From the Chair: Universality in Times of Uncertainty (2020 Newbery Committee, ALA)

In these times of uncertainty, we can all relate to what’s happening now because we are all experiencing it on some level. We have a shared experience. How we react to our situation and what we learn about ourselves may be what we look back on as our defining moments. Will we navigate each circumstance with a sense of resilience? What will we learn about ourselves; our identity? How will we connect and form a community?

Each of the stories the Newbery committee chose to recognize is universal. While not all of us may have experienced being the “new kid,” or having emigrated from Syria, or, thankfully, having been brought across the ocean on slave ships; and none of us are foxes — we have all wanted to belong. Many of us have felt compelled to deal with our identities, and are still growing and learning from our choices.

I’ve asked my fellow 2020 Newbery Award Selection Committee members to provide their insight into our shared experience. Committee member Mary Voors sums up best what it was like to serve: “From a group of strangers who did not know each other at the beginning of the process, we grew into a cohesive unit.”

Part of growing into cohesiveness started with us beginning each meeting by reading the Newbery Award terms, definitions, and criteria. We did this for our in-person and virtual meetings. We were a pilot group for meeting, virtually, on Zoom, before Midwinter, and while we did not discuss the books in these “process” meetings, we discussed the Newbery manual, how it related to our process, and things within it that we thought needed clarification. We discussed Thom Barthelmess’s 2014 Horn Book article “Thom’s Rules of Order: Ten Tips for Good Book Discussion” and how to apply it to the work ahead of us. I wanted our decisions to be made based on what was specifically put before us in our official manual.
I wanted us to practice mindfulness and be respectful of each person’s opinion. I believe that everyone who was in the “room where it happened” had a voice and perspective that mattered. We also discussed our biases and how they could possibly affect what we picked up to read, how we read, and how we understood what we read. This latter consideration is one of the reasons that I feel committees always need to be inclusive and diverse. We believed that meeting virtually every month helped us to not feel isolated in our experience. Who knew that, just a few short months later, millions would be using Zoom/virtual meetings in isolation?

On each book affixed with a shiny sticker can be found a sense of resiliency, identity, and community. As committee members we had struggles to overcome, mountains of books to comb through, but we all had one goal: to name the most distinguished book of the year for children in American literature. We didn’t know we would make history by naming New Kid as the first graphic novel to take home the coveted medal. We did know we would change lives; we just didn’t realize ours would be the ones forever changed by this great privilege to serve on the 2020 Newbery Committee. And now on to the honor books and medalist.


Scary Stories for Young Foxes
by Christian McKay Heidicker; illustrated by Junyi Wu (Holt)

When we think of resilience, we don’t necessarily think of foxes, but what Heidicker manages to do in honor book Scary Stories for Young Foxes is paint a lovely, deliciously scary story about seven foxes who, if they make it to the end of the story, will have everything they need to survive. He does this masterfully with lush imagery and intriguing characters. Committee member Eileen Makoff says Heidicker “makes the woods come alive; it’s hard to remember that you’re not right there in the story. It’s so effective that I actually recommend my kiddos read it during the daytime.”



Other Words for Home
by Jasmine Warga (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)

Other Words for Home explores resilience and identity in a more straightforward, but just as impactful, way. This book has been described as “pure heart” by many of the committee members, who each had a hard time not choking up. Using highly accessible free verse, Warga manages to let us into Jude’s world — a world that has been upended by her fleeing Syria and having to leave key members of her family behind. It’s a beautiful immigration story that had us all rooting for Jude and applauding her resilience.



The Undefeated
by Kwame Alexander; illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Versify/Houghton)

Alexander has written a love letter to the African American people. With ­language that emotionally resonates with the reader, Alexander found a way to intersect the past with the present. He found a way to celebrate these icons of American history. He took the pain of the slave trade, the senseless violence against Black and Brown bodies, and shone a light on the strength and resilience of African Americans. Nelson’s illustrations were a perfect complement to a powerful text.


Genesis Begins Again
by Alicia D. Williams (Dlouhy/Atheneum)

If our main character, Genesis, could have read The Undefeated, I wonder if her list of ninety-six things she doesn’t like about herself would have ever existed. This novel was such a captivatingly different read, and Genesis such a compelling character; as committee member Dennis LeLoup said, “Genesis was so honest that I will never forget her.” The story dealt with complex issues of colorism, alcoholism, and identity, but it managed to do so in a way that respected its audience. Self-loathing is common among many children in middle school, and Williams was able to write a protagonist that we all wanted to stand up for and whose story we were invested in.


New Kid
written and illustrated by Jerry Craft (Quill Tree/HarperCollins)

Last but not least, Craft’s Newbery Medalist New Kid created an intimate portrait of the world of a very relatable seventh grader, Jordan Banks, who drew us in with his story and held us there. This snapshot of life manages to speak to African American kids, immigrant kids, kids who feel like they don’t belong.
If you’ve ever felt like life was too much or you weren’t enough, you could read this book and you could relate. Craft manages to tell a story that is textually and visually intriguing. Jordan is you. Jordan is other. Jordan is what we all hope to be when we come out on the other side of our story. New Kid represents that sense of resiliency that is so important.

Read Jerry Craft's Newbery Medal speech here.

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The 2020 Newbery Committee hopes that readers will all learn and grow when reading the choices we’ve made, and that everyone who picks up the medal winner and honor books will feel the wave of love we feel every time we see those shiny stickers on the cover. 

Members of the 2020 Newbery Award Selection Committee
Front: Jenna Friebel, Deanna Romriell, Dr. Alpha DeLap. Middle: K.C. Boyd, Sandy Wee, Beatriz Pascual Wallace, Krishna Grady (chair), Karen Scott, Dennis LeLoup. Back: Mary R. Voors, Dr. Petros Panaou, Julia Casas-Rose, Christopher Lassen, Soraya Silverman-Montano, and Eileen Makoff.

From the July/August 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2020.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Krishna Grady

Krishna Grady, chair of the 2020 Newbery committee, is a librarian at
Darien (CT) Library. Raised by books, the child of a librarian was destined to end up in the stacks. She loves a good musical and can often be found singing in the library. She also loves a nice cardigan and a cat.

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