Shortly after we got married, Katy and I were reading a whole lot and started a “book blog” called Readers by Night. It’s been inactive for about a year now, but we’ll bring it back some day. Promise.
Anyways, one of my dreams has always been to own and read all of the Newbery Winners, so I started a Newbery Retrospective on the site. I only got two entries in before I became distracted reading and writing other things.
But I want to open this post with what I wrote for the intro of that retrospective:
The Newbery Award is an act of divine genius by the American Library Association.
This award, given out annually to the “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” provides a convenient grouping of children’s books that are both engaging and deep. “The greatest American kid’s books,” even. Anything with that gold medallion on its cover demands to be appreciated.
Teachers and administrators have long relied on that auriferous seal to guide curriculum. Most every American child will read and cherish at least a couple of these books. Though some (A Wrinkle In Time) endure more than others (Miss Hickory), these 93-and-counting books remain ingrained in our culture.
They also are often a lot of fun. I like reading them, so I’ve decided to (try to) read them all. Most of them are quick reads, but it still feels like an ambitious summit to scale. I am excited.
That’s a 150-word summary of something I probably would have written in 500 here, so I’ll leave it at that. I LOVE Newbery Winners and am irrationally attached to the award like I am no other award (except maybe the Annies).
Here is a spotlight on ten Newbery winners I enjoy, in chronological order. (Don’t be surprised to see a clump from the ‘90s, my formative reading years.)
1964: It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville
It’s Like This, Cat is like a super-gentle, even less focused Catcher in the Rye. You can feel the hippie movement strong in this one, but it’s a very pleasant read with really strong, distinct characters. (I wrote an extensive review of this one for Readers By Night.)
1978: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
This one’s a heartbreaker, and pretty damn close to a masterpiece. Jess Aarons from a poor rural town finds a spiritual partner of sorts in Leslie Burke, whose rich parents have moved to Jess’s town as an artistic escape. The way their imagined world Terabithia expands as their relationship evolves is sweet and touching — and the ending is devastating gut punch. (I wrote an extensive review of this one for Readers By Night.)
1979: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
It’s one of those unclassifiable cross-genre gems. I suppose its predominant category is “mystery,” but there’s a lot more to it than that: It’s a cross-section of some really interesting families, it’s a comedy, and it’s a coming of age tale. The plot has about three more twists than you expect, and for such a huge cast, pretty much every character is given depth.
1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
The story is simple, the prose is plain and short. It’s about eighty brisk pages, but the understated writing has so much feeling behind it as a widowed man living on a farm with two children finds a mail order bride named Sarah. It’s tough not to fall in love with these four characters by the end of the story.
1991: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
I was late on the Spinelli bandwagon, but I was totally sold by the time I read Eggs. (Stargirl I can take or leave, though.) His Newberry winner is a story of a kid who makes pretty much everything around him extraordinary. It’s an episodic story, but every section of it is good. The scene where Maniac Magee unties the giant knot is one of my favorites in any kid’s book.
1992: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Most kids my age had this book assigned at least once in elementary school. Shiloh has a surprisingly complicated moral compass as Marty Preston tries to protect Shiloh, an abused beagle. Naylor’s emotional understanding of a little boy’s attachment to pets is uncanny. (This also might have been my introduction to first-person perspective books.)
1994: The Giver by Lois Lowry
Dystopian is all the rage these days, but The Hunger Games and Divergent and the like still stand in the shadow of the simple, evocative story of a boy in a world devoid of self-expression. His journey to free humanity takes climactic turns and ends on a great, religiously-charged, ambiguous note. I am stoked for the adaptation starring Jeff Bridges.
1995: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
This might be my favorite Newbery winner of all. The book’s voice is as wonderful and unique as the name of its protagonist: Salamanca Tree Hiddle. Her cross-country journey with her grandparents to find her mother is both hysterical and intensely emotional. The ending is kind of obvious (and the final chapter perhaps too happily-ever-after), but the way everything plays out is truly special. I’ve reread this a half dozen times, and I’m always happy to walk in Sal’s moccasins.
1999: Holes by Louis Sachar
Actually, THIS might be my favorite Newbery winner. (My favorite is always whichever of Holes or Walk Two Moons I’ve read last.) If you haven’t read Holes or seen the solid adaptation, you are missing out. (You are also probably not in your 20s, because this book was an elementary school staple for people around my age-ish.) This strange, layered — like an onion — story about Stanley Yelnats’ trip to Camp Green Lake is a brilliant plot tapestry by one of my favorite childrens’ authors. I won’t spoil the ending here, but I’m not sure if I could even if I tried: The charm of Holes is the way all the threads tie together in unexpected ways.
2009: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
“The Stalcups are big fans of Neil Gaiman” is something I occasionally tell people. The truth is that Katy is a big fan of Neil Gaiman, and I am a big fan by proxy because I’ve only ever read one of his books all the way through. But The Graveyard Book — a paranormal spin on The Jungle Book — is marvelous enough to make me want to finish off the three other Gaiman books I’ve started. The Graveyard Book is episodic by design, and some of the stories are better than others, but the entirety has that trademark Gaiman dreamlike spookiness to it. Great stuff.