Category Archives: Newbery

Thoughts on Newbery: A New Day After

Yesterday was quite a day. Boy oh boy, was it! Congratulations to all the honorees and everyone involved. What follows are a few personal responses to all of it.

First of all, it is important to celebrate the committee members — they worked hard all year and this past weekend to come together to honor a group of books. The process is intense, well-designed, and carefully led and I’m sure each committee member will remember this experience as unique and like no other. Bravo to all of them.

Secondly, score for diversity! What a trilled to see it recognized by committee after committee in form, genre, age, gender, ethnicity, and race. Last year’s committees threw down the gantlet with reaching high age-wise for Caldecott and beyond traditional text with graphic novels for the Newbery. But more important was the clear attention to this year’s important, difficult, and needed conversations about race — responding to the horrible things happening in the world along with the call within our small community for greater diversity — the result this year is spectacular, not just for Newbery and Caldecott, but for all the awards. All of this makes for a clear open path for future committees. To think even more broadly and critically, following the lead of this year’s committees.

Thirdly, mea culpa for my repeated rule-bound insistence about art and text for Newbery. While I was a huge advocate for El Deafo last year, I had thought this year’s equally delightful Roller Girl was far more dependent on the art. Clearly I was wrong. Since I think it is a terrific book (and coincidently very beloved by my 4th grade students) I obviously need to recalibrate my way of reading such titles in terms of the Newbery criteria. And that is wonderful indeed. It makes me so happy to think that more works with art and graphics that advance the story can be honored by the Newbery this way.

Fourthly, while I was startled by the announcement of Last Stop in Market Street I’m not surprised, but delighted. It was certainly always one of the books I had hopes of for a Caldecott (for which it was also honored). But I realize that I pay more attention to text in picture books for older kids and so managed not to recognize the text of this one for younger kids as distinguished as it is for its intended audience. I can’t wait to read it to my 4th graders this morning — I’m sure they will be thrilled with it and it will let us all know just how grand the text is.

Fifthly, I will admit that the announcement of the selection of Sophie Blackall’s terrific Finding Winnie for the Caldecott medal had me in tears. This was not a rational response, but a completely emotional one related to the painful and challenging fall involving the discourse around Sophie’s other book, my part in it, and the important learning process it has taken me — no doubt one that I will always be doing and that we all should be doing.

Lastly, while the winners are no longer interviewed on the Today Show, they got a far better interview yesterday by the distinguished journalist Lynn Neary who actually knew something about them and could even pronounce their names correctly (just check out this 2008  Today Show video with Laura Amy Schlitz and Brian Selznick to see what I mean). Go here to listen to it. Thank you, NPR!

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Thoughts on Newbery: My Personal Druthers (for More Than the Newbery)

The announcement for this year’s ALA’s Youth Media Awards is this coming Monday, January 11th and as is true every year there are a large number of potential and worthy honorees, some having received more public scrutiny and attention than others. Having served on the 2008 Newbery committee I know how hard the members of all of this year’s committees will have worked — not just those days coming up that they will be spending together making their selections, but all year long — reading, rereading, thinking, considering, and learning. Whether I end up agreeing with them on Monday, I will respect completely their choices knowing the care, thought, and time they took to reach them. (See this post I wrote a few years ago for more about the Newbery criteria and process.)

As for what might get some ALA sticker-love this time around, the field seems wide open this year. I’m especially excited at the possibility of more boundary-breaking selections like last year’s This One Summer and El Deafo while still wondering what is possible given the current Newbery criteria. Happily, recent discussions are really helping me, especially the comments here.

So here you are, among the many eligible titles I liked, twenty special favorites:

Drowned City by Don Brown.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman.
Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle. My thoughts here.
Funny Bones by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia. My thoughts here.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead. My thoughts here.
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. My thoughts here.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick. My thoughts here.
Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin. My thoughts here.
My Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson. My thoughts here.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Rhythm Ride by Andrea Davis Pinkney. My thoughts here.
The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell.
Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. Anderson.
Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli.
Two Mice by Sergio Ruzzier. My thoughts here.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. My thoughts here.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. My thoughts here.
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon. My thoughts here.

 

 

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Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gone Crazy in Alabama

Ah, sisters…for all of us it is complicated. I have one who is two years younger. Because we traveled and moved a lot when we were children, we depended on each other for playmates and more. We fought, physically and emotionally — when we annoyed each other, when we wanted something the other had, for space, and so on; we played intensively, I remember an ongoing story we told each other on long car trips where I got to be the younger for a change (interesting how we both felt the other was more parentally privileged than the other); and today, decades later, we still look out for each other in every way. As I am certain will always be the case for the sisters in Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gone Crazy in Alabama, the finale of her trilogy centered on the Gaither family.

Let me state up front — I’ve been a huge fan of this series. I gave One Crazy Summer a rave New York Times review and was beside myself with joy when it received a Newbery Honor. I was delighted with the next book, P.S. Be Eleven and so happy that it, like its predecessor was honored with a Coretta Scott King award. And so now here we are with the final book giving this family, these sisters, and most of all Delphine Gaither, a satisfying send-off.

Crazy. It is in the title of the first book and the last one. Rightly. For the first book is crazy when the girls have their lives and understanding of life turned upside down during a, yes, crazy summer with their mother and the Black Panthers, in Oakland — the other side of the continent from the only world they’d previously known in Brooklyn. And so for this final book it is the next summer — another crazy one for some completely different reasons and some the same. Different because it is set in Alabama where there are no visible Black Panthers, instead there are very visible aspects of Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and family history. The same because it is about love, about hate, about reason and unreason, about family, learning and growing and becoming no matter your age.

The plot is complicated, full, and rich; I suggest going elsewhere if you want to know about it in detail. It involves the three sisters — Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern — going to their grandmother in Alabama for the summer. Big Ma pretty much had raised them until their father married someone who is not going to just sit home and take care of him, something very much not to their grandmother’s more old-fashioned taste. In Alabama too are their great-grandmother and her half-sister who have been feuding forever.  Their uncle who betrayed them so horribly is there too — will any of them ever forgive him? The girls are all growing older and changing — what does that all mean for each of them?

While for me the heart of the book is the relationship between Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern it is also about each girl’s evolving self. Since I adore E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web I won’t easily forget Fern’s use of it in her efforts to save her beloved chickens. There’s angry, angry Vonetta who is not one to forgive — will she stubbornly refuse to for decades like her great-grandmother? For Delphine, her sisters are growing up and able to fend for themselves. She’s watching and considering the older women, her father’s new wife, and her own mother and thinking about the woman she is going to be. Williams-Garcia’s way with characters is superb — she can give you sense of a stance (Fern balling up her fists), a feel (Vonetta’s glare), or an oddity (Big Ma’s obsession with ironed sheets) like few others.

In contrast to the three girls is the puzzling feud between their great-grandmother and her half-sister. With care, Williams-Garcia lets us know what is behind it — history that makes the racial dynamics of the past, present, and future all the more complicated. It isn’t simple — life never is. There are some harrowing moments — both from the past and from the immediate time of the book — in particular what happens when Vonetta disappears during a tornado. All in all, it is a fabulous read, one that can be appreciated in its entirety whether or not you’ve read the previous books (hint: Newbery Committee:).

Gone Crazy in Alabama is just crazy good.

 

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Thoughts on Newbery: The Nature of Distinguished

What is meant by distinguished?  How readers with a myriad of different life experiences and realities define this was broken wide open this fall during a discussion that started on the Heavy Medal blog with a consideration of Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl. Since then, the conversation has broadened beyond the one book, on various social media platforms, exploring different reading stances, the dominance of white privilege in the world of children’s books and among the adult gatekeepers, the noticing (or not) of micro-aggressions, the circumstances for child readers today, and much more. It has been a difficult one at times, emotionally intense, but one I think folks I know in this world would agree is hugely important. It has made me think hard, to reflect on how I perceive books, to revisit books I admire to see the problems that I missed, to reconsider some I use in my teaching, to rethink curriculum, and to simply keep reading and talking and learning. So I’m grateful and look forward to continuing to learn and do better. And with this all in mind, I’d like to return to The Hired Girl.  Some have pointed out that it is sometimes necessary to hold opposing notions and I think that is the case for me with this book, one I continue to see as distinguished Newbery-wise while recognizing that it may be a problematic read for some readers.

To review, The Hired Girl is presented as the diary of one extremely unreliable narrator, 1911 farm girl Joan Skraggs.  After a brutally isolated life on a Pennsylvania farm, toiling away for her brothers and father, the motherless Joan runs away to Baltimore where she ends up the hired girl of a wealthy German Jewish family. In classic Bildungsroman fashion, the fourteen year-old who successfully passes for eighteen, bangs up again and again with what she doesn’t know, gaining knowledge each time. The issue is that much of what she doesn’t know, what she blurts out, considers, repeats from others (say her father or books), mulls over, and does is often racist, stereotypic, and otherwise problematic. That this is true to her time and place seems not to be in question. That these individual moments might be offensive to certain readers today is.

And so there is the dilemma we’ve been grappling with — if there is something in a book that is offensive to certain members of the reading population does that mean it can no longer be distinguished?  As a member of one of the minority groups represented in the book, I would say it still can be. In our case, that of Jews, the online response has been wide-ranging. All are bringing their own life-experiences to their reading of the book; in some cases this makes it a painful read, but in others it is an affirming, funny, and enjoyable read, one that some of us consider of high literary merit, say Marjorie Ingall who not only named it one of the best Jewish Children’s Books of 2015, but also her favorite novel among them.

While the story revolves around a Jewish family and Joan’s interactions with them, Jews aren’t the only group to receive a stereotypic 1911 presentation. African Americans, Irish Americans, and American Indians also are mentioned. Of these, it is the last that has provoked the greatest amount of discussion. The two references to American Indians in the book are absolutely unquestionably stereotypic; if you are not already familiar with them please visit this post by Debbie Reese for an overview.

For some, that these two moments are in the book is what keeps it from being award-worthy, that is, distinguished. Yet, even after rereading, listening, reading, and mulling it all over, I continue to think they do need to be there and that they are does not compromise the book in terms of its literary merit.  I know that there will be disagreements here, but this is my current thinking. Joan is white and that means that for all her hardships she still is privileged, even in 1911 Baltimore. Not only isn’t she Jewish, but she also isn’t African American, Irish American, or American Indian — all groups that receive varying degrees of stereotypic mentions in the book. These are all folks she has never encountered before in her previous isolated life. What little she knows about them is through books and whatever her beloved teacher passed on to her. And so she, in her at times arrogant white privileged place, repeatedly speaks of these stereotypes, ones that she is unlearning as she encounters reality.  Some of this reality is the result of firsthand experience as in the case of Jews, but some of it is through the broadening lens that all of it is affording her. If she has learned that Jews are real and civilized, she is also presumably beginning to think of others she had only thought of vaguely before, as real and nothing like the stereotypes her older self knew.

Books and reading offer so many different experiences. The learning can be as specific as Joan learning about the religious practices of these Baltimore German Jews or as general as Joan’s learning that the world is bigger and broader than the one she knew on her father’s farm. This is a book that is going to offer so many different experiences for those readers that chose to read it. And that idea of choice is important. For this is certainly not a book for all readers — again, there will be some who will indeed find aspects of it offensive and they should not read it. But there will be some young readers, indeed some among the minority groups of the book (I posted over at Heavy Medal a response by a Jewish 8th grader at my school) who will like it, tremendously. These will be the readers who will identify with Joan’s passion, her desire to learn, to love, to think, to contemplate, to embrace faith, to yearn to do art, to write. They will learn and grown themselves through this — perhaps and hopefully about prejudice, about the limited, stereotypic, and racist world views of 1911 whites, about the details of observant Jewish life — and then about themselves and the world today as well. It is all of this that continues to make this book for me distinguished and worthy of this year’s Newbery award.

I’m still reading, learning, rethinking, and trying. This is one moment on my journey doing so.

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Thoughts on Newbery: If I Could Change One Rule

Here’s my comment on Betsy Bird’s provocative post of today: “If you could change any rule…

More awards are certainly all well and good, but the Newbery is the biggie out there (for better or worse it is the only one most know) and therefore as I’ve argued many times before, I’d like its criteria to change to be positive about the way art and design propel the storytelling. A graphic novel award will not keep the Newbery Committee from continuing to grapple with the current negative criteria* regarding more boundary-breaking works. Seems to me their energy should not be expended in contortions to make a less-conventionally-produced story fit, but rather in its quality. (El Deafo’s Honor this year does not prove that the criteria is fine as is. It happens to have text that does work without the images beautifully, but that isn’t always the case. And so, why should works like El Deafo be the only ones to have a chance?)

*The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.

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Thoughts on Newbery: The Day After (and El Deafo Redux)

Well, saying I’m pretty happy today is an understatement. First of all, congratulations to all honorees, committee members, contenders, creators, publishers, readers, writers, editors, marketers, publicists, librarians, and everyone else who had a stake in these awards. Secondly, EL DEAFO!!!!!!!!!!!

After telling my 4th graders that it was the day of the award announcements and about my hopes for winners, highlighting El Deafo as the one I hoped for the most while also telling them why it was unlikely, I went into the hallway to watch the announcements while someone else was teaching them. The period ended just before the final two awards were announced so I went back and a few of my students stayed to watch while some 6th graders started coming in for a class they have in my room. When El Deafo was announced I screamed and jumped about. Now I often scream and jump about when I’m at the announcements in person, but the practice isn’t something most people associate with me at school, especially my students. So the kids were rather amazed, not quite sure why I was behaving this way. After they headed off to art class, I tried to express my enthusiasm to some colleagues who smiled benevolently and went back to whatever they were doing. Thank goodness for twitter where there were others who understood and shared my enthusiasm.

I’m very happy with The Crossover getting the medal and Brown Girl Dreaming getting the other honor — both were on my short list — but my heart is with El Deafo.  I just hope that its honor does not cause ALSC to sit back and feel this proves that the criteria don’t need to be changed. They do. While El Deafo, as I proved, shines for its text, in many other fabulous graphic novels the text does not work as well without the art. On Sunday I ended up in a lively twitter conversation about this — I argued then, before, and now that the criteria need to be altered so that it is easier for graphic novels to be considered with their art and design being considered in a positive way, not if they make the book “less effective,” as in the current criteria.

As for the other awards, let’s talk Caldecott. I was especially thrilled with three personal favorites of mine,  The Right Word, Viva Frida, and Sam & Davegetting honors. And then, This One Summer, my oh my. I love it, but it never occurred to me to think of it for Caldecott. Kudos to the Committee for be more out-of-the-box thinkers than me. It is a beautiful book and highly deserving of the award. That said, its honor doesn’t get ALSC off the hook in terms of relooking at the Newbery criteria. Still needs doing. And then the Sibert Awards. Awesome to see The Right Word get the medal followed by a fabulous array of honors.

sam&dave

 

 

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Thoughts on Newbery: Today’s the Day!

In a few hours all will be known. The award winners will have been called and the announcements in snowy Chicago will have been made. My congratulations to all in advance — the honorees, those who were considered, and the hard working committee members. And as a public service for anyone dismayed for any reason, here are a couple of posts that may help.

  • If you think the committee missed an important book, must have not given the award because the author was too well-known, felt another committee would take care of the particular book, or have other unhappy thoughts about why the book you loved wasn’t honored, I wrote the following for you: Top Ten Things You May Not Know about the Newbery Award.
  • And for those creators whose books were getting a lot of buzz, but ended up without honors, this one is for you: Thoughts on Newbery: This Year (and be sure to read the comments).

 

 

 

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