2020 Newbery Buzz #3: The Undefeated and A Place to Land

Every January, we love to discuss the merits (or demerits) of books we’ve seen getting “Newbery buzz” in the broader children’s literature world. The actual Newbery committee closely guards its discussions, so no one really knows which books are true contenders. We haven’t done too badly in past years, though. The 2020 awards will be announced January 27; you find past winners (and honors) on the ALA website.

Today, Betsy and Hayley discuss two picture books: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson alongside A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Usually these conversations are carried out completely via email, but this year Hayley and Betsy used both Voxer to discuss by voice AND Marco Polo to do a little story time via video!

Betsy: Hayley, were you as shocked as I was a few years ago when Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery? We all loved that book, but I don’t think any of us thought it for the Newbery. But other picture books have earned some Newbery attention in the past as well. I believe A Visit to William Blake’s Inn won BOTH a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor. This year, there are a couple of picture books that may have enough oomph to get a mention.

Hayley: You know, Betsy, I wasn’t as shocked because Redeemed Reader hadn’t hooked me yet on the Newbery/ALA Awards.  I think last year was the first year I had definite opinions and watching the live buzz, I was hooked! 

Betsy: Let’s talk first about The Undefeated. This is a perfect example of me being a biased reviewer. I’ve tremendously enjoyed works from both of these creators before; to see them team up is sort of like a dream team collaboration. I’m predisposed to gush, sight unseen. I’m happy to report that, while I might not gush, I did find this book stunning. What did you think about it?

Hayley: I agree, it was stunning, yet you’re right that “gush” isn’t the right word, and I think it comes down to the sobering effect of some of the illustrations.  Beautifully illustrated, The Undefeated feels like a poem, or ode, to all who share an African American heritage.  I honestly don’t usually link music to books, but the effect of this one reminded me of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare to the Modern Man.

Betsy: Oh, interesting connection to Fanfare to the Modern Man. I may need to reread it with that in mind.

Hayley: You have to love the power of an amazing illustrator.  Kadir Nelson really brings Kwame Alexander’s words to life.  I have to admit getting a lump in my throat for the page illustrating the belly of a slave ship.

Betsy: Kadir Nelson really shines in his portraits. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else do portraits in children’s books with quite the same emotional depth and resonance. I really loved the delight pictured in that final double spread. But I also found the blank page quite moving—perhaps even more than the slave ship.

Hayley: Speaking of amazing illustrators, I know you love Jerry Pinkey.  What did you think of his use of collages in the MLK biography?

Betsy: Good question, Hayley. I AM a Jerry Pinkney fan through and through. At first, I really didn’t like the collages in this new book because it seemed to take away from his usual style. When I reread it aloud to you via video, I noticed a different effect: Martin shines through on each page. He gets the full benefit of Pinkney’s trademark art. The collage art seems to function as a reminder to the reader of the historical context—these were real events with real people and real newspaper headlines. They’re not a product of a picture book illustrator’s vision. So, I think I appreciate the collage more now, but I don’t find it as beautiful as Pinkney’s work in books like The Lion and the Mouse.

I have to say, I enjoyed listening to the picture book biography of Martin Luther King, but it felt more like history and less like art. 

Betsy: Perhaps that’s due partly to the fact that Kwame Alexander is a poet, and Barry Wittenstein is not. It makes sense that Wittenstein’s text will read more as prose and “informational” as opposed to Alexander’s poetic, “inspirational” text. But you’re right, it definitely feels a bit more like a history book. Have you read many other picture books about Martin Luther King, Jr.? Do you think this is a good introduction?

Hayley: I actually think this was my first picture book biography about Martin Luther King!  You’re right about the collages putting the book into history —they definitely helped to ground it in reality. I also love all the portraits Pinkey included of other famous people —and the endnotes giving more information.  You know, as we talk, I’m tempted to look at each from a Redeemed Reader, versus Newbery perspective. 

A Place to Land shows the power of creativity and leadership, and also helps readers understand the story behind the famous words that would go down in history.  Meanwhile, the poetry of Undefeated was a beautiful tribute to humanity.  As Christians we believe in the Imago Dei, every person made in the image of God.  I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ quote in The Weight of Glory regarding people and their eternal souls.  

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . . it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Both of these books seem to capture a glimpse of humanity being far more than ordinary.  The question is, can either capture a Newbery?
—I do wonder about The Undefeated.  It doesn’t fit nicely into a box —the way we can categorize MLK as a picture book biography.  It’s a manifesto.  A poem.  Maybe a Newbery?  I’d be happy to see it win the recognition. 

Betsy: I think both of these books have strong award potential, but I’m not sure it’s “Newbery award.” Perhaps they will grab the attention of the Caldecott committee, though, due to their outstanding visuals. Both of these books celebrate Black culture and history, and both are written and illustrated by brilliant, talented Black authors/illustrators. It’s likely that one, or both, will garner some Coretta Scot King love, even if they don’t earn Newbery or Caldecott attention. {And they should definitely find a place on our readers’ shelves for Black History Month next month!} The CSK award is given to both authors and illustrators, so it’s possible that one of these books will win in both categories. I think Kwame’s text is more musical and “distinguished” than Wittenstein’s. I’m on the fence about which artistic style I think more distinguished. We’ll have to wait and see what the Newbery committee thinks.

Don’t miss our other 2020 Newbery Buzz Discussions. Round #1 was about Beverly, Right Here and Coyote Sunrise. Round #2 covered two graphic novels: Guts and New Kid. Janie also has one round-up of titles that we’ve seen buzz about, but which we aren’t discussing in detail for our series.

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Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Northwest.


  1. Beckey on January 14, 2020 at 5:35 pm

    Kadir Nelson’s illustrations are stunning. I was first introduced to them in the picture book Moses. He communicates so much through his art. The Undefeated sounds like another good book. It’ll be interesting to see if your predictions are correct!

    • Janie on January 15, 2020 at 4:40 am

      Stay tuned!

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