I mentioned Newbery books in my last Year of Reading Youthfully post. Two of the five in The Dark is Rising Sequence are Newbery Winners. Other winners that I read over the past year are: Whittington by Alan Armstrong; The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo; and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which was the 2010 Newbery Mystery winner. These are all more Middle Readers than Young Adult, IMO, but that's irrelevant. They're all excellent reads. More on ...Despereaux when I talk about fairy tales in a later post.
Here's what the Newbery Site lists as #1 on its criteria for determining awards:
"1. The Medal shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work. Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished."
You might notice that they use "distinguished" twice. They're not being sloppy or redundant. Pulitzer prize-winning novels can be awful to read, wonderful to read, or anywhere in between. Newberys, in my extensive experience, are always wonderful to read. This group or committee or whoever they are know what they're doing. You pick up Newbery book and you will never be disappointed. You'll like some more than others, of course, but none of them will suck.
We had a program at my elementary school where you could read a Newbery book and then discuss it with the school librarian. He'd take notes in purple pen and you'd get a star or something for every Newbery book you read. Maybe there was some special award every ten books or something. I don't remember. Clearly that wasn't the big motivation for me. I just loved reading.
Whittington and ...Despereaux are both centered around animals, and in both cases those animals not only interact with humans, but talk to them as equally sentient beings. It surprised me a little in Whittington when the farm animals began working to help one of the children learn to read because the book didn't start out with the premise that the cross-species communication included humans. But it flowed so naturally within the story that I got over my surprise immediately. ...Despereaux, on the other hand, says straight away that it is a fairy tale, so the whole mouse-human conversations were to be expected. What I love in both of these books is that everyone has something to learn from someone else. Whether it's animals learning from other animals, humans learning from animals, animals learning from humans, or humans learning from humans. No one is infallible and no one is perfect. There are prejudices and nobility to be found whatever the species. I love that. In real life, humans can't figure that lesson out amongst themselves, and yet here are humans and animals alike all learning it.
When You Reach Me isn't a fairy tale and it doesn't have talking animals. I'm not sure that I would call it a mystery, as Newbery does. More likely I'd dub it sci-fi, although it does present a fascinating puzzle for the heroine to solve, so I suppose calling it a mystery is fair. It has it all, really. From time-travel theory to very real, non-theoretical relationships among kids stuck between being children and being young adults. Our main kid-cast are all about 13 years old, including the narrator, Miranda. (Do we all remember what a challenge that time was in our lives? I do. It didn't suck, but it sure as hell wasn't easy, either.) It was the accuracy and honesty of this book that struck me hardest. So much of the scenario is outside of my personal experience (I didn't grow up in New York with a single mom who was auditioning for $20,000 Pyramid.), but the universality of the relationships amongst the kids and between the kids and adults... That stuff I connected with immediately. It didn't hurt that Miranda frequently mentions "her book". The book she always brings to school for silent reading. That book, too, is a Newbery winner. And it has not only time travel but space travel, too. The heroine of it is also about 13 years old. Her name is Meg. Have you guessed it? It's A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. Oddly enough, I didn't reread that book this past year. I may have to remedy that.