Why Did This Book Win a Newbery Medal?

I’m working my way through the Newbery Award winners, and while I’ve read some books I really loved, there are some serious duds in the list. So far I have to say Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon and Ginger Pye are real disappointments compared to some of these books.

While I gave both of those books three stars on Goodreads, you should know I give almost every book I read three stars, unless it’s truly terrible or offensive. I guess I don’t feel the need to give a book one or two stars because I tend to find merit in at least one chapter, paragraph or sentence. But neither of these earned four or five stars. Neither one excited me. Passages may have entertained me and I certainly learned something to use in my writing, but honestly, neither of these books would stand a chance with my kids. So I wonder what earned them the award?

Gay-Neck is a gentle but somewhat confusing story of a boy raising a pigeon. I don’t know anything about the boy who is the narrator. I learned some things about pigeons, but after reading reviews on Goodreads, I’m not sure what I learned was true. I learned about an Indian hunter experiencing the trauma of World War I. Yet each chapter felt like a separate anecdotal entry, not a story. The writing wasn’t bad and much of it was poetic and painted a beautiful mental image, but the characters didn’t captivate me at all.

I started reading Ginger Pye to my middle son a few months ago and he was bored by the first chapter. I forced myself to push further into the book. I learned a lot about the life of white people in a New England town and their attitudes towards girls and transients. I also felt disappointed that the title character, Ginger the puppy, was missing for most of the book.

Ginger Pye was published in 1951, Gay-Neck in 1927. Were librarians more interested in boring books those years? Were no other good books for children published?

Let’s look.

There were two Honor books the year Gay-Neck won. I haven’t read either, or even heard of them, but I had never heard of Gay-Neck either.

gay neck newbery

The summary of Downright Dencey looks interesting, and overall Goodreads readers give it 3.76 stars compared to Gay-Neck’s 3.23. I’m actually eager to pick this up and give it a try. Still, was Gay-Neck the best we got in 1927? This was the year of Sherlock Holmes, Death Comes for the Archbishop and To the Lighthouse (all books I’ve read). There had to be better children’s books out there. Luckily, Goodreads lists indicate Now We are Four and Emily’s Quest are proving to be a lot more popular.  Yay for L.M. Montgomery!

Now Ginger Pye came out in the 50’s. Lots more competition. And more Honor books.

ginger pye newbery

Unfortunately I haven’t read or heard of any of those books, either. But thanks to Goodreads I know it’s the year we got The Catcher in the Rye, Alan Watt’s The Wisdom of Insecurity, two Narnia books and Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary.

Now, it shouldn’t always be a popularity contest, but we also know that the best book doesn’t always win. So the Newbery Award isn’t always going to the best book. I knew that already, thanks to my local librarian. At least I’m branching out and finding books I haven’t heard of before and learning a lot about different ways of writing and telling stories.

Here’s a good article from the ALA that lists other books that should have won the Newbery but didn’t. I know my oldest son loved Frindle, because he also tried to invent new words. I plan to read several of the books listed there.

What award winners do you think really lived up to the hype and what didn’t?

Read All the Newbery Medal Books, March 2016 Update

We’re into March of 2016 and I feel like I’m finally starting to tackle my “read all the Newbery Medal Books” project. I was stalled at the beginning of the year because I wanted to finish Ulysses. While that book is an excellent but very long read. Then in the process of researching the biology of the Sargasso Sea, as well as the migration of eels and monarchs, I stumbled across an amazing book of Rachel Caron’s writing called Lost Woods.

If you’re interested at all in nature, science writing, or the power of the written word to influence public policy, I highly recommend this book. There are passages in there that are still relevant today, even though they were written half a century ago.

But then I finally started those Newbery Medal books I’ve been collecting! So far this month I read King of the Wind, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and I’m almost finished with Julie of the Wolves.

I enjoyed King of the Wind for its sensory details and historical and cultural information. I started with this book because I am working on an animal story myself and because I’ve read Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and have fond memories of that book.

I knew I’d love Julie of the Wolves because I loved Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. I recently re-read that book last year and still love the idea of leaving civilization for the wilderness and living off the land and in tune with the natural world. I don’t think it’s quite the lifestyle for me, but I love the escapism offered by these books. Julie of the Wolves offers even more as she lives in the tundra. It’s a world so foreign made so real by Craighead George.

Picking up The Witch of Blackbird Pond was an emotional moment for me. This book represents some tough coming of age experiences for me. Like a lot of kids, I struggled in my sixth grade year. I went to a small school and unfortunately my sixth grade teacher was the mom of a girl in my class with whom I didn’t quite get along with at the time. We had been friends in second grade, but by sixth we weren’t. Anyway, for some reason or another I was put in the lowest reading group that year. Me! I wasn’t good at a lot of things in middle school, but I was really, really good at reading. I have no memory of what book my group read, but I know the highest reading group read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was very bitter about this unfair grouping. I held a grudge against this teacher and this book. Now that I’m 40, I decided it was time to read this book and move on with my life!! I did enjoy it and now I want to visit the town of Wethersfield in Connecticut.

newbery books

I miss the Book It program! (But books are their own reward.)

More Newbery Award books to come!