500 books, 21 boys

What makes an elementary school boy want to read? Action and humor are important, as is a suspenseful plot line that makes boys excited about “What happens next?”. Graphic novels (stories told in comic strip format) appeal to readers through both literary and visual elements. Although many new books that meet this criteria are published every year, kids can be frustrated sometimes when trying to find books that stand out in a crowded field.

This is what 500 books looks like!

This is what 500 books looks like!

To help identify exemplary books, the American Library Association presents the Newbery Award to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” This past year, I was honored to serve on the national committee of 15 librarians charged with choosing the winner. Since the potential pool can include any American book published for kids ages birth to 14, thousands of books are eligible. I narrowed down my choices to about 500 books before the school year started. Thankfully, in September, help arrived in the form of 21 fourth and fifth grade Library Club members.

Laura Sabo and I, the club sponsors, went over the award criteria with the students. After careful consideration, the boys chose books to read. Over the course of the next few months, the boys debated and discussed. They filled out checklists, rating elements such as characters, plot, and setting; or how well information was presented in a nonfiction book. As the boys came to the library to exchange their books, I would ask them about their responses. What did you like about the book? What made you feel that way? Some of the best feedback came when a student didn’t want to finish a book. We agreed that that title might not be an award-winner.


Checklists the boys used for evaluating

Boys don’t like reading? I have to disagree. Not every boy and not every book, but these Library Club members took their reading responsibility seriously. They knew I needed their help and that their input would matter. When I met with the rest of the Newbery Committee in Chicago for deliberations, the committee members listened closely when I described the boys’ reactions to different titles under discussion.

We held a Library Club mock election in early January, and the boys’ top choices were Blood of Olympus (Riordan), The Fourteenth Goldfish (Holm), A Snicker of Magic (Lloyd), Half a Chance (Lord), and The Crossover (Alexander). In February, the official committee chose its winners: The Crossover, El Deafo (Bell), and Brown Girl Dreaming (Woodson). The Crossover, a novel about basketball, draws in readers with its unique format and rhythmic language. El Deafo, Cece Bell’s graphic novel memoir, includes many life lessons about acceptance and friendship, but the message never overwhelms the entertaining narrative.

Although their choices did not match the committee’s exactly, the boys were happy about the recognition for The Crossover and El Deafo. While it is an excellent book, we did not have a lot of success finding readers for Brown Girl Dreaming. Our group was thoughtful and mature, but a book with “girl” in the title is still a hard sell to ten year old boys!

The best part of the Newbery experience was sharing the books with this terrific group of Library Club members and working through the process with them. I hope as years go by, that whenever these boys see the gold and silver Newbery seals on books, they will remember the special year they helped choose the winners.

For more information about the award and a list of past winners go to: CLICK HERE.


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