Monday, January 7, 2013

2013 Contenders: Penny and Her Song, by Kevin Henkes

Some of the best-known and best-loved American children's books are easy readers. However, if you added up all the Newbery mentions given to The Cat in the Hat, Are You My Mother?, Owl at Home, Bread and Jam for Frances, Sammy the Seal, and There Is a Bird on Your Head!, you wouldn't even have to use any fingers to tabulate the result. In fact, outside of the Honor taken by Frog and Toad Together in 1973, the list of easy readers on the Newbery rolls is essentially blank.

Sure, since 2006, we've had the Geisel award, which is devoted specifically to easy readers. And sure, it's hard to separate the text of many of the best easy readers from the illustrations. Still, given how insistent the Newbery criteria are about including books for the entire age range from birth to fourteen, it's interesting that almost every committee has elected not to give even the most distinguished easy readers a nod.

Back at the beginning of 2012, there were some rumblings that perhaps Penny and Her Song would be the book to break that streak. As the year went on, those noises got quieter, and at this point, almost nobody is predicting that the book will pick up any non-Geisel awards.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that it's so much harder to hit many of the Newbery criteria in the limited space available in an easy reader. Penny has great characters -- the excited but obedient title character, her kind parents, her baby siblings who serve as the book's source of understated humor. But are they as beautifully and incisively drawn as those in Liar & Spy, or Splendors and Glooms, or even Mr. and Mrs. Bunny? I don't think that's even a real question.

That this is a function of the format rather than the author is borne out by a look at Kevin Henkes' middle-grade novel from last year, Junonia. That one was one of our finalists at the Maryland Mock Newbery, and though it didn't end up winning anything (either there or in the Newberys proper), it did make the Notables list, and it certainly rated very highly in each of the Newbery criteria. Is that because it's an objectively better book than Penny and Her Song? I don't think it actually is -- it's just longer, and has more room to develop its characters, setting, and themes.

The more I think about it, the more I'm puzzled as to what an easy reader Newbery winner would even look like. Are You My Mother? and Green Eggs and Ham are classic books, ones read and beloved by generations of children, but to win the Newbery, either one would have had to beat The Island of the Blue Dolphins. The year that The Cat in the Hat was eligible, the winner was Rifles for Watie. That one was on my list of Newbery mistakes, but would I take The Cat in the Hat over Gone-Away Lake, another classic that was eligible in that year? That seems to me to be a tough position to take, especially since the Newbery criteria mean that one can't give any weight to Dr. Seuss's iconic illustrations. It might just be that, given the rules as they're currently constituted, there isn't an easy reader that could win.

So maybe it's a good thing we have the Geisel award now, a place to recognize the best easy readers and discuss their unique strengths. Though I don't imagine Penny and Her Song will make a Newbery appearance, I'll be looking for it (and possibly the sequel, Penny and Her Doll, which also came out this year), when the Geisel awards are announced.

Published in February 2012 by Greenwillow / HarperCollins


  1. I think by necessity characters in easy readers cannot be drawn as they are in longer novels, but this book does what it is meant to do brilliantly. I would love to see Penny and Her Doll with a Geisel award and Penny and Her Song with an honor.

    1. Do you think Her Doll is better than Her Song? It's an interesting question, given that both of them were published in the same eligibility year.

    2. I do, although I really think they are both great. I think that Penny and Her Doll is a little tighter with the way the story wraps around. I also think the humor is better, and I like the way Penny solves her own problem. (And while it may not matter to an award committee, I think that repeating some of the longer words, specifically "beautiful" and "wonderful", that were used in Penny and Her Song reinforces the words for early readers.) If Penny and Her Doll wouldn't have been published in the same year, I'd be cheering Penny and Her Song. I can hardly wait for Penny and Her Marble.

  2. I agree, Danyelle - Doll > Song. Though both are amazing. These are the two best easy readers I saw this year as well. I like the two Elephant & Piggie books from this year, but I think Henkes outdid Mo in 2012.