Children’s and Young Adult Book Awards 2019

Children’s and Young Adult Book Awards 2019

Jerry Flack, The University of Colorado

 
The world of children’s and young adult book awards is nearly a century old and has expanded in myriad directions to a wide recognition of authors, illustrators, and their works. The two most famous and prestigious prizes remain the Newbery and Caldecott Medals.
 
In 1921, Frederic G. Melcher, then chair of the children’s section of the American Library Association (ALA) proposed that an annual award be presented to the author of the most distinguished book for children published in the United States in the previous year. The award was named in honor of the eighteenth-century Englishman John Newbery, the man acknowledged as the first publisher and purveyor of children’s literature. The first John Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922 to Henrik Willem Van Loon for the juvenile edition of his historical masterpiece, The Story of Mankind (Liveright, 1921). The Newbery Medal was the world’s first award exclusively presented to an author of children’s and young adult literature.
 
The Caldecott Medal was the second of what now constitute many annual book awards presented by The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the youth division of the ALA. Melcher proposed to the ALA in 1937 that a new and second award be established to honor the illustrator of the most distinguished picture book in the United States also published in the preceding year. The Randolph Caldecott Medal was named after the nineteenth-century British illustrator considered to be the originator of picture books for children. The very first Caldecott Medal was awarded in 1938 to Dorothy P. Lathrop for her illustrations that accompanied Helen Dean Fish’s book, Animals of the Bible (Lippincott, 1937).
 
Every year ALSC committees select the recipients of the Newbery and Caldecott medals. A particular benefit to Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners is that their classic books are allowed to go out of print only very rarely. The gold foil seal placed on the front book covers of victorious books virtually assure never-ending sales. The Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners’ acceptance speeches are also reprinted annually in a special awards issue of the distinguished children’s literature journal, The Horn Book Magazine. Internet searches reveal all the winners and their books for every year since the very first winners. These lists of prize books catalog great reading for talented students.
 
The 2019 Newbery Medal has been awarded to Meg Medina for her novel Merci Suarez Changes Gears and the 2019 Caldecott Medal honors Sophie Blackall’s picture book Hello Lighthouse. In this inaugural book review, I will discuss the Newbery Medal winner. In my next column, I will discuss the Caldecott Medal winner.
 
Newbery Medal 2019
 
Medina, Meg. Merci Suarez Changes Gears. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018.
 
Merci Suarez is a spirited protagonist who is a member of a loving and colorful multigenerational family who live in three identical small flat-top pink houses that her mother refers to as La Casitas. The setting is located in a small Florida city. About one-half of the book revolves around the great importance of family solidarity. The other half of this lovely coming- of-age story revolves around Merci’s period of adjustment upon entering the sixth grade in the elite private school she and her older brother Roli attend.
 
The warm-hearted and loving members of the Suarez family are attractively portrayed. Merci’s grandparents, Abuela and Lolo, who were born and educated in Cuba, occupy the middle house. Merci, her Mami and Papi and her highly gifted brother Roli live in another of the houses in La Casitas. The third house is occupied by Merci’s aunt Tia Ines and her terribly behaved kindergarten twin sons, Tomas and Axel, who are so naughty that the downtown library has banned them from Saturday Morning Story Hour. Family is everything among the Suarez clan. There are never any lies or secrets.
 
Education is one of the most valuable goals of the Suarez Family. At varying times Merci and the more senior members of her three-generational family make sacrifices so that others can focus on education that will enrich all three generations of the family. The entire family pulls together, for example, to support Merci’s mother as she completes a three-year college degree in physical therapy. Merci’s older brother Roli, a high school senior, is very gifted intellectually. He spends much of his time in the duration of the story writing applications for premier college choices and scholarships. He wants to become a doctor. Family success is especially valued.
 
Merci must give up her love and superior talent at the sport of soccer in order to help her grandmother take after school care of the terrible twins. Witnessing the maturity of Merci from being a child to becoming a young Latina woman is a high point of the novel.
 
While the novel does not dwell on negative situations, it is realistic, especially in the ways that unforeseen events can have negative impacts on families. Several themes or topics are woven into the narrative. Merci’s closest family and staunchest defender is her grandfather, Lolo. In recent months Merci notices that her beloved Lolo’s behavior is changing. He confuses the names of family members and he becomes suddenly very angry at small matters of little consequence. During the course of the novel Merci learns that her grandfather has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The entire family rallies to help him and Abuela cope with the devastating consequences of the illness. The keystone of family life among the Suarez clan involves sacrifices for its members.
 
A close acquaintance of this reviewer recently voiced her concern about her perception of prevailing negative stereotypes of Hispanic-Americans. This novel is a wonderful portrayal of an All-American family that just happens to be able to trace its ancestral roots to Cuba. The novel particularly stresses how important family life is in Cuban-American culture. La familia is everything!
 
Much of this coming-of-age novel focuses on Merci’s daily life as a sixth-grade student at Seaward Pines Academy, an elite private school where both Merci and her brilliant older brother Roli, who is dead certain to be the valedictorian of the senior class, are scholarship students. As such they are considered as “second class” students particularly by the queen bee of the sixth-grade, Edna Santos, who is at the top of the class in leadership and academics. The daughter of a medical doctor, Edna also comes from one of the wealthiest families in the Seaward Pines Academy culture. By her sixth-grade year, Edna has come to expect being the best and most popular student in her class. Merci poses a threat to Edna’s vaulted social level.
 
For example, Edna is affronted when the school secretary, Miss Daniels, invites Merci to become a member of a semi-elite school group, the sixth-grade Sunshine Buddy Club. Members of the Sunshine Club are paired with new students and are required to keep a weekly record of the things they do to make their acolytes begin to feel at home at Seaward Pines Academy. The green-eyed jealousy of Edna is accentuated by the fact that Merci is the only sixth-grade girl in the club to be partnered with a boy classmate, Michael Clark, a new transfer student from Minnesota.
 
Readers who love history and hands-on projects will enjoy the scholastic high point of the school year. The social studies teacher, Ms. Tannenbaum, is the favorite teacher of all sixth- grade students and the climax of the school year is a social studies project about the ancient cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The detailed description of the Egyptian tomb project should suggest similar school projects for both teachers and students.
 
The climax of Merci Suarez Changes Gears finds Edna Santos punished for her jealousy and vindictive behavior and Merci as a much more mature and confident student and family member. Merci is a wonderful role model and character.
 
Activities for Teachers and Homeschoolers
 
Social studies is the favorite subject of sixth-grade students at Seaward Pines Academy. Every student’s favorite teacher is Ms. Tannenbaum who prizes both individual academic success and team cooperation in assignments. She cleverly ties the making of historical costumes with both Halloween and her sixth-grade class exploration of ancient Egypt in which class teams construct various portions of an ancient tomb. The completed tomb is so popular that the final results annually end up with its creators appearing in a photo alongside the mayor and the school principal on the front page of the city newspaper. Invite students to pay particular attention to the passages and chapters about this class project and encourage them to propose a similar project for their own classrooms be they studying social studies, science, language arts, or other subject disciplines.
 
Merci weathers the perils of sixth grade as a scholarship student in an exclusive school for the gifted. After reading about her highs and lows, popularity, personal rivalries, and even revengeful betrayals, write a new chapter of the imagined school life of Merci at Seaward Pines, or a brand new adventures of her Sunshine Buddy Club partner Michael Clark. For example, how might a daily log entry of Michael’s initiation as a brand new student read?
 
In my column I will discuss the Caldecott Medal winner for 2019, Hello Lighthouse. I invite readers to suggest favorite books for future reviews.