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Susan O'Rourke | February 11, 2022

The Newbery Medal, Caldecott Medal, and Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Book Awards recently announced the winners for 2022. These books, recognized for their excellence in storytelling and the artistry of their illustrations, are monuments in the world of children’s and young adult literature.

As you bring these texts into the classroom, consider discussing the following questions with your students:

  • What struggles do the characters in each text overcome? What admirable traits do they exhibit?
  • What communities do the characters belong to? What do the characters learn from these communities? Do these communities support or hinder the characters’ personal growth and advancement (socially, politically, economically)?
  • How would you characterize the artistic style of the illustrator? Why are these styles particularly effective in communicating the themes of the books? What emotions does the illustrator evoke through color, shape, and composition?
  • Why is it important to read these books in 2022?
  • Why were these awards created? What is the power of assigning an award or a medal to a book (positive or negative impacts)? What makes books a “classic”? How has the definition of a “classic” changed over time?

These questions will help guide students in close reading, artistic analysis, and reflection on the ways the literary canon continues to expand.

The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera (Newbery Medal)

Tae Keller of The New York Times reports:

“The Last Cuentista,” by Donna Barba Higuera (whose debut novel, “Lupe Wong Won’t Dance,” was a Pura Belpré honoree), certainly veers into the dark end of middle grade fiction, with brainwashing, “purging” (murder, though always off-page) and, yes, the destruction of our entire planet. But it doesn’t dwell in the darkness, preferring to give its readers healthy doses of hope, wonder and page-turning action.

The premise is exciting. The world-building is simultaneously grounded and imaginative: A brief reference to “the great pandemic from back in the ’20s” anchors us in time; glimpses of water butterflies and alien chinchillas spark awe; descriptions of the Collective are specific enough to feel chillingly realistic. And like any dystopian novel worth its salt, this story has a lot to say about power, peace and the danger of a worldview — or dogma, a word the narrative helpfully introduces to young readers — that seeks to bury the past and decimate difference.

As engaging as the sci-fi elements are, though, the best thing about this book is what it has to say about storytelling. Petra isn’t just a 12-year-old girl unwillingly thrust into a space-cult dystopia; she’s also a storyteller. On Earth, Petra’s grandmother (lovingly called Lita, for abuelita) told her Mexican folk tales, and Petra aspired to one day herself weave cuentos (stories) as masterfully. But when she wakes to dire circumstances, Petra realizes she must find her cuentista voice sooner than expected.

Watercress written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin (Caldecott Medal)

From Macy Morales of the American Library Association:

While driving through rural Ohio, a Chinese American family stops to collect watercress spotted on the roadside. Embarrassed by its gathering, the daughter later comes to appreciate her culture after learning why the plant is important to her parents. Chin’s expressive watercolors complement the various layers of Wang’s poignant and universal story.

“Chin masterfully utilizes soft washes of watercolor, using both Chinese and Western techniques to express memory and culture with depth and emotion,” said Caldecott Medal Committee Chair Dr. Claudette S. McLinn.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Coretta Scott King Book Award: Author and Illustrator Winner)

From the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT) at the ALA

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre…provides a powerful look at the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our nation’s history. Using oil and erasure for his illustrations, the late, great Mr. Cooper brought to life one of America’s darkest and most devastating events in lifelike paintings that are full of emotion and detail.” said Jason Driver, 2022 CSK Jury Chair.

Me (Moth) written by Amber McBride (The Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent- Author)

From Caitlyn Paxson of NPR Book Reviews:

On the surface, Me (Moth) seems like a simple story. Two damaged teens fall for each other as they journey across America. But on every page, Amber McBride builds layer upon layer of meaning, entwining imagery of moths with Navajo creation stories with American history with Hoodoo magic, and it always feels organic and natural — the world as filtered through Moth herself. Sani and Moth understand each other on a deep cultural and artistic level, even as they struggle to communicate and trust one another. For a book that is so spare and careful with words, it is very, very full of meaning.

As Moth and Sani traverse the landscape of the South that was the site of so many atrocities committed against their ancestors, they stop to pay respect to the spirits of those who came before them, and to ponder their strength and resilience as well as the trauma that they’ve suffered. As they do so, their own strengths and traumas entwine with the ones that came before, and it made me think the idea that the suffering of our grandparents is embedded in our own DNA right alongside their genetic gifts. Moth and Sani both have many gifts, but also a lot of pain.

And then there’s the ending. I will only say this: It’s very rare that, upon finishing a book, I feel compelled to go back and start again at the beginning, but that’s what I did when I finished Me (Moth). I feel certain that it will offer something new upon each revisit in the future.

The Me I Choose To Be written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and illustrated by Regis and Kahran Bethencourt (Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent- Illustrator)

From Little Brown Books for Young Readers:

In this “exquisite” (Shelf Awareness) “affirming” (Kirkus), and “empowering visual essay” (Publishers Weekly) the bestselling author of I Love My Hair! joins forces with the dynamic photography duo behind Glory to create a stunning celebration of the many things you can be!

  • What will you choose to be?
  • A free spirit?
  • A weaver of words?
  • A star dancing across the night sky?
  • A limitless galaxy?

The possibilities are endless in this uplifting ode to the power of potential. With lyrical text by bestselling author Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and images by Regis and Kahran Bethencourt—the team behind CreativeSoul Photography—each page of The Me I Choose To Be is an immersive call for self-love that highlights the inherent beauty of all Black and brown children.