Very Newbery Memories

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“I don’t read Newbery books,” a friend said. “They’re all sad.”

The Newbery Medal, first awarded in 1922, is bestowed upon “the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year.” These are books that tackle difficult subjects that most children’s books pretend don’t exist: loss, hope, poverty, courage, death, perseverance, and maturity. Obviously they’re a different world from my beloved Encyclopedia Brown, where the worst thing that happens is that Bugs Meany attempts to frame Encyclopedia for a crime again.

I’ve read maybe a quarter of the list, and am familiar with more of them. They are emotionally heavy—some more than others (Bridge to Terabithia, I’m glaring at you). Yet it’s an injustice to these books to dismiss them all as “sad.”

Darren and I assigned our oldest, Bookgirl, to read all of the Newbery winners by next year. As she’s working her way through the list, I’ve revisited it myself.

Many of these books I had read without knowing their award. I just knew I loved them. Here are some of my favorite Newberys:

  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. This “novel” is written entirely in free verse/rap Crossover book.jpgstyle. Josh and his twin brother Jordan are star basketball players on their middle school team. But a girl, some big emotions, and a looming concern about their dad’s health make this a poignant coming-of-age novel. Yes, it’s a Newbery, so it’s “sad,” but you finish it feeling as if you grew with Josh. And telling an entire story in verse—that alone is awe-worthy. (See also the Newbery Honor book Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, a novel-in-poems about a Vietnamese girl’s relocation to the United States after World War II.)
  • Holes, by Louis Sachar. This book seems very casually written, almost slapdash. It Holes.pngfeatures poor unlucky Stanley Yelnats who is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, and sent to Camp Green Lake—which isn’t a camp, isn’t green, and there’s no lake. The boys spend their days digging holes in a vast dry lakebed. Meanwhile, the book tosses in a storyline that took place a hundred years before, when a white schoolteacher fell in love with a black man. Add in a few random details about a curse and onions and venomous lizards. . . . But then, in the last two chapters, every single detail falls into place, fitting together like a big puzzle. I am thrilled every time I finish this book.
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry. Jonas has grown up in a society where life is always pleasant. It The Giver2.jpgsounds like a good place, although people seem to be creepily happy. Jonas is chosen as a “receiver of memories,” one of the few people allowed to remember the unpleasant history of pain, war, and grief so that the otherwise happy society can avoid it happening again. The book asks the question: is it better to be always happy but shallow, or risk pain in order to feel the real depth of love, anger, and passion? I knew this book was something special when, near the beginning, Jonas notices something odd about an apple. When it’s revealed what he noticed, my entire perspective of this happy society shifted.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. Yes, yes, there’s the Sarah, Plain and Tallmovie. But read the book! This story of a mail-order bride who leaves New England for the prairie is written very simply, as if for children; but it explores deep themes of loss, vulnerability, and the new love between a stepmother and young daughter, not to mention between a woman and a man.
  • A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830–1832 by Joan W. Blos. My sister A Gathering of Days.jpghated this book because she found out, too late, that it was fiction—that’s how true it rings. I still remember the pang of that one black-bordered journal entry, but also the satisfied feeling upon reaching the end.
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. You have no idea what’s going on in this book. I guarantee that. Sixteen seemingly unrelated heirs of Sam Westing must figure The Westing Game
    out who killed him, using clues in his will. As the many different storylines weave in and out, you’re pretty sure you’re keeping up with everything. But it’s not until the very end that you find out what is really going on.
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I avoided reading this book for too long; I suppose I assumed that it was “a sad Newbery book.” This is the story of Kit, who grew up the daughter of a The Witch of Blackbird Pond.jpg
    trader in Barbados, but has to go live with family in Puritan New England. The book features a nice dramatic
    climax; but what I most loved was how the ending
    perfectly solved Kit’s dilemma of needing freedom and sun, but also loving her family in this cold, strict New England village.

(While we’re on the topic of my feelings toward Newbery books, I will say that Dicey’s Song, Jacob I Have Loved, and A Bridge to Terabithia absolutely earn the reputation of “sad” books. In my opinion, they don’t offer a payoff at the end to justify being dragged through all that pain and loss. And I go against popular opinion among those my age in disliking The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, because I don’t like the main character of the book.)

I’ve enjoyed revisiting books that meant a lot to me in younger years. My reader friends highly recommend some of the newer titles on the list, which I haven’t gotten to. And although Bookgirl prefers fantasy and science fiction, she’s liked a lot of what she’s read of the Newberys. “I guess before now,” she said, “I’ve just read the wrong realistic fiction.”

So what’s your perspective on these books—or the many books I didn’t mention? What are your Newbery experiences?


Photo Credit: Graphic design by Anna Soltis.

13 thoughts on “Very Newbery Memories

  1. “Dicey’s Song” is awesome!

    I think my favorite Newbery book is “The Grey King” by Susan Cooper, or “The Westing Game.”


  2. I haven’t read every book in this post, but you’ve made me want to revisit the ones I only vaguely remember–like Sarah, Plain and Tall. I remember liking it, but I think I might like it even more now. Misty of Chincoteague, King of the Wind, and Justin Morgan Had A Horse are all beloved bits of my childhood (and Newbery medal books, besides being horse books)–The only more modern Newbery book I’ve read (I think) is The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, which is a first person narrative told by the thief to….someone…who isn’t revealed until the end. I really liked it, but I liked it even better the second time through, knowing the twist.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Odd that the three you dislike are among my favorites. Jacob Have I Loved (yes, it should be in italics, but Juno won’t accept that) was especially poignant for me when I was carrying my twins. Sure enough, when the first one was born, the nurse whisked him away so I could concentrate on delivering the second. She wouldn’t even allow my husband to hold him as he might drop him! These were numbers 4 and 5, not 1 and 2. Because of the book, I stopped everything until she brought him to us — which she did. I think we were able to more closely bond with him as a result. And his twin was only a few minutes later.


    • Your experience is EXACTLY why Newbery books (and other thoughtful works) are so important. The story changed how you approached life, for the better! I still don’t like that book, but I do like your response to it.


  4. A lot of Newberys are not good for people not secure in their faith. I have liked some of the books on the list quite a lot over the years, but I find I take more recent additions to the list with a great big grain of salt. Winner selection is just as political as everything else seems to be these days.


    • I suspect it always has been. I read everything with a big grain of salt these days. In fact, you read my post with a big grain of salt, for which I applaud you. 🙂


  5. I adore Dicey’s Song (and all the books in the Tillerman cycle, although Dicey was always my least favorite character. COME A STRANGER – read it, read it, read it, if you haven’t. Same for A SOLITARY BLUE!)

    Did you ever read UP A ROAD SLOWLY? I loved that book with my entire heart – I still do. I have my copy ready for my little girl one day . . .


    • I haven’t encountered that book. I’ve found that I don’t like several books that other, very trusted reader-friends, do. It must come down to personality. So even if I don’t like a book, you’re welcome to adore it. 🙂


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