We’re halfway through 2019, and you know what that means: time to start hunting down the elusive potential Newbery winners of 2020. Now, when I say “potential Newbery winners,” I don’t really mean that I’m trying to predict what will win the award. I’ve been anywhere from just disliking to downright hating some past winners, so this is less about trying to read the committee’s mind, and more about saying, “If it were me…”
On to the contenders!
My 2020 Newbery award (so far)…
The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown
written by Mac Barnett, and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby
Y’all, I was blown away by this book. I was not a MWB fan when I was a kid. Goodnight Moon didn’t speak to me, The Runaway Bunny terrified me (can you say abusive parenting?). But a few years back I read In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown, by Amy Gary, and I was immediately drawn to Brown the person. Her loves, her passions, and her tragic passing really resonated with me. But even still, I wasn’t sold on the idea of a picture book biography about her, even one penned by one of my very favorite children’s writers today.
I’ll be honest: I tend to hate picture book biographies. They never seem to give enough information to constitute a true biography, and their formats make them tough to classify in the library. So I went into this one kind of begrudgingly, and was astonished by how quickly my eyes started to water.
The beautiful thing about this book is how it takes someone like MWB and spins a story that includes all of us – everyone who’s different in some way, everyone who’s felt out of place, everyone who’s been a bit weird. Barnett isn’t just describing Brown’s life – he’s meditating on the nature of existence, on our relationships, on our fleeting time on this planet. Some people might find that to be out of place in a children’s book, but to me it is perfect.
And while the Newbery is for the writing, and not the art, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the truly wonderful illustrations that bring this book to life.
My 2020 Newbery Honors (so far)…
The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James
by Ashley Herring Blake
So far, this is my favorite middle grade novel of the year. I loved Blake’s previous book, Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, so I pounced on this when it came out. Sunny has been sick for a long time, but now that she’s had a heart transplant she’s on the mend and can finally go out and really experience the world (though she still has to be careful, of course). That new heart is really tested, however, when summer brings back her mother, who left Sunny in the care of her best friend many years ago, and hasn’t seen her since. Summer also brings a new friend for Sunny, a girl who Sunny might feel a little bit more for than friendship…
Another book that made me cry! I guess that’s my criteria for Newberys – gotta be a mean tear-jerker. As a queer adult who didn’t even realize that my interest in girls as a kid could be Like That, I wish I could send this book backward through time to twelve-year-old me.
A Good Kind of Trouble
Lisa Moore Ramee
Twelve-year-old Shayla is not the kind of kid you’d think would get in trouble. In fact, she does everything to avoid it, a classic good kid who follows the rules and keeps her head down. But when a police officer in her town goes on trial for shooting an unarmed black man, Shayla feels overwhelmed by the microagressions at school, the racism on the news, and the way even her friends don’t seem to quite understand how she feels. She choses to wear a Black Lives Matter armband to school, to show how she feels – and when the principal bans them, she has to decide what she feels is right.
Obviously, the subject of the book is timely, and I could tell right away that the author’s writing style was going to grok with the kiddos at my library – the book reads informally, like Shayla is venting and you’re her best friend. What I really loved was the way it takes big, complex issues like police violence and institutional racism, and scales them down to fit inside a middle schooler’s life, without losing any of the complexity.
Did I cry? You bet.
Corey Ann Haydu
Elodee’s family is getting a fresh start in Eventown, where all the houses look alike, the sun is always shining, and the food is always perfect, every last bite. Sure, there are only three flavors of ice cream – but each one is the best ice cream you’ve ever had. And sure, there’s no television – but who needs television when you can play outside in gorgeous weather every day? But Elodee finds that she isn’t quite fitting in. Her twin sister, Naomi, seems to have no problem with all the rules, the strange restrictions, and the downright creepy behavior of some of Eventown’s residents. Naomi seems perfectly happy to be starting over, to forget everything they left behind – and after an unsettling ceremony at the town’s Welcoming Center, Elodee feels like she’s starting to forget something, too. Something important. Something life-altering. Something she’ll do anything to forget.
Okay, so if you were alive in the 90s this book will give you major Pleasantville vibes. Eventown is the only fantasy book on my list – weird for me, because I am and always have been a Big Time Fantasy Nerd. And this is even a gentle, suburban fantasy, whereas I tend to love the high fantasies of dragons and swords. There’s also some technical stuff about the writing that kept interfering with my enjoyment of the first half of the novel – namely, that the author conceals the big Something that happened in Elodee’s life, because Elodee herself doesn’t want to talk about it (the imitative fallacy strikes again!). However, when the Big Reveal does come, it’s done so beautifully that I forgave the early strains of Keeping the Secret, and well – do I even have to say it? Of course I cried.
But what about…?
There are a bunch of other books I’ve seen floating around as Newbery contendors. The one I’ve seen the most is New Kid, by Jerry Craft. And while I thought New Kid handled issues of race in a spot-on way, and is a book that I will recommend to readers for years to come, it didn’t have the “whole package” feeling for me that I think a Newbery needs. I had the same feeling about To Night Owl from Dogfish, the joint effort of Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer, and The Lost Girl, by my beloved Anne Ursu. Great books, I loved them, but they’re missing that something special for me.