney Dunlap
This first novel takes on human trafficking in the US, a topic we don’t often see in children’s fiction. Julia’s experiences serve as a powerful cautionary tale, but she’s also a well-developed, relatable character, which makes her mistakes and her narrow escape very compelling, and the themes of the book come through strongly.
THE MONA LISA VANISHES by Nick Day (an SLJ Best Book of the Year)
We highlighted this one in our Nonfiction Round-up. It’s still one of my top picks of the year. The combination of humor, facts, and creative historical storytelling is fresh and creative. I hope to see this one with some Newbery and/or Sibert recognition and also look forward to more from this author.
THE SONG OF US by Kate Fussner
This was mentioned in our Verse Round-up, and has two nominations, but hasn’t gotten much yet in the way of comments. It’s a modern re-telling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in verse, with a romance between two girls. I thought the language in this one was especially strong and the verse format was a good fit. Both girls’ voices were vivid and distinct, though other characters, like Eden’s father and Olivia’s mother, were kind of undeveloped.
THE RED EAR BLOWS ITS NOSE by Robert Schechter (an SLJ Best Book of the Year)
It’s always nice to see a new poet on the children’s book scene. This humorous collection has three nominations on Heavy Medal through November. We highlighted it in our Poetry Round-Up. It’s natural to compare this to MY HEAD HAS A BELLYACHE by Chris Harris, who was a debut author just a few years ago (with I’M JUST NO GOOD AT RHYMING). No, wait…that was six years ago.
MEXIKID (an SLJ Best Book of the Year)
Here’s another debut book that has caught the attention of many Heavy Medal readers. It has five nominations so far, including one from me. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s a really strong year for graphic novels, with books by more established author/illustrators like Jerry Craft, Dan Santat, and Jarrett Krosoczka also possibly contending for Newbery recognition. I still think MEXIKID stands out, though.
ONCE THERE WAS by Kiyaf Monsef
I’m thinking of this fantasy as a possible dark horse. Marjan inherits her father’s ability to communicate and sometimes cure mythical animals. Which sounds like a setup for a cool adventure, but the book goes deeper than that and is more nuanced than most fantasies, exploring ethical issues around animals in captivity. There’s also a good murder mystery , interesting supporting characters and Persian myths that add cultural background but are also key to the plot. Another author to watch.
A STONE IS A STORY by Leslie Bernard Booth
This creative picture book uses poetic language to look at the changing forms of a stone over time:
A stone has been wrenched apart by roots. / Crushed and dragged by a glacier. / Swept up in the foam of a rushing river / Molded. Carved. Ground down to a speck of sand and sent to sea.
On the last pages, it shifts beautifully into the present day:
Maybe you find a stone. / You might pick it up. / You might turn it in your hand. / You might see the parts of the stone / that were once lava / that were once sand / that were once bone…
It’s a highly original way to introduce concepts of geology to young readers. Language choices are just right, and the progression from pre-history to the personal experience of a modern child works really well. It would be a surprise Newbery pick for sure, but I think it’s as strong as some of the other most likely picture book contenders.
Will any of these first-time authors land in the Newbery spotlight next January? I have especially high hopes for MEXIKID and THE MONA LISA VANISHES, but all eight titles above have definite strengths. And who knows, there might another debut author that we haven’t even mentioned who will break through…
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.
SLJ Blog Network