In part one of this blog I related the genesis of the Newbery Medal and the book that created this lifelong reader. In this post I want to describe what makes Newbery books worth reading.
The Newbery winners are diverse in theme, setting and level of difficulty, but they share well-structured plots, clear but not simple vocabulary and great attention to detail. My favorite, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, introduced me to Colonial New England and the Puritan lifestyle. Speare describes the heroine Kit’s abrupt change in fortune and her painful adjustment to life in the colony:
By the end of that first day the word useful had taken on an alarming meaning. Work in that household never ceased and it called for skill and patience, qualities Kit did not seem to possess. . . The pewter mugs had to be scoured with reeds and fine sand. There was a great kettle of soap boiling over a fire just behind the house, and all day long Judith and her mother took turns stirring it with a long stick.
The medal winners do not shy away from difficult topics. Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer (1974 medal winner) tells the gripping story of a boy named Jessie, a talented fife player who earns money for his family playing at the docks of New Orleans. He is kidnapped one night and taken aboard a slave ship, forced to become a “slave dancer.” He provides the jaunty music while the sailors whip the slaves and force them to dance, a daily routine to force exercise on the slaves who have been kept chained in the hold. This book describes the slaves’ plight in gruesome detail, raising many ethical and moral issues. This book does not end happily ever after, although Jessie is reunited with his family. Are upper elementary school children ready for this kind of book? I think many are.
Another book that gives a realistic portrait of historical events is The Dark Frigate, the 1923 medal winner by Charles Boardman Hawes. In this book we follow the adventures of Philip Marsham, a young sailor in Cromwell’s England on the Rose of Devon, a frigate that is seized by pirates. Unlike the Disney creation of Captain Jack Sparrow and his merry band of misfits, this pirate crew is no theme park ride. The dehumanizing cruelty that the captain uses to turn crewmembers against each other to keep total control is scary. Hawes carefully researched both language of the era and naval history to create a mesmerizing story of murderous, not adorable, pirates.
Many of the Newbery books take place in foreign settings, places that most young readers have never visited. Linda Sue Park’s 2002 Newbery Medal winner, A Single Shard, follows the life of an orphan apprentice to a master potter in 12th century Korea. All the pottery pieces that Park describes are actual celadon masterpieces in museums. As is true with most of the Newbery books, it is easy for a boy or a girl to identify with the protagonist, and this book, like many award winners, has a theme of persistence winning the day, a good message for any reader.
Lest my readers think that all Newbery award winners are sobering looks at moral issues, I will recommend another favorite, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Newbery Medal winner of 1968 by E. L. Konigsburg (a prolific and enchanting writer for youth who recently died). Claudia Kincaid feels that her parents do not appreciate her, so she teaches them a lesson by running away. In this comical story, she executes her careful plan with her younger brother to hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even though many of the references are tied to an earlier time (a tuna sandwich costs 35 cents), the repartee between the siblings is funny, and they eventually solve a mystery about a statue.
Now, about those movies that you have seen based on Newbery books: here are five with their authors and date of Newbery Medal (M) or honor (H):
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (H – 1957)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (M – 1963),
Sounder by William H. Armstrong (M – 1970)
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (H – 1998)
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo ( M- 2004)
If you search Newbery Medal books, however, you will find many more. The next time you see a children’s book with a bright gold medal on the cover, pick it up and skim a bit, and you, too, will become a Newbery reader. If you have a favorite Newbery award winner, let me know so I can read it, too.