Newbery Winners, Part 2: the Great Kid-Friendliness Debate

A few days ago I wrote a little about the perennial debate over the “kid appeal” of many Newbery Medal winners. Now, I’m of the opinion that the Newbery isn’t meant to be given for the title that will appeal most to the average kid, any more than the purpose of the Nobel Prize for Literature is to highlight the next escapist beach read for adults. The Newbery is awarded for outstanding writing and contribution to literature, and the question of popular literature and its overlap with “great literature,” for kids and adults alike, is a big one, way bigger than any controversy over the Newbery Medal.

If you look over the overall list of medalists since 1922, though, it's true that historical fiction with a tragic overtone does seem to dominate the last few decades. Kira-Kira, A Single Shard, and Out of the Dust, for example,  are three recent winners; they’re all beautiful books, but very very sad, and maybe not the most appealing to the majority of kids. I have personally met kids who read and enjoyed all these books—I remember one 5th grade girl asking if there were “any more books like Kira-Kira”-- but it's true that if you ask most kids what kind of books they like, "sad historical ones" is probably not going to be first on their list.

So, herewith, a list of my ten favorite kid-friendly Newbery Medal winners, old and new. These books have plot, and humor, and child protagonists who you’d want to spend some time with. Of course, your mileage may vary, but if your kid is under orders to read a Newbery winner, chances are that one of these will enable him or her to get though the experience unscathed and without a general visceral hostility about "medal books."

  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle (1963) What is there to say? A classic of classics, beloved by kids, parents, teachers, librarians, and—for all I know—otherworldly time-travelling entities, too.
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg (1968) I wrote a few months ago about reading this with my kid. It really holds up.
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien (1972) SO much better than the movie.
  • The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (1979) A mystery wrapped inside an enigma and sprinkled with bizarre clues.
  • Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry (1990) Okay, this is about the Holocaust (sort of) but mainly it’s about ESCAPING, which is always exciting.
  • Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli (1991) Mysterious and brilliant runaway kid, fastest runner in the world, inspires racial harmony in a little town. What’s not to like?
  • Holes, by Louis Sachar (1999) The poster book for kid-friendly Newbery winners.  It is magic, I tell you.
  • Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis (2000) Curtis has a sly way of making what could be a tragic situation (mistreated orphan kid runs away from home, during the Depression) into a genuinely funny book.
  • The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2009) Only Neil Gaiman could write a story about ghosts and graveyards  as a heartwarming coming-of-age tale.
  • When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (2010) And so we come full circle, with a book that pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time, while gorgeously holding its own.

Do you have a favorite Newbery winner? And is it a book that kids tend to like, too?

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