Winning the Newbery Medal: What Does it Take?

Newbery Medal winners are generally destined for a long shelf life, heaps of attention from libraries, teachers, and parents, and are often deserving of the lauds and acclaims.

What does it take to write a Newbery Medal winner?

Well, you can take a peek at the criteria here. But I’m also going to break down said criteria in relation to our mentor’s own Newbery winning novel: The Graveyard Book.

According to the Association for Library Service to Children’s website, committee members need to consider the following criteria when looking at a potential Newbery book:

1. Interpretation of the theme or concept.
The theme or concept isn’t assigned – this element speaks toward the question: Did the writer creatively and consistently interpret their own themes/concepts? Well, I’d have to say that The Graveyard Book, in its exploration of death, violence, friendship, and family did a whopping good job of it. I personally think it’s one of the more creative and well-executed ideas I’ve come across in a while.

So you have to have some kind of meaning integral to your story. What are you trying to get kids to think about? How is that shown in your work?

2. Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization.
A thumb-and-half up on this one. There’s an awkward ‘Interlude’ in the middle of the book that doesn’t really explain much…and in fact left me a bit confused for a few pages after…then there was the weird cave/tomb raiding bout toward the end…but considering the handling of the graveyard scenes, the presentation of time passing, I think that Gaiman did a decent job.

You have to make sense. And The Graveyard Book is also full of historical references – all of which seemed pretty darned accurate to me. I think this is important because when kids read – and to a lesser extent adults – the accuracy of information is necessary. What if this is the only book a kid reads on this subject? Or what if it’s the first thing they’ve ever read on this subject and you flub up? Are you willing to take responsibility for a kids saying that Pluto is a planet still? In front of the whole class?

3. Development of a plot.
There definitely is a plot.

Please, please, please. For kids – give them a story! (This doesn’t apply to poetry, which can also win Newbery Medals.)

4. Delineation of characters.
Each character played their roles well. I never got lost as to who was who (even with a strange passel of Mad Jacks popping up). I think that here is where Gaiman would’ve impressed the committee. Even the side characters have interesting contributions to the storyline – an accused witch without a headstone, a man buried beside his first and second wives…yeah, poor, poor dude, right?

I could see these characters clearly in my head. I loved how they worked together (plot-wise). Make sure your characters are distinct and that they have reasons for doing what they do – it helps individuate them.

5. Delineation of a setting.
And here is where I think Gaiman won. No one could beat this setting. Hogwarts is probably the only thing that could ever come close.

Make your setting count. Details. Rules. Metaphor. Setting can elevate your story to all kinds of heights.

6. Appropriateness of Style.
While I’d be a little concerned for kids younger than middle school grasping everything Gaiman throws in here, it’s still definitely a kids’ book. The illustrations added a child-element that was helpful to the overall feel, I think. (Considering, however, that illustrations can only be considered when they hurt a book, I think it was a gamble! But it worked, so the book wasn’t penalized.)

Make sure kids can read the book. Don’t through million dollar words in there (without definitions). Don’t start quoting obscure historical events (again without explanations). This is not an opportunity to explore feminism in the late twentieth century via dissertation. Tell a story in the way a kid would want to read/hear a story.

Have you got what it takes?




2 responses to “Winning the Newbery Medal: What Does it Take?”

  1. Oliver Avatar

    Define “delineation” how you're using it, please.

    I like this. I agree with it. I'm trying to do this same thing.

  2. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    Argh! I don't know… we'll see what happens when I return to Austin's story…
    One of my favourite Newbery books is From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler.

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