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Last year, amidst all of the Newbery buzz—bloggers, mock Newbery committees, and online prognosticators—I jumped into the fray with my own column, “What Might Win?” I now add installment number two, as I try to second-guess the 2011 Newbery Committee. I did well last year, picking the Newbery Medal winner, one of the Honor Books, and the Caldecott Medal winner, but then they were the most discussed and praised books of last year, so it was easy pickings.
This year, Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay is the blockbuster hit, creating much excitement at my school. One of my students was the first to have a copy because his mother brought it in the morning . . . and took it away from him in the evening when she realized he hadn’t eaten supper or done his homework. But series have a tough time with Newbery committees, and as excellent as it is, Mockingjay is not a stand-alone novel, as it is too deeply rooted in everything that was developed in the first two volumes of the Hunger Games trilogy.
My Newbery pick this year is Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, a beautifully written story—poignant, funny, and memorable—about 11-year-old Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, who must travel from their home in Brooklyn to meet their mother in Oakland, California. It’s 1968, and their mother, it turns out, doesn’t have much time for the girls she abandoned, so she sends them to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. Readers will fall in love with the girls and watch over them on their journey in search of a mother.
Kathi Appelt’s Keeper is also a story of a journey in search of a mother, but this time the trip is by boat and not too far, with 10-year-old Keeper out in the middle of the night in the Gulf of Mexico on a mission to fix all that has gone wrong in her short life. As in The Underneath, Appelt employs a blend of myth and reality, but here it is with a lighter, more heartwarming spirit. This is a magical tale rooted in a beautifully realized coastal town.
Tonya Bolden’s Finding Family has a title that suggests the theme of many of my favorite books this year, a big year for girls in search of parents. It’s 1905 in Charleston, West Virginia, and 12-year-old Delana sets out to find out more about the parents she never knew. This is a quietly moving tale of family featuring period photographs, and it reaches back to the days of slavery while taking a first step into the twentieth century.
Pam Muñoz Ryan’s The Dreamer is a gorgeous book in both its magical prose and its memorable art by Peter Sís. It’s the story of young Pablo Neruda, told with a beauty and grace that honors its subject and challenges young readers with its inventive approach.
Deborah Wiles invents a whole new genre with Countdown, a documentary novel set in 1962, with 11-year-old Franny Chapman trying to navigate life in fifth grade while the larger world is getting scarier. The Vietnam War is under way and the Cuban Missile Crisis looms. Wiles’ narrative intersperses Franny’s story with photographs, ads, newspaper headlines, and song lyrics of the time, demonstrating how a young girl is truly a part of her time and place in the greater scheme of things.
At the conclusion of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, Isabel and Curzon have escaped slavery, but the story ends midstream, leaving readers in wait of a sequel to follow the further fortunes of the characters they have come to care about. Anderson’s Forge focuses on Curzon’s experiences at Valley Forge in the harsh winter of 1777–1778. He enlists as a free black man, makes friends, proves himself, and eventually finds Isabel again. This easily stands alone and may not suffer the fate of many series books in the Newbery deliberations.
Two of the best nonfiction works this year are Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s They Called Themselves the K.K.K. and Russell Freedman’s The War to End All Wars. Both are models of fine history writing—exhaustively researched and vividly told. Of the two, Bartoletti’s work speaks to me more, but maybe only because I live where many of the events she relates took place.
It’s been another year to feel proud to be part of the world of children’s literature. All of these books are winners, regardless of what titles win the gold.
Dean Schneider teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.
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