Spring Prediction Edition: Newbery / Caldecott 2021
Today is my birthday! And what better way to celebrate than to discuss the prospects of various Newbery and Caldecott contenders, I ask of you? It’s the gift I give myself.
Now this year’s first round of predictions varies somewhat from those of the past because (and you may have noticed this) I am releasing the list in April rather than March. Turns out, pandemics are not good for forecasting. I’ve only just now gotten my head in order enough to try and offer a paltry take on what may or may not have a chance come January.
There are a couple factors to take into consideration there, though. First off, the whole galley and ARCS system by which librarians and reviewers see early materials has gone higglety-pigglety. Many is the publisher that may switch to offering e-galleys permanently after all of this is said and done. A pity since I feel like I get a much better sense of a book when I can hold it in my hands. The other thing to think about is that my reading has taken a significant nose-dive since I’ve been home. Take that with a grain of salt.
And speaking of grains of salt, let’s compare my past performances in these spring prediction fests, shall we? How well have I done before?
2014 spring predictions: Zip. Zero. Zilch.
2016 spring predictions: Zero correct, though the commenters do mention two books that would go on to win.
2019 spring predictions: I got two Caldecotts right (Going Down Home With Daddy by Kelly Starling Lyons, ill. Daniel Minter and Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, ill. Kadir Nelson) and one Newbery right (The New Kid by Jerry Craft). Which means, 2019 may have been my best predicting year to date!
That means the bar is high for 2020. What will win the 2021 awards (and will we even have a Mid-Winter conference to announce them)?
Let’s see what’s possible:
2021 Caldecott Predictions
Brick by Brick by Heidi Woodward Sheffield
I think part of what I love about picture books is that they always have the capacity to surprise you. Sheffield’s book qualifies as a wonderful surprise. I did not see it coming when I first opened it up, but I was absolutely floored by the art. It’s a pretty simple story about a kid who wants to work in construction like his dad when he grows up. But those mixed-media backgrounds are what really steal the show.
The Fabled Life of Aesop by Ian Lendler, ill. Pamela Zagarenski
I conducted a dual interview with Lendler and Zagarenski earlier this year, but only after I read this book on my own. Trust me, if I hadn’t seen it firsthand, I wouldn’t have known just how good it truly is. Since this book marked a change in Zagarenski’s style, I asked her what she’d done differently. She responded, “I wanted to use different papers and a different style for both the Fables and the story of Aesop’s life. I thought that the Life story could be in watercolors, a more traditional style and the Fables could be rich, deep in color, texture and very symbolic.” It’s choices like these, with their thoughtful considerations, that are worthy of the big-time awards.
Honeybee: The Interesting Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming, ill. Eric Rohmann
Is it strange that my top contender of the year in the Caldecott category is a work of Nonfiction? Between this and her Charles Lindberg book (which I’m not including on the Newbery prediction list only because I think it reads more YA), Ms. Fleming is knocking it out of the park in 2020. The text of this book is remarkable, but it’s Rohmann’s art that pushes it into the stratosphere. The sheer size of the thing is coupled alongside these sweeping, incredibly accurate, spreads. And then there’s that two-page gatefold that opens up . . .
Best of the year? You could definitely make a case for it.
My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano, ill. Jillian Tamaki
I’ve predicted Tamaki Caldecott wins before, but I don’t think my heart was really into it. Not like it is with this book. This is one of those author/illustrator pairings that are so good they feel foretold. Tamaki’s working with what is essentially a two-color palette of pink and green. That right there might be a challenge, but there’s so much more to admire. The angles of the girls as they play. The emotions in their faces. The sheer energy at work and the way you truly believe that this is, at once, that loads of time have been spent on only a single afternoon. Masterful.
Outside In by Deborah Underwood, ill. Cindy Derby
By gum we’re gonna get Derby a Caldecott one of these days. When I reviewed this book it was right at the beginning of the pandemic crisis. I wrote the following:
“Let it be known that in this book you will find winsome writing and evocative art, but you will not find a harangue. Nor a preach. Nor a didactic jolt to the senses. This book is not faulting you. It is simply showing how, for all that we wall ourselves up in our homes and cars, we can never truly block out the outside. It finds its way in to us. And right now, in the Spring, when the world seems scary, this may be the comforting book about what’s beyond our back doors that we all need right now.”
Hey, man. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And if you’re sheltering in place and social distancing from the world, every picture book you read is suddenly going to take on special significance. Never mind that Derby interprets Underwood’s words in affecting, winsome, highly intelligent ways. This book exudes the feeling you get when you step outdoors on a wet, warm, spring day.
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, ill. James Ransome
I watch the trajectory of James Ransome carefully. I note that with each book he does, he gets even better. He’s taking more risks. Trying more techniques. Now his wife’s story about a family participating in the Great Migration puts that historical moment in a kid-friendly context that everyone can appreciate. But it’s the work that Ransome has done on the art here that sets it apart from the pack. Look at those endpapers! Look at how the image of the cotton plant is overshadows everything, and how you get this amazing, clear-cut sense of what people are escaping without the author or artist having to say a word. For pure unadulterated visual storytelling, this book delivers.
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver by Gene Barretta, ill. Frank Morrison
And here I figured books had said all there was to say about Carver. Barretta focuses on George Washington Carver as a kid, which right there I could have told him was a bad idea. Famous people do not tend to have auspicious beginnings. Best to just avoid their youth as much as you can. Yet Barretta makes a very strong case for why Carver’s youth influenced everything else that happened in his life. Now I like Frank Morrison’s art, but I’ve never seen him really let go like he has in this book. There are a couple of spreads at work here that honestly take your breath away. He’s playing with light a lot more on these pages, and so when you see George’s hidden forest garden, it’s nothing short of magnificent.
Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry, ill. Juana Martinez-Neal
Oh, man. I premiered the cover of this book way back in June of 2019 and it’s still not available for purchase yet! The wait will be worth it, though. I interviewed both Beth and Juana about this book at the time too. Juana told me that she really enjoyed painting the water in this book, but honestly there’s this cadence of joy that’s present throughout the whole kerschmozzle. You can just FEEL how much fun the creators had making it. If a book can win a Caldecott for sheer delight, then this one’s a shoo-in.
2021 Newbery Predictions
In the past I’ve posted my colleagues predictions here in lieu of my own. This year, to heck with it. I’m only including stuff I’ve read myself. And of the things I’ve read, I’ve only seen three true contenders. Consider the following:
Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk
This is a case where you read a book for kids and sometimes find yourself, in the midst of the read, just sort of sighing over how good the writing is. I mean, Wolk is probably one of the best writers for kids out there right now and this book shows off her skills considerably. Unlike other books for children that she’s written, there’s no bad guy. Just people in desperate circumstances making mistakes. And considering the fact that this takes place during the Great Depression, and the people in it are scraping by, I think this might be one of the more timely books of 2020.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
I am not certain that I can adequately express to you the degree to which I did not want to read this book. My ideal book is a light-hearted fantasy with maybe a tiny bit of romance for spice. This book is about sexual abuse and the psychological toll it takes on its victims. But herein lies the power of a good author. In spite of all my instincts wanting to run away from this book as fast as humanly possible, the lure of anything by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley was too strong. See, you guys got into her when she wrote The War That Saved My Life, but I loved her way before that when she wrote Jefferson’s Sons. The remarkable thing about this book is how infinitely enjoyable it is, in spite of some of the terrible and terrifying content. I picked it up and simply found myself unable to put it down. The VOICE on its 10-year-old narrator Della is one for the history books. One of the best of the year (and by no means an easy sell).
Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson
So what we have here is a complicated situation. This book is written with an audience on the younger side. Now, compare it to the two books I just talked about with their maggots and meth heads. They’ve got all the dark material at their fingertips, ready and willing to convince committee members that seriousness = quality. I would argue that they have quality in spite of their seriousness. Watson’s book is light fare with serious undercurrents. It’s not fluff by any stretch of the imagination, and the stories are connected but also exist entirely in their own sphere. Essentially, this reads like a series of short stories with a common throughline. It is also, whipsmart. Don’t dismiss it just because it’s fun.
And yourself? What are you seeing that’s making you hope for medals in its future?
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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