“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 style. 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 features 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 sounds 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 movie. 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 hated 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
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
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.