Feb 8, 2018


The clock is ticking away the few remaining days until the annual AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION Midwinter Conference.  (February 9-13, Denver, CO). I've been looking forward to sharing a 2017 picture book about JOHN NEWBERY but held back until this very moment. If you're at all involved with books for kids and teens you'll recognize the name of the man for whom the annual NEWBERY AWARD is named. You may also have heard of (or even led) a mock Newbery contest among your learners. Whatever level of  awareness you have of this prestigious award, I urge you to read this book and share it with others in your family, at a library, or in a school. 
Hold on to that earlier reference to mock contests, because I'll circle back to it after sharing more about the book below.
Chronicle Books, 2017

BALDERDASH: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books is written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. (Click on Carpenter's name to see sample finished art pages from the book and a short clip of the accumulating layers of color that turned her line drawings into full color spreads.)
Author Markel works in similar ways with the unfolding text in this nonfiction/biography of a man who changed the world, literally (pun intended.) Newbery's emerging impact on the literary world is revealed in stages and layers. On the opening spread this book speaks directly to young readers, happily announcing that their bookish young lives are NOTHING like the literate lives of young folks before John Newbery came on the scene. Adults will find the history impressive and may even learn a bit about a savvy and innovative business person. 
Take a look for yourself. Read the shrewdly selected words and enjoy the clever page-turning invitation to learn more about what life was like before Newbery made his mark on the world. Author Markel wisely launches this Newbery biography when John was a book-loving boy, despite his minimal book options. He turned his back on farm life to pursue a career in printing, book-making, and bookselling. His eager pursuit of book-lovers, book readers, and book buyers INCLUDED children, to the shock and dismay of adults in London. 

What was wrong with that Newbery fella from the country? Didn't he know that reading books by choice would turn perfectly polite youngsters into wild beasts? Hadn't he been schooled using the same miserable, preachy, painful texts that had raised generations of British children for centuries? 

But John did not agree with the many complaining adults. He wrote books with those essential school lessons, incorporating accepted learning content into entertaining and lively stories, ones filled with lively characters familiar to children.  
And he found that readers (kids and their families) adored his books, devoured his books, celebrated his books. He placed kids' books prominently in colorful window displays at his shop, pairing them with toys in his promotions, and putting smiles on young faces. In fact, John Newbery has long been considered the FATHER of Children's Literature! Why? Because he shared his love of books with young readers and knew that the old ways were nothing but:

Don't neglect the engaging backmatter when you get your hands on this book. Really, you'll adore this very timely title and want to share it with kids. 

Nothing attracts kids to books more than shiny silver or gold stickers on the cover. Which brings me back to those mock Newbery (and Caldecott) contests that engage and excite young readers. Kids wait anxiously for announcements of winners and honors on Monday morning. (Click the link to watch the announcements on live stream on 2/12, 8 AM MT, or catch it on video later and share with kids.) It's an amazing celebration of authors, illustrators, and literature. Among a generation of kids who respond to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "FAMOUS!", this is a rare opportunity to see book-world-creators being honored and celebrated like rock stars.
The downside to the mock contests, though, is that kids too easily invest in the process as a "win-lose" activity. If their choices win, they fist-pump and cheer. They are celebrating their favorite books, and what's wrong with that? 
Oh, but what about those who selected other titles? They not only feel rejected, like "losers",  but they even second-guess their choices, forsaking their valuable persuasive arguments in support of their personal favorites, conceding that they were wrong.
These are very NORMAL human reactions, but should not pass without comment. That's why I hope you will share this book, with some additional discussion. I have no doubt that Newbery would be honored to see the way his name has  inspired book creators to aspire to excellence. Even so, I'm firmly convinced that he would NEVER want to pit excellent books against each other, dismissing non-awarded titles or undermining an individual child's opinions about a beloved book. 
I rarely offer specific classroom activity suggestions, but in this case I can't resist. Why not make each reader a designated award-selector, like this, using imaginary student Mika Sanchez:

  1. Establish 3-5 criteria for the Sanchez Award of Excellence.
  2. Narrow finalists to five-ten titles.
  3. Read carefully and evaluate each, using the stated criteria. 
  4. Design a medal, front and back, for the Sanchez Award (see Newbery sample above)
  5. Plan an event at which each participant names his/her winner and honor(s) titles in a grand and glorious celebration, complete with bright new stickers on the covers!
Now THAT, I think, would make John Newbery smile!

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