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Category Archives: Newbery or Not

Newbery or Not: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Pub Stub: Random House Books for Young Readers, ISBN-10 0375870644, August 2014

Book Blurb: Galileo. Newton. Salk. Oppenheimer. Science can change the world . . . but can it go too far? Eleven-year-old Ellie has never liked change. She misses fifth grade. She misses her old best friend. She even misses her dearly departed goldfish. Then one day a strange boy shows up. He’s bossy. He’s cranky. And weirdly enough . . . he looks a lot like Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist who’s always been slightly obsessed with immortality. Could this pimply boy really be Grandpa Melvin? Has he finally found the secret to eternal youth?”

Author Tidbits: Holm, Jennifer L. Three-time Newbery Honor recipient for Our Only May Amelia (HarperCollins 1999), Penny from Heaven (Random House Books for Young Readers 2006), and Turtle in Paradise (Random House Books for Young Readers 2011). Also well-known for her work on Babymouse and her series Boston Jane.

Newbery or Not: Will Holm land the gold this go-round? Maybe. I would bet she at least goes Honor again. The blurb is slightly misleading; the boy in the story is definitely Ellie’s Grandpa Melvin, and he has definitely found the secret to eternal youth. That’s the setup, no mystery to it. However, now that he’s a 13-year-old, Ellie’s stuck spending a lot of time with her grandfather since her mother can’t stand his insistence on telling her how to live her life, especially now that he’s rewound himself into teenagerhood. To Ellie’s surprise, she and Grandpa actually have a lot in common. She’s always tried and failed to be interested in theater like her parents. As it turns out, she’s inherited Melvin’s scientific aptitude instead. Beyond the obvious comedic value of an old geezer going back to middle school, the book poses the age-old ethical dilemma, “How far should science go? When does a scientific discovery cross the line from improving humanity’s quality of life to going too far?” Dealing as it does with immortality, it actually hearkens somewhat to Tuck Everlasting. Now, is it substantial enough to land the Newbery? Maybe not. Still, I would love to see it recognized. “To the possible!”

Newbery or Not: The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher

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Pub Stub: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $16.99 hardbound, ISBN-10 1481401505, July 2014

Book Blurb:In 1860, eleven-year-old Becky Thatcher is the new girl in town, determined to have adventures like she promised her brother Jon before he died. With her Mama frozen in grief and her Daddy busy as town judge, Becky spends much of her time on her own, getting into mischief. Before long, she joins the boys at school in a bet to steal from the Widow Douglas, and Becky convinces her new best friend, Amy Lawrence, to join her. Becky decides that she and Amy need a bag of dirt from a bad man’s grave as protection for entering the Widow’s house, so they sneak out to the cemetery at midnight, where they witness the thieving Pritchard brothers digging up a coffin. Determined to keep her family safe (and to avoid getting in trouble), Becky makes Amy promise not to tell anyone what they saw. When their silence inadvertently results in the Widow Douglas being accused of the graverobbery, Becky concocts a plan to clear the Widow’s name. If she pulls it off, she might just get her Mama to notice her again and fulfill her promise to Jon in a most unexpected way . . . if that tattle-tale Tom Sawyer will quit following her around.”

Author Tidbits: Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is Lawson’s debut.

Newbery or Not: Well, let’s see. Well-written, teaches a moral lesson, touches on dark themes including death of a family member and depression, and ties in perfectly with a classic of American literature. This book practically screams, “Teach me in your Language Arts class!” which is generally tantamount to screaming, “Put a shiny gold or silver sticker on my cover every time I’m printed for all of history!” Although competition is already stiff with a few heavy-hitters still to come later in the season, I like this one for an honor or for the gold. Becky is sure to get laughs, and you have to respect her sense of fun even if it does get everyone around her into trouble. She’s a bit like an older, 19th century version of Pennypacker’s Clementine. Lawson does a great job of reworking characters and events from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer into a story all Becky’s own, and seeing Tom recast as a whiny tattletale is somehow poetic. After this excellent debut, I can’t wait to see what Lawson does next!


Newbery or Not: Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

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Pub Stub: Philomel, ISBN-10 0399164057, June 2014

Book Blurb:From the author of the National Book Award nominee A TANGLE OF KNOTS comes an inspiring novel about figuring out who you are and doing what you love. Albie has never been the smartest kid in his class. He has never been the tallest. Or the best at gym. Or the greatest artist. Or the most musical. In fact, Albie has a long list of the things he’s not very good at. But then Albie gets a new babysitter, Calista, who helps him figure out all of the things he is good at and how he can take pride in himself. A perfect companion to Lisa Graff’s National Book Award-nominated A Tangle of Knots, this novel explores a similar theme in a realistic contemporary world where kids will easily be able to relate their own struggles to Albie’s. Great for fans of Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, RJ Palacio’s Wonder and Cynthia Lord’s Rules.

Author Tidbits: Graff’s previous book, A Tangle of Knots (Philomel 2013), was longlisted for the National Book Award and hit several Best of lists, including’s Best Books 2013.

Newbery or Not: Graff has a fighting chance at breaking into the list this year. Albie’s story touches on topics including bullying, parents with mixed up priorities, the perils of popularity, and being one of those kids who hears “everyone is good at something” and thinks, “Uh, really? Because I’m not.” Poor Albie is the son of two overachievers, and although he studies hard, he remains a parent-disappointing solid-C student. I’m afraid many kids will relate to his feeling of confusion and failure when his dad goes on a rant at him for failing a spelling test, ticked off because spelling isn’t hard, darn it! Except for Albie, it is. To me, the most painful moment, worse than the bullying, is when Albie’s mother finds out he does not have dyslexia and is actually disappointed. Dyslexia is understandable to her. Having a son who fails tests even when trying his hardest is not. Although adult readers will frequently want to smack Albie’s parents and a couple of his classmates, Graff’s characterizations are honest. Albie’s life is representative of the lives of many children who are just average at school and extracurriculars but are nonetheless really nice, cool kids doing their best. It’s an issue drama where the issue is everyday life: parental pressure, snobs at school, and the struggle to be better than your best and the stress that struggle brings. Between the beautiful simplicity of it and Graff’s writing, the Newbery Committee will be hard-pressed to ignore this baby.

Recommend to: Kids who like slice-of-life stories. Adults who need to go easier on their kids.

To Buy or Not to Buy: Buy.

Newbery or Not: Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

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Pub Stub: Scholastic, $16.99 hardcover, ISBN-10 0545035333, February 2014

Book Blurb: A moving new middle-grade novel from the Newbery Honor author of RULES. When Lucy’s family moves to an old house on a lake, Lucy tries to see her new home through her camera’s lens, as her father has taught her — he’s a famous photographer, away on a shoot. Will her photos ever meet his high standards? When she discovers that he’s judging a photo contest, Lucy decides to enter anonymously. She wants to find out if her eye for photography is really special — or only good enough. As she seeks out subjects for her photos, Lucy gets to know Nate, the boy next door. But slowly the camera reveals what Nate doesn’t want to see: his grandmother’s memory is slipping away, and with it much of what he cherishes about his summers on the lake. This summer, Nate will learn about the power of art to show truth. And Lucy will learn how beauty can change lives . . . including her own.

Author Tidbits: Lord, Cynthia. 2007 Newbery Honor recipient for Rules (Scholastic 2006).

Newbery or Not: What a charmer! Lord’s duo of creative, family-focused leads are as wholesome as fresh bread, but Lucy’s insecurities and naive ethical missteps keep any potential sap in check. Bonus points for her portrayal of a parent who travels extensively for career reasons but honestly tries to remain connected to his wife and child while he’s away, and bonus-bonus points for letting Lucy admit that his long absences don’t always sit well with her. The kids’ appreciation for the beauty of the local wilderness comes off as authentic, as does Nate’s love for and protectiveness toward his grandmother. Lucy’s explanations of her photography–mainly shot composition–flesh out the scenes instead of turning the novel into a DSLR manual. Probably not a contender for gold, but perhaps another silver?

Recommend to: Tween fans of contemporary stories

To buy or not to buy: A solid choice for any tween collection.

Newbery or Not: Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick

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Pub Stub: The Blue Sky Press, $16.99 hardcover, ISBN-10 0545342384, February 2014

Newbery Honor author Rodman Philbrick presents a gripping yet poignant novel about a 12-year-old boy and his dog who become trapped in New Orleans during the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. Zane Dupree is a charismatic 12-year-old boy of mixed race visiting a relative in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hits. Unexpectedly separated from all family, Zane and his dog experience the terror of Katrina’s wind, rain, and horrific flooding. Facing death, they are rescued from an attic air vent by a kind, elderly musician and a scrappy young girl–both African American. The chaos that ensues as storm water drowns the city, shelter and food vanish, and police contribute to a dangerous, frightening atmosphere, creates a page-turning tale that completely engrosses the reader. Based on the facts of the worst hurricane disaster in U.S. history, Philbrick includes the lawlessness and lack of government support during the disaster as well as the generosity and courage of those who risked their lives and safety to help others. Here is an unforgettable novel of heroism in the face of truly challenging circumstances.

Author Tidbits: Philbrick, Rodman. Newbery Honor recipient for The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (2010, Scholastic) as well as many state book awards. Other credits include Freak the Mighty.

Newbery or Not: Here’s a perfect example of how fiction can sometimes bring a historical event home to the reader in a more personal way than nonfiction. You can read about Katrina, see photos, and even watch news footage, and of course you’ll feel crippled with sorrow by the sheer size of the devastation and the overwhelming number of heartbreaking stories. However, there’s an intimacy and immediacy to a fictional firsthand account that can bring home the situation in a more personal way. When you read Zane’s story, you not only get a sense of the horror and the tragedy, you also remember that the people affected were and are, well, people. They had lives and were just getting on with those lives like we all try to do every single day, and then THIS happened and took so much away: friends, family, homes, pets, lives. To me, the most powerful moment of the book comes when Zane realizes that he will get to go back to New England and his normal life when all is said and done if only he stays alive, but the people helping him are from New Orleans. For them, there is no going back.

Newbery material? I’d say yes, if only for the fact that it takes a fairly complex look at a disaster that doesn’t show up much in children’s fiction. However, it’s definitely slight and doesn’t always have that literary zing that usually nets medals. A fine contender, anyway.

Recommend to: Fans of survivor stories, readers of any gender, tweens but younger teens, too

To buy or not to buy: Well, that depends on whether you feel it’s important for kids to get a personal perspective on one of the greatest American natural disasters in history. (Hint: you probably should feel that it’s important.)

Newbery or Not: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

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Pub Stub: Scholastic Press, $16.99 hardcover, ISBN-10 0545552702, February 2014

Book Blurb: Introducing an extraordinary new voice—a magical debut that will make your skin tingle, your eyes glisten . . .and your heart sing. Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart. But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster. Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

Author Tidbits: Lloyd, Natalie. Snicker is her debut.

Newbery or Not: I know it’s far, far too early to be calling favorites, but watch this one, folks. She’s heading for the top. Not only is it cute as a button, not only does it have the power to make you feel sad and nostalgic and tender and giggly all at once, not only does it capture the spirit of the sweetest small town you ever did imagine with the most magical ice cream you’ll ever wish you could eat, it’s a shoe-in for creating a love of language with all of the beautiful, fanciful, and dead-on words Felicity sees everywhere she goes. Most of all, the potent longing for home will touch those of us who haven’t or can’t put down roots, and make the rooted look around at their same-old surrounding with loving eyes. Here comes a great big talent.

Recommend to: Pretty much everybody.

To Buy or Not to Buy: Been there, bought that, promoting it now!

***This honest review refers to an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley.***

Newbery or Not: Final Roundup

The results are in for the 2014 ALA Youth Media Awards! Let’s see how the selections I looked at came out in the mix.

In the Newbery category, One Came Home and The Year of Billy Miller both took home a silver. I’m surprised to see that Holly Black’s Doll Bones, which I read when it came out but didn’t review here, also got an Honor nod. Heavy reader favorites Counting by 7s and True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp got completely shut out, as did National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck.

Other favorites didn’t get the Newbery but did get recognition. Better Nate Than Ever was a Stonewall (exceptional books relating to LGBT topics) honor book. PS Be Eleven joined its predecessor One Crazy Summer in winning a Coretta Scott King Award. Most surprisingly, Navigating Early didn’t hit the Newbery list but did score as a Printz honor title, a list that doesn’t often include middle grade titles. I’ve already seen online discussion about where different libraries shelve Navigating Early, as Printz books generally live in YA areas and Navigating Early is shelved in juvenile collections in many libraries.

Finally, though, the shiny gold Newbery Medal went to Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. I’m stunned! Although it’s my favorite book of the year for elementary and middle school, I never thought Flora and Ulysses would win out over the competition. Kate Dicamillo is now the 6th author to win the Newbery twice. Since her other winner was Tale of Despereaux, I guess the lesson here is that heroic rodents really work for her! I’m thrilled to see Flora and Ulysses win because I think it may help in the struggle to get parents and some teachers and librarians to understand that comics and graphic novels are not candy or trash. Besides, it’s just nice to see a funny book about love and friendship and discovery and squirrels who become heroes in vacuum cleaner accidents win a prestigious award.

I think I learned something from my quickie children’s fiction binge: I do really love children’s books, but for some reason, I forget that I love them. I spend most of my free-reading time on YA books, and of course I read all of the picture books I order for the library in case they might be good for storytime. Heck, I had read all the YA and picture books that received awards or honors this year. For some reason, elementary and middle grade books just seem to fall through the cracks, and then when I catch up, I think, “Wow, these are so amazing! What took me so long?” In the coming year, I am going to try much harder to stay on top of offerings for this age group.

Weigh In: How do you feel about the award lineups this year?

Newbery or Not: One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Book Blurb: “In the town of Placid, Wisconsin, in 1871, Georgie Burkhardt is known for two things: her uncanny aim with a rifle and her habit of speaking her mind plainly. But when Georgie blurts out something she shouldn’t, her older sister Agatha flees, running off with a pack of “pigeoners” trailing the passenger pigeon migration. And when the sheriff returns to town with an unidentifiable body—wearing Agatha’s blue-green ball gown—everyone assumes the worst. Except Georgie. Refusing to believe the facts that are laid down (and coffined) before her, Georgie sets out on a journey to find her sister. She will track every last clue and shred of evidence to bring Agatha home. Yet even with resolute determination and her trusty Springfield single-shot, Georgie is not prepared for what she faces on the western frontier.”

Pub Stub: Knopf Book for Young Readers, ISBN-10 0375869255, January 2013

Author Tidbits: Timberlake, Amy. Golden Kite Award recipient for The Dirty Cowboy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Newbery or Not: I’m having a difficult time analyzing this one simply because I just read Navigating Early, which features a similar storyline: younger sibling in historic setting goes on ill-advised journey to find dead sibling because he/she is convinced he/she is still alive, is aided by doubting Thomas sidekick, has dangerous adventures, and ultimately finds some sort of vindication. For my money, Navigating Early is better written, more detailed, and more accomplished overall, although I know One Came Home has figured prominently in many mock Newberys this year.

Weigh In Conclusion: The big announcement is tomorrow! I should say announcements, as many other important awards including the Caldecott, the Pura Belpre, the Coretta Scott King, and the Printz will have their big reveals as well. Despite all my talk about what can and what won’t win, I honestly have no idea what will happen. I only read a few of the frontrunners, didn’t make it to any of the favored nonfiction titles, and these awards often go to dark horses at any rate. No matter what happens, I’m sure the committee faced tough decisions and will put up some great titles. Personally, I hope to see PS Be Eleven, Counting by 7s, and Navigating Early in the final roundup. Any favorites in the crowd?

Newbery or Not: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Book Blurb: “At the end of World War II, Jack Baker, a landlocked Kansas boy, is suddenly uprooted after his mother’s death and placed in a boy’s boarding school in Maine. There, Jack encounters Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as a story and collects clippings about the sightings of a great black bear in the nearby mountains. Newcomer Jack feels lost yet can’t help being drawn to Early, who won’t believe what everyone accepts to be the truth about the Great Appalachian Bear, Timber Rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as The Fish, who never returned from the war. When the boys find themselves unexpectedly alone at school, they embark on a quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great black bear. But what they are searching for is sometimes different from what they find. They will meet truly strange characters, each of whom figures into the pi story Early weaves as they travel, while discovering things they never realized about themselves and others in their lives.”

Pub Stub: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, ISBN-10 0385742096, January 2013

Author Tidbits: Vanderpool, Claire. 2011 Newbery Medal recipient for Moon Over Manifest.

Newbery or Not: Rich with symbolism, feeling, and adventure, this powerful and dangerous journey is a tribute to the power of creating your own narrative. It’s also the third book I’ve read during this little project that involved possible spectrum symptoms (the other two are Counting by 7s and The Thing About Luck). Part of me wonders if authors have realized that the obsessive fact-gathering present in many people who are on the spectrum gives an author the easiest and most excusable way to inject facts and research into the story. Vanderpool went a step farther and included the most inspired case of synesthesia I have yet to encounter in literature.

The various threads of both plots (the main narrative and the pi story) and the personal problems of the characters involved all come together and solve each other in the end in a seemingly organic way, with the exception perhaps of one unbelievable coincidence. While it’s an impressive work and certainly deserving of recognition, though, I don’t see it winning. Why not? Because it’s statistically unlikely for either The Thing About Luck or Navigating Early to win this year, since only five authors have ever managed to win the Newbery twice. I wish Jack and Early a successful run in this literary regatta nonetheless.

Weigh In: Do you think there are timber rattlesnakes in Maine?

Newbery or Not: The Thing About Luck

Book Blurb: “Summer knows that kouun means “good luck” in Japanese, and this year her family has none of it. Just when she thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, an emergency whisks her parents away to Japan—right before harvest season. Summer and her little brother, Jaz, are left in the care of their grandparents, who come out of retirement in order to harvest wheat and help pay the bills. The thing about Obaachan and Jiichan is that they are old-fashioned and demanding, and between helping Obaachan cook for the workers, covering for her when her back pain worsens, and worrying about her lonely little brother, Summer just barely has time to notice the attentions of their boss’s cute son. But notice she does, and what begins as a welcome distraction from the hard work soon turns into a mess of its own. Having thoroughly disappointed her grandmother, Summer figures the bad luck must be finished—but then it gets worse. And when that happens, Summer has to figure out how to change it herself, even if it means further displeasing Obaachan. Because it might be the only way to save her family.”

Pub Stub: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN-10 1416918825, January 2013

Author Tidbits: Kadohata, Cynthia. 2013 National Book Award winner for The Thing About Luck. 2006 PEN USA Award for Weedflower. 2005 Newbery Medal recipient for Kira-Kira.

Newbery or Not: Kadohata’s laurels are stacking up, and this rare look into the life of a migrant worker family has already won a National Book Award. It’s the type of book you can imagine a Language Arts teacher using in the classroom. The information imparted by Summer, the first-person narrator, feels a bit didactic at times, but unless the reader is already closely acquainted with harvesting equipment and processes, he or she will learn a great deal about how wheat gets from the field to the silo, how many people are required, how hard they must work, and how much depends on the whim of the weather. Summer’s mosquito obsession makes her blurting of mosquito biology feel a bit more natural.

While not as charming or feel-good as many other works on this year’s Best Ofs, The Thing About Luck has heft and importance. Children, and readers of any other age, will be shocked at the life and conditions migrant workers consider normal, although Kadohata doesn’t take the subject matter so far as to make the book kid-unfriendly. Summer is very much a typical 12-year-old, concerned about the opinions of her peers and trying to make sense of the world, which makes it that much more poignant when she takes up the mantle of an adult to help her family. Kadohata may have a runner-up on her hands at the least.

Weigh In: Will Kadohata take top honors again?