Monica Fastenau is the blogger behind the blog Newbery and Beyond, and writes about books, reading, life and more! She’s stopped by Raincity Librarian today to share her thoughts on the Newberys, one of children’s literature’s most prestigious awards. Take it away, Monica!
I’ve been reading Newbery books since before I knew the award even existed. As a child, my favorite part of school was reading, and when I realized that many of my favorite books had won a Newbery award, I decided to make a conscious effort to read more of them. Finally, I decided to challenge myself to read all of them. (Right now, I have 81 left!)
If you’re not sure if you’ve ever read a Newbery book, think of the Little House on the Prairie series, Misty of Chincoteague, Bridge to Terabithia, Ramona Quimby, or A Wrinkle in Time. All of these classics are Newbery books.
The Newbery medal has been awarded to exemplary children’s books every year since 1922, and most of those years have also awarded one or more books the Newbery honor. The Newbery medal winners are usually easy to find, but not so for the honor books. I’ve had to rely heavily on the interlibrary loan in order to find these old, out of print books!
The early Newbery books were often mythology or history. Reading these books now, I am amazed that children ever enjoyed them. They’re so dry and dense! Compared to today’s Newbery books, which are fun and unique and incredibly well-written, these early books seem pretty boring and sometimes patronizing toward the children who would have been reading them. Sadly (though not surprisingly), there is a distressing trend toward casual racism or sexism in those books published in the 1920s and 1930s, so I can rarely recommend them.
The books of the 1950s and 1960s were often historical fiction, so these are the ones I remember best from my childhood school years. What better way to learn about history than a gripping, well-written novel? But in later years, there was a trend toward tragedy. Many of these Newbery books involve the death of a character (or an animal) and discuss grief and loss. If you’re not careful, reading a book from this era will frequently leave you in tears!
Currently, Newbery books are more likely to focus on kids who face life difficulties of many kinds. Characters are much more diverse, as are the formats–one of the recent honor books was a graphic novel, and there have been several newer books written in free verse.
I have loved so many Newbery books over the years, but my favorites from childhood include The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois, Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Holes by Louis Sacher, Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer, A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck, and Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff. Each of these books has likable characters, fascinating settings, and a plot that will keep you turning pages until you reach the end. (If you want to steer clear of tear jerkers, you might skip Hope Was Here and Pictures of Hollis Woods, but I really hope you read them anyway! They are lovely.)
My more recent favorites include The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz. Some of these (like The Singing Tree) are classic Newbery books, but many of these are recently published winners, and as such they have a diversity in style, content, and characters. (Again, if you want to avoid crying when you’re reading, you might want to stay away from Walk Two Moons and Hattie Big Sky, but you should try them out just in case!)
Despite the issues with Newbery books in the past, it is on the whole a great collection of children’s and middle grade level books that people of all ages can enjoy. And with the recent trend toward more diversity, both in characters and format, I think the Newbery books will only continue to be more interesting, enjoyable, and relevant.