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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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The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata

ImageSummer and her family have been wheaties for generations, workers who travel around during harvest time, cutting, threshing, and storing many farmers’ wheat. Summer, her brother, Jaz, and her faithful dog, Thunder, are living with her Japanese-American grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan, while her parents are caring for sick relatives in Japan. When harvest time comes, Summer and Jaz set off with their grandparents to travel from state to state, living in campers without air conditioning, bowing to the dictates of the strict supervisor couple, the Parkers, and enduring the scorn of the farmers who do not trust immigrants to work hard enough to get the crop in before the rains come. They persevere through all of this because they must be able to pay the mortgage on their home, and all of their fortunes depend on this one season each year.

Although she is only twelve, Summer is no stranger to hard work. She helps her crabby Obaachan to cook for the entire crew, according to Mrs. Parker’s explicit instructions. As Obaachan’s health is deteriorating, Summer ends up doing most of the cooking herself. She also cares for her brother, Jaz, who has been diagnosed with all sorts of disorders from autism to OCD. Her parents have decided not to medicate him, and they all love him even when he drives them nuts. This season, Summer discovers that Robbie Parker has suddenly become a very interesting young man, but she is not sure what Robbie would see in a sweaty, apron-wearing girl like herself.

During the previous year, Summer had barely survived a bout with malaria, and she is now terrified of mosquitoes and is continuously slathering on DEET, so much so that she reeks of the odor all the time. However, her brush with death has caused her to think deeply about subjects of which most young adolescents are blissfully unaware. When her Jiichan falls ill, Summer clearly understands that he may not be able to drive a combine any longer, which would mean that they would all be fired and eventually lose their home. As she struggles to deal with these practical matters, she is also frightened about both of her grandparents’ health and realizes that she may soon be taking care of her brother alone, with their parents far away in Japan.

Here is an author whose books are almost guaranteed to win awards. The Thing About Luck is already sporting a “National Book Award finalist” medal, and I would not be surprised to see a Newbery medal on that cover soon. Cynthia Kadohata writes about serious topics that affect children who may be very different from her readers. In the Newbery-winning Kira-Kira, the protagonist is dealing with the loss of a beloved sister. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work in the harsh conditions of a chicken processing plant in Georgia in the 1950s. In Weedflower, she relates the personal stories of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, tells the true, disturbing story about soldier dogs. Kadohata shakes us out of the stereotype that all Asian immigrants are working in tech companies and have math genius kids, or that immigrants who work in chicken factories and fields all speak Spanish. She shows us poor, struggling Asian immigrants who endure grinding manual labor and highlights the lives of the children who are always hidden behind the headlines in the news stories.

Lest you think that The Thing About Luck is relentlessly depressing, I can assure you that Kadohata sprinkles her novel with plenty of humor. Summer is, after all, a twelve-year-old girl with her first crush. She practices kissing the back of her hand in her bunk at night, but her grandmother seems to know everything that she is doing, so she ends up embarrassed. Summer and Obaachan’s dialogue is often hilarious, as Obaachan feels that it is her duty to scold Summer about every single detail of her life and ground her so often that Summer would probably be eighty years old before she was free. Summer has a hard time believing her mother who told her that Obaachan slept with Summer every day when she was sick because she loved her so much and couldn’t bear to lose her. Here are some of my favorite bits of Summer and Obaachan’s interchanges.

…I had to wear rubber gloves whenever I did the dishes. Even at Obaachan’s age, she had beautiful hands. She often held them in front of herself to admire them. The gloves made my hands sweaty, but if she caught me with no gloves on, she would say, “Even if I ugly fish for face, someone would marry me for my hands. “

“But you had an arranged marriage,” I once pointed out.

“No talk back or I ground you.” (pp. 26-27)

Obaachan… said to me, “Too young to stare at boys.”

“I wasn’t staring.”

“You staring like he alien from outer space. Boys not alien, they real, and they cause trouble.”

“How do they cause trouble?”

“You too young to know that.” She looked at me as if making a decision. Then she said, “Maybe I tell you if I have time before I die.” (p. 52)

“Something happened,” I said [to Obaachan].
“Something happen every day.”

“It’s really all my fault. It isn’t Thunder’s fault, and it isn’t Robbie’s fault. It’s all mine, one hundred percent,” I said passionately.

“Tell me what it is,” Obaachan said. “But I warn you, you tell me something that give me heart attack, my death on your conscience forever.” (pp. 144-145)

This novel is definitely one of my top picks for the year. I am having a hard time deciding between Counting by 7s and The Thing About Luck. It is interesting that they are both about Asian-American girls in such difficult circumstances that they are forced to stretch themselves farther than they thought they could go.

Very highly recommend for ages 9 and up.

Update on November 21, 2013: I am excited to report that this title won the National Book Award for Young People last night! Richly deserved.

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

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