John Newbery Medal
Newbery Winner: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
A story about a town trapped in a dark tradition, a yearly sacrifice of the newest born babe, a boy named Antain who cannot abide with these traditions, a mother whose sanity flies away, a witch, a tiny dragon, a monster, and Luna, the sacrificial baby girl who gets accidentally filled with magic. We watch as Luna grows up, and her adopted family has to figure out how to handle her magic. We watch as Antain grows into a man troubled by his town's traditions until the day it is his own child about to be sacrificed, and something must be done. Most of all, it is a story warning of the dangers of bitterness and trumpeting the power of hope and love.
This was totally my top choice for the Newbery medal, so I was quite happy to see it get that award. Barnhill's writing in this is a teensy bit like Dickens in that she introduces a bunch of different characters and you follow them around for a while getting to know each of them without seeing how they are connected. And then in the last quarter of the book it all comes together and you start going, Ohhhh! To be fair, Barnhill gives more clues than Dickens and doesn't keep you in the dark for nearly as many pages, but it still ends up feeling like the beginning of the book is a little slow. Sure, Barnhill's writing is often very lyrical and her world building is fascinating. Luna's adopted family are loads of fun to read about. Especially Fyrian the tiny dragon who thinks he's enormous. I want my own Fyrian! He's my second favorite character after Ethyne, Antain's wife, who is a rock star. It does take patience and perseverance to get to the point where you'll start to get answers and be able to see how the different parts being introduced fit together. The wait is worth it, though. The ending is powerful. The way Barnhill sets things up to fit together perfectly is masterful, and the message about the dangers of harboring bitterness and the power of hope is done so very well (and is so very important). A beautiful story.
Read this one for powerful message that hope and love will conquer a world of bitterness and hate, the fantasy world, and the intricate plot weaving.
Newbery Honor books: Shockingly, despite the tons of middle grade fiction I read, I haven’t read any of the honor books yet so I can’t speak on any of them yet. Go back to that link above of all the YMA winners if you want their titles.
The Caldecott Medal
Winner: We already had Radiant Child on order before the awards were announced, but it hasn’t come yet. I don’t have an opinion on this picture book biography about an artist yet.
Caldecott Honor: Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol
A grandmother wants some space so she can get a very important task accomplished, however, her grandkids are many and active. They are not making it easy to knit. She packs up and heads to the forest, only to find that bears are just as troublesome as grandchildren. It turns out, you have to go to some pretty extreme lengths to find a place to knit undisturbed.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out this won a Caldecott honor. It was one of my favorite picture books of 2016, but humorous picture books don’t tend to win as often as sappy ones do. It’s extremely imaginative and quite funny, I loved it (especially the goats and the wormhole). And even though the title (and recurring phrase) may come off a little harsh at first, the grandmother has a very good and kind-hearted reason. It's hard to make secret gifts when you can't be very secretive. This provides the perfect opportunity to talk about finding quiet space and respecting others who might need some. The illustration style fit the mood of the book perfectly. Overall, a very fun tall tale with some unexpected twists and turns.
Humor fans, science fiction fans, those who like books with a surprising twist, and of course, introverts.
Caldecott Honor: They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
A cat walks by various different creatures and each one sees it differently.
The text in this is very simple, the point is made in each illustration. Each animal sees the cat slightly differently. A good book to lead into a talk about perspective and worldview. And of course, for little ones it is just a fun cat book with repetitive text beginning readers can easily memorize and "read" along with an older reader.
Cat lovers, beginning readers, and those talking about perspective/worldview
More Caldecott Honor Books: I haven’t read the other two Caldecott honor books yet.
Printz Winner: March: Book Three by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
John Lewis finishes his graphic novel autobiography trilogy of the civil rights movement years. This one covers 1963-1965: the bombing of Birmingham Sunday, the crucial laws passed during these years and the big push by Lewis and others to make sure those laws were passed so that everyone could vote without any hindrances.
I think they’ve been waiting for the final book in this series to hand it some awards, because none of the others in this series have gotten much award notice, but this final book in the series cleaned up. It won the Printz (never been done by a nonfiction title before), it won the Sibert, it won the Coretta Scott King Author award, it won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, and prior to that, a National Book Award. All are well-deserved. This book and the two other books in the series (which really all need to be read together) are a hard but very important read about the nonviolent student movements that fought for civil rights with words and peaceful action. It's probably a good thing they chose to keep this in black and white because there's so much bloodshed that happened, especially in this volume of the series. It's truly horrific the things people went through both while suffering injustice and nonviolently protesting that injustice. This book is not a calming read, it will make you uncomfortable and upset, but it should. Injustice is not something you should be able to read about and be unaffected.
Definitely recommended for teens and adult interested in history, the civil rights movement, and social justice. High school history teachers, you should really look into adding this series into your curriculum if you cover American history or human rights.
Printz Honors: I am currently reading 3 out of the 4 Printz honors right now: Scythe by Neal Shusterman, The Sun Is also a Star by Nicole Yoon, and The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry because I happened to have all three sitting in the mountain that is my TBR pile and quickly jumped them into the currently reading pile. Click on the titles to see if I have a review up by the time you read this post, so far the jury is still out by I’m liking Scythe best…though I’ve loved every other Julie Berry book I’ve read and I know her brilliance is usually only fully appreciated once you get towards the end of her books.
Robert F. Sibert Medal
Sibert Winner: March: Book Three by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
(see above under Printz Award)
Sibert Honor: We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman
The story of Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends who formed the White Rose Student Resistance Movement in Germany during WWII. The White Rose group published pamphlets encouraging the German people to resist the evils of the Nazi regime and exposed the truths of some of those horrors. The main members were college students at Munich University, though the group eventually grew to include numerous people from all walks of life who could not be silent about the evils around them any longer, even though they knew to do so could result in imprisonment or death.
This was one of the books I suspected would get a Sibert, especially since Russell Freedman is so good at writing engaging nonfiction for middle grade and teens. It is a moving story about the bravery of a group of college students who decided to fight evil with words, and some of whom paid for those words with their lives. I liked the photographs and primary resources scattered throughout the book. I also liked that in the last chapter Freedman told how people tried to make sure the White Rose Movement and the bravery of those who paid with their lives has been memorialized with street names, a museum and many books and movies. A lot of WWII nonfiction for this target age group is several hundred pages long, so it is nice to have a very readable biography that is almost exactly 100 pages long. Skinnier books with lots of pictures are less intimidating, though the content loses nothing in power in the brevity.
Those interested in history, especially WWII. Reluctant nonfiction readers, and those interested in nonviolent protestors of history.
Other Sibert Honors: We don’t have any of the others yet, so I can’t comment on them now.
YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction
YALSA Winner: March: Book Three by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
(see above under Printz Award)
YALSA Nonfiction Finalist: Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner, ill. by Gareth Hinds
A biography of 12th century samurai, Minamoto Yoshitsune, who rose from the ashes of his father's failed rebellion to become one of the most accomplished samurai of his time.
I figured this would get either a Sibert or a YALSA award because of the caliber of research and writing. It is super hard to write a biography of someone who lived over 800 years ago. But Turner does an amazing job with the historic documents available without stooping to make stuff up to fill in the gaps. She includes a lot of "Yoshitsune probably did..." or "most samurai at the time would have proceeded in this way..." giving historic reliability and fleshing out the tale so it is highly readable, while also not stepping over the bounds from biography to fiction. It's a fantastic piece of challenging historic writing. Turner provides extensive notes in the back of the book. This is a fantastic resource to use when showing students how to write about ancient history. That said, this biography is not for everyone. Feudal Japan was most definitely not the land of Hello Kitty and cherry blossoms. While reading this I had the sudden revelation that 12th century Japan's turmoil can best be compared to a bunch of gang wars. Pretty much one guy rises up, decides he wants more power. He kidnaps the retired emperor (as is standard procedure), and starts wiping out his enemies (beheading is the preferred method so you can hang the head up as a trophy/warning). Then he is top dog till the next guy decides he wants to be in charge, and that next guy may be one of the opposition members that survived or one of his own men who decides he could do a better job. And there's rampant mistrust and jealousy whenever anybody does too well in battle and starts getting stories told about him. It really highlights how futile and wasteful greed can make men, and it isn't just money and objects they are squandering, it is human lives. Hopefully, readers can learn from the errors of the past. Much of Yoshitsune's fame came from surviving some militaristically brilliant but insane and risky battle moves to win the day (like riding down impossible cliffs the enemy didn't guard because they thought they were impenetrable). That means that a lot of his biography revolves around war and death. The body count is high, and Turner doesn't shy from sharing the brutality of samurai habits of that time period from the way they ransacked villages to suicidal habits. This is a helpful balance for those who picture the age of samurai being like an episode of Samurai Jack and an interesting look into a time period frequently gilded in fiction and infrequently covered well historically. Oh, and I loved that Gareth Hinds did the illustrations. (I was SO disappointed at first when I found out this wasn't a graphic novel, because when I just heard whispers about the book I heard his name and assumed it was a biography in graphic novel form. It isn't, but his illustrations here and there are still fantastic additions to help set the mood.)
Those interested in feudal Japan, samurais, and who enjoy excellent biographical writing.
Other YALSA Nonfiction Finalists: I haven’t read any of the other finalists in this category yet.
Coretta Scott King Book Awards
Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner: March: Book Three by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
(see above under Printz Award)
Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award: As mentioned in the Caldecott section, Radiant Child is on order so I haven’t been able to read it yet.
Coretta Scott King Author & Illustrator Honors: I also haven’t read any of the honor books yet.
Pura Belpré Awards
Belpré Author Winner: Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina
Juana is a lower grade student in elementary school in Bogota, Colombia. Her best friend is her dog, Lucas. She tries to do her best at school, but when the teacher announces they'll be learning English Juana is convinced it is just too hard to learn. She asks her mom why she needs to learn English, and her mom encourages her to continue to ask that question to a variety of people. Juana is not super convinced until her grandfather gives her a very motivating reason.
This was one of my favorite lower grade books of 2016, so I’m happy to see it get a shiny sticker for its cover. Juana is a very believable character, and I know several students at our international school identify with her struggles with English. This is the perfect ESL read. I like the multicultural setting, and the way Medina teaches fluent English speakers some Spanish along the way. This is a little tougher reading-wise than the average book aimed at the lower grade reader. Oh, and I really liked the glossy pages and full color pictures. It's a very attractive book in presentation on top of being a good realistic story.
Hand this one to kids who like contemporary stories, kids who can identify with Juana's struggles, and those who are a little more advanced readers in 1st or 2nd grades (possibly even 3rd grade).
Belpré Author Honor: I haven’t read this honor book.
Belpré Illustrator Winner: I haven’t read this second book in the Lowriders graphic novel series yet, but I appreciate that Raul the Third uses red, blue and black ink pens to create his art, purposefully choosing materials available to just about anyone.
Belpré Illustrator Honor: Esquivel!: Space-Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, ill. by Duncan Tonatiuh
A picture book biography of the unconventional musician and composer, Juan Garcia Esquivel who taught himself music in Mexico and eventually made his way to the United States. He pioneered in using stereo sound to create special effects in his music, and also was not afraid to do things differently, whether incorporating unusual instruments or playing familiar songs in new ways.
If you want to make a safe bet on the YMA Book Awards, bet that Tonatiuh will win a Belpré. (Just go research and see how many he’s won in recent years...and this year he gets two!) I'd never heard of Esquivel before but it sounds like he was one of the first remix artists. I really like that this picture book introduces a host of unusual instruments along with a somewhat unconventional musician. Wood employed a lot of great onomatopoeia to help create just the right mood for this story in the text too. And though Tonatiuh's artwork usually just strikes me as weird, his ancient Mexican art-inspired people plus the tone of the book work together well in this book to help convey Esquivel's unusual music.
Music lovers, curious kids, and reluctant nonfiction readers.
Belpré Illustrator Honor: The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes by Duncan Tonatiuh
The legend of a princess, a warrior, and how the volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl came to be.
Tonatiuh's art style fits this ancient tale quite well. He even says that some of the scenes pay tribute to ancient art pieces. This is a teensy bit like Romeo and Juliet, but instead of both dying they turn into volcanoes. See Tonatiuh's note in the back about the origin of the story and different forms it takes. I like that Popoca loves Princess Izta for who she really is, and not just her face or title. I also appreciate that Tonatiuh managed to portray battle scenes without any blood or gore so this is safe for any age.
Folklore fans, those looking for multicultural reads, those who like tragic love stories, and those who like legends that explain natural phenomenon.
Theodore Seuss Geisel Award
Geisel Winner: We Are Growing by Laurie Keller and Mo Willems
Gerald & Piggie are reading a book about several blades of grass. Each blade is growing, but each one grows differently. One is the tallest, one is the crunchiest, and one is the silliest...but something is coming that will put them all back on the same level.
Hooray! I loved this book, and I’m happy it won the Geisel. Keller did a great job at keeping this at beginning reader level. Words are short and repeated to help little readers catch on. There's a pattern to the story, and who knew blades of grass could be so entertaining?! Of course, my favorite parts were still Gerald & Piggie's comments.
Humor fans, language arts classes covering comparison words and any lower elementary classes talking about how we all have unique gifts and talents. And of course, it's just a fun read for anyone...even adults.
Geisel Honor Books: Sadly, I haven’t gotten to read any of these yet. I hope to soon, they all look good.
My Should've Won Awards
And to wrap up…two books I was hoping would win an award but didn’t. I think they deserve some recognition though, so I'm gonna give them a highlight here.
Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
Melissa Sweet introduces readers to the author of Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web through her own text and illustrations describing his life from childhood through college at Cornell on to his rambling years, work at The New Yorker and eventually his retreat to Maine and a quieter writing life until his death. Included are numerous photographs of White and his family, primary sources (such as manuscripts and childhood notes) and quotes from both White and other famous writers who knew him.
So here’s what I think happened (purely speculation and imagination). I think the Newbery committee didn’t give it an award because they had too many others and they thought the Caldecott committee would, and the Caldecott committee was torn and thought they could give an award to someone else because surely the Sibert committee would give this book an award, and the Sibert committee thought definitely the Newbery or Caldecott committees also had this on the list, so they cut it in favor of something else...and because they all thought the other group would give it an award, it sadly ended up with none. 😞
I did not realize it when I first saw info about this book, but it isn't a picture book biography (i.e. ~32-40 pages long). Oh no, it is a full length, many chapters, 160 pages long biography...and Melissa Sweet illustrated the entire thing on top of writing it. And she did an exceptional job with both the text and the pictures. The writing flows so well. It is highly readable, aimed at the middle grade crowd but could be read aloud to kids younger or enjoyed by those older too because of the engrossing content. Sweet balances both information about the man's life and the background on his work. There's lots of tantalizing details about the inspiration, setting, and process of writing all of his children's classics. I thought I would spread this out over two days or so, but I got sucked in and read it in one sitting. The design definitely helps with that. I couldn't wait to see what the next page would hold in the illustration/text boxes just as much as I was eager to get on with the story of White's life. Along the way readers not only get to learn about a cherished author, but may pick up some valuable writing advice too. Sweet found some exceptional quotes about writing that came straight from E.B. White's pen. Overall, it's an exceptional piece. Melissa Sweet should be proud of what she's accomplished here, and it was great to read E.B. White's granddaughter telling her so in the afterword.
Hand this one to kids who think biographies - or nonfiction books in general - are boring. Hand this one to would-be writers, and of course, hand this to those who adore E.B. White's books.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
It's early 1945 in East Prussia. The Nazis occupy most of the land, but they are slowly crumbling and the Russians are pushing in from the East. And there's a host of people who have been displaced from their homes by the war moving towards the shore of the Baltic Sea in hopes they can escape before the Russians arrive. One of the biggest ships waiting at Gotenhafen for refugees and evacuating German forces is the former cruise ship, Wilhelm Gustloff. Readers experience this harrowing time through the voices of four young adults: Florian, the German, who may or may not be on a special mission from one of Hitler's top men. Joanna, a Lithuanian nurse who seeks to help those around her and assuage the guilt of something she did in her efforts to survive. Emilia, a Polish teenager who has lost everything to the war. And Alfred, a German soldier assigned to prepare the Wilhelm Gustloff for it's rescue journey. Florian, Emilia, Joanna, a giant woman named Eva, a blind young woman named Ingrid, an old cobbler the group calls the Shoe Poet, and a young boy who wandered out of the woods form a rag-tag group as chance encounters bring them together on the road to Gotenhafen. Through them, readers experience all the joys and horrors of the life of refugees trying to make it to safety. Meanwhile, Alfred is using his amazing brain to figure out ways to evade work and write imaginary letters to his sweetheart. All of them meet at Gotenhafen, where most of them board the Wilhelm Gustloff and watch their salvation turn into what seems to be doom.
This was my pick for a Printz award, and I’m surprised it didn’t get at least an honor. The writing was amazing and the overall message of the book was important. At times it was also a very hard read, but obviously that didn’t stopped the Printz committee. Either way, this has been a favorite of teen readers I know. No one has handed it back and said it was just meh. No, they come back ranting and raving about it. Along with much of the world, I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy before Sepetys released information about this book. I'm glad she is giving these unsung victims a voice and a memory. At the same time, I almost wish going into the book I had not watched Sepetys' videos on the historical background of the book, because as I grew more and more attached to the characters I grew increasingly worried that they were all doomed. The writing in this is powerful and so well done. It is really hard to switch voices so frequently and create a fluid story, but Sepetys does manage to pull it off. And she manages to give each one a unique voice too. True to shell-shocked and damaged people, most of the characters hold secrets and hidden hurts that only come out as they learn that it is worth the potential pain to trust and care for one another, or they break. There's an elaborate layering that propels the reading despite knowing they're all headed for a literal shipwreck. I grew attached to many of the characters, but I especially loved the Shoe Poet. He's a philosophical and wise man, who shares his wisdom through his knowledge of shoes and feet. He's quirky, but he frequently reminds the group about the little joys in life and how to love. He's the grandpa many of them need at that moment. So yes, in many ways this book is a hard read, but it also had moments of tenderness and heart. And I think it incorporates so many important lessons and helps modern readers realize the trials refugees and war torn peoples suffer. Hopefully, readers will come away with a great appreciation for all the many blessings they have, and a greater heart for those in the world suffering from displacement and war.
Historical fiction fans, tragedy fans, those interested in WWII, those who want to build their empathy, and those just looking for a good YA read that will stick with you for a while.