Every year, the American Library Association (ALA) recognizes an outstanding work of children’s literature by awarding it with the Newbery Medal. The award takes its name from John Newbery, a bookseller from the 18th century who reportedly “invented” children’s literature. The idea behind the award? The ALA aims to recognize the value of children’s literature and reiterate the importance of encouraging kids to read.
In 1922, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon became the first children’s book to ever receive the Newbery Medal. Every year since, the list of Newbery Medal-winning books has grown, and features everything from Holes by Louis Sachar and Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech to The Giver by Lois Lowry and Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. So, if you’re looking to curate a great summer reading list for the children, grandchildren or students in your life, here are some of the most recent — and compelling — Newbery Medal winners, all of which are must-read books.
“When You Trap a Tiger” by Tae Keller
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller not only won the 2021 Newbery Medal, but it also won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature and was a New York Times bestseller. The book brings Korean folklore to life, and centers on Lily, a young girl who is on a mission to save her sick grandmother with the power of stories. Long ago, Lily’s grandmother stole something from a magical tiger that appears in folklore, so, as fate would have it, Lily’s mission is to give that stolen item back. In exchange, her grandmother’s health will be restored.
Of course, Lily not only needs to find her voice, but her courage — and that’s easier said than done when you’re dealing with a tiger. “If stories were written in the stars,” Booklist notes, “…this wondrous tale would be one of the brightest.”
“Flora and Ulysses” by Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses, which won the Newbery in 2014, is a superhero story that revolves around a self-proclaimed cynic named Flora and a squirrel named Ulysses. A tragic accident involving Ulysses and a vacuum cleaner leads Flora to swoop in and save him, but its Ulysses new, strange post-vacuum powers that help propel the story forward, leaving young readers to discern how the experience also changes Flora.
Accompanied by full-page comic-style images, Flora and Ulysses is hilarious, endearing, and magical, which make it a perfect addition to any child’s summer reading list.
“The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander
The award-winning children’s book author and poet Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Medal with his book The Crossover. It was also a New York Times bestseller, and earned a spot on the Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults that same year. Written in verse, the book all but begs to be read aloud. It tells the story of 12-year-old basketball star twins Jordan and Josh Bell as they face life as preteens.
This fast-paced tale has the twins dealing with all sorts of problems, including first loves, brotherhood, and, of course, basketball. Carrying the momentum of a basketball game, this novel in verse packs a real punch — and leaves it all on the court.
“Hello, Universe” by Erin Entrada Kelly
Hello, Universe was 2018’s Newbery Medal winner. Written by acclaimed children’s author Erin Entrada Kelly, the book is told by four characters — two boys and two girls who all live in the same neighborhood — who have all become friends, rather unexpectedly. As the story weaves back-and-forth between their perspectives, themes of owning your uniqueness and finding your inner-hero emerge.
Inventive and packed with eclectic characters, Hello, Universe will hook young readers and teach them the importance of everyday acts of courage.
“New Kid” by Jerry Craft
In 2020, New Kid by Jerry Craft won both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Book Award. Needless to say, it’s a must-read. Aimed at preteens, this middle-grade story centers on a new kid, Jordan, who ends up going to an elite private school. The problem? Jordan never wanted to attend the academy — he’d prefer art school.
New Kid casts a light on racism, elitism, and white privilege, all while grappling with Jordan’s middle schooler angst. With a relatable main character, Craft has penned an instant classic. Not to mention, Jordan’s drawings are used throughout, making this book all the more beautiful and engaging.
“Merci Suarez Changes Gears” by Meg Medina
Merci Suarez Changes Gears is Meg Medina’s coming-of-age tale about a scholarship student starting sixth grade at a private school. It won the 2019 Newbery Medal thanks to its wisdom, humor, and relatability. In the book, Merci and her brother, Roli, navigate the difficulties of classism at school and loneliness at home — and that’s all on top of the preteen challenges every middle schooler faces.
With such a strong and honest main character, readers will no doubt feel connected to Merci as she provides insight into the wild, ever-changing world of a sixth grader. Moreover, School Library Journal praises the portrayal of a nuanced, complex Latinx character, noting that “Medina cruises into readers’ hearts” — not unlike Merci.
“The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate
The One and Only Ivan is an illustrated novel by Katherine Applegate, which won the Newbery Medal in 2013 and became a New York Times bestseller. It was inspired by a story the author came across that involved a captive gorilla named Ivan. In the book, Ivan has spent 27 years in a shopping mall’s glass enclosure; his life in the jungle barely crosses his mind anymore. Instead, Ivan passes time by watching TV, chatting with pals, and painting. But when Ruby, a baby elephant, enters the picture, Ivan begins to realize the terrible truth about their “home.”
In delving into this one, readers will “discover an animal hero that will take his place with other courageous and beloved animals such as Babe, Mrs. Frisby, Charlotte and Wilbur,” Shelf Awareness notes on the book’s jacket. “[And] adults reading this aloud with children will find it just as rewarding.”
“The Girl Who Drank the Moon” by Kelly Barnhill
Kelly Barnhill’s 2017 Newbery Medal winning book The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a fantasy tale that follows a young girl, Luna, who was raised by a wonderfully mystical trio — a witch, a swamp monster, and the Perfectly Tiny Dragon. The story is sweet, but, at the same time, thrilling — full of both magic and complex, nuanced feelings.
Throughout the book, Luna must come to terms with her own newly discovered magical powers, all while trying to solve the mystery of a nearby village, which has been overcome with a profound sadness. The Girl Who Drank the Moon blends magic with insightful life lessons in a masterful way. The New York Times Book Review calls it “impossible to put down,” comparing it to “exciting and layered” classics like Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. Now that’s high praise!