Every January, the Association for Library Services to Children, a division of the American Library Association, recognizes a slate of the best children's books from the past year. ALSC honors the best nonfiction (the Siebert Award), best translation of a foreign title (the Batchelder Award), best illustrated title (the Caldecott Award), best book about the African American experience (the Coretta Scott King Awards), as well as a host of other "best" books, including the Newbery Award.
Each year, ALSC awards the Newbery to the best title for children ages fourteen and younger. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and short story collections have claimed this honor throughout the award's lifetime. In 2016, a picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, claimed the award. The book can be aimed at seven-year-olds or it can be aimed at fourteen-year-olds. It does not need to be a "safe read." In other words, just because it won the Newbery does not mean that it is appropriate for young children or even for all children of the age for which it was written.
As a children's librarian, I attempt to read many of the titles that receive a lot of buzz as possible contenders for the Newbery. Following the buzz allows me to inject great titles into the collection. Reading the titles allows me to knowledgeable recommendations as well as run Mock Newbery clubs in conjunction with local teachers.
A COUPLE OF MY FAVORITE TITLES FROM 2017 SO FAR:
Laurel Snyder's Orphan Island
Once I finished Orphan Island, I continued to ponder it for days. The premise is interesting: nine orphans share an island community. The island provides plentiful food, wild animals that act almost tamely, the weather is mild and unchanging, and unseen forces protect them from harm (the wind blows them back to the ground when they jump off the "jumping cliff," for instance). Whenever the green boat magically appears baring a new young child, the oldest child boards the boat and is spirited away. The new elder takes the youngest as his or her "care," teaching the new one the essentials... how to read, how to swim, and how to become a contributing member of the island community. However, when the boat brings Loo, Jinny refuses to leave. At the same time, things start to unravel on the island... weather, safety. food security. Has Jinny's decision endangered all of the children and their home?
This book poses lots of questions... Why does the island exist? Are the children really orphans? What is one boat ride away? Should a single child be allowed to influence the lives of everyone? It offers no answers, easy or complicated. I don't know whether Snyder will write a prequel or a sequel. I couldn't even definitively assign it a genre... science fiction? apocalyptic fiction? fantasy? However, it is a book that will encourage you to ponder... and ponder... and ponder... Why are we here? How much free will do we have? Do our choices matter? How do sacrifice and selfishness really impact others?
Jack Cheng's See You in the Cosmos
Jack Cheng's debut novel is another title worth checking out. Eleven-year-old Alex builds a rocket and he and his dog, Carl Sagan, travel to a rocket festival in New Mexico to launch it into space with his golden iPod (on which he's recorded his experience of earth for intelligent life). Once there, he uncovers evidence that the father he thought dead might be alive and well in Las Vegas, so he heads out for Vegas with new friends. As he uncovers family secrets and his destination continues to change, Alex discovers that for a kid with a troubled mother and hard-to-reach brother, he has more than enough family to see him through.
I kind of loved this book. Alex is a trusting, hopeful, and lost character. As he searches for truth, he takes rides from and stays the night at the homes of people he doesn't know well. However, this is not a story of bad adults who prey on children who make unsafe choices. This is a story of good adults who help a fellow seeker in every way they can. Unlike the adults in many children's novels, the adults in See You in the Cosmos, from "make a fast buck" Steve to Buddhist Zed to lovely Terra are funny, lost, remarkable, fully developed characters. They lend Alex assistance because he touches their lives and he needs help, and by the time they (and we) learn how much assistance Alex really needs, they care enough about him to help him in a far bigger way. That said, as you read this book together, you may want to be prepared to have a conversation with your student reader about being stranger savvy.
I can't predict whether either of the above titles will get a nod from the Newbery Committee. After all, there are many wonderful books published each year, and we still have another five months of new titles to savor. At the same time, I encourage you to pick up the above titles, give them a read, and let me know what you think.
Suzanne Davis, Children's Librarian