I read a lot in 2014.

Each year I compile a list of all the books I read. I usually prepare a fresh sheet of paper and label it with the current year at the top on January 1. Then as I read books, I number them and add to my list. I have done this since 1984 when I was in high school. January is a great month for you and the kids to make reading goals for the year.

Last year I was going through my library’s Newbery Medal winner brochure and marked off all those I had already read, either as a child or to my own children. Of the then 92 books, I had already read 33, so a light bulb appeared over my head as I found my 2014 reading goal. I set out to read the rest of the Newbery Medal winners I hadn’t previously read, from 1922 all the way through the 2014 winner when it was announced.

There is nothing magic about Newbery Medal books, and they aren’t chosen necessarily by people who share all my values, but they are generally considered to be outstanding books for children. For the most part this is true, but I found some that were exceptionally good, and others I won’t read again. I found some enjoyable stories I would have never read without the list, such as Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1930), which I read aloud to my two youngest children as we tracked Hitty’s voyages around the world. We also read A Single Shard (2002) and The Tale of Despereaux (2004) together after I read them myself.

Great Books for Kids

The Newbery Medal award is considered probably the most prestigious annual prize in children’s literature in the United States. Each year books are nominated, one is chosen as the winner or medalist, and one or more books are awarded Newbery Honor status, essentially “runners-up.” The Honor list contains some tremendous books as well, but it has hundreds of winners–too big a goal for one year. The awards are named after the English publisher and bookseller John Newbery who was a pioneer in the field of publishing books for juveniles.

So with my trusty Newbery winner library brochure in hand, I stuck to my task, always having the next book on hold at the library and toting one or more around with me to read while waiting anywhere. Having this goal was great discipline for me. I tried hard not to get sidetracked by other reading. I finished all the Newbery Medal winning books, 1922-2014, with a month to spare.

The best thing about this self-challenge was that it didn’t cost me anything. The public library or my personal library provided every single selection including the one winner that is no longer in print, Daniel Boone (1940) by James Daugherty. My library did an out-of-system interlibrary loan to get that one for me. Once a book wins a Newbery it generally stays in print for a long time, and most library systems have them. Sonlight curriculum uses a great number of them as well.

Your children can make any reading goals they like, such as reading the entire Little House on the Prairie series (many of these won Newbery Honor awards), or by reading everything they can find by their favorite author or subject, or even becoming experts on a particular topic that interests them.

As always, use your discretion as a parent when choosing books for your children. Check out reviews online or ask other moms. I bought an older copy of The Newbery/Prinz Companion that contains detailed info about every winner since 1922. This can help you pick appropriate topics or avoid books depending on what you find. Some books, such as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1977) (set in Mississippi in the 1930s) contains a great deal of racism and has some very difficult passages, but it’s an important book. It shows how a family can live with dignity and honesty in the face of injustice. My children got angry at several incidents in the book, and frankly, it was good that they were angry at injustice. Other books, like A Year Down Yonder (2001), have scenes and a few topics that might need some parental explanation or page skipping, but it’s a delightfully fun story (even my teenage sons enjoyed this one aloud last year). Some books have difficult moral dilemmas that could use mom or dad’s help sorting out (ShilohRoll of Thunder Hear My CryThe Witch of Blackbird Pond, which incidentally isn’t a witch story but about a poor Quaker woman treated as such.)

Benefits of reading are numerous for you and your children: vocabulary, history, geography, syntax, learning about different people’s thoughts and struggles, and much more. The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease contains a great deal of research on the benefits of reading aloud to your children.

I believe good book selections not only educate the mind but the soul as well. We feel compassion when we read about the boy’s hurts and anger against the Romans’ cruelty in The Bronze Bow. We cheer when Nathaniel Bowditch overcomes his lack of education through hard work and personal study in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. We ache for the little girl alone in the Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Next year I am greatly simplifying my reading goal and will tackle all the Caldecott winning books (prize for best illustrations in children’s picture books) to my youngest child.

My Absolute Favorite Top 10ish (not in order because that’s too hard for me to decide. Feel free to completely disagree.)

  • *Caddie Woodlawn (1936) Fun. Based on a true story.
  • *The Bronze Bow (1962) My favorite, set in Jesus’ time. Story of great redemption and restoration. Some very tough topics. I cried at the end, reading aloud to the kids.
  • *Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961) Haunting. I read this as a teen. Beautiful story. Based on some true events.
  • *Holes (1999) Fun, crazy tall tale. This is a book you have to read. The DVD (Disney) follows the story closely as the author wrote the screenplay. Generally I don’t recommend the movie, but this is an exception.
  • *A Year Down Yonder (2001) Crazy grandma stories. The prequel, A Long Way from Chicago, is also quite fun and won a Newbery Honor.
  • *Number the Stars (1990) Very accessible book about a difficult topic. About the Danish people warning and protecting their Jewish neighbors before the Nazis attempted round-up. Based on true events.
  • *Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1977) Poignant, important.
  • *Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1972) Sentimental favorite. I read this as a kid and have always loved it. Super smart lab rats escape, then help mama mouse.
  • Up a Road Slowly (1967) Some more mature subjects (death, alcoholic uncle, mental illness) for older kids, but a very thoughtful story. I read this in one sitting at a Lake Tahoe vacation this summer.
  • *Carry On Mr. Bowditch (1956) My sons LOVED this book when they were little boys. Early American history based on real person and events, overcoming lack of education to do great things. Great nautical info.
  • *The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959) Not a witch story. Set in 1600s New World and shows clash between Puritan and Quaker culture, etc.
  • *Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze (1932) Interesting view of a different time and place.
  • When You Reach Me (2010) I’m still trying to sort out the nuances in this story. Pays homage to one of my childhood favorites, A Wrinkle in Time, another Newbery Medal winner.
  • Moon Over Manifest (2012) Very well-crafted double story of a girl seeking answers in her father’s hometown. Not best for younger audiences.

Strong Stories about Other Cultures

  • *A Single Shard (medieval Korea) We did some study afterwards on Celadon pottery and watched pottery being made on YouTube.
  • *Number the Stars (Denmark, WWII) I didn’t know about the Danish people who saved their Jewish population until I read this book.
  • *I, Juan de Pareja (17th century Spain)
  • *The Bronze Bow (Israel, Jesus’ time)
  • The Wheel on the School (Holland) DeJong is a bit plodding for me, but a good cross-cultural read about how storks nest.
  • Secret of the Andes (South America)
  • *Call It Courage (Polynesia)
  • *Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze (China)

Strong Historical Fiction

  • *Johnny Tremain (Revolutionary War, Boston)
  • Amos Fortune, Free Man (slave who earns his freedom)
  • Gathering of Days (pre Civil War America)
  • The Slave Dancer (time of the slave trade, difficult content. I remember my fourth grade teacher reading this aloud to us.)
  • *The Bronze Bow (time of Jesus in Israel)
  • *Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (after the American Revolution – based on true story and events)
  • Invincible Louisa (somewhat fictionalized biography of Louisa May Alcott)
  • Rifles for Watie (Civil War)

Ones to Skip, in My Humble Opinion

  • The Story of Mankind (1922) Too long, out-of-date, mixing evolution with Bible.
  • Tales from Silver Lands (1925) I actually couldn’t stay awake reading this one.
  • Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon (1928) Interesting, but just didn’t do it for me.
  • Dobry (1935) Essentially plotless. I remember asking myself halfway through, “So what is the point of this book?”
  • *Ginger Pye (1952) The dog gets stolen. They get the dog back. The thief is the obvious person. Lots of rabbit trails.
  • Roller Skates (1937) Was this the one where the girl finds the lady murdered in her apartment?
  • The Graveyard Book (2009) Not my cup of tea. Three murders on the first page. Ghosts, haunting, curses.

Some Different Ones, Just to Mix Things Up

  • *Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (1989) My daughter and I enjoyed reciting these together.
  • A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (1982) poetry.
  • *Lincoln: A Photobiography (1988) The only biography to win a Newbery Medal.
  • Out of the Dust (1998) Depression and dust bowl, stream-of-consciousness style. Content is for more mature kids.
  • Gathering of Days (1980) Journal-style.
  • Invincible Louisa (1934) Essentially a biography of Louisa May Alcott.
  • Holes (1999) This book is about as tall a tale as you could enjoy. The DVD is true to the story. For older kids.
  • The View from Saturday (1997) A very well-crafted and interesting story.
  • *When You Reach Me (2010) A bit of mystery, science fiction, and an homage to A Wrinkle in Time (1963).
  • *Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1972) Mice, super-intelligent rats, a dilemma.
  • *The Tale of Despereaux (2004) A mouse saves the princess. My two youngest loved this story read aloud. Skip the DVD.

Strong stories with boys/men as central characters

  • *Holes
  • *Johnny Tremain
  • *Young Fu of the Upper Yantze
  • Amos Fortune, Free Man
  • *The Door in the Wall
  • The Giver (some sensitive content requiring parental discretion)
  • *Shiloh (spoiler: one of the few stories where the dog doesn’t die!)
  • Maniac Magee (not my favorite, but tackles some racial questions. My sons enjoyed it.)
  • *The Whipping Boy
  • *The Bronze Bow
  • *Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

Strong stories with girls/women as central characters

  • *A Year Down Yonder
  • *Number the Stars
  • *Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
  • A Gathering of Days
  • *Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • Up a Road Slowly
  • *Caddie Woodlawn
  • *Strawberry Girl
  • *Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (girl doll)
  • Invincible Louisa

Dog Stories

  • *Shiloh
  • Julie of the Wolves
  • Sounder

Horse Stories

  • Smoky the Cowhorse (the non-stop “cowboy talk” in this book nearly drove me crazy. I had to renew it at the library three times to get through it, but the central story is good and it’s a snippet of the American west.)
  • King of the Wind, All Marguerite Henry’s horse stories are a good read, but this one particularly so.

Complete Newbery Medal winner and Newbery Honor lists are available at most libraries and on a website dedicated to the winning books.

*Books I’ve read aloud to my children.

Copyright 2015, by Karen Koch. Originally appeared in CHEA’s January-February California Parent Educator digital magazine. .

Karen D. Koch is a homeschooling mother of four (including one high school graduate). She totes books wherever she goes, loves encouraging people to read good literature, and reads aloud in a Newbery books homeschool co-op class. Her 2015 reading goal is to read all of Ravi Zacharias’ books. She wishes she could get paid by the hour to read.