“You’ve got winner written all over you,” says the Whack-a-Duck man in Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee’s Bink & Gollie: Two For One, winner of the 2014 Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence in children’s video. “How I love it when little ladies win large donuts.”
Kate DiCamillo is having a very good year. On January 2, 2014, she was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, just the fourth person to hold this title (and in excellent company: emeriti ambassadors are Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, and Walter Dean Myers). Then on January 27, she won the biggest donut of them all — the Newbery Medal — for her middle-grade novel Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (illustrated by K. G. Campbell). This wasn’t DiCamillo’s first Newbery nod. In 2004 she won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and Because of Winn-Dixie, her children’s book debut, was a 2001 Honor Book.
It’s not hard to see why the 2014 Newbery committee selected Flora & Ulysses. To fall back on old Newbery stereotypes, it’s a plucky-girl book, and the committee likes plucky-girl books. In another life, Flora could have had sleepovers with Lucky, tessered with Meg, run away to the museum with Claudia, or learned life lessons from Dicey.
Plus — bonus! — Flora & Ulysses is an animal fantasy, in step with Newbery winners Ivan, Despereaux, Mrs. Frisby, and others. It’s also silly and funny (which Newbery winners are often not), smart, and heart-tugging. It’s got catchy catchphrases — Holy bagumba! — loyal sidekicks, clueless parents who gain a clue in the end, and, perhaps that most elusive of Newbery qualities, kid appeal (what kid doesn’t love superhero comics starring a wily squirrel?).
That said, Flora & Ulysses was not a sure thing to win the 2014 award; not by a long shot. There were some Very Big Books in 2013 — books that received lots of love, lots of buzz, and lots of critical acclaim — that were shut out of the big prize.
It’s not uncommon for the National Book Award winner and the Newbery winner to be different; in fact, they almost always are (the last time they overlapped, it was for Holes, a hard book to beat). Last year’s NBA winner was Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck, a 2014 Newbery contender. The story, starring a twelve-year-old Japanese American girl named Summer, is about (take a deep breath): cultural identity, extended family, sibling dynamics, prejudice, first love, mosquitoes, facing fears, disability, and contemporary farm life. Sounds like a lot, but it all works. There are also some laughs: “It’s a hard life, but Summer’s chatty narrative and her grandparents’ terse humor manage to keep things light,” said The Horn Book Magazine review. The Thing About Luck won School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal Newbery vote (a mock prize, sure, but a well-regarded one), and Kadohata is a former Newbery medalist, in 2005 for Kira-Kira. Her chances seemed good this year, but she — and her plucky combine-driving protagonist — was left out to pasture.
Another surprising omission was P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia, sequel to 2011 Newbery Honor Book One Crazy Summer. P.S. Be Eleven won the Coretta Scott King Author Award, as did One Crazy Summer when it came out. There’s a longstanding debate about the CSK Award and other so-called “niche” awards, many of which recognize multicultural or otherwise “other” books. Namely, the argument is whether the CSK is a sort of Newbery-for-People-of-Color, leading to these books being slighted for the big prize. The last African American Newbery Medal protagonist was Bud (not Buddy) in 2000, and fans of P.S. Be Eleven’s Delphine may well be disappointed that two white girls, two white boys, the Doll Bones kids, and a supernatural squirrel edged out a vibrantly portrayed nonwhite character — and a plucky girl at that. Whatever happened behind closed doors with the Newbery committee, P.S. Be Eleven’s nuanced, diverse characters and evocation of setting (late-1960s Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York) — all, believably, seen from the eyes of eleven-going-on-twelve-year-old Delphine — make the book stand out.
There were some other favorites this year about which we can reasonably speculate. The wonderful Far Far Away by Tom McNeal? Too old for Newbery, said some. Kathi Appelt’s True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp? Ugh, that intrusive narrator, griped others. Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s? Too-happy ending. Nonfiction was also absent from this year’s list, another perennial sticking point (isn’t that what the Sibert is for? she asks ironically). In any case, most of the biggies this year — John Lewis’s autobiographical graphic novel March: Book 1, for example, along with Steve Jenkins’s The Animal Book and Don Brown’s The Great American Dust Bowl — are so dependent on illustration (i.e., they work so beautifully as a complete book; again, said ironically) that Newbery for text alone might be considered a stretch.
This year, four Honor Books were named, perhaps helping to ease the sting for those who were disappointed by the winner (and there will always be people disappointed by the winner). It would be hard to find fault with The Year of Billy Miller as an Honor Book selection. The story is told in four sections, each one focused on an important person in second grader Billy’s life — Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother. From this thoughtful structure emerges a picture of a very sympathetic but always realistic — not angelic — boy, along with well-rounded portraits of the other main characters, all of whom are developing in ways both subtle and profound over the course of an ordinary school year. Author Kevin Henkes previously won a Newbery Honor (incidentally, the same year Despereaux won gold, 2004) for Olive’s Ocean. He also won the Caldecott Medal, in 2005, for Kitten’s First Full Moon, and a Caldecott Honor in 1994 for Owen. Like Flora & Ulysses, Billy Miller is an illustrated book, and the black-and-white pictures by Henkes — though they’re irrelevant to Newbery discussion — enhance the book’s accessibility for a variety of readers, both school-oriented and not. It’s nice when nice guys don’t finish last, and The Year of Billy Miller is a book that’s easy to champion, just as Billy the boy is easy to root for.
Another nice-guy character that won a Newbery Honor this year is the eleven-year-old protagonist of Vince Vawter’s Paperboy. Nicknamed “Little Man” by his family’s African American maid (the story is set in 1959 Memphis and based on Vawter’s childhood), the main character has a pronounced stutter that makes him self-conscious and shy. Paperboy was, to many, a surprise as an Honor Book. It’s a fairly quiet book about a quiet kid. But overcoming obstacles is a common theme in children’s books, and when it’s portrayed with both sensitivity and believability, readers can come away feeling inspired and uplifted.
After reading Doll Bones, another (illustrated) Honor Book, they can also come away feeling…creeped out. The book stars three best friends, Zach, Poppy, and Alice — and a bone china doll that seems to haunt them. It’s part eerie ghost story and part coming-of-age, friends-grow-apart, ew-who-wants-to-play-with-girls story. The prolific Holly Black, perhaps best known for her Spiderwick Chronicles series for middle graders and her paranormal romances for young adults, knows how to play to her different audiences, and kids who love scary stories, especially scary doll stories, will not be disappointed by this shivers-inducing book.
When’s the last time a Western saw Newbery recognition? (That’s not a rhetorical question. Has there been one? “Smoky the Cowhorse in 1927!” cries crypt-keeper Roger.) What about a Western starring an ahem plucky girl, namely Georgie, who’s trying to find out whether the disfigured body discovered at the side of the road and wearing her sister Agatha’s clothing really is, as everyone believes, her missing sister? If so, how can Georgie cope? But if not…whose body is it? And where in tarnation is Agatha? Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home manages to work in lots of humor and local color, along with a decent amount of gory violence and some romance and questions of gender inequity. The book, somewhat reminiscent of film’s True Grit, especially the 2010 remake, is nevertheless a true original amidst the vast prairieland of children’s books.
“Stories Connect Us,” we’re reminded by Kate DiCamillo, who chose that as her National Ambassador platform. As she says on her website:
When we read together — when a grandfather reads to a granddaughter, when a teacher reads to a classroom, when a parent reads to a child, when a sister reads to a brother, when everyone in a town reads the same book silently, together — we are taken out of our aloneness.
Together, we see the world.
Together, we see one another.
And when we connect, we are changed.
It’s an apt and inspiring message, whether talking about Newbery books or CSK winners, ghost stories or realistic fiction, squirrel comics or Westerns. Emotions may run high come Newbery time, but our common goal — to champion excellent books for young readers — keeps us connected as we continue the conversation.