Category Archives: Newbery

Thoughts on Newbery: Flaws, Fatal or Not?

Heavy Medal has started up again and some fascinating conversations are well underway.  One aspect of the conversation that has struck me is the idea of flawness (my made-up word). That is, are all books perfect? And if not, how do we grapple with perceived flaws? Can we reach consensus on the degree of their significance?

This came to mind when in her Heavy Medal post on Deborah Wiles’ Revolution, Nina noted that “There is a fatal flaw that I find in REVOLUTION, and that is that Raymond is not as fully realized a character as Sunny, not by a very long shot.” She goes on to thoughtfully articulate why she thinks this and others of us have been discussing this concern in the comments. Now I adore Revolution (you can read my review here) , but had noticed that Wiles had been able to write Sunny through her own personal experience while she couldn’t with Raymond resulting in a more cautious presentation. If I were on the Newbery Committee this is something I’d want to explore long and hard. I’d pester a huge range of people, those with different racial and regional backgrounds and historical experiences, to read the book and tell me what they think. I’d have to stand back from my first love of the book to honestly attempt to figure out if this is a flaw and if it isn’t, why not. And if it is, is it fatal? How would I argue that it was or was not when in my deliberations with the Committee?

Then there is Jonathan’s post on A Snicket of Magic which has generated a fabulous conversation about vernacular, about so-called folksy literature. By attempting to categorize a collection of titles as being this, Jonathan provoked a wonderful series of comments. For some, I know, this sort of voice is tough going. So when you are on the Committee, how do you distinguish a personal distaste from a flaw, much less a fatal one?

Thinking about this fatal flaw business caused me to head to my goodreads Newbery list and add a few more personal favorites, some of which also have flaws…er…blemishes…er..imperfections… (Roget, I need you!)… I’m wondering about. As a result, I’ve now got ten books there, three more than I’d be able to nominate if I were on the Committee.  I’ve added Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover as I thought it fabulous –except for the ending.  And I’ve added Cece Bell’s El Deafo even though I have no clue how to make a case for it as it is a graphic novel.  Similarly, despite not having figured out how interlaced the text is with the art, I’ve added Patricia Hruby Powell’s picture biography, Josephine.  This review of Rachel’s of Dana Alison Levy’s The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher reminded me of how I loved it (reviewed it for Horn Book) and so it is now on the list. Does it have a fatal flaw? Not so noticeably that I can figure out.  Finally, I added Jack Gantos’ series finale, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza. While I don’t think it is flawed, I’m sure there will be some absolutely horrified by Joey’s circumstances as they were with the previous books.

Fatal. Flaws. Fascinating.



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Thoughts on Newbery: Patrick Ness’s CBAITS

Some of you may bristle (or already have) about this topic, but I think it is one to take very, very seriously. It is Patrick Ness‘s provocative point in his SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Book decision this week about what he has termed CBAITs:

Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people.  People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes.

I think Patrick has a point, an important and enormously complicated one. First of all, what Patrick may consider a CBAIT may not be what someone else does. That is, our criteria may be different, our idea of what is good, our taste, and so forth. Which is why, presumably, some end up winning prizes. That is, enough people on a particular award jury may have the same sense of what is good even if it isn’t what others think. And so they are going to give an award to a book they sincerely think is good not crappy.

And that gets to the heart of Patrick’s issue: what do people consider to be a good book? Many indeed think a book is good if it takes on an Important Thing and will dismiss questions about the quality of sentence level writing that would be something I’d be paying attention to . While Patrick and I probably would agree that something with painfully poor sentence level writing is crappy there are some who might feel differently. Not to mention what I might consider overwrought writing might be something someone else would think is wonderful, and vice versa.

That said, I do think there is a tendency for those of us who review and/or participate in selecting best books, award books, and such to pay a lot of attention to books that deal with topics that we feel need to be more known. And sometimes we excuse weaknesses in such books because we think they are so important. Because they are so few and because we so badly want young people to take in the topics, to know about these Important Things.

I think this has special resonance when considering the Newbery award. While the criteria are clear that it is for literary merit not popularity or didactic intent, I suspect most  of us can look back at the books that have received the medal and find one we’d call a CBAIT.

Thank you, Patrick, for pointing out that metaphorically children’s book award emperors sometimes have no clothes.



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Thoughts on Newbery: This Year

I’ve been deeply involved with the Newbery award for years, mostly by reading and speculating during a given year and once as a member of the Committee itself.  I’ve enjoyed tremendously advocating for my favorites on this blog, participating in the Heavy Medal discussion, making my own goodreads list of possibilities, and so forth. Because being on the committee itself gave me a better sense of things, last year I wrote a post for the Nerdy Book Club to help others better understand the process behind the award and recently I was interviewed for this article about those who serve on the various award committees. So I feel I’ve been on that side of things for many years. I know it pretty well. I know, for instance, how personal the committee process is. That is, each committee is a collection of individuals and they will come together and interact in a particular way. A different collection of people will most likely act in a different way. This, to my mind, more than anything explains the variety of choices.  And it is why I applaud and celebrate the decisions every year whether my favorites were selected or not.

This year…well, this year was oddly different for me. I wanted to do what I usually do — champion my favorites and so forth, but  then there was this: my very own debut book for children was being touted as a contender. This  was unexpected, thrilling, and totally marvelous.  Because I felt it was wild and I wanted to avoid thinking too much about it, I tried to keep going as usual. However, I couldn’t completely.  Yes, I did keep my goodreads list and yes, I did comment on Heavy Medal, but I did barely anything here. No post about my Newbery druthers, for example.

And then came this past weekend.  I was at Midwinter networking as usual.  I looked at forthcoming books, talked with friends, and enjoyed myself as usual. We talked about what we’d like to see win awards and so forth.  And mostly there was little mention of the elephant in the room — my book that is. But every once in a while there was.  Someone would say they would be rooting for me on Monday. Someone else would suddenly connect that I was the author of that book and gush.  One of the best comments made to me was an editor who reminded me that just being considered a contender made my book a winner.

Now I have to confess that I had fantasized quietly this year about getting the call, figuring it a harmless game. I imagined going down to my hotel’s Starbucks early Monday morning, getting the call, and keeping it a secret so as to surprise my roommates at the announcements. They were kind and didn’t say a thing, thank goodness (other than suggesting the night before that I should take a sleeping aid which wasn’t actually necessary:). And when it didn’t happen I was absolutely fine. I mean, for all my fantasizing,  I really didn’t imagine it could possibly really happen. And so I was excited as always as we went to the announcements and delighted when titles I’d especially liked were honored for various awards. It was a happy day as always.

But then I went home.  And while I respected greatly the Newbery choices, especially the winner which I’d read aloud to my class last year (and will again this year),  I think perhaps I was feeling a tad disappointed that none of my favorites had been recognized. I was tired Tuesday morning and a bit cranky. At school I fussed about a missing adaptor for my laptop, dealt with various small issues, worried about a doctor’s appointment that afternoon, and was all in all a little off.  By the next day with some sleep and distance I was fine again. And it made me wonder — did my grumpiness have something to do with something I was trying very hard not to think about — how my book fared at the awards?  I can’t quite say because I don’t want to go there in my thinking. I’m still thrilled at the reception my book has gotten. I’m thrilled it was even being mentioned in this way.

But it also makes me even more sympathetic to all those children’s book creators out there when it comes to this time. Those who were winning Mock Newberys and Caldecotts, who were getting huge amounts of buzz, and then were shut out from the real thing. I hope they can feel as happy as I do now, happy to have been so seriously considered. And happy for those who were honored — those are good books too.

This is a rambling post, I know. But I think I’m an unusual case as someone who, after so many years being deeply involved in the selection side of things suddenly was on the other side. And so I just want to say thank you to those who saw Africa is My Home as an award contender.  And congratulations to all involved in the winning titles —  the authors and illustrators and editors and publishers and designers and copy editors and marketers and publicists and editors and agents and friends and family members and everyone. Lastly, bravo to all those hard working committee members.  You did a great job.


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Thoughts on Newbery: Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott

In case you don’t regularly follow Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott, I suggest that if you are interested in the two awards or just in thinking deeply about children’s books, you might want to reconsider. I do know it can be challenging to read hard-hitting critical analysis of books you adore, but the moderators of these two blogs are really only putting out in public what happens during both committees’ deliberations in private.  Right now there are a couple of posts that are particularly thought provoking, at least to me.

First of all, there is Jonathan Hunt’s guest post over at Calling Caldecott, “In defense of graphic novels.” Now, of course, as it is Jonathan he is being provocative, but he is making some very powerful points. I thought he’d convinced me until today when commentator Brandin took Jonathan on sufficiently well to make me step back a bit and rethink the whole thing. That is, I’d been all behind Jonathan’s argument for GNs being Caldecott contenders until Brandin made some very good points on how different they are from picture books.

And then there is Nina Lindsay’s post over at Heavy Medal, “It’s an Honor,” in which she addresses the way some (Jonathan, for one) who comment that they think a particular contender would be a great honor book, but not the medal. I wrote:

Hear, hear. I am completely in agreement with you, Nina. When I was on the Committee I nominated seven books I felt deserved to win — gold or silver, it didn’t matter. However, of course, there is also strategy going on (as Jonathan has written about when describing his decisions for mock nominations here) and so what ends up where is a result too of individual strategy and working toward consensus. I have never been able to understand how someone could go into the process already having decided something is an Honor but not the Medal.


Nina, I always remember something you said to our 2008 Committee regarding the oppositional tension we needed to have — to both be fierce in our passionate love and arguments for our nominees and equally open to letting them go without misery as we worked toward consensus. My personal goal (which I achieved) when on that Committee was to be happy with our choices. I just wonder how you can do that if you go in having two tiers of books.

Good comments on all sides of the issue there too.

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Thoughts on Newbery: The Age Problem

Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.  

That is directly from the Newbery criteria and can be one of the hardest to sort out.  At least it has been for me.  I teach 4th grade in a 4th-8th grade middle school and since my students come back to me as they get older for book suggestions as well as for an after-school book club, I have some sense of how kids at the upper end of that age range respond to eligible books. Our middle school librarian, Roxanne Feldman, who was on last year’s Newbery Committee, has an even closer ear to the ground for this.  We both see many incredibly sophisticated readers who totally appreciate and get books that are for adults and/or are clearly YA. And they certainly get those books on the cusp, the ones we struggle with when trying to figure out if they fit within the Newbery level or are beyond. The question though is just because these sophisticated young readers get such books, are they within the broader cohort of their age group? That is, are these books that they are getting, but others their age are not especially –within the age range of the award?

Even harder for me as a 4th grade teacher is fighting against my personal desire to see the award go to a book for the age group I teach —  9 and 10 year olds.  I really, really, really want that, but I also want the best book to win.  And sometimes that book may be too old for 9 and 10 year olds, but just right for 13-14 year olds.

Nina Lindsay over at Heavy Medal has just posed this perennial question with her post, “The Age Question*” and I’ve already written the following comment. I look forward to others weighing in and helping us all with this complicated issue.

When I was on the Committee I consulted with our school psychologist (I’m in a 4-8 grade middle school) about development when dealing with cusp books. He was incredibly helpful at helping parse things out with such titles.

My feeling is that there are always going to be kids who can read completely anything. Kids who are sophisticated, who have a personal depth that results in their “getting” what they read in a remarkably adult-like way. I come across kids like that now and then at my school. I think of one of our students who at age 13 adored Mal Peet’s LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM which many saw as a book mostly adults would appreciate. (He has been one of our two Kid Commentators on BOB — RG—and you can read his enthusiastic pick for LIFE to win it here: But that doesn’t convince me that the book is for his age group. He and his cohort read more as adults do, they have developed quicker than their peers. That they love and appreciate these books does not convince me that they are for their chronological age group.

This year I’d put Tom McNeal’s FAR FAR AWAY in this category. I don’t know what you and Jonathan think about it and whether it will be on your discussion list, but it is getting Newbery buzz and I’m trying to work out if it is within or above the age range. The reason I lean toward above is that while there are certainly kids 14 and younger who will read and enjoy the book (always are, after all) it seems to me that the darker elements in the latter part of it will be better understood by those older with slightly different orientations on life, more experience so to speak. That is, I think that you can truly get the whole gestalt of this book if you are beyond 14 by and large.

Nina, I actually think you are on to something similar with HOKEY POKEY — in my experience, those who enjoy it and seem to get it are out of childhood, be they 50 or an 8th grader. So it may be out of Newbery age range. (That said, someone here — can’t remember who, sorry — wrote that it is being very much enjoyed by younger kids around her. That hasn’t been my experience, sadly.)

* Nina sees this as a “question,” but it has been definitely been a knotty “problem” for me.

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Some Words from a Few Past Newbery Winners

“I got my name in a crossword puzzle.”

That’s Betsy Byars on winning the Newbery. More in this lovely video from Open Road Media on some of their award winning authors, among them Virginia Hamilton, Jean Craighead George, and Chris Raschka.


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Thoughts on Newbery: Buzz, Buzz, Buzz

Thanks to Travis who drew my attention to the post “The Biebs and Ivan Connection” in which the author points out the new role social media is playing in our book world, noting the way John Schumacher and Colby Sharp fell in love with  The One and Only Ivan and enthusiastically got the word out on Twitter, blogs, and elsewhere. As a result the book was well-known and there was a lot of hope that it would win the Newbery. That it did is indeed wonderful, but I feel strongly that it is important to recognize that it did for reasons other than social media.

It won the award because the Committee took a very hard look at it alongside many other books and decided it was the best. That there was a huge social media fandom behind it had nothing to do with it.  Keep in mind that R.J. Palacio’s Wonder which had a similar social media fandom behind it, was not recognized nor was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars recognized by the Printz Committee even though it had at least as  large if not larger fan base than either Ivan or Wonder.  (John Green’s fans, known as Nerdfighters, are a social media force to be reckoned with.)  

One of the points I made in my Nerdy Book Club post, written before this year’s announcements, about the Newbery award was that:

10. Popular! Not.
Often through word-of-mouth and, these days, through social media, certain beloved titles are passionately admired and advocated as Newbery front-runners. The dismay when they are not recognized can be great. I’ve been there — standing open-mouthed when a well-known book I loved, one that I thought surely would be honored, was not. But it is important to know that the rules the members of the committee are required to follow clearly state that the award is “…not for didactic content or popularity.” That is, the committee cannot take into consideration a book’s crowd-pleasing aspects. And so if tomorrow one or more of this year’s especially well-loved books (you know which they are!) are honored, their popularity will not have been one of the reasons. And if they are not, don’t feel sad — these books will unquestionably continue to be honored by all of those who love and admire them.

What social media IS doing in a wonderful way is getting the word out about books and that is absolutely fantastic! As the result of John, Colby, and so many others this year’s Newbery winner may well be more widely known than winners in previous years and I love that. Forget about old media like The Today Show which decided to drop their interviews with the Newbery and Caldecott winners a few years ago — new media is where it’s at!


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