A Place for Poetry

Poetry has so much to offer young readers: beautiful language, musical rhythms, creative formats, powerful emotions, and so much more. Yet, when it comes to award recognition, poetry has rarely had a place at the Newbery table. Just sixteen books of poetry have been recognized with Newbery Medals or Honors in the award’s one hundred years.

Why might that be? I think there are several factors at work. First, many adults have a negative perception of poetry, either because they were forced to memorize or analyze poetry and felt inadequate, or because they weren’t exposed to it at all and don’t see its appeal. But I also believe the ­Newbery criteria themselves are a f­actor. To choose “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” the Newbery committee considers the ­following criteria:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style
  • Excellence of presentation for a child audience

Of course, not all criteria will be exemplified by any single book, but you’ll note that the majority of them set an expectation that a work of fiction — a story with “characters,” a “plot,” and a “setting” — will be the norm. The second criterion allows for the possibility of nonfiction or informational books. But which calls to mind the potential of poetry specifically? Perhaps “interpretation of the theme or concept”? Or the very general “appropriateness of style”? But without an explicit mention of language, much less rhyme, rhythm, or figurative language, it’s hard to make the Newbery case, especially for a collection of poems without a story frame.

In fact, it took sixty years for poetry to get on the Newbery map. During that time, 265 books had received Newbery awards and honors, and none of them was a work of poetry. But finally, in 1982, that changed. A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Alice and ­Martin Provensen, became the first poetry book recognized with this prestigious award — and not as an honor book, but as the medal winner! The magical visit to a fantastical inn is told through a series of sixteen rhyming poems inspired by the poetry of William Blake. It’s a quirky book, full of nonsense and mischief. It was a breakthrough win — a picture book! poetry! — but note that Willard frames it as a story, with a young narrator: there’s a plot; there are characters. And Newbery committees tend to love a story.

Seven years later came another first, when a true poetry collection (not a story told through poetry) won the Newbery Medal: Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Eric Beddows. As such, it was an even greater departure from Newbery norms than A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. In this collection of poems about the insect world, there is no central character, no linear plot, none of the usual elements found in novels. It’s fun to read aloud, with two voices bringing insect perspectives to life, but you can start anywhere and choose any poem; no need to read from front to back to follow a story. A pure poetry collection gaining Newbery recognition has only happened one other time (so far), with a Newbery Honor for Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, in 2011, in which a dozen lyrical poems (with illustrations by Rick Allen) explore the nature of nocturnal animals and their habitats, with informative prose paragraphs ­accompanying each.

After Joyful Noise, the next time poetry garnered Newbery recognition was for a third category: the verse novel. Karen Hesse won the 1998 Newbery Medal for Out of the Dust, about Depression-era life in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. The Horn Book observed, “Even the pages of the book, composed solely of first-person, free-verse poems, have a windswept appearance…the spare verses showcase the poetry of everyday language; the pauses between line breaks speak eloquently.” Out of the Dust is one of the earliest examples of the verse novel form published for young readers. Not only did it usher in a new era of novels in verse for this audience, it offered powerful examples of a dramatic plot, vivid characters, and a pivotal setting — all elements delineated in the Newbery criteria.

As they gained in popularity, novels in verse would continue to gain ­Newbery notice, with Kwame ­Alexander’s very different title The Crossover — contemporary-set, ­basketball-centered, infused with hip-hop and jazz — winning gold in 2015. The ­Crossover has sold half a million ­copies, has been adapted into graphic novel form, and is being filmed for Disney+ as a television series. Clearly, poetry has appeal to young readers!

The 2000s have seen many more verse novels, memoirs, and biographies named Honor Books. These include: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2015), about the author’s early life; The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (2009), a historical tale by Margarita Engle; Inside Out & Back Again (2012) by Thanhhà Lai, inspired by her own experiences as a Vietnamese refugee; Other Words for Home (2020) by Jasmine Warga, about a girl leaving war-torn Syria for Cincinnati; Red, White, and Whole (2022) by Rajani LaRocca, about growing up in an immigrant family, feeling part of two worlds; Jason Reynolds’s brilliant Long Way Down (2018), featuring a character contemplating a huge moral dilemma in a single elevator ride; and Marilyn Nelson’s powerful portrait of George ­Washington Carver, in Carver: A Life in Poems (2002). Each of these uses the poetic form (and plenty of white space) to give readers a compelling story to absorb while they savor the way it is told.

* * *

To me, one of the more encouraging Newbery trends is increasing recognition for another type of innovative poetry book: poem picture books. These picture books told through poetry meld the power of art and illustration with the purposeful placement of text with the line breaks of poetry. These are not rhyming picture books or ­picture-book collections of poetry; rather, the text consists of a single poem (often with multiple stanzas) or a series of connected poems spread across the pages of the entire book. One clear example is The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, which he wrote and presented as a poem before it was illustrated by Kadir Nelson (­winner of the 2020 Caldecott Medal and a Newbery Honor). Another example is Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by ­Derrick Barnes (illustrated by ­Gordon C. James), which won Newbery and Caldecott honors in 2018. Barnes said that when he ­finished writing it, he performed the poem for his family at the dinner table “like we were at a spoken word lounge.” Carole Boston Weatherford writes the text for many of her nonfiction picture books in verse or poem form. For the 2021 Newbery Honor Book Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom (illustrated by Michele Wood), she used six-line stanzas throughout to represent the exterior sides of a box. And just this year, Andrea Wang won a Newbery Honor for Watercress (which won the Caldecott Medal for Jason Chin as well), ­noting that she wrote the text as free-verse poems. Taken together, the examples show the variety of approaches that are possible and how poetry can make each of these picture books distinctive and unique. It’s lovely that Newbery committees are including more picture books in their choices — and telling that those are often written as poetry.

The label of “poetry” is also expanding to include a greater variety of book formats — one of poetry’s beautiful, elastic qualities. Unless the word “poetry” or “poems” is included in a book’s title, it can seem like a work is first considered fiction or nonfiction and that the poetry of the text is merely a vehicle for storytelling or information sharing. In that way, poetry becomes something to tolerate rather than celebrate. I would argue, instead, that poetry elevates the subject matter, the book design, and the reading experience. (And I see a parallel with the boom in graphic novels, in which stories of all kinds are being told visually through panels of illustrations integrating text.) The new millennium has brought great variety in terms of poetry awardees: biographies and memoirs, contemporary and historical fiction in verse, and a range of picture books. This intersection of genres is fascinating, with poets crafting works that are both poetry and something else at the same time (fiction, history, nonfiction, autobiography).

As we look forward into the Newbery’s future, I offer a few points to consider. Something of particular note is that all but one of the dozen poetry books recognized by Newbery committees since 1998 are written by authors of color. Poetry is a prominent part of many literary traditions around the world, and today’s diverse poets reflect those traditions. The Coretta Scott King Book Award juries have long heralded poetry books and even include an appendix with tips for reviewing poetry in their manual — perhaps something for the Newbery to consider as well.

Another possibility is a separate award for poetry to elevate the genre and encourage greater awareness and closer consideration (viz. Geisel, Sibert, and others). Newbery founder Frederic G. Melcher had a special love for poetry, and before his death in 1963 was working with ALSC to create a poetry award named after A. A. Milne, according to correspondence in the ALA Archives.

The fact remains that only two of the sixteen Newbery-recognized poetry books have been poetry collections without a story thread; all of the others have a narrative frame, which Newbery committees seem to favor, especially verse novels. But recent years have shown that Newbery committees are considering poem picture books and poetry collections as well, and I hope that lens continues to widen. If we want to recognize “distinguished contributions” to literature for children and continue fulfilling the official purpose of the ­Newbery Award — to encourage writers (and poets), to showcase diverse children’s literature to the world at large, and to involve librarians in this process — then I challenge future Newbery committees to use a kaleidoscope of criteria to give equal consideration to books that tell stories, that inform and enlighten, and that lift up the power of poetry.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Sylvia Vardell

Sylvia Vardell is a professor in the School of Library & Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University and author of Children’s Literature in Action, Poetry Aloud Here, A World Full of Poems and the Poetry for Children blog.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.