After reading hundreds of newly published books and asking children and adults alike for their input, the winners of the 2020 Newbery Medal and Honors have been chosen. Librarian and chair of the selection committee Krishna Grady introduces us to the best new children's books that will surprise, delight and hold your kid's attention—including the first graphic novel to ever win the award.
There are so many children’s books published each year, how do you set about selecting which are the best and might be in the running for the Newbery Medal, and specifically for 2020?
There were 14 other people on the judging committee with me. Mostly everyone on the committee is a librarian and makes suggestions, which may or may not end up on the nominated list. We start at the beginning of the year, and every month each of us suggests books. I send that list out to everyone, and then we read everything that anyone has suggested, plus books we’re getting from publishers or books that we’re seeking out ourselves. Then, when we get to October, November, and December, we do nominations for the final books to talk about. Everyone can nominate 7 titles—three in October, two in November and two in December—and those are the nominated titles we talk about in January.
How many nominated titles will there generally be?
It depends. If we all choose different books, it can be as many as 105.
So, basically, at that time of year, you’re reading a lot of books?
Yes, so many. I probably put my hands on 1000+ books.
When you’re choosing the books, is it partly about which books the kids visiting your library are enjoying?
I definitely take that into account. Since part of the criteria is suitability for a child audience, a few of our librarians sat in on mock-Newberys that people held. I asked a lot of children what they thought of certain books and got their opinions. I also sat in on some book discussions and book clubs.
What’s the age range for a book to be considered for the Newbery Medal?
It’s actually all the way from birth to 14, so we’ve got a very wide berth.
Let’s look at the books that you actually chose, in the end, as the best children’s books of the year, starting with the book that won the 2020 Newbery Medal. It’s called New Kid and it’s written and illustrated by Jerry Craft. What age range would you say it’s for and can you tell me a bit about it?
We would say this is a book for middle grade, anywhere from third or fourth grade and up. We didn’t know we were making history, but it’s the first graphic novel that’s won the Newbery Medal. It’s great.
“Craft just created this really intimate and relatable world that invites kids in and holds them there”
It’s about a kid, Jordan Banks, who transfers to the Riverdale Academy Day School. He’s in seventh grade and he can’t help seeing privilege everywhere. He’s one of the few African American students in the school. The beauty of the story is that he’s regularly dealing with racism and microaggressions and bullying, but there’s also friendship and learning who you are, which is especially hard in middle school. Craft just created this really intimate and relatable world that invites kids in and holds them there. This book just rose to the top for us.
It’s about one kid’s experience of going to a fancy private school where he’s in a minority, but I like the way, at the beginning, Craft dedicates the book “to the Jordan Banks in all of us.” It’s a pretty common experience as a kid to feel you’re the odd one out, isn’t it?
Yes, and that was the beauty of it. It’s really hard to be the new kid, no matter who you are. The book was very relatable to kids across the board.
Yes, my 13-year-old son was saying what a nice book it is.
I also just learned that Jerry Craft is working on New Kid number two, the continuation of Jordan’s story. So I’m very excited about that.
Let’s move on to the four children’s books that were the runners up, and won 2020 Newbery Honors. Going through them alphabetically by author, the first book is The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. What’s it about and what age group is this book for?
We feel that it goes across the board, because it has this lovely back matter to it. It’s about the contributions that African Americans have made to America and celebrating and exploring those. The poetry is striking and it’s such a perfect partnership between Kadir Nelson’s illustrations and Kwame Alexander’s words. It’s just this beautiful love letter to America.
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Younger kids will read it and know some of the words, because he uses some iconic phrases, and older kids, when reading the back matter, will learn about these different characters from history. We loved how the past and the present intersected in the book.
I watched a video of Kwame Alexander reading the book out loud. There’s not actually that many words in it, it only took him about three minutes.
It’s so sparse, but it’s powerful. That’s what we thought was so wonderful about it. I’ve read it to younger kids, in about first grade. They had a completely different reaction to fifth and sixth graders, who connected with people that they knew. It was great.
Can you give examples of some of the people who feature?
There’s Jack Johnson, the boxer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Jesse Owens. It’s lots of well-known people. It’s a great introduction for younger kids as well.
How did the younger kids respond?
They loved the illustrations and had lots of questions. I think that was the beautiful thing, that it sparked curiosity for them to know more about these people. That was their takeaway.
Let’s talk about the next book that was chosen as a 2020 Honor Book. This is Scary Stories for Young Foxes, by Christian McKay Heidicker and illustrated by Junyi Wu. Tell me why this book appealed to you.
This was such a surprising, deliciously wonderful book. It’s really horror for children. The beauty of it is that what’s scary to a fox is not quite so scary for children. It starts off with seven foxes and if they make it to the end, they’ve received all the information and everything they need to survive in life.
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It’s interesting that later on, after we had chosen all the books, we realized that every single one was about resilience, in some way. We were like, “Oh wow! That’s what’s happened there.”
“It’s horror for children that isn’t so horrific that it will keep you up at night”
The imagery and the writing are gorgeous. Christian McKay Heidicker really can forge a sentence like no one else. It’s about the language and how he put it all together. It’s horror for children that isn’t so horrific that it will keep you up at night. The horrors for foxes are things like rabies. Also, Beatrix Potter is a villain, which was very intriguing. We were surprised by this book, it was fun.
Do you find, as a librarian, that kids like scary books?
Do you feel that the books coming out for kids have changed over that period?
Yes, I do. We’re seeing a lot more diversity in books and more hard-hitting subjects. There’s always been grief and World War II—lots of World War II—but now we’re dealing with different things because our world is changing. Also, the book are getting longer.
And do you think there are more books about resilience?
I believe so. It comes up in all of these stories and there are also other stories about resilience for kids. It’s important. It maybe speaks to where we are as a nation, that it’s something kids really are going to need.
Next of these wonderful children’s books that won a 2020 Newbery Honor is Other Words for Home. It’s by Jasmine Warga, and it’s about a girl who is growing up in Syria but ends up in America as a refugee.
Other Words for Home is a beautiful immigration story and it’s wonderfully written in free verse, which is very accessible to kids and is really becoming popular. The book explores themes of family and prejudice.
We just felt that we hadn’t seen this story told in this way before, and it’s a very important story. The way she wrote, there are lines that just make you want to cry. But, at the end, she gets to find out what home truly means. I thought it was just very honest.
Do you want describe a bit what happens in the book?
Yes, so Jude and her mother have to flee from Syria for a new life in America. They have to live with Jude’s uncle and her cousin and we get a bit of the mean girl trope. But it turns out to be a misunderstanding on both sides. Her cousin wants to connect to that part of her heritage too. It just ends up a really great story about Jude’s resilience and learning from each other.
And what is, ultimately, the meaning of home? Is it being with family?
It’s that anywhere can be home.
And in terms of age range, it’s 9 to 12?
Yes. We definitely would say that.
We’re now at our last 2020 Newbery Honor Book, which is Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D Williams. What age group is it for?
Genesis Begins Again, we would say, is for 12 years and up. This book is definitely hard-hitting. The book tells the story of a 13-year-old called Genesis, who deals with colorism, self-loathing and problems like her father’s gambling and alcoholism. She has a list of 96 things she doesn’t like about herself. Her family keep getting evicted from their house so it’s hard for her to make friends. Once again, it’s middle school—it’s so hard to be in middle school!
It’s just a really, really powerful book that I think kids in this age range haven’t really seen before. It really opened up questions and we thought it was beautifully written.
Also, there’s hope at the end. It wasn’t just misery, misery, misery and all these awful things. She begins to see the possibility of her self-worth, which once again speaks to resilience. So we were very, very excited to have this as an honor book.
And again, even though her story is particularly awful—that opening scene when she sees all her furniture on the lawn and the way her friends respond just drew me in completely …
I know, that first interaction. I was like, ‘Oh no, there is so much pain here. This is going to be a ride, this is a journey we’re going on.’
But the self-loathing she feels is universal. We all feel that way a bit as teenagers.
Yes, we all have that experience at middle school. Everything is changing for us, we’re hurtling towards adulthood, which can be frightening in itself. Then to have all these other things that seem insurmountable piled on you is just really hard. She does it in a beautiful, heartfelt way.
I was going to add that this book, Genesis Begins Again, also won one of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. Actually, quite a few of the books on this list won multiple awards. The Undefeated won both a Coretta Scott King award and a Caldecott Medal.
It’s crazy. I guess we were all on the same page, we all saw the excellence in these books. It was quite shocking when they announced it, we were like, ‘I guess they saw what we saw in these books.’ It’s always surprising when that happens.
Because although these awards are also chosen by librarians under the auspices of the American Library Association, it’s a different group of librarians?
Yes, a completely different group, because the Caldecott Medal is for illustrations. Genesis Begins Again won the new talent award.
Have you been a judge before?
I was on the 2017 Newbery Medal Selection Committee. That was my first foray into being on a book award committee.
And I guess you enjoyed it because you’ve done it again?
Yes, I really did. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. It’s getting to talk to people, who are excited about books and are excited about stories for children. One of the reasons we love the award is because we feel it respects children. It lets children know that they’re seen and heard and that their stories matter.
So I think everyone was just so excited to be part of it; I know they were excited to be part of it.
As a member of the public, I’m extremely grateful to you, for using your experience as librarians to pick our the best children’s books. Otherwise, it’s so hard to choose.
It’s so hard. It was extremely tough for us as well. It’s like someone coming in from the public asking, ‘What do you have that I can read? I need a little readers’ advisory.’ We think this award is really important.
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