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2014 Newbery Picks

ImageThis season, I have read some wonderful children’s books while preparing to make predictions on the Newbery Medal. The Newbery award is given to the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature written by an author who was either born in the United States or lives in the United States at the time of publication. The book has to have been published in the previous calendar year, and must have been originally published in the United States. It has to be complete in itself, that is, not dependent on prequels or sequels. Of the twenty-ish books I’ve read particularly for the award, these five stand out to me, arranged in my idea of their audience, youngest to oldest.

  • The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes
  • Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Navigating Early, by Claire Vanderpool
  • Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

ImageI am very conscious of the books that I did not read, most notably Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey and Rita Garcia-William’s P.S. Be Eleven [reviewed January 20, 20104]. (I did read the previous title, One Crazy Summer. Does that count?) I just could not read another children’s book! Furthermore, none of the nonfiction that I read met my idea of a Newbery winner, even though I enjoy nonfiction and usually find at least one worthy title each year. I am also well aware of the fan clubs for Far, Far Away and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, both of which I liked, but not as much as these titles. Far, Far Away may actually be too old for Newbery, but the committee may not agree with me, and I could never connect with the characters in True Blue Scouts.

ImageI am a character-driven reader. If the author has written strong characters and I fall in love with them, the plot is not as important to me as it would be to someone whose favorite genre is more plot-driven, such as a thriller. I also treasure distinctive writing, particularly witty banter and exquisite turns of phrase. All of these five titles have strong characters whom I remember clearly and fondly. The writing was probably most distinctive in Flora & Ulysses and Navigating Early, with the best dialogue in The Thing About Luck.

ImageMy friend, Martha, who runs the Mock Newbery Club in our library system, mentioned months ago that even the very best offerings this year have flaws. I have to agree. The Thing About Luck has info-dumps about wheat harvesting, Navigating Early requires suspension of disbelief for some of its more fantastical coincidences, and Counting by 7s is partly told by adult characters and some of the plot twists seem somewhat contrived. As for these three older novels, I am most pleased to suspend disbelief for the fantasy in Navigating Early, but then I am a big fan of magical realism.

ImageFor the two younger novels, The Year of Billy Miller is probably the most flawless book I’ve read this year. It is more straightforward than the other books, too, but that is not negative, considering the age of the target audience. Flora and Ulysses has quirky characters in crazy situations, a type of book that I adore, but it may not appeal to a group that is looking for a book that will be assigned in school for decades to come. As an aside here, Kate DiCamillo has just been named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. An excellent choice! All of her books are brilliant, each in its own way.

ImageThe Newbery Committee usually chooses a book on the high end of the range, so I’m thinking that Navigating Early could be their choice. If they decide to go with a younger audience, I’d say The Year of Billy Miller. For myself, I’d be very happy with Navigating Early, and my younger choice would probably be Flora & Ulysses. However, I really love all five of these titles, and I recommend all of them highly for you or your children.

The 2014 Newbery announcement will be on January 27th, so we still have a few weeks to go. If I read something better in the meantime, I’ll be sure to let you know!

Enjoy!

Postscript: Yes, I can think of a nonfiction book that I loved! Leon Leyson’s autobiography, The Boy on the Wooden Box, was quite distinguished, and a story that children should read for generations. I don’t know why I forgot about it.

Update: I went on to read Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle, reviewed on January 15, and P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia, reviewed January 20. Of these two, only P.S. Be Eleven is a strong contender. Although it is not a favorite of mine, it is quite distinguished.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

ImageWillow has lost her parents twice in twelve years. She was given up for adoption at birth, and as this novel opens, her beloved adoptive parents have died in a car crash. She has no living relatives and no real friends.

Because Willow attained a perfect score on an achievement test, the school administration has decided that she cheated and assigned her to a weekly session with the completely inept school counselor, Dell Duke. Even Dell can see that this strange girl is a genius, if for no other reason than that she learned Vietnamese in a week in order to communicate with his other students, Quang-ha Nguyen and his older sister, Mai. Willow looks up to the rebellious Mai, a high school student who takes good care of her younger brother and has a dictatorial attitude toward Dell. When Willow’s parents die, it is Mai who decides to take her home to her mother, the take-charge owner of Happy Polish Nails. Together, the Nguyens, Dell Duke, and an unsuspecting taxi driver move mountains to recreate Willow’s life, and end up turning their own lives upside-down, as well.

Counting by 7s is a moving novel of grief and loss, healing and growth. Willow’s entire world crashes to nothing in one moment, and she does not know how to become herself again, nor does she care. Although Willow is a genius, unlike many of the super-smart children in today’s novels, she does not have Asperger’s Syndrome. Her high level of intelligence and her deep interest in gardening and medical issues has made it easier for her to relate to adults, however, and she has only ever had one friend her own age. She is a sweet and empathetic child, and every life she touches seems to improve in some way.

Other than Willow, most of the characters in this book are adults, and in a real departure for children’s books, some of the chapters are told from their perspective. If I have one quibble with this novel, it is that the chapters—at least in the advance reader copy—do not have headings, and even though Willow’s chapters are in first person and everyone else’s are in third, I sometimes had to read a paragraph or two to figure out whose head we were in at the time. The community in the book is very naturally portrayed as multicultural, with some affectionate smiles at the Vietnamese belief in luck and omens. As a matter of fact, there is a gentle sort of humor throughout the story.

Counting by 7s shows how Willow slowly rediscovers the deepest parts of herself that she had lost with her parents’ death. All of the characters evolve, but each one grows in an entirely different way from each other and from the way they were in the past. Life may knock us flat, but if we’re able to get up, we will still be the same person in essence, only transformed by passing through fire. We cannot return to our former selves, but we can move forward with hard work and a lot of love. Willow finds hope, and she passes that hope on to others.

This is a lovely novel, and another serious contender for the Newbery Medal. Although not as lyrically styled as Flora & Ulysses, it is beautifully written and deserving of its many starred reviews. Besides, it is not quite as quirky as F&U, and the Newbery Committee often does not look favorably upon quirkiness. One to watch.

Highly recommended for 10 and up.

Disclaimer: I read a (signed!) advance reader copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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