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You Be the Judge

Mock Book Awards Makes Students Critics

Six fourth-graders jotted down notes as they debated the merits of “Echo,” a novel by Pam Munoz Ryan about three children mysteriously linked by a harmonica. Views were mixed.

“It was kind of weird how every story mentioned a harmonica,” said Aurora Thompson, who found it a bit confusing. “They all connected together.”

Caity Draper was more enthusiastic. “I liked how at the end of every story it kind of left you hanging, then at the end of the book it answered all the questions.”

So went the small-group discussions among 35 Northview fourth-graders, who gathered to decide which of a dozen nominated books was worthy of a Mock Newbery Award – their version of the Newbery Medal given annually to the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature.

The students’ award went to “The Honest Truth” by Dan Gemeinhart, about a seriously ill boy who runs away to climb a mountain. Its backers included Kaden Hinds, who called the chance to choose it “awesome.”

The actual Newbery Medal winner, “Last Stop on Market Street,” was announced three days after the Northview students, meeting the same day as the Newbery committee in Boston, picked theirs in a three-hour session at the Northview Administration Building.

Students from East, West and North Oakview Elementary Schools read many of the same books as their adult counterparts, consuming some 270 books among them since October.

The payoff was not just a ton of good reading and a pizza lunch with literary-themed treats. The students had Skype conversations with children’s authors Kelly Jones and Cassie Beasley, and with John Schumacher, a past committee member who helped choose the 2014 Newbery Medal winner.

Lydia DeWitt makes a point about the book “Echo” while Aurora Thompson takes notes
Lydia DeWitt makes a point about the book “Echo” while Aurora Thompson takes notes

Encouraging Critical Thinking

The competition was the brainchild of teacher librarians Kurt Stroh from East, Carrie Davies (North), and Katie Lawrence (West), who is on the election ballot as a potential judge of the 2018 Newbery Medal. The project offered book-loving students the chance to dig deeper and analyze more critically, Stroh said.

“It’s great to say ‘I love this book’ or ‘I think it should win,’” Stroh said. “But now the next step: Why? What do you see in this book that supports that?”

The librarians chose 12 books they thought had a good chance of winning the actual Newbery. Students had to read at least five to judge the winner, but most read eight to 12, Stroh said.

“It’s exciting to see them so excited about books,” Stroh said, as the students broke into a series of small groups to argue for their favored choices.

Indeed, students cheered when Schumacher named “Echo” and “The Year That Saved My Life” as two of his favorites among their books. And they listened attentively as Kelly Jones, author of their nominated book “Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer,” told of writing with humor about potentially sad subjects.

“I like to read funny books, but the books that are funny and are so good that I follow them all the way to the end of the story,” Jones said.

The Mock Newbery judges enthusiastically chatted about their best reads and staying up lateat night to finish them. Lydia Iverson admitted the discussions made her reconsider her initial choice, “Roller Girl.”

“It makes me want to read other books to see if I’d like those books better,” she added.

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These students read 270 books among them to prepare for the voting
These students read 270 books among them to prepare for the voting

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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