After reading lots and lots of books published in the previous year, a committee of librarians and teachers chooses the best-written and best-illustrated books for children.
The Newbery Medal, for writing, and the Caldecott Medal, awarded for illustration, are sometimes contentious choices in the publishing world. The Newbery may be very literary and seem too old for children up to age 14. The Caldecott may offer some new radical illustration technique or may seem “too artsy” for average children.
This year, I am happy to say that the Newbery Medal winner and the Caldecott Medal winner are books for children that will be enjoyed and read by a wide audience.
“Merci Suárez Changes Gears” by Meg Medina, published by Candlewick Press, is a Newbery Medal winner that fifth- and sixth-grade students will enjoy in particular. Merci, short for Mercedes, is a sixth-grade Latino student on scholarship in an upscale private school in Florida. Merci, a smart girl, seems to have a difficult time fitting in, but her older brother Roli, in the same school, doesn’t seem to have the same problem. Their father works as a house painter and is painting the school gym on the weekends, with Merci’s help, as part of their tuition payment.
The author has captured the middle school experience perfectly with all the beginning of puberty and changes in social structure. Mean girls and bullying, crushes, mentoring a new student who turns out to be a boy, and economic differences with the other students put a lot of bumps in Merci’s path.
At home she helps take care of her twin cousins after school while her aunt works. She has always spent a lot of time with her grandfather Lolo but now notices he forgets things, gets upset, and loses his balance. She helps hide these problems from the family and is angry and terrified when they report Lolo has a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s from the doctor.
Medina cleverly shows how the Latino family culture, with the three houses rented in a row and the daily family interactions, is different from the culture of the other children in Merci’s classes. The economic disparities are many, but the author does not dwell on these inequities, simply includes them. Humor and a sympathetic character make this novel a good experience for children.
“Hello Lighthouse,” written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, published by Little, Brown, is the Caldecott Medal winner. This historical picture book focuses on one lighthouse and its keeper through the years. The keeper fulfills his responsibilities for lighting the lamp until a mechanical light replaces the old system. The keeper and his family then have to leave their lighthouse home on the sea. The story is simply told by Blackall, but in a very poignant manner.
Aerial and close-up views of the lighthouse in detailed watercolors share the beauty and the isolation of the sea. The author/illustrator utilizes many blues in her palette to create the images of the sea and horizon. Back matter following the story includes two pages of general information about lighthouses. Children ages five and older will first be fascinated with the story and then will return again and again for the illustrations.
Two Newbery Honors books have been named: “The Night Diary,” written by Veera Hiranandani and published by Dial Books for Young Readers and “The Book of Boy,” written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr and published by Greenwillow Books.
Four Caldecott Honor books have been named: “Alma and How She Got Her Name,” illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal and published by Candlewick Press; “A Big Mooncake” for Little Star, illustrated and written by Grace Lin and published by Little, Brown and Company; “The Rough Patch,” illustrated and written by Brian Lies and published by Greenwillow Books; and “Thank You, Omu!” illustrated and written by Oge Mora and published by Little, Brown and Company.