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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!


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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Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool

ImageJackie Baker lived in the warm glow of his mother’s love in Kansas while they both waited for his dad to return from serving in the military during World War II. His hopeful life was shattered when his mother died unexpectedly, and his father returned—not to the celebration that they had planned, but to a funeral. With military precision, his father packed up the house and packed off his Midwestern son to a boys’ boarding school in Maine.

The first time Jack saw the ocean, he threw up on the sand. The teachers at the school expected Jack to know all sorts of things eastern boys grew up with, but eventually both boys and masters started to realize that Jack was bluffing his way through the days. After a disastrous incident resulting from Jack’s failure to mention that he’d never been in a boat before, he wandered away from the crowd in shame and found himself drawn to the music that he heard emanating from the custodian’s workroom. This basement room was not occupied by the janitor, but by the strangest boy Jack had ever met, Early Auden.

Early was also a boy who had known loss. His parents were gone, and his very famous war-hero brother was dead. The army had sent a letter of condolence, along with his dog tags. Early refused to believe it. He also refused to believe the new theory that their math teacher had introduced: that the number pi did have an end, and that a famous mathematician was going to prove it. Early saw numbers with colors and personalities, and he was bringing order and meaning to his own world by “reading” a story about a character named Pi that he could see in the numbers that he calculated on the board in the workroom. He told the story to Jack, who didn’t know what to believe, but since Early was willing to teach him rowing and even to help him to repair the boat, Jack listened. Besides, the music was good: Louis Armstrong on Mondays, Frank Sinatra on Wednesdays, Glenn Miller on Fridays. When it’s raining, it’s always Billie Holliday.

These two young boys were somehow expected to navigate the turbulent years of early adolescence in a time when everyone was losing loved ones in a war and there was no one to care about the emotional needs of two kids who were fed, housed, and taught. After an episode that leaves misunderstandings and guilt all around, Early and Jack set off on a misguided adventure to track down the Great Appalachian Bear and end up retracing the entire story of Pi’s journey, impossibly meeting up with pirates, volcanoes, ancient wise women, and even a whale in an inland river. Dreams and reality twist and weave together to plumb the depths of Early and Jack’s inner worlds, finding significance and revelation from each incredible new coincidence.

Early Auden is a wondrous creation. He reminds me of another favorite character, Gary Schmidt’s Lizzy Bright, in their mutual complexity, wisdom gained from painful experience, and sweet, childlike innocence. Early adds the dimension of an autistic savant in a time before such things were diagnosed. All Jack knows is that Early is odd, but in a brilliant way. Vanderpool’s use of metaphor and dreams is so lovingly written that the reader is willing to suspend disbelief and flow with this slowly unfolding story that is surprising, yet completely expected; impossible, yet apt.

Clare Vanderpool won the Newbery Medal her very first time out with Moon Over Manifest. Navigating Early is her sophomore attempt, born from one of her mother’s dreams and a reading of Daniel Tammet’s book, Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, which I recommend for anyone who wants to learn more about autism. Vanderpool wondered what it would be like to have an unexplainable gift, so she created a character who would help her to find out. Sometimes a writer bursts onto the scene with the novel they’ve had inside them for years, wins fame and accolades, and never achieves that level of creativity again. Clare Vanderpool is not one of those writers. I was even more impressed with Navigating Early than with her earlier novel, and I would be very happy to see yet another medal on this one.

Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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