I cannot think of one Newbery Award winning book that has not met or exceeded my expectations. Often, as a fifth grade teacher, I picked up a Newbery Award winning book with skepticism. I was never disappointed.
One of the best things about selections made by the American Library Association for Newbery Award books is that the award often brings books to our attention that may otherwise have been overlooked. The award also elevates a variety of genres, authors, and styles. All of this works to expose our kids to exceptional works of contemporary literature.
It’s difficult to select only ten of the best Newbery Award books of all time. The best criteria I can use is to select those Newberry Award winners that have stood the test of time, printed and reprinted for generations of children to enjoy. I’ve also thought back to my days in the classroom and the Newberry books that were most enjoyed by fifth grade kids.
Great Newbery Award Book: A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, won the Newberry Award in 1963, but remains a student favorite today. Few students have not read and been drawn into the magical world created by Madeleine L’Engle in this book.
I remember reading the book as a kid, and I couldn’t put it down. This was one of the books that instilled a love of reading in me. I followed the Murrays and O’Keefe’s throughout the entire series.
Typical of the time L’Engle touches on the subject of a utopian society, but the earthy themes of love and redemption keep the books well grounded. This is a Newbery Award winner must-read.
Favorite Newbery Award Book: Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIMH, John B. Calhoun
Long before I knew what a Newbery Award was, I discovered Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIHM. I’m not the kind of person who expects to bond with rats as the main characters, but that is exactly what happens in this magical story that bases the ability of rats to build a technological and organized society because they were previously held as lab rats at the National Institute of Mental Health.
The group of escaped lab rats helps save Mrs. Frisby from being destroyed by the farmers plow.
Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIMH was written by John B. Calhoun. That he could weave a tale of lab rats that tugs at the heart was always a marvel to me, and the book has remained among my favorites for over 30 years. It’s still as fresh for young readers today as it was when it won the Newbery Award in 1972.
Must Read Newbery Award Book: Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars
The title of the book by Betsy Byars has caused many young readers to overlook the gripping story in Summer of the Swans. Don’t be fooled by the title, trust the Newbery Medal and give the book a try. It is a short novel and an easy read with depth that will not soon leave you.
Because of its powerful message of love, coming of age, and Byars ability to grapple with the issue of mental retardation, I included this in on my fifth grade reading list.
Boys groaned at the name, but it didn’t take them long to fall in love with the characters and empathize with them and their story.
This Newberry Award winning book could be easily read by third graders, but in order to understand and discuss the plot and undercurrents of the story I highly recommend it for older elementary readers, as well.
Powerful Newbery Award Book: The Giver, by Lois Lowry
In what appears to be a utopian society, Jonas is chosen to be the receiver or memory, a precious gift that is denied others in order to preserve the sameness of society. What Jonas learns from the giver confuses him and causes him to realize that things aren’t as they seem.
The Giver is a provocative book by author Lois Lowry that is a coming of age story and so much more. Sci-fi readers will appreciate the slight edge of science fiction that Lowry uses to create a utopian society of the future, while young readers and adults alike will feel the pain and growth required of Jonas.
Favorite Newbery Award Book: Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, was another classroom favorite. The life of a young girl stranded on an island alone, when her tribe is killed by fur hunters from the Alaskan mainland, appeals to young female readers. The boys also found the book hard to put down because it is gritty and survivalistic.
Based on the legend of a young girl left alone on one of the Channel Islands, Island of the Blue Dolphins is one of those books that keep readers turning pages. From daily survival to the beauty of the island, from contemplative passages to grueling action, the book has something to offer everyone.
In the classroom Island of the Blue Dolphins offers many opportunities to explore various themes related to science, survival, and even psychology. This book is deserving of the respect it has earned among teachers and young readers.
Must Read Newbery Award Book: Number the Stars, Lois Lowry
The author of the Newbery winner The Giver demonstrates her versatility and ability to touch the young at heart regardless of her subject.
This time, Lowry takes the readers to the past in an exploration of WWII and The Holocaust from the perspective of a young girl Annamarie Johansen. Johansen and her family live in Denmark. When Nazis begin to “relocate” Jews, Annamaries family assists The Resistance in helping those close to them, including Annamarie’s best friend Ellen.
Annamarie must take courage and grow up quickly to meet the demands of assisting in The Resistance.
Number the Stars is bittersweet historical fiction. Reminiscent of Anne Frank’s Diary, Lois Lowry uses the horrific backdrop of The Holocaust to remind us of both those who were unjustly tortured and run from their homes and those who worked and gave selflessly to preserve the lives of Jews.
Kids love this Newbery Honor Award Winner: Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DeCamillo
Because of Winn-Dixie is won a Newbery Honor in 2001. It was adapted into a screenplay, which is not as good as the book, but provides a good way for young readers to compare and contrast the book against the screenplay.
Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DeCamillo, is a perfect story of self discovery, growth, and restoration. Opal is the young girl who claims the stray terrorizing the local grocery store. She clings to Winn-Dixie as she struggles to make the adjustment of being a new girl in town. Her father is an itinerate preacher with whom her relationship is tenuous, but as pets can do, Winn-Dixie helps bring healing to the young girl and her father.
Kids really enjoyed reading this book. It wasn’t surprising to see the interest capitalized in a movie. If you never see the movie, you will not have missed much. If you never read the book, you will have missed a treasure.
Often Overlooked Newbery Award Book: Onion John, byJoseph Krumgold
Maybe it is the name or maybe it is because it is an older book, but I find few students or teachers familiar with Onion John, by Joseph Krumgold. That is unfortunate because this is a great story. I read it, as an adult, because it was a Newbery Award winner. I was astounded by how much I enjoyed this book, and sorry that I had not read it sooner to recommend it to young readers, especially boys looking for something interesting and different. Onion John is all of that and more.
Set in a small 1950s New Jersey town, Onion John is the story of a struggling immigrant. Young Andy Rusch is the only one who befriends the man, considered eccentric by others. In the end, the community is transformed by their relationship with Onion John.
Favorite Newbery Award Books: Sarah Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan
Sarah Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan, is the first in a series of books about a Midwestern farm family. A grieving farmer finds it impossible to run the farm and raise his two kids, so he sends for a mail order bride. He gets Sarah.
Sarah finds herself lonely, as the kids are resistant to accept her, especially Anna. She also misses the ocean, back east. When she leaves the farm for town one day, the kids can’t help but wonder if she will return.
Sarah Plain and Tall is among the best known Newbery Award Winners. Children have enjoyed reading the series of books for years and also enjoyed the television movies inspired by the novels.
A Newbery book that changes kids’ minds about reading: The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg
One of the challenges as an elementary school teacher is to help students re-think reading. Most of my students had been taught from readers with book excerpts and boring stories. They were turned off to reading.
The Mixed of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg, was my secret weapon to unlock the students’ love of reading. Claudia Kinkaid is determined to run away and find adventure, but decides to take along her brother. She doesn’t want his companionship as much as she wants his money; he is a saver.
The kids hide out in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, working their way into visiting school groups during the day and finding historic beds to sleep in during the night.
When a new piece of art is brought into the museum, the kids begin a quest to identify the sculpted angel by an unknown artist.
I read this book aloud to the kids, having them follow along in their own book. Every time we reached a stopping point the kids, even those who claimed they didn’t like to read, begged for more. The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler restored a love a reading in some kids, ignited it in others, and affirmed it for those who had never before heard of Newbery Award books.
Having started with this classic Newbery Award winning book, students were excited about reading and exploring the world of young adult literature. The Newbery Award symbol on the front of the book became a guide for students, who otherwise wouldn’t have known what to select and read.
ALA Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922-Present, ala.org