Newbery speculation is alive and healthy, with even the mock awards receiving national news coverage (and with the USA Today reporter who interviewed me also confiding that his fifth-grade son was participating in one). Happily, the growing din of the buzz doesn’t seem to affect the pleasure of the surprise at the award press conference.
Perhaps the least surprising this year was the first honor announced: Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again. It received starred reviews in many of the major review publications, was on most of their “best of ” lists for the year, and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Still, it stretches the Newbery canon both with its form, becoming one of only three verse novels ever to be honored (along with Karen Hesse’s winner Out of the Dust in 1998 and Margarita Engle’s honor book The Surrender Tree in 2009), and with its authorship, as nonwhite and first-time authors still seem underrepresented on the list. Lai’s verse form makes her protagonists’ observations tangible—small moments given as much attention as the large ones, as in real life—providing an engaging lens for a story that is both specific and universal.
Eugene Yelchin’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose, however, took nearly everyone by surprise (its inclusion on The Horn Book’s Fanfare list its only previous major notice). It also extends the Newbery canon by offering a very short, illustrated novel, one that delivers many layers through its prose and plants ideas that unfurl in the reader’s mind long after the narrative has forged its path. Yelchin is an artist, a character designer for animated film (including the Oscar-winning Rango), and has illustrated many picture books, including collaborations with his writer wife. He clearly understands the role that image plays in story, and he uses it to great effect in his intimate and active present-tense narrative.
The story of a family adjusting to a new life in the United States after fleeing Communist Vietnam; and the story of a boy in Stalinist Russia. It’s hard, with this sole pair of honor books, not to notice the Cold War setting of the year’s Newbery Medal winner, Dead End in Norvelt. The week before the Newbery awards were announced, in fact, Dead End had been selected as the winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction, casting the book in a new light for me. (Is it “historical fiction”? I guess so…as much as it is “a funny book,” as I heard someone delight moments after the announcements: “Finally, a funny book wins the Newbery!”) Here, the shadow of communism is really setting more than subject, but it makes for an amazing coincidence that’s worth pointing out, if only to understand how truly coincidental it must be. The Newbery committee does not consider the didactic content of the books under consideration. It deliberates on the literary aspects of the works, including “interpretation of theme or concept”… that is, how well the authors deliver their message, rather than the message itself. And every Newbery committee stumbles across pairs of coincidences in its year of reading. (One year when I served there were two titles in which the respective protagonists each lost an arm to a wild animal.)
The stories themselves are all radically different, as are the styles. If Yelchin’s tool is image, as I’ve suggested, then Lai’s is voice, and Gantos’s…well, humor! Yet aside from the noted coincidence, in a year that boasted a broad field of books with a variety of distinguished literary elements, I think these three, and especially the two honors, show particular strength in “interpretation of theme or concept” above the other criteria. Though the number of honor books is up to the discretion of the committee, they must be the next titles in highest total points on the final ballot taken (those who want to understand more of the intricacies of the voting process can Google “Newbery Manual”). So the honors speak directly to what was considered the most distinguished—individual title by individual title—that year. But we also can’t help ourselves in asking what indirect statement they make about the year’s range, and while each year’s set of honors shows us different aspects of “distinguished literature for children,” in this year’s I see a fairly homogeneous concept.
So, what other examples of “distinguished literature” should we not forget from this year? Though it’s impossible to predict the awards, this year was particularly challenging as buzz about the cream of the crop was all over the map.
There were several nonfiction titles strong enough in writing alone that I could have seen them joining the ranks of An American Plague; Claudette Colvin; The Voice That Challenged a Nation; and Hitler Youth…all recent Newbery Honor–winning nonfiction titles. Candace Fleming’s Amelia Lost (one of the winners of the online Heavy Medal Mock Newbery I run with Jonathan Hunt) created a “you are there” immediacy by interspersing the author’s overview of Amelia Earhart’s career (warts and all) with shifting point-of-view asides from those who listened in to the radio reports of her final flight. Karen Blumenthal’s Bootleg took a well-known chapter of American history (Prohibition) and turned it into a riveting political narrative, while Sally M. Walker’s Blizzard of Glass took a neglected chapter of history (the Halifax Explosion of 1917) and made it horrifyingly relevant.
Some of the other best candidates last year were challenged by the Newbery criteria’s focus exclusively on text, and by the “apples and oranges” problem that makes books with more text stand out better than books with less, although quantity is clearly not supposed to enter into it, according to the terms. Among my favorites:
Drawing from Memory by Allen Say. In a book that defies categorization, it is the interplay of text and illustration, of pacing, and rhythm, and shifts in tone of both, that makes it distinguished. Few ALA award criteria celebrate this kind of artistry, even though it epitomizes a wholly realized book. Happily, the Sibert committee did recognize it with an honor.
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature. Yes, Joyce Sidman won a Newbery Honor last year for a similar book, Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, but this one is distinguished for different reasons, and in any case each year’s committee doesn’t concern itself with anything else but its year’s books. There are 153 words in Sidman’s main text, and they do triple duty in providing information, a comforting laptime story, and toothsome poetry.
Brock Cole is undersung for his picture book texts, as his divine illustrations play equal part in the storytelling. Read The Money We’ll Save aloud to hear the artistry in his perfectly timed narrative rhythm and humor. A familiar plot shape gets a vaudevillian twist cued exactly to its audience’s appreciations.
There were many other exemplary books this year with a more “traditional” Newbery cast and clear literary merit. Was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness felled by eligibility issues? His text stands out as one of the most technically adept of the year. Did Franny Billingsley’s Chime just not cut the committee’s interpretation of a book for “children…up to and including age 14”? It might not be a “children’s” book when it comes down to it, but it certainly has an extraordinarily well developed magical setting. Was Jennifer L. Holm’s simultaneously hilarious and chilling The Trouble with May Amelia just one of those “love it or hate it” titles that depends upon that year’s committee makeup to sway it one way or the other? It’s hard to find a lazy word in her short and zinging novel.
Or, perhaps, did we all just talk some of these (and others) up too much? It gets harder every year to see past the public excitement during award season. We’re discussing the literary merits of the year’s best books: this is good! But it’s challenging to remember that the committee reads further and deeper than any of us.
This year, however, I do think we may have publicly exhausted the merits and faults of one book: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. Bizarre cover-art resemblance to the winner’s aside, this title was probably the closest thing to a “shoo-in” we could have had this year, next to Inside Out & Back Again. So when I saw Lai’s name on the screen at the press conference (the honors are generally announced alphabetically by author), I was pretty sure we’d see Schmidt’s. I had been wowed by his ability to establish setting without ever overtly showing it, and by the fullness and breadth of his characterization and the genuineness evoked by his narrator. Doug’s voice carries just enough teenaged bluster that we have to sometimes read between the lines, making him more true-to-life than most protagonists we met last year. And in a year in which several short texts stood out, Okay for Now took its readers further, word for word, than any other novel of its heft. Schmidt’s prose is distinguished. It’s also, somehow, in its enthusiasm, sloppy. While no Newbery winner is flawless, a preponderance of eyebrow-raisers in a plot not only makes consensus challenging but also, at some point, makes a book less distinguished. With Okay for Now ranked number one on the Goodreads Newbery poll right out of the gate and probably the most publicly discussed contender, the buzz did get snarly around this one, especially when it garnered no award seals at all. But buzz is flighty…once we’re each over any mild embarrassment in having been so off-target in our predictions, it’s easy to return to the delight of the committee’s selection of its winner.
Dead End in Norvelt was not unnoticed before the announcements, with three starred reviews, a Horn Book Fanfare citation, appearances on Kirkus and PW’s “best of” lists, and the Scott O’Dell Award. But it looked like a hard sell for committee consensus simply because it is so outlandish. Here we have a fictional Jack Gantos, reputably more or less the real one, but amped up in parts for comic or tragic effect. The twelve-year-old Gantos sees fully that adults are as off-base and weird as kids, and this, appropriately, scares him. Wildly aimed humor and nosebleeds seem to be his coping mechanisms…as if he has to fail at things spectacularly, or at least make a mess of them, in order to see the world clearly: probably a habit learned by trying to please such temperamentally mismatched parents. The even odder Mrs. Volker somehow makes a balancing trio of role models for Jack, and provides some of the best center-stage humor in the book. (“I want you to take a sleeve of Thin Mints and line them up on the edge of the kitchen counter and then when I’m hungry I can just bend over and sweep a cookie into my mouth like I’m scoring a goal in hockey.”) It is historical fiction, and a funny book, and somehow, strangely, a cautionary tale. Gantos uses the historical backdrop to reveal the at-odds views of his parents, allowing him to develop his character’s political perspective simultaneously with the personal. His father desires “progress” but feels challenged by threats real or imagined, while his mother cherishes the socially progressive values of the founders of her hometown. When Mom tries to barter with the doctor, when Dad determines to build a bomb shelter…Gantos is at once embarrassed, proud, and intrigued. He lights a path for his fictional self, and for any of his readers who care to follow, to become an ethically confused, emotionally sound, and ultimately thoughtful adult.
In my whole year of reading, Dead End achieved two of my favorite literary effects. It actually delivered on its preposterous hints of murder…which seem so clearly to have been laid as a comic red-herring that when it turns out there had been a murderer afoot killing little old ladies, the reader guffaws, thereby becoming more outlandish and inappropriate than the characters in the book (they are horrified). He also wrote my favorite ending of the year, a flying leap that could have been the mother of all belly flops but isn’t, because he pulls himself together with a tiny bit of empathy and wisdom at the last possible minute (actually, perhaps a minute past the last one)…thereby assuring us that we’re not unredeemable, ourselves.
Like an ill-advised combo of pizza toppings that turns out to be fabulous, Gantos’s startling blend of humor and humility shoots high and, well, gives us something to remember. Which—his readers will recall—is his point.