Classic Newbery Award Winners
Sharing the Best in Children's Literature
When I was in elementary school, we read books. We did other things, too, but I mainly remember reading books because that was what I loved to do most.
Much of what we read in class (and what I read outside of class because of the guidance of my parents) were books that could be found on either the Newbery award winner list or the Newbery honor book list.
When I became pregnant with my first daughter, one of the very first things I did was hop on ebay and buy up one of the many lots of past Newbery award winners to share with her when she gets older. I'm not kidding. It really was one of the first things I did. I'm that much of a book nerd!
So this is a list of some of the books that I grew up reading that I will be able to share with my little girls someday. I hope they love them as much as I did.
Caddie Woodlawn (1936)
This was one we read in school. I think I was in 4th grade. I had no idea it won the medal so long ago, though. For some reason, I thought it was newer than that. Then again, when you're 10 years old and a book lover, what do you really care when I book was written? The only thing that matters is that the book exists, and there it is - just waiting for you to read it.
It turns out that this book, like the ever-popular Laura Ingalls Wilder books, is based on a true story. Caddie is based on author Carol Ryrie Brink's own grandmother. I loved Caddie's spirit, and I loved imagining myself in some of the same situations and predicaments.
Reading this book certainly did inspire my imagination, and I suppose it must be as inspiring for many more little girls, since the book has achieved such stature over time. This is a must-read for any little girl who loves adventure.
Call It Courage (1941)
This is another one we read in 4th grade, and I'm surprised to find out that this one is as old as it is, also. Keep in mind, I was reading these in the mid-80s. And I was young, so I had a different conception of time, anyway.
I loved this book because a 15-year-old boy was the hero. Not that I was a 15-year-old boy when I read it. I've never been a boy. But I was a child, and I did have fears and insecurities, and I would never even consider taking an ocean voyage by myself at that age (or not now, either, come to think of it).
Mafatu is a hero in every sense of the word, and this book is appropriately titled. It inspires us all - young and old, male and female. That's what makes it a true classic and an absolute must for all to read.
Johnny Tremain (1944)
This is another book featuring a boy that I loved. What does it say about me that I liked a lot of boy books? I don't even really want to go there.
Anyway, this is a historical novel, set in the era of the American Revolution. Our hero, Johnny, is an indentured servant working as a silversmith's apprentice. He significantly injures one of his hands while working (preventing him from doing any more silver work), but he doesn't let that handicap stop him. He gets a job at the local newspaper (the Boston Observer), and gradually becomes involved in some of the most crucial happenings of the Revolution.
This was a fabulous book because you could actually imagine yourself in Johnny's position - meeting all these key figures in American history and getting right in the middle of the action. At least, that's what I did when I read it. I guess that's why it's stayed with me so long.
I highly recommend this book for any child who's even remotely interested in history. It will not disappoint. And I have to disagree with the Amazon description, that says it's a good read for boys - it's a great read for girls, too!
Rifles for Watie (1958)
This is another American history-inspired novel, although this one centers around the Civil War.
16-year-old Jeff Bussey joins the Kansas (Union) infantry, only to be captured by rebel commander Stand Watie and his men. The reader follows Jeff's adventures as a prisoner of war with baited breath. And he meets a lot of interesting characters along the journey. My favorite, who I still remember to this day, was Heifer, the camp cook. I always thought it was kind of mean that he was named after a cow!
This really is a fascinating book, and I love that it was written by an actual historian. I didn't know that when I was reading it the first time, of course (or if I did know, I really didn't care). But, looking back on it as an adult, it gives the whole story a much more realistic feel. This is not just a work of fiction. It is a very well researched work of fiction. And that makes the story even better and more worthy of being read.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959)
Finally, an actual "girl book" that I liked. This one is also historical fiction, set in the American colonial times - before the Revolution.
16-year-old Kit grew up in Barbados with her grandfather, so she's not at all prepared for life with the New England Puritans. She doesn't fit in with any of them, and she frequently irritates most of them. She befriends an old Quaker woman who has earned the nickname Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Kit soon finds herself in danger of being classified a witch herself.
I was first drawn to this book by the word "witch" in the title. I've always been fascinated by anything remotely supernatural. So I was a little disappointed that nothing supernatural occurred. But looking back after 25 years (and after having read other historical novels of the same time period), I can appreciate the book even more for what it is - a commentary on how women in Puritan times were completely subjugated and even condemned to death for being the least little bit outspoken.
This is a book every little girl should have in her library - and one that every mother should read with her little girl, to explain how life used to be for women and celebrate how far we've come as a society since.
Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961)
This is Robinson Crusoe for pre-teen girls. It's shorter, easier to read, and much more interesting than that ancient epic, in my opinion.
12-year-old Karana finds herself alone and stranded on an island in the Pacific for 18 years. This is the story of her struggle for survival and her journey of self-discovery.
This was another great adventure story, and one that I still fondly remember. I can't say I felt any real kinship with Karana. After all, I've never been alone on a Pacific island, and I've never been that courageous or ingenious. Still, her story is inspiring to even mere mortals like me.
A Wrinkle in Time (1963)
I've never really been much of a science fiction/fantasy fan, but I've always loved a good story, and Madeleine L'Engle certainly can tell one (despite the fact that she starts this novel with the one line every writing instructor tells his students not to use: "It was a dark and stormy night."). I suppose she can get away with it, though, since she's not just any writer. She's a Newbery award winning author.
On that "dark and stormy night," the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit comes into the home of Meg Murry and explains to Meg, her mother, her brother, and their friend Calvin O'Keefe the reason for Meg's father's disappearance. Mrs. Whatsit then leads Meg and the two boys on a journey to rescue her father. They travel to different worlds and they even venture outside of time as we know it.
This is a true sci-fi/fantasy classic, and even those of us who don't normally enjoy those kinds of books will find something to love in this book. I know I did.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968)
Imagine you run away from home. Okay, not so hard for this young child to imagine. Now, imagine you run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and hide out there for a week without anyone finding you. This was a little harder for me to imagine, growing up in Kentucky, but I loved the idea of it. Being surrounded by all that beautiful art, and being able to stay indoors the whole time (I did thoroughly sympathize with Claudia, the main character, on that point). That's my kind of running away.
Add to that the mystery of who is Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and why would she sell a Michelangelo angel sculpture to the museum for a mere $250? Now we're talking about my kind of book. This was a captivating, light-hearted read that loved as a child and look fondly back on as an adult. It is one I will definitely be reading to my little girls, or maybe I'll encourage them to read it themselves when they're older. After all, stories that are read to you are good, but stories you read and experience yourself are even better!
A boy and his dog. I wrote a story called that once when I was little, and it may well have been inspired by all the boy and dog stories I've read over the years. I don't exactly remember what my story was about, but I know it wasn't anywhere near as good as this one by William H. Armstrong.
This is a beautiful story about a boy's friendship with his dog. But it's more than that. It's the story of a boy who has to grow up prematurely to support his family because his father has been put in jail for stealing a pig. It's a story of racial prejudice and injustice. And it's all the more interesting to me because it was written by a white man. Armstrong writes with such clarity and feeling, as if he actually has experienced the injustices himself. There are not many white writers who could claim the same.
This is another historical novel, and it's set in a time and place in the U.S.'s history that is dark and tragic - the Jim Crow years. I would say that time period is better left forgotten, but is it, really? We would do well as a society to remember that time and history so that we would never repeat it again. And that's why I think Sounder's story should always be read.
Summer of the Swans (1971)
I loved this book when I read it as a pre-teen. I totally identified with Sara's feelings of being awkward and ugly. I felt exactly those things when I was that age. Now that I'm older, I realize that there are very few of us who aren't awkward and/or ugly in some way, so I don't feel so down on myself.
But back to Sara: She learns that her negative self-image is nothing more than just thinking about herself more than she thinks about other people. When her younger, mentally handicapped, brother Charlie goes missing one night, Sara joins in the search for him. In the process, she discovers that she's a much more likable person than she previously thought.
This really is a beautiful story, and it's one that every girl should read. I'm not sure boys would enjoy that much, but it might be worth a try.
The Westing Game (1979)
This is one of the best mystery stories I've ever read. Ever. Seriously. And I'm talking adult and children's books both. Mr. Westing, an eccentric millionaire who owned the Westing Paper Company, leaves his fortune to 15 people who live in the same apartment complex - if they can figure out who killed him. The most amazing thing is that Mr. Westing leaves them all clues that they have to piece together in order to solve the murder.
To this day, I remember all the clues. I don't actually remember the whole story, though, so I think I could read the book again without any major disappointments. In fact, now that I'm writing about it, I really do want to read the book again!
If your child is anything like I was and loves a good mystery, get this book. It's a fascinating, entertaining read that will give your brain a workout!
Bridge to Terabithia (1978)
I loved, loved loved this book. Really, I did. I loved the fact that the two main characters - Jess and Leslie - created a whole other world just using their imaginations, and it actually become real. At least it became real to them, and that's really all that matters when you're talking about imagination.
I loved experiencing Terabithia with them and watching as their friendship developed. There's nothing like having a best friend, and I loved the way this boy and girl were able to be best friends in an innocent way - without anything being complicated by sex. Granted, they were only in 5th grade at the time, but still - it seems like kids are growing up way too fast these days, and that sense of innocence and fun just doesn't seem to exist for many anymore.
I will have to say, I hated Katherine Paterson's ending, although I won't spill it here because I don't want to ruin the book for any who haven't read it (or anyone who hasn't seen the movie). I just will never understand why she wrote the ending the way she did. But even that marks this as a wonderful book because it makes you think about it, even years later. Yes, definite classic. Definite must-read.
Newbery Honor Books I've Read and Loved
These are some other books that I loved as a child - notice that the Little House on the Prairie series held a special place in my heart - as did mysteries, fantasies, and just about anything with an animal in it. Come to think of it, my tastes haven't really changed much over the years!
1938: On the Banks of Plum Creek - Laura Ingalls Wilder
1940: By the Shores of Silver Lake - Laura Ingalls Wilder
1941: The Long Winter - Laura Ingalls Wilder
1942: Little Town on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls WIlder
1944: These Happy Golden Years - Laura Ingalls Wilder
1953: Charlotte's Web - E.B. White
1957: Old Yeller - Fred Gipson
1966: The Black Cauldron - Lloyd Alexander
1968: The Egypt Game - Zilpha Keatley Snyder
1972: The Headless Cupid - Zilpha Keatley Snyder
1974: The Dark Is Rising - Susan Cooper
Newbery Winners - Something for Everyone
I hope this list of Newbery Award winners and honor books has given you some new ideas for great books to add to your reading list (or your children's reading lists).
There is something to be said for books that can stand the test of time, and these books certainly do prove over and over again that they have tremendous staying power. The American Library Association was right on the money when they selected these books as the best in children's literature because these books truly are.