Spring has arrived, and while I’ve mostly filled my time wondering what happened to February and stocking up on Zyrtec, I’ve also carved out a few moments to read some lovely books–among them the 2017 Caldecott and Newbery medal winners and honorees. This year’s awards recognized beautiful children’s lit that shouldn’t be missed, and I would advise you, Dear Reader, to make way on your shelves for a certain Radiant Boy and Magical Girl.

Radiant Child: 2017 Caldecott Medal Winner

2017 Caldecott and Newbery Medal Winners: Radiant ChildI first encountered the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat in a striking picture book version of Maya Angelou’s poem, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. I wish I could say I first encountered his work on the side of a building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 70’s, and we then became friends and he introduced me to Warhol and Bowie, but we can’t have everything. It’s not a wonder his paintings took the art world by storm–the range of emotion conveyed in his outside-the-lines color-rich neo-expressionism is remarkable.

He’s a complex subject, but Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child gives a wonderful glimpse into his childhood, inspiration and life as an artist, as well as an echoing message that art doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. Steptoe’s Caldecott-winning collage illustrations–using wood and found materials from Basquiat’s NYC stomping grounds–are a vibrant and fitting homage to the artist and his work (without trying too hard to emulate it). This is a stellar picture book biography that should have a home in the classroom, and can be used to explore art, diversity and perseverance in the pursuit of one’s dreams.

Don’t miss the 2017 Caldecott Honor Books!

Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol: Leave Me Alone is an inventive, quirky spin on the folktale genre with wonderfully expressive illustrations and a fun-filled epic storyline. If you’ve ever wanted to be alone–like really really really wanted to–you’ll find something to connect with here. It’s perfect to read aloud with students, especially when you need some laughs.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel: Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat is fantastic. When I first read it, I just sat there and shook my head, reveling in its ingenious simplicity and execution. It’s a lovely and captivating exploration of how we see what we see. Read it with your students and talk about how our perspectives shape our thoughts and actions.

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford: Freedom in Congo Square is another honoree that is more powerful for its simplicity. Carole Boston Weatherford’s lyrical text takes readers through a week in the lives of slaves awaiting a Sunday of freedom. Her expressive, folk-art-ish illustrations progressively intensify in color and pattern, reflecting the heightening anticipation as the week goes on. Read this aloud with students and explore history, slavery and finding joy in the face of oppression. 

Du Iz Talk by Carson Ellis: I loooooved Du Iz Tak. It’s so playful and fantastically stylish–I felt fully invested in the little world Carson Ellis created, and it got me thinking about all the remarkable things that must go on in a square foot of earth, in the micro-cosmos underfoot. Talk with students about nature, passing seasons and insect life. Read it together in a small group, and then read it again and again because you and your students will see something new every time. I assure you you’ll be delighted.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon: 2017 Newbery Medal Winner

2017 Caldecott and Newbery Medal Winners: The Girl Who Drank the MoonWhen I finished Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, I full-on mourned. Until I started fresh again with Sorcerer’s Stone, which cheered me (a bit). Now I just keep the audiobooks on a loop and I’m pretty much okay. Suffice it to say, I am rather preoccupied with The Boy Who Lived, so it probably won’t surprise you to know that any time I pick up a novel of the genre, I wonder where it’s going to fall on the Fantasy Spectrum (or Fantaspectrum, if you will), an entirely subjective grading system of my own conception where HP is now and ever shall be the ultimate. I recognize the inherent unfairness of this system (and the fact that I, a fully grown adult woman, am penning this paragraph while sporting a Hogwarts nightgown may very well undermine your confidence in my opinion), but I want you to know where I’m coming from here.

Because in my brain the fantasy bar is set pretty high.

I tell you now–The Girl Who Drank the Moon did not let me down. It’s exciting, funny, magical, heartwarming and heartrending. Wonder and whimsy abound. It’s got it all–monsters, dragons, goodies and baddies and some real awesome ladies. Author Kelly Barnhill offers a vividly-imagined world with compelling characters, an effortlessly driving plot, and deft, lyrical writing. But don’t take my word for it–it won the Newbery, which should tell you something. (And I also recommend giving my colleague Michelle’s article a read. She knows her stuff, plus it includes a giveaway of signed copies of the book!) I will say this much though–this would be a wonderful classroom or bookroom addition.

Guided Reading groups will eat it up and there are excellent doorways for discussion of love, loss, good, evil, coming of age and finding oneself–all that heavy stuff you think about in middle school but is somehow so much more accessible and discussable when it’s happening to someone else and in a faraway fantastical realm. Fantasy fans are sure to enjoy, and for those new to or skeptical of the genre, it’s a great introduction. Fantaspectrum rating: Mega-magical.

Don’t miss the 2017 Newbery Honor Books!

Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan: I’ve never seen or read a book quite like Freedom Over Me–it’s so well done, and the text and artwork (both courtesy of Ashley Bryan) complement one another richly. Drawing from a historical document listing the property of an estate, Bryan tenderly delves into the identities and dreams of eleven enslaved individuals in dual-page spreads of poetry and etched illustrations. This would be a worthy in-class companion to Social Studies units, and a fine addition to a poetry collection.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk: Wolf Hollow is a gut-wrenching, gorgeous piece of historical fiction that’s been touted for its parallels to To Kill A Mockingbird. Lauren Wolk’s debut is an excellent read in its own right, though, and deserves a place in the classroom. Consider it as a guided reading pick and get students talking about prejudice and tolerance, bullies and unlikely heroes, and standing up for what’s right.

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz: Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale is a Chaucerian romp with present-day relevance, blending fantasy, historical fiction, and a welcome dash of interreligious harmony. Moral and theological issues are explored with a light touch, and ideals of diversity and understanding resonate throughout. This would lend itself well to independent reading or book clubs and is sure to get students thinking and talking (and laughing–at least at the flatulent dragon bit).

The Caldecott and Newbery awards have recognized some of the finest kid lit out there, and this year’s 2017 Caldecott and Newbery medal winners and honorees are no exception. As spring arrives in all its beguiling newness, let these outstanding books breathe some new life into your classroom library collection!