Newbery/Caldecott 2021: Final Prediction Edition
And then, in the end, it all comes down to this. On Monday, January 25th at 8 CST the ALA Youth Media Awards will announce a flurry of winners here. Newbery winners! Caldecott winners! Legacy! Odyssey! Pura Belpre! Coretta Scott King! The works! It’s only mere days away and I couldn’t be more excited.
So excited, in fact, that I’m bringing back the old Pre-Game Show. Now I know I’ve promised a Facebook Live pre-game discussion of the potential winners before, but this year I actually know how to do it. Thanks to StreamYard I will be joined by a panel of fellow enthusiasts as we discuss the possible outcomes. This will all happen at 7 CST in the morning, and I’d love it if you could join us to comment and anticipate. More information on the pre-game hustle here.
As for today, this is the last of my quarterly prediction posts. So today I’m going to predict what I think will actually WIN these awards. Not what I want to win, necessarily. Just what I think has the best chance.
Predicting children’s book award winners has grown increasingly difficult as the number of high quality books published every single year has gone up exponentially. Back in the 1930s you’d have a much smaller pool to draw from. This year, the committees have faced particularly daunting challenges. This is the first time in ALA’s history that all the committees have met virtually for their final meetings. A large chunk of the titles they were considering were sent as e-galleys and not physical copies. Add in a dread disease sweeping our nation, protests over racial inequities, and (now) a siege on our very Capitol Building and now imagine being on a committee where you have to zero in on books alone. “Daunting” doesn’t quite cover it. And so please raise a glass with me to celebrate those committee members that managed to prevail in spite of everything.
Now on with the show!
Last year, I got two Caldecott possibilities and two Newbery possibilities right. Let’s see how it shakes out in 2021!
2021 Caldecott Predictions
Caldecott Award Winner
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, ill. Michaela Goade
No matter how you slice it, this choice just makes a lot of sense. Let us consider what makes a good Caldecott Award winner. First, the superfluous element: Is there room on the cover for one or more shiny gold stickers? Survey says, yes indeed! Look at all the space here. I bet you could get at least four on it without breaking a sweat. The art is distinguished, so that criteria comes off as rather moot. Now the more difficult questions to answer: Is this the kind of book that people get passionate about? When the Caldecott committee meets via Zoom and they’re arguing for hours over one book or another, and somebody holds this up to the camera and starts talking about it, will that committee member be able to appeal to the heartstrings of their fellows? I believe so. Does this book speak to the current cultural moment? Hon, I’d be hard pressed to find a book that does a better job. Add in the fact that while this wouldn’t be the first Indigenous artist to win some kind of Caldecott, it would be the first win for the gold AND for an Indigenous author of a picture book as well. Come Monday, I am squarely in the Water Protector camp. Let us hope and pray it does well.
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, ill. Bryan Collier
While We Are Water Protectors takes on the Dakota Access Pipeline, All Because You Matter is the loveliest of the Black Lives Matter picture books of 2020. Collier doesn’t lack for Caldecott Honors, of course. He’s a four-time recipient (Martin’s Big Words, Rosa, Dave the Potter, and Trombone Shorty). Could he make it up to five? Could he win it all with the Gold? It’s an interesting question. I highly recommend that you read Emily Prabhaker’s consideration of this book on Calling Caldecott. Not only does she delineate what it is about this art that’s so appealing but she mentions how kid-friendly it is as well. Too often we can forget the impression these books might have on young people.
Honeybee: The Interesting Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming, ill. Eric Rohmann
As I said on a recent episode of Fuse 8 n’ Kate where we discussed Caldecott contenders, if it weren’t for We Are Water Protectors, I would think this Fleming/Rohmann joint had a top notch path towards gold and glory. And hey, if it does win after all, I’ll be happy too. Nonfiction has an uphill slog when it comes to major awards, and while picture book biographies do well in terms of winning Caldecotts, science stories about living creatures are a touch rarer. I suppose Finding Winnie was the last time an animal won, though I’d say that was more of a history story than a scientific one. As for insects, they haven’t been the star of the show since 2007’s Newbery Honoree Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems. Still, this book, man. Fleming’s writing is so perfectly paired with Rohmann’s art. You CARE about this bee, and yet there’s no poetry or anthropomorphizing. It’s a straight up recounting of the life of one single solitary insect who never makes more than a tenth of a teaspoon of honey in her entire life. Swoon worthy art and a text that grabs your heart.
Outside In by Deborah Underwood, ill. Cindy Derby
There won’t be any books winning awards this year that speak directly to COVID-19, but there might be room for books that allude to it obliquely. Sorta. Kinda. Not that Underwood meant this book that way, but that’s how it comes off. I am firmly of the opinion that Cindy Derby needs to get some Caldecott love and stat. This book would be a marvelous place to start. 2020 turned out to be an excellent publishing year for watercolors, and all the very different ways in which you can use them on the page. This book just sucks you in. The star of the show is nature and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Perhaps this is more an outlier than I’m giving it credit for, but it’s possible, yes?
Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin
I can’t stop thinking about this book. My kids can’t stop thinking about this book. We all know that Jason Chin is a great grand artist (have you SEEN his work on Watercress this year?!?) but I don’t think we give his writing enough credit. I sort of wish it was held up as the standard for all those other books out there that try to explain large concepts to small children. Chin’s smart. The first unit of measurement in this book is . . . this book! How many books make a child? How many children make an ostrich? And so on and such until you’ve pulled so far back that you’re looking at the known universe from a huge distance. I know he won for Grand Canyon already. Looks like he might have room for two wins now, eh?
(Maybes are books that I think have a good strong shot and that I don’t want to forget. They aren’t done deals, but are books that I can see other people liking, and that I want to acknowledge.)
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, ill. Gordon C. James
They did it with Crown. Can they capture lightning in a bottle once more and win a slew of awards with I Am Every Good Thing? History teaches us that this is a distinct possibility. Award committees love two things: Debut creators and creators that have won at least once before. With this book they’d once again be praising the art of Mr. James, and why not? He’s got loads of talent. Now a committee is not allowed to compare a book to anything that came before. It’s difficult for me to imagine how I’d react to this book if I had never seen Crown. I loved Crown so much, after all. The committee will be less hampered.
Lift by Minh Lê, ill. Dan Santat
It’s not like Santat hasn’t gotten awards before. This book even has a kind of eerie David Wiesner vibe around it, don’t you think? It’s practically wordless, allowing Santat a bit of range with his art. Could be a distinct contender.
A New Green Day by Antoinette Portis
I was the one who wrote the piece about this for Calling Caldecott. Lemme see here . . . what did I say . . . ah yes! “Hand-stamped lettering, unique textures, leaf prints, sumi ink, and vine charcoal work together to produce art that can be called nothing short of evocative. Or, as the New York Times said it best, as ‘elegant and perfectly composed as a snail’.” For those of you keeping track at home, that was me quoting myself, quoting someone else. Heh heh.
The Old Truck by Jerome Pumphrey and Jarrett Pumphrey
One of the odder trends in picture books right now concerns houses that feel bad when their owners abandon them. So extra points to Jarrett and Jerome for eschewing the house route and going for a truck instead. There’s a simplicity to the art there that, I have noticed, some people are really loving. Passionate fans of this book stay passionate, and that could be highly useful if one of them serves on the Caldecott committee this year.
Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry, ill. Juana Martinez-Neal
If I could, I would give Ms. Martinez-Neal All The Things. Remember when I debuted the cover of this book on this blog way way back in June of 2019? Now Juana’s already won an Honor before, so that gives her a leg up, but the thing that really gives this book a push is the fact that it’s just fun. And we are in such a DESPERATE need of fun books that we can’t ignore this. Never mind that the water, the WATER, looks fantastic on these pages. Oh, I love it. I hope it gets something.
2021 Caldecott Predictions
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
Nothing about the Newbery is certain. There are no “done deals”. No book is guaranteed a win, no matter how many other awards it’s already won. And it’s certainly possible that this book might not win anything at all . . . . if the committee has NO IDEA WHAT A GOOD BOOK EVEN LOOKS LIKE! Mentally, I’m already rearranging the cover so that the awards fit on it. Lemme see, we already have a National Book Award winner sticker, so where are we going to put the Coretta Scott King Award, the Odyssey Award, the John Steptoe Award (do you think Kacen still qualifies? – someone look into that), AND the Newbery Award? This is like the Elijah of Buxton problem all over again (remember THAT cover’s issues?). This is the kind of book that you read and that causes you to remember what good writing even feels like. Not so-so writing. Remarkable writing. Breath of fresh air writing. Plus I want to hear Kacen Callender’s speech, so it has that going for it.
Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk
Speaking of authors that remind you what good writing feels like, meet Lauren Wolk. You probably already know her since she won a Newbery Honor once before. This is her third work for children and is notable for, amongst other things, eschewing her usual inclusion of a psychopath. No psychopaths here. Just maggots! To write with this level of care and emotion is exceedingly difficult. A pleasure to peruse.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Again, one wonders if the discussions about this book’s Newbery chances would be as keen as they are if Bradley hadn’t already won a Newbery Honor before. In fact, her book The War That Saved My Life is notable because it’s a book that many kids honestly and truly love. Like that book, this title is about girls, suffering abuse at the hands of a parental figure, that are saved (after a fashion) by going to live with a single woman who initially seems like a prickly pear. The abuse is honestly told and terrifying, so it will be interesting to see if that sways some committee members in their votes. I consider this an all or nothing title. Could win it all. Could win nothing.
A Game of Fox and Squirrels by Jenn Reese
Subtle. Like a fine wine. Magical realism is showy. Often it likes to parade across a page. Not so this book. Reese has created a layered, deftly rendered story. The abuse is in the past but the scars (metaphorical for once) remain. It’s not a book that’s been getting a lot of press, so I don’t know how far it’ll go. All I know is that it’s good enough to win and by gum, it just might.
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
Boy, wouldn’t it be nice to see this win? You can put the medal on her right hand. There were many things I liked about this book (not least the sheer amount of research) but there were also elements to the writing that impressed me. For example, the sudden twist about halfway through shocked me to my core. I think this book really and truly has a good strong chance this year.
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake, ill. Jon Klassen
Once you get over your shock of seeing Jon Klassen illustrating a smiling animal, you realize what a winner this book is. When it comes to the Newbery, titles for younger readers often get steamrolled by angsty YA novels (which technically should be ineligible, but this award goes to 14 so . . .). With this book it is a true relief to see a book bereft of abuse. Unless you count accidentally getting sprayed by a skunk, of course. If you tried reading this and couldn’t get into it, I have the perfect solution. Find the audiobook or, better yet, read it aloud to someone. Do all the voices. Really feel how nicely Timberlake has packaged everything.
Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri
This is one of those wild card books that sometimes pop up unexpectedly. I dunno. It’s the rare book where I love the writing and yet I’m not fond of how much of it there is. Nayeri’s talented and the story has emotional weight but there’s a LOT of chaff with this wheat. Also, I think we’re squarely in YA territory, but I’ve said that about books in the past before! So keep your eyes on this title and watch it closely. Someone might make a play for the gold.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
I did a presentation for some kids not long ago where I showed them a bunch of books that I thought would win the Caldecott. When I finished, they asked what I thought would win the Newbery. This was unexpected, so I did impromptu booktalks for a bunch of books on today’s list. Yet the one book they wanted the most, after all my blabbermouthing, was Janae Marks’s. Over and over they begged their school librarian to tell them if she had any copies in. I was sorry to put her in that position, but delighted that they’d be discovering this book soon.
Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker
*sigh* The little book that got buried. In a non-pandemic year it’s possible that this Pennypacker title would have gotten the notice it deserved. Alas, I blame the brownish cover. Can’t get folks to pick up brown book jackets, nope. I was very enamored of this title and yet had a devil of a time getting even my own library’s book committee members to pick it up. Inside it’s an incredibly smart look at what it means to be an artist, and doesn’t shy away from hard issues. Here’s hoping there are some like-minded committee members out there that feel the same way.
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed
They say that when you write about a character who is bored, your writing will be boring. I say, that applies to most books but not When Stars Are Scattered. I hadn’t really seriously considered it for Newbery until I saw it cropping up on various lists. A graphic novel, it would be Jamieson’s second Newbery Honor. I’m not sure how I feel about it at the end of the day. Sometimes when I don’t review a book that I’ve read, it’s because I haven’t been able to pick apart my feelings about it. I’ll read what other people say about it with interest.
And remember, folks, not a SINGLE solitary one of these books might end up on either the Newbery or Caldecott rosters. That’s the fun of these awards! So stop by my Facebook Live feed this coming Monday and let’s have a good chat!
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2020, Newbery / Caldecott Predictions
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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