10 Newbery Award Winning Books You Should Read (By Decade)

Although we are in the midst of Oscar season, there’s another major award that we should be paying attention to. The John Newbery Medal is an award given every year to the most distinguished American children’s book. It is sponsored by the children’s division of the American Library Association. Every year, one medal winner and a few “honor books” (usually no more than four) are chosen by a hand picked committee. The winning books are announced every January at the ALA Youth Media Awards, while a ceremony honoring the winners takes place during the summer of that same year. Many classic children’s books, from Old Yeller to the Ramona series to Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee have been recognized by the award. In anticipation of the announcement for this year’s honorees in January of 2015 (where recent National Book Award winner Brown Girl Dreaming seems to be the frontrunner), here are 10 classic Newbery books you should check out!

1. Millions of Cats by William Gag (1929 Honor Book)

I can’t say I know too much about children’s literature from the 1920’s, but this book is definitely a classic. In fact, it is apparently the earliest published picture book still in print. It is also one of few picture books to even be acknowledged by the Newberys (although, this was about 8 years before the Caldecotts inaugurated.) The short book is about an old couple who attempt to adopt one cat out of a bundle of millions of cats. It is known for its famous refrain: “Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.” Definitely a nice way of teaching very young children that numbers bigger than a million exist.

caddie woodlawn

2. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (1936 Medal Winner)

This one is definitely a favorite of mine. Set in nineteenth-century Wisconsin, the story is about a young tomboy named Caddie and her family. One of the major conflicts in the story is the discussion surrounding how young women were supposed to behave during the period. Although the “message” in the end may be a teensy bit old-fashioned, it is still a fun story filled with humor and heartwarming moments.

3. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (1944 Medal Winner)

This children’s novel is a coming-of-age story about a young lad (Johnny) during the heart of the Revolutionary War. I remember having to read this when I was in fifth grade. It was long, but I enjoyed it, especially after watching the film adaptation. The book is still popular today for teachers who want to use it as part of a lesson on the Revolutionary War.

4. Charlotte’s Web by EB White (1953 Honor Book)

This book was very popular when it was first published in 1952. It seems almost crazy that this classic did not win the Medal. However, despite the actual 1953 medalist, Charlotte’s Web is surviving, in the shelves of children today, with the last laugh. After three movie adaptations, the story of the friendship between a creative spider and a pig is still popular.

blue dolphins

5. Island of Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (1961 Medal Winner)

Fun fact: Although To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, it was marketed as a book for adults during the time. So while Harper Lee won other literary awards, including the Pulitzer, it was Scott O’Dell who won the Newbery Medal for his novel on nineteenth-century Native American life and culture. Based on a true story, the novel centers on a young Native American girl who is left on an island alone. Later an award dedicated to historical fiction was named after O’Dell.


6. Sounder by William H. Armstrong (1970 Medal Winner)

For some reason, “dog books” are always depressing…Sounder is no different. Centered on a black sharecropping family, the story is about a boy and the search for his father’s dog after he is suddenly separated from them both. During this journey, the boy also learns to read from a kind schoolteacher he meets along the way. The book is grim, but there is a hopeful, inspiring message by the end.

7. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1988 Honor Book)

Survival stories seem to be a common theme for Newbery voters. This particular book is certainly prolific. It is about thirteen year old boy who is left stranded on an island after the small plane he was in crashes (which kills the plane’s pilot). The quiet book mostly details his survival and the lessons he learns during the ordeal. The book gets a pretty strong reaction for its “deux-ex-machina” ending. But it is still a semi-thrilling book about the developing mind of a teenager. It is the first in a series of books.


8. Holes by Louis Sachar (1999 Medal Winner)

This is a great transitional book. A novel that isn’t too difficult to read or understand (despite its constant use of flashbacks and foreshadowing), yet at the same time, Sachar never underestimates his young audience. Also, side note that has very little to do with the Newberys: you should read more of Louis Sachar’s books! Like, after Holes, read the sequel Small Steps and then the Sideways stories and then They Boy Who Lost His Face. He’s great.

hollis woods

9. Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff (2003 Honor Book)

Made into a wonderful Hallmark Hall of Fame movie a few years later, this book is about a young orphan girl who has trouble fitting in to the foster homes she is placed in. The story is set in two different time periods that find a way to intersect by the end. How this book doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page – I’ll never know.

10. Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (2014 Medal Winner)

Kate DiCamillo won her second Newbery Medal for her novel about a young girl and her misadventures with a squirrel. However, the book is deeper and more poignant than what that one line summary could indicate. The book is accompanied with illustrations by KG Campbell. It’s a funny book with sweet emotional moments sprinkled throughout.

To learn more about the award and to search for other past winner and honorees, check out the official website. Thanks for reading.

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