SpReAd the Love Children’s Book Challenge: “Death by Newbery”

Last year, when I was trying to convince my oldest to write up something for the children’s book challenge, I threw out a couple of titles…one of them being The Bridge to Terabithia, at which point he threw up his hands muttered something about it being a complete mind f#$k and then said clearly…”No way.  I’m not promoting ‘Death by Newbery‘”

OK…so I bit.

Me:  “Death by Newbery?  What is that?”

Him:  “The marked regularity that either a sibling, a virtuous best friend, a wise advisor or a beloved pet will meet an untimely death – for which the book wins a prestigious literary prize.”  (Yes, he actually talks like that.)

End of conversation – he refused to participate, I posted Everyone Poops on his behalf.


Fast forward one year, and here I am again, hovering around a familiar theme.  First, a bit of background excerpted from Wikipedia:

The John Newbery Medal is a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of theAmerican Library Association (ALA). The award is given to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”[1] Named for John Newbery, an 18th-century English publisher of juvenile books, the Newbery was proposed by Frederic G. Melcher in 1921, making it the first children’s book award in the world.[2]:1 The medal was designed by Rene Paul Chambellan and depicts an author giving his work (a book) to a boy and a girl to read.

(The British Carnegie Medal is similar and has a similar death toll evidently)

Dating back to 1922, the list of Newbery winners and honorees is a veritible Who’s Who in American juvenile literature, so I thought I’d scan through it and pick out some winners that I’d read and see how the “Death by Newbery” trope held up.

Spoiler alert…if you haven’t read these books…well, you know…

1953 – Charlotte’s Webb by E.B. White:   I was absolutely gutted when you know who died…and then was gutted again when I read this book to each of my children.  Wise advisor dies – reader gutted.  Check.

1970 – Sounder by William H. Armstrong.  Summed up beautifully by Wallace Wallace in No More Dead Dogs:

“The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.”


1978 – Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:  C’mon!  Is this really a kid’s book?!

I was somewhat surprised to find that another of my childhood favorites…the book that started this whole conversation last year, Where the Red Fern Grows by Winston Rawls is not on the Newbery winner list…it certainly fits the bill.   It’s a coming of age story about a boy and his two beloved Redbone Coonhounds that culminates in one dog dying protecting the boy from a mountain lion and the other pining away and laying down to die on the grave of her dead companion. The boy buries his dogs and returns later to find a sacred red fern growing on their graves.  Reflecting back on it as an adult he says,

“I’m sure the red fern has grown and has completely covered the two little mounds. I know it is still there, hiding its secret beneath those long, red leaves, but it wouldn’t be hidden from me for part of my life is buried there too. Yes, I know it is still there, for in my heart I believe the legend of the sacred red fern.”

                                                                           Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows

One book from read by 12 year old yours truly takes the cake though…The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell – Newbery Medal winner in 1961.

island-of-the-blue-dolphins Image

Based on a true story, this book tells the tale of a young Native American girl living on an island off the coast of northern California…she suffers crisis after crisis, loss after loss but remains resilient.  She endures the death of companions and is forced to live in complete isolation on an otherwise deserted island for over a decade.  Looking back on it now, I realize why the only thing I really remembered was the description of the special garment she made out of the shiny black feathers of the cormorants which were native to the island – it is JUST.  SO. GRIM.

So in sum…Where the Red Fern Grows, The Island of the Blue Dolphins and Steinbeck’s The Red Pony?  Sixth grade was a real literary horror show! (Is it any wonder I don’t find myself particularly bothered by Hannibal?)

All I can say now is:

Thank you Kate DiCamillo!

Read on Armitageworld

(a copy of each of these deadly Newbery Medal winners will be donated to an unsuspecting child 😉  )

5 comments on “SpReAd the Love Children’s Book Challenge: “Death by Newbery”

  1. jazzbaby1 says:

    My very favorite story about any author is about E. B. White recording CHARLOTTE’S WEB. He had to rerecord the scene about the wise adviser’s death because he kept choking up.

    • obscura says:

      That book is just pure gold IMO…”Some Pig,” the spectacularly snide rat Templeton, the sage wisdom from and unlikely source. Life, death and renewal via the barnyard 🙂

  2. Great insights here. As a child, I was enamored of Grimm’s Fairy Tales–quite a gruesome lot there, too. Ha!

  3. Servetus says:

    adding, stuff that I have read: Caddie Woodlawn (1936) — death of sibling, off stage; Johnny Tremain (1944) — iirc protagonist is an orphan, wounds himself with molten lead in second chapter; Carry on Mr Bowditch (1956) — protagonist orphaned in course of book, also loses his wife (historical figure); Old Yeller (1957 runner up) — protagonist forced to kill his dog; Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959); protagonists parents and grandfather die; she is almost forced into a marriage and then eends up being tried as a witch; Across Five Aprils (1965 honor book): protagonist’s father, brother, and Abraham Lincoln die; A Ring of Endless Light (1981 honor book): protagonist’s grandafther dies — this is btw a beautiful book about death if there is such a thing.

    I’ve always thought the children in these books to be unusually self-reliant.

  4. […] Book Challenge helps make this possible.  My donations this year are a childhood favorite and a slightly sinister selection of award winners which I dropped off this […]

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