Drum roll, please! Book award season is here. Every February, during its midwinter meeting, the American Library Association (ALA) announces the best children’s and young adults books published during the previous year. For lovers of children’s literature everywhere, it is the equivalent of the Oscars. There are acceptance speeches, selection committees, runners-up (honor books), and an ever increasing number of categories.
Taking a peek at this year’s winners can help writers spot publishing trends. More importantly, it is a fantastic way to add quality items to your TBR pile. With so many categories and age levels represented, there are bound to be books similar to your work in progress that can be read for comparison. Don’t ignore books for the youngest children. Besides being just plain fun, reading five award-winning picture books can be quicker and more fruitful for writers than reading five ho-hum adult books. Here were the top winners for 2018.
Newbery Medal: Hello, Universe
This is the award that started it all. First given in 1922, you’ve probably run your hand across a a big gold medal on the cover of a children’s book. If that gold medal says “John Newbery,” the book you’re holding was once considered the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature in a given year. Past winners have included “The Giver” by Lois Lowry and “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle.
This year’s winner is Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. It follows four middle schoolers over the course of one day–one shy, one deaf, one psychic and one a bully. Not all of the kids know each other or even go to the same school, but their lives intersect when one of them becomes trapped down a well. In addition to employing shifting points of view, the author uses elements borrowed from folklore and the supernatural to keep readers enthralled.
If you’re hungry for more, try doing what’s called the “Newbery Challenge.” Use this list to read all 96 books that have won the Newbery Medal. If you’re extra motivated, read the honor books too.
Caldecott Medal: Wolf in the Snow
While the Newbery medal is given for the story and presented to the author, the Caldecott recognizes the best artwork and is presented to the illustrator. Therefore, the Caldecott winner is always an American picture book while the Newbery could be a picture book, a short chapter book, or a middle grade novel. A mnemonic I use to remember the difference is that Caldecott begins with the letter “C” for color.
Accordingly, this year’s winner is so heavy on memorable illustrations that it doesn’t have any words at all. Yet, through his vivid paintings alone, illustrator Matthew Cordell conveys universal themes about kindness and the human-animal connection. A girl in a simple red-hooded coat stands out against the blinding white blizzard she is lost in. When she stops to help a cub, his wolf family offers the girl special protection from the elements. The wolves are painted in minute detail–down to their jaggedy teeth and fierce gazes. When you crack open this book again years later, you’ll instantly recall the narrative with a look at just one of the illustrations.
Printz Award: We Are Okay
With the explosion of the young adult genre, this has become a hotly watched category in the last few years. The Michael L. Printz award recognizes excellence in young adult writing. The book honored is usually fiction, but can be nonfiction.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour is written for high school through early college readers. I don’t fall into either of these categories anymore, but the author drew me into her tale about a college freshman in an empty dorm. Just read the opening lines and tell me you’re not hooked:
Before Hannah left, she asked if I was sure I’d be okay. She had already waited an hour past when the doors were closed for winter break, until everyone but the custodians were gone.
This is not a horror story, but a stream of consciousness where the main character’s thoughts slowly reveal her reasons for staying behind. Only once is there dialogue with another present character when a friend visits for three days.
More Awards, More Great Books to Read
The Coretta Scott King Book Award committee recognizes African-American authors and illustrators. Among the many awards bestowed by this committee, Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson won the King Author Award. It explores the relationship between a spunky high school student wanting to study abroad and the at-risk mentor she receives instead. Ekua Holmes won the King Illustrator Award for Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets.
La Princesa and the Pea, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, puts a Latina twist on the famous fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In Lucky Broken Girl, author Ruth Behar introduces middle grade readers to a Cuban family adjusting to life in New York City. Hence, both books won Pura Belpré Awards for outstanding books celebrating the Latino culture.
The Stonewall Award for exceptional books focusing on LGBT issues went to two books. Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert is a moving novel about struggling with one’s sexual identity in an African-American community while also caring for a mentally ill sibling. The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is a true crime account of two Oakland, California teens whose only connection was an eight-minute daily bus ride to different schools.
Finally, several children’s and young adult authors won lifetime achievement awards from various committees including Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming;After Tupac & D Foster), Angela Johnson (Heaven; Looking for Red), and Eloise Greenfield (Honey, I Love;The Great Migration).
For a full list of this year’s medal winners and honor books, see “2018 Youth Media Awards Announced” via “American Libraries” magazine. For past honorees, visit the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.
Terri Frank is a professional librarian and holds a Master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working in a library, she’s probably visiting a library with her husband and two kids. Her current writing projects include a novel about a tuberculosis sanitorium.