Favorite Youth Literature of 2008: Newbery Contenders

Tomorrow morning, the American Library Association will give out its annual Youth Media Awards, otherwise known as “the children’s literature Oscars.”  There are a bevy of awards, and there’s a grand flurry of predictions that emerge in the kidlitosphere this time of year.  BUT — the one that gets the most attention, the most press, and therefore the most prestige, is the Newbery Award.  It’s supposed to be given to the year’s most “distinguished” contribution to children’s literature, but that usually translates to “best novel.”  It’s fun to try and read everything that might be a contender, but because the award committee is famously secretive, it’s always unpredictable.  Here are some of my personal ideas of what might win (in no particular order):

chains1Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson — It’s the story of a slave girl in New York City during the American Revolution.  Many people are saying that this is a lock for the win, but the competition is fierce.  I personally thought the protagonist’s voice was a little unconvincing, and the plot was way predictable, but it’s very good nonetheless, and it’s likely your children (if you have any) will be required to read it in school. 


underneathThe Underneath by Kathy Appelt — In Plot 1, kittens and a hound dog are caught in the clutches of a drunken, abusive owner.  In Plot 2, ancient Native Americans interact with a supernatural shape-shifting snake.  The two tales intersect in a bevy of shimmering, if sometimes repetitive, prose.  I call it the weirdest story you’ll ever love.  Others call it tedious and too dark for kids.  Read it and decide for yourself, eh?


porcupine-yearThe Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich — The third book in the acclaimed Birchbark House series, tracking the forced migration of an Ojibwe family, circa 1858.  Sounds sad, but Erdrich’s account of Omakayas’ day-to-day life is as uplifting, lovely, and funny as anything else you’ll read this year. 



after-tupac-and-d-foster1After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson — Two best friends growing up with comfortable but strict families in 1990s Queens.  Enter a foster child with all the freedom in the world, triggering a search for personal identity and maturity.  Yeah, most of Woodson’s novels are difficult to summarize nicely.  You know why?  Because her writing is quietly brilliant, that’s why.



my-one-hundred-adventuresMy One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath — Horvath’s books have been described as “magic realism without the magic,” which is pretty apt.  This tale of a 12 year old girl’s last summer of childhood is packed with zany adventures but reads like poetry.  It includes a purple air balloon heist, a psychic evangelical minister, and someone described only as “the clotheshanger man.”  And yet I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.  Huh.


graveyard-bookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — It’s certainly the biggest crowd-pleaser on this list, and yet may be exempt from eligibility owing to a technicality (one chapter of the book began as a previously published short story, which is Against The Rules, meh).  If you haven’t heard my raves about it before, it’s like The Jungle Book, only it’s about an orphaned being raised by ghosts instead of animals.  And it features hilarious, Cockney-spouting ghouls and the most loveable vampire ever.  ‘Nuff said.


masterpieceMasterpiece by Elise Broach — James is a boy who lives in Manhattan; Marvin is the black beetle who lives in his wall.  Marvin also happens to be something of an art prodigy, and when he begins leaving beautiful, miniature ink drawings on James’ desk, it attracts the attention of adults, teachers — and eventually the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This is one of those broad-broad-appeal books, like The Cricket in Times Square crossed with From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  However, it has kind of a weirdo moment with a turtle tank (yes, you read that correctly), so we shall see.


alvin-hoAlvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Leonore Look.  A novel about a 2nd grader facing a rather crippling shyness that is peppered with imaginitive wordplay and funny, funny situations.  (Funny.  Funny.  Funny.)  Alvin’s voice is clever without being precocious, and smart while still authentically child-like.  (This kind of writing is harder than you think.)  However, funny books and novels for younger readers rarely win awards, so We Shall See. 


trouble-begins-at-8The Trouble Begins at 8 by Sid Fleischmann — A rather cunning biography of Mark Twain, written in the jaw-droppingly clever style of Twain himself.  You’d think this would be grating, but instead it’s gratifying.  Fleischmann’s display of Sam Clemens’ metamorphosis into Mark Twain is downhome brilliant.  However — there’s been some talk about whether or not the period caricatures of Twain Fleischmann used for to illustrate the book may confuse some readers.  I think kids are smart enough to get the joke, but the award committee may not feel that way.


penderwicks-on-gardam-streetThe Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall — The second book in Birdsall’s contemporary riff off of Little Women, in which the four Penderwick sisters attempt to thwart their widower father’s attempts to re-enter the dating scene.  Their plan involves an elaborate web of lies, Latin insults, a play about Aztecs, frequent appearances by the high school football team, and Marianne Dashwood.  Did I mention the funny?  No?  Well, this book has it in spades.  Usually I tend to back off from books described as “charmingly old-fashioned,” but this book’s writing is so solid that I’m still smiling thinking about it — and I read it six months ago.


hunger-gamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — This book may seem out of place in a list of rather thunderous “emotional books,” but a fast-paced action novel requires a different set of gears than the realistic coming-of-age novel.  This book is about both wiley and whiney teens forced to fight to the death in a national park.  And despite that, it isn’t laughably cheesy, but a rather ripping good read.  Tell me that ain’t award-worthy, punk.


diamond-willowDiamond Willow by Helen Frost — in addition to the token funny book, non-fiction, and book for younger readers, every good Newbery prediction list should have its token book of poetry.  Or at the least, a novel-in-verse, which is what the lovely Diamond Williow is.  Frost has concocted a novel in concrete poems — or “shape” poems, embedding in each a second, smaller poem that reflects the thoughts or emotional state of the protagonist.  Oh, and it has sled dogs racing through the Alaskan interior, and plays with the idea of animals being the characters’ ancestors.  So, it could be a wild card.


I’ll chime in tomorrow with my thoughts about the real winners — I’m so excited, I can’t wait!

5 thoughts on “Favorite Youth Literature of 2008: Newbery Contenders

  1. I love reading your commentary on these books and have a question for you: my (almost) seven and six year old daughters LOVE books and stories and really into ‘chapter’ books. We are going through all the classics, but I am also looking at some of these and thinking they look great! Do you think they might be too mature? I’m not sure the level of ‘sophistication’ of any of these, so defer to your judgment. Any ideas?

    1. Knowing whether or not a book is too mature for a child is really a parents’ call; it’s difficult for a librarian to know the mental/emotional/maturity of a child when recommending a book.  The only way you’ll know 100% for sure if a book is for your kid is if you read it first, especially since, as a librarian, I have no idea what a parent is looking for (or not looking for) in a book for their kid. (No violence? Violence ok? Easy vocabulary? A simple plot to follow?) The good news there is that children’s fiction is fast and easy to read.  Also, kids don’t always slot into “age appropriate” guidelines; there are 5th graders who enjoy reading “3rd grade” books, and vice versa.  A seven year old who reads at an 8th grade level isn’t necessarily ready for a book written for 8th graders.Now, having said all of that, here are some quick-and-dirty age guidelines (based purely on my own opinion):
      For 2nd and 3rd graders who are just getting into chapter books:
      Alvin Ho
      For 3rd-4th graders with a bit more reading experience:
      Diamond Willow
      Fourth and Fifth Grade:
      The Porcupine Year
      The Graveyard Book
      After Tupac and D Foster
      My 100 Adventures
      Sixth to Eighth Grade:
      The Underneath
      The Hunger Games — and this one is probably on the high end of 8th grade
      The Trouble Begins at 8

      Keep in mind that not even an age guideline will mean a book is right for a child — books like My One Hundred Adventures are introspective, emotional novels that will be just right for a certain kind of child, while Masterpiece, Alvin Ho and The Graveyard Book have much broader appeal. Whew! Does that help?

    1. ‘Tis a rather rockin’ novel, I do think. Have you seen the cover for the sequel? It’s called Catching Fire and will come out in September of this year. Note the autumn publication date: that’s usually a clue that the publisher thinks very highly of the book. Like the film industry, the publishing industry holds back the year’s brightest starts for autumn release. Woot!

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