The John Newbery Medal is a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association (ALA). This annual award is given to the author of "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." The Newbery and Caldecott Medals are considered to be the most prestigious awards for children's literature in the United States.
The medal is decided by a committee elected by their peers and for the past year, Baltimore County Public Library’s Collection Development Coordinator Jamie Watson has been a member of this committee working hard to determine this year’s medal winner and honor books. Jamie sat down with me to share insight into the committee. Her passion for this committee work and children’s literature are evident! The Newbery Medal, along with the other ALA awards will be announced on Monday, January 23 in Atlanta.
Between the Covers: Please give us a brief overview of the process of committee member selection process for the Newbery Medal.
Jamie Watson: There are 15 people on the committee. Eight of them are elected during the American Library Association elections held in the spring. I was elected! You are nominated by your peers. Then, six more members and the committee chair are chosen by the president of the Association for Library Service to Children.
It was bittersweet being elected because one of my friends missed joining me on the committee by a mere three votes!
For librarians who might want to be on the committee, this has really been a long process of serving on other committees for the last 17 years, getting to know people, practicing book discussion skills and networking. It was something I knew I always wanted to do and I’m so pleased and honored to be doing it.
BTC: Is the committee given any criteria to choose its winners or does it come up with its on their own?
JW: There are very specific criteria, and I’ve probably read them 100 times or more over the last year! Here they are, direct from the manual:
Committee members need to consider the following:
• Interpretation of the theme or concept
• Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity and organization
• Development of a plot
• Delineation of characters
• Delineation of a setting
• Appropriateness of style
Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.
This gets challenging because you might be comparing so many different types of books. How can you compare a picture book with a biography for middle grade readers with a book of poetry with a novel for 8-year-olds? Ultimately, you apply these criteria to each and every book, and see how well they stand up to it.
BTC: How does the committee decide which books to read? How many did you read this year?
JW: Publishers will send you books all throughout the year. You will read reviews. You will hear other people talking and speculating. However, it’s up to each individual committee member to decide which books to read. Also throughout the year, the members communicate by sending “suggestions” to the chair, who then compiles them and sends them to the entire committee. So you can see what things other committee members are reading and liking. But not which person, or why they liked them. It’s just a list that says “You might want to check these out.” I tried to balance reading well-reviewed things, reading suggested things and reading things I didn’t know much about just to see what might be getting overlooked. Everyone on the committee has their own approach.
I likely read in the vicinity of 200 books from cover to cover. I likely skimmed 200 more, or read just a bit of them. Some books that are on the list of nominations I’ve read twice, and a few even three times. I’ll be continuing to re-read right up to the deadline just to see what else I might have missed.
This is why serving on committees has made me a much kinder “second guesser” of awards committees. Even the most avid readers have likely not read this intensely and with this volume for a year. We are really looking HARD at these books, because we really want to make a great decision.
BTC: How is it all kept secret? How do you communicate with one another? What is the approximate timeline for the year? Do you have in-person meetings? How does the voting work?
JW: As of now, none of us have talked about the books to each other at all. We don’t know who nominated what, who likes what — nothing. We start fresh on January 20. There is NO DISCUSSION of the books AT ALL until we are behind that closed door on January 20. The chair communicated with us throughout the year, letting us know what people were suggesting and checking in with logistics, but our communications with each other were completely limited.
Keeping it secret is hard for a big talker like me, but I respect that the surprise adds such an extra layer to the announcement on Monday, January 23. I had to quit doing Goodreads for the year, which I really missed. I couldn’t say on Facebook “OMG I JUST READ THE BEST BOOK” because everyone would assume that meant it was on the fast track to the Newbery.
My time on the committee was from January, 2016 until June 2017. After we make the announcement, the hard work is done. But the final payoff is at the ALA Annual Conference in the summer, when the award is presented at the Newbery/Caldecott banquet. Here, committee members usually get to meet the author, often having dinner with him/her, and just enjoy the fruits of their labor. The author will give a speech, which has nearly moved me to tears even in years when I was not on the committee!
So, at conference in January, we will begin to discuss the books. We have two full days of discussion, and then we vote. You only get to vote for THREE books. If a clear winner isn’t determined after the first ballot, all books that received votes get rediscussed. And then you revote. You can’t leave the room on Saturday, January 21 until you have a winner. I’ve heard stories of tears and anger, (nothing specific, as it’s all secret forever, but rumors!) so I hope our voting process goes swimmingly!
BTC: How has being on the Newbery Committee impacted your job as a librarian?
JW: The hardest part really has been my inability to recommend titles that I’m reading to keep secrecy at its utmost. I really miss being able to enthuse as I go along! The other impact has been not being able to do everything I might normally. While I hope I kept up on my day-to-day job OK, there were extras that came my way that I couldn’t do this year. There’s only so much brain power you have!
BTC: What do you personally take away from being on the Newbery Committee?
JW: This is just such a huge honor. Seeing that seal on a book and knowing that I played a part in getting recognition for a book and an author that should be recognized is a great honor and responsibility. It also reminds me what got me into librarianship to begin with — a love of reading and books and story and literature. The passion for our duty is going to be overwhelming in that room in Atlanta, and I’ll carry it with me forever!
BTC: What was your favorite book as a child? Do you have a favorite Newbery winner?
JW: As a kid, without question my favorite Newbery book, and still one of my favorite books of all time, is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.
Most of the time in recent years, because I read a lot of children’s books, I have read the Newbery before it was announced. The one that made me the happiest was Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. I’m also a big fan of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.
But that’s another difference between OBSERVING and picking a winner. “Which book did you like best” is NOT a criteria. You can angle it and say “The plot was developed so well” or etc., but it really doesn’t matter if you LIKE it. You have to be impartial and unemotional and just say “DID THIS WORK?”
I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
Everything that’s new is scary when you’re a kid. Everyone remembers how hard it is to try new food, make new friends or move to new places. But what if you found out that your new neighbors really were monsters? That’s where Charles finds himself in Drew Weing’s excellent all-ages story The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo.
Charles is a conservative kid. Like really conservative. He even has his own conspiracy blog. He hates foreign food, art museums, opera and he especially hates the monster that lives in his closet. No one believes it’s real, but luckily Charles meets someone who does: monster expert Margo Maloo. Together they journey into the troll’s lair, expecting to “take him out,” but in a surprise twist, Margo knows him! His name’s Marcus. He’s actually a pretty cool guy.
It turns out that Margo is more of a monster mediator than a monster hunter. This means that sometimes she helps kids get rid of monsters, but more often it’s the other way around. We discover that monsters of the city have their own secret community whose way of life is under constant threat from encroaching humans. As Margo drags Charles along on a number of adventures involving these friendly neighborhood ghosts, goblins and ogres, he learns to be more open-minded toward his new and scary neighbors.
Inspired by '70s kid lit like Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Cricket in Times Square, Margo Maloo is an imaginative mystery comic with a strong message of empathy. To stay up to date on Margo’s whereabouts, make sure you follow her faithful assistant Charles F. Thompson on Twitter.
Many readers will be surprised to learn that Raina Telgemeier is one of the most successful graphic novelists working today. Her comics may not be the stuff of spectacular blockbuster movie adaptations, but she has an uncanny eye for the subtleties of school age friendships, romantic relationships and the pain of braces (which hits especially close to home for me). She connects with readers — especially young ones — and this has led to her books outselling popular comics like The Walking Dead or whichever superhero book Marvel or DC are pushing this week. Telgemeier outpaces them with personal, self-contained stories about children and, with her new book Ghosts, Telgemeier has taken yet another step forward as a storyteller. Retaining her signature warmth and breezy humor, her subjects now include death, family illness and ghosts.
Ghosts follows a family who’s just moved to Bahía de la Luna, a seaside town whose ocean air is especially good for Maya, the youngest daughter who has cystic fibrosis. But the protagonist of the story is Catrina, Maya’s older teenage sister.
Maya is a classic child, silly and wise. She has a peace with the world that’s hard to retain when you become Catrina’s age. But Bahía de la Luna is not your average town, and the girls begin spotting ghosts and real-life spooky, scary skeletons. Maya has questions for the ghosts, but Catrina is terrified of them and the uncomfortable feelings they stir up about her sister’s health. Through many lessons, Catrina will learn that inviting ghosts into her life may be the healthiest thing she can do.
Ghosts is the perfect all-ages read, full of beautiful landscapes, cartoonish humor and wisdom. Leave it to Telgemeier to take the heaviest of subject matter and make it jovial.
Call me superficial, but I love a really pretty book. This is especially true for children’s books. What better way to lure young readers in than an eye-catching cover or page after page of cool illustrations? Of course, in order to truly live up to my exacting standards, it must have some substance too. I've recently become obsessed with Flying Eye Books, an imprint of Nobrow Press because they never disappoint me. They are always stylishly composed and fun to read.
Smart About Sharks by Owen Davey is an amazing example of nonfiction for children. It presents readers with weird and fascinating facts as well as lots of practical information on things like shark anatomy, social habits and even some of the mythology surrounding this mysterious predator. The author includes a section on species endangerment and simple ways to keep their habitats safe. However, the illustrations really steal the spotlight. Each page is like a print I would hang in my house, featuring underwater scenes and infographics that are as useful as they are nice to look at. They are especially useful for helping young readers make sense of all the information. My favorite panel shows a kayaker paddling at the top of the page with an assortment of sharks in the water beneath, all drawn to scale. It is a great way to begin to imagine how many differences there can be in one species.
One Day on Our Blue Planet…in the Antarctic is a picture book that introduces kids to a day in the life of a penguin named Adélie, also the name of a common species of penguin living on the Antarctic coast. Through her adventures, author Ella Bailey teaches us about the other animals in Adélie's habitat, like seals, whales, squids and krill. The sentences are simple and sparse, but children will discover a ton of information about life in Antarctica through the illustrations. While they are stylistically simple, there is so much cool stuff happening on each page, it's sure to pique young readers’ interest. The end pages also feature each of the species making an appearance along with its name.
These two stylish books are great for kids interested in the natural world, and they are sure to prompt further investigation. Both are part of a series, so be sure to check out other works from these authors.
Fall down the rabbit hole and into a topsy-turvy world of nonsense, beauty and adventure in Tahereh Mafi’s Furthermore, a modern-day tribute to the classic Alice in Wonderland.
Alice Alexis Queensmeadow, about to turn 12 years old, has little to do aside from munching on tulips, watching the sun pour rainlight over her homeland of Ferenwood and practicing for the Surrender — an event where all Ferenwood children in their 12th year demonstrate their magical talents for the town elders and are subsequently assigned a special, secret task. Those things, and, of course, her missing father is on her mind. The last time anyone saw him, he was journeying outside of Ferenwood with nothing but the clothes on his back and a ruler in his pocket. Now two years later, his anguished family has all but given up on his return.
That is until Oliver, a not-so-friendly friend from Alice’s past, suddenly reappears with a proposition for her: If Alice will help him with his task, a dangerous mission that will lead them deep within the realm of Furthermore, he will tell her where her father is.
Desperate to be reunited with her father, Alice follows Oliver into Furthermore, a dangerous land full of rules, riddles and remarkable residents. The only question is: Will they survive it?
Tahereh Mafi, author of the teen romance trilogy Shatter Me, has once again delivered a unique reading experience. An interactive narrator, her beautiful, poetic writing makes for a touching, funny and truly satisfying read.
As summer winds down, we look forward to cooler weather, pumpkin-flavored everything and fall television premiers! If you’re like me and you need to read the book before you watch it on screen, here are 10 new series premiering this television season based on books.
Hulu’s Chance, based on the book by Kem Nunn, is a psychological thriller set in San Francisco about a psychiatrist, his female patient with multiple personality disorder and her homicide detective husband.
NBC’s Emerald City is a modern reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz series featuring 20-year-old Dorothy Gale and a K9 police dog.
Fox’s The Exorcist, based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, follows a new family’s fight against demonic possession.
Amazon’s Good Girls Revolt is based on the true story of author Lynn Povich and 45 other women who sued Newsweek for sex discrimination in 1970.
Hulu’s The Handmaid's Tale is based on the classic dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood.
NBC’s Midnight, Texas is a supernatural drama based on the series by Charlaine Harris — also the author of the Sookie Stackhouse books which formed the basis for HBO’s True Blood.
NBC’s Powerless is a workplace comedy about an insurance company set in the DC Comics Universe.
CW’s Riverdale is a live-action teen drama based on the characters from Archie Comics, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is based on the children’s series by Lemony Snicket about three orphaned siblings.
ABC’s Still Star-Crossed, based on the teen novel by Melinda Taub, features the Montagues and Capulets in the aftermath of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic deaths.
Whether you’ve just been down the ocean or you’re anticipating your next trip, here are three seaside bedtime stories to share with your kids — especially if they’re fans of Ponyo.
The protagonist of The Storm can’t wait to go to the beach tomorrow with his parents! But one of Japan’s infamous monsoons threatens to douse their plans. Can his family weather the storm through the night or will their plans be rained out? Akiko Miyakoshi’s masterful charcoal illustrations depict this story of anticipation and overcoming fear with the same finesse as fellow illustrators Chris Van Allsburg and Daniel Miyares.
Maya by Mahak Jain is having trouble sleeping as well. Troubled by the dark when the power goes out, her mother comforts her with the story of the first banyan tree. Through this story and her dreamy imaginings, Maya learns how to transform her fears and overcome the sadness plaguing her from a recent loss. Elly MacKay’s ethereal cut-paper diorama illustrations, reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger’s Adventures of Prince Achmed, set the perfect tone in their depiction of Maya’s dream world.
Finally, be lulled to sleep by Anne Hunter’s onomatopoetic depiction of animals’ lullabies in Cricket Song. As the sun sets across the ocean, two worlds comingle as the diurnal creatures settle into their beds and nocturnal creatures start to wake. This understated story captures a sense of the earth’s orbit, starting in a forest in the Pacific Northwest and ending on an island in the South Seas. The interchange of the animals across the world makes for a tranquil procession as the two children in the book (and your own) drift off into slumberland.
It’s finally here! Harry Potter and the Cursed Child arrives today, and fans who have waited to learn more about their favorites will devour this script of the play based on an original new story by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. The Cursed Child is set 19 years after the seventh and final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Harry Potter is now (gulp!) 37 with his own family. Harry Potter first entered our lives 19 years ago with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and since 1997, all titles in the series have sold more than 450 million copies and been adapted into eight films.
Harry is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children. Harry and wife Ginny, accompanied by old friends Ron and Hermione, watch as their children set off from King’s Cross for a new term at Hogwarts. While Harry struggles with his past, his youngest son Albus must deal with the burden of being the child of a legend. He is unpopular and living under the shadow of his famous father, but Albus feels he has one true friend — Scorpius Malfoy, the son of his father’s arch enemy, Draco. But is Albus, as Harry suspects, being taken advantage of? And what about the persistently circulating rumor that Scorpius is really the child of the dark wizard, Lord Voldemort?
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is one play presented in two parts. The production has won five-star reviews from critics, with one describing it as "a game-changing production.” The play opened last night at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End, and Daily Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish raved, "British theatre hasn't known anything like it for decades and I haven't seen anything directly comparable in all my reviewing days."
The Wild Robot is Peter Brown’s first work for middle-grade readers, and this notable picture book author and illustrator has given us a delightful story that is sure to become a classic.
A hurricane rages offshore, and somewhere at sea a vessel containing hundreds of identical crates sinks. Its cargo is mostly lost beneath the waves. A handful of crates are destroyed by waves smashing them into the rocky island cliff. One solitary crate is washed up onto the cliff’s edge so forcefully it breaks apart, and miraculously the robot inside is unharmed.
A curious gang of sea otters activates the ROZZUM unit 7134, and a robot called Roz wakes for the first time to finds herself marooned on an island.
Now, Roz must struggle to survive in this wild place. Unsurprisingly, the animals are terrified of this strange monster in their midst. They avoid her and attack her until she hides away. She certainly isn’t programmed for survival, but she is programmed to learn. Disguised as a rock, Roz observes the world around her. She sits patiently and watches tadpoles turning to frogs, mushrooms magically appearing, foxes hunting hares, ocean waves crashing against the coast. She begins to learn the languages of the creatures on the island.
By accident, Roz finds herself caring for a tiny gosling. As she becomes this little bird’s mother, she finds a place in the animal community. She must rely on older geese to help teach her how to take care of her gosling, and the beavers to build her a suitable house for the two of them. The animals on the island learn that Roz is kind and happy to help her neighbors, and a new kind of community is formed.
This peace can’t last though. Like the other animals, Roz is subject to the changing seasons. She has to find a way to endure conditions robots weren’t built for. Also, the manufacturers who created Roz are searching for every last robot they lost.
This wonderful book has everything readers could ask for — an action-packed plot as well as heartwarming characters readers won’t soon forget. While Brown does offer up a very accessible book for young readers, there are also some weighty themes such as motherhood, environmental concerns and the question of what it is to be human, making it a great book for families to share.
If you enjoy this title, be sure to check out Pax by Sara Pennypacker.