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I was pretty surprised when Criss Cross was awarded the 2006 Newbery Medal; in the days before the winner was announced, I had heard that The Penderwicks was the front-runner. I was further surprised a few days later when I found a couple of copies on the shelf in our teen section. The computer had told me that we had no copies in the store, and moreover that if we did have any, they'd be in the kids section with the other Newbery and Caldecott winners. (The home office had recategorized it but didn't send us notification of the category change until several days later.) That it had ever been categorized as a teen books was a third surprise; the Newbery is, after all, an award for children's literature, but this is the second year running that the medal has gone to a book for older readers. I wasn't so surprised, though, that I didn't pluck a copy off the shelf and start reading it that evening.
On the second page, I came across this gem, which perfectly describes every teen magazine I've ever seen: "The article she was looking at was about how the most important thing was to be yourself. Although the pictures that went with it recommended being someone else." That's great. A few pages later, a description of a community college that could have been written about the community college I went to, and hated:
The sidewalk led to a courtyard set between several buildings, the chief distinguishing feature of which was that you couldn't tell them apart. They were concrete and modern… It didn't fit Hector's idea of what a college should be like. He realized that his ideas about colleges came mostly from movies. … The movie colleges tended to have ivy-covered brick walls and massive old oaks. They had big grassy lawns, and they seemed like places where a human might like to spend some time. He looked around at the concrete planters that held only dirt and stray wads of paper, bordered by concrete benches and installed at equal intervals across the concrete plaza. Maybe it looked better in the daytime, in sunlight. Or blanketed by snow. Or in total darkness.
Every few pages, I would run across a short passage that would make me nod my head in recognition or laugh, or both. It also employs an interesting narrative structure, using both standard third-person narration and a wide variety of other techniques, including transcripts of phone conversations, parallel text (in which a certain period of time is seen from two different points of view, printed alongside one another in columns), haikus, and illustrations to present her story. Such presentational tricks can be annoying, but Perkins uses them well. The parallel text works particularly well in illustrating her theme of how people can cross paths over and over without ever making a connection.
In short, this is the best Newbery winner I've read in years. No one with even the slightest interest in kid lit should pass it up. Parents, be aware that although there's nothing in Criss Cross that would be inappropriate for a younger reader, a lot of what makes it special would fly right the heads of younger readers. It would likely be best appreciated by upper elementary and middle schools.
See all the books I've read this year