A Friendship Born of the Newbery (Part One) by Leanne Statland Ellis

With the glow of ALA award announcements still shining on our faces, it’s time for a story, dear readers, a story about books and basketball, about children and reading, and most importantly, a story of how one special Newbery book brought about an equally special friendship.


I structure the reading program in my fourth and fifth grade classroom into reading units that last for about eight weeks. One of the most popular units every year is our Newbery study. (The fantasy study, or the “dessert genre” as the kids like to call it, is always a big hit as well.) I begin by giving a dozen or so book talks on various Newbery titles. All medal and honor books are fair game. I also include titles on the current mock Newbery lists; I’m partial to the one put out by Anderson’s Bookshop. I time this study so the Newbery announcement takes place about midway through the unit. It increases excitement over the mock titles. There’s always a mad rush to read the winners once they’re announced, but my students and I aim to read the Newbery winner before it’s revealed with the help of the mock lists.


Students choose which books they want to read individually and set their own reading goals, which they adjust as the unit progresses. I’m reading right along with them, particularly the titles from the mock list. We fuel one another’s choices throughout the study with our ongoing conversations and recommendations.


When Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover was announced as the 2015 Newbery medal recipient, not one of us had read it. It had completely flown under our radar despite having been on Anderson’s mock list that year. We couldn’t believe we had ‘dropped the ball’ so thoroughly. Do I admit I had avoided this title because it was a book in verse about basketball? Yes, I do, but only because it provides an opportunity to highlight one of the many gifts of the Newbery: it puts a spotlight on books that we otherwise might not read. I checked out The Crossover from the library and ended up inhaling it in one glorious sitting. I brought it to class the next day and read a few excerpts aloud to the kids. They loved it, and I appreciated how it made me sound so much cooler than I actually was.


Suddenly, everyone wanted to read The Crossover. Unfortunately, it was hard to come by right after it won the Newbery. The library only had the one copy. When several of my students came to my classroom one day with their own copies, the general reaction was an indignant, Hey, how did you get those??? It turned out a student teacher in the building had been recently observed by her supervisor, Eti Berland, who had been on the 2015 Newbery committee that had selected The Crossover. Eti had brought the books. I postponed the lesson I’d planned for that day so my students could cluster themselves around these precious copies of The Crossover and read aloud to one another. When the period ended, the students who couldn’t take a copy with them moaned while the lucky few who possessed the books strutted out the door.


I approached the student teacher. I played it cool and said something along the lines of, “Your supervisor was on the 2015 Newbery committee? That’s unbelievable! Can you ask her if she wants to visit my classroom and also tell her I want to be her new best friend? Okay great, thanks!”


When Eti came to my classroom, we were ready. We’d brainstormed questions for her beforehand, and she wove the answers into her presentation. We still had dozens more, and I was so excited that I had to repeatedly remind myself not to dominate the conversation and allow the kids to ask their questions. She also sprinkled in stories and information that we wouldn’t have thought to ask. Did you know that the committee members don’t receive any financial compensation? They have to pay for their own plane tickets and hotels whenever they meet. That really spoke to the level of dedication these people offer to the process. She shared the Newbery committee mantra, “Trust the process” with us over and over again. The kids were just as fascinated by the things Eti couldn’t share with them because she was sworn to secrecy as they were with what she did say. It was truly an insider’s view into the mysterious process of how a book joins the esteemed ranks of the Newbery medal winners.


The Students with Eti

The Students with Eti


Eti continues to collaborate with our classroom. Most recently, she gave us an ARC of Kwame Alexander’s upcoming Booked. When I told the kids that it wasn’t easy to get your hands on a copy of this ARC, they all had to put their hands on it. Literally. And immediately. They lined up and touched it one by one. There was actual oohing and ahhing. My students and I treasure not only Eti’s visits, (and her gifts of books!) but also her friendship, a friendship born of a mutual love of literature and a special book about basketball.



Be sure to read the second half of this blog tomorrow, when Eti shares her experience being on the Newbery committee, offers her perspective on our collaboration, and reveals that she is a Hufflepuff.



Leanne Statland Ellis teaches third, fourth, and fifth grade in Lincolnwood School District #74. She is also the author of The Ugly One, a middle grade novel currently on the Illinois Reads 2015 list. While she has nothing but respect for Hufflepuffs, she is proud to be a Ravenclaw. You can email her at info@LeanneStatlandEllis.com and find her on Twitter @Leanne_S_Ellis.