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When the copyright on books or other media expires, it goes into what is called the “public domain”. That means that the book can be reproduced freely without getting permission or having to pay the author royalties.
The most prestigious award for American children’s literature, the Newbery Award, has been around since 1922, so some of the first books to get this award are in the public domain. Over the next few weeks, we are excited to guide you through what you can find and where. Most guides simply go chronologically, but we don’t find that arrangement very interesting or helpful, so instead, we have organized them by topic.
And just to add to the fun, we’ve added in some famous options to go along with them. While these books aren’t free, they are usually easy to find either used or through libraries, especially in the United States.
Part of the reason these books receive the award is because of their creative approach to storytelling. For that reason, some of them really defy easy categorization, but that’s what also makes them good. So it seems in the end, the most systematic way to do it is to sort the books by the rough geographical location in which they are set.
If you don’t have children in your life, don’t let that put you off these books. Good children’s literature is often good literature, and if you enjoy great stories, you will enjoy these.
Note: Sometimes the edition shown here from Amazon is not free. Be sure to search by author to find the free edition, which may have less elaborate formatting or illustrations that the paid version. If we have a link to an open-source version that does not require an account, we share that.
Never ask minors (including teens) to open any online accounts. There’s no way to tell what kind of data the site might pull from the user even if no identifying information is required.
If there is no open source version, it is perfectly legal to create a PDF yourself and share it electronically or print out hard copies.
Because there are no author royalties to pay, Print copies of public domain books are usually inexpensive and can sometimes be purchased for less than the cost of printing yourself. Look for Dover Thrift editions in particular.
After identifying as many FREE Newbery Award books as I could (some are easier to find than others), I divided them up into rough topical groups to make them easy to navigate by interest. I’m not choosing books on any one topic; I’m classifying what’s available.
Before you read this books with children, I recommend pre reading them to ensure they have stood the test of time well enough to remain appropriate. Although children’s books have always been carefully scrutinized before publication, especially in the past, when most children’s books were purchased by schools and libraries, you may feel that some elements are no longer appropriate.
Usually the biggest issue in these books, if there is one, is depiction of races and ethnic groups, but there can be other issues as well.
The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs
Newbery Honor Book, 1922
The Windy Hill combines history and suspense. When a pair of siblings come to stay with their family, they are confused by the behavior of their cousin. As they are told of series of stories by a local beekeeper, they learn about their family and the region along with solving the mystery.
Full text of The Windy Hill at Project Gutenberg
Public Domain Audio Version of The Windy Hill at Librivox
Several other titles by Cornelia Meigs are available on Project Gutenberg (click on her name), but unfortunately, none of the other books she won Newbery Awards for are included.
These titles are as follows:
Invincible Louisa, Newbery Medal, 1934
Swift Rivers, Newbery Honor Book, 1933
Clearing Weather, Newbery Honor Book, 1928
The Blue Cat of Castle Town by Catherine Cate Coblentz
Newbery Honor Book, 1950
Like many Newbery recognized books, author Coblentz brings several elements together to make an especially engaging story. To write this novel, she brings together stories of a blue cat and real events in the small Vermont town of Castle Town (based on Castleton) to make a story that vividly combines fantasy and history.
Online version of The Blue Cat of Castle Town at UPenn digital library
Public Domain audio recording of The Blue Cat of Castle Town
One of the real elements that Coblentz brings into the story is a hand made rug she saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was made by a girl from Castleton.
Spot the blue cat in the photo below.
The Great Quest by Charles Boardman Hawes
This story in nominally set in Massachusetts, but the focus of the action is an ocean voyage that turns out not to be a search for treasure, as promised, but a quest to kidnap people from Africa for the purpose of enslavement, which the characters attempt to stop.
You might want to read this one yourself before sharing with children.
The Great Quest on Google Books
Runner of the Mountain Tops: the Life of Louis Agassiz by Mabel L. Robinson
This biography begins in Europe but lands in the United States and heads to Massachusetts when Agassiz emigrates to the United States.
In his day, Agassiz was well know for his observational approach to natural science, but since then, his reputation has been tarnished by his belief in creationism and “polygenism”, which is the theory that different human ethnicities came from different genes.
After reading a few pages, in truth, the style of the book has not stood the test of time either.
It’s too bad because I do like to see nonfiction get recognition.
There is a full text online version available at UPenn’s “Celebration of Women Writers”: Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz
The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure by William Bowen
You have to do a little digging to find the reference, but The Old Tobacco Shop is set in a town on the Patapsco River, off the Chesapeake Bay. Although I live near the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, I’m embarrassed to admit that I had to use Google to find out that the city is Baltimore.
This tale is pretty fantastical in that a young boy goes on an imaginative voyage with his friends when he smokes the tobacco he was absolutely, positively told not to touch.
And still, the book was reviewed by librarians, who determined that no children would fall into bad habits from reading this.
Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story by Ann Carroll Moore
Newbery Honor Book, 1925
This novel is another that combines divergent elements to make a fascinating story that is a mix of fantasy and realism.
Eight inch tall Nicholas, from the Netherlands, visits Manhattan at Christmastime and encounters a mix of real and magically creatures, and the story is complete with references to the city and children’s literature of the time.
The only digital version of this book is from the Hathi Trust. It’s not the best format for reading with children, but the vivid descriptions would make for a great read aloud to the right age group, especially around the holidays, of course.
It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville
Newbery Award Medal, 1964
It’s Like This, Cat was published in 1964. Emily Neville died in 1997. The reason this information is important is because for some reason, It’s Like This, Cat is in the public domain. I haven’t been able to find out why; Neville’s other books are not. I’m convinced it’s legally available because of the number of sources that have it.
Sometimes authors do release their own books, so maybe that’s what happened.
Regardless, having this book freely available is a fantastic opportunity.
It’s Like This, Cat is an early version of the “adolescent problem novel”, and Emily Neville is known for writing in a realistic style, especially about urban teenagers. Dave, the protagonist, has to deal with a fraught home situation, but also in the course of the novel, he gets out and about in New York City, and several local sites are mentioned.
Full text versions at Project Gutenberg: It’s Like This, Cat
Full text audio version at Librivox: It’s Like This, Cat
Free and Famous
Books Set in New England (U.S. Northeast)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is sort of a New England (Maine) version of Anne of Green Gables. Personally, I like it more than Anne.
Understood Betsy is yet another story of an orphan, set in Vermont, but this time, the problem is too many loving relatives. While I enjoyed the story as a child, I enjoy it almost more as an adult because I understand Canfield’s point about what kind of love benefits and child and what kind hurts, even when it’s meant with the best of intentions.
Yes, Little Women is in the public domain, believe it or not.
Note that modern versions of the book usually combine the first two novels, Little Women and Good Wives. Make sure you know what you’re getting when you choose your download.
Louisa May Alcott wrote many more books than Little Women; click her name here for the link to more of her books that are FREE at Project Gutenberg.
Click here to see the vast array of titles available in FREE audio at Librivox
Not Free, But Easy to Find (used or in a library)
Books Set in New England
The Witch of Blackbird Pond won the Newbery Medal in 1959 and is set in Puritan Connecticut.
Invincible Louisa is another book by Cornelia Meigs. It is a biography of Louisa May Alcott so has the double advantage of being a well written biography about a children’s author. Louisa May Alcott was from Concord, Massachusetts, where Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne were their neighbors.
Hawthorne has some books that are appropriate for children as well.
Books set in New York City
If there was ever a book I think should have won a Newbery, it’s Harriet the Spy. It’s a wonderfully complicated story about figuring out how to find that balance between being yourself and keeping your friends.
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of those books I would never believe kids actually like if I hadn’t read it myself, but in what seems to be the tradition of Newbery Medal winners (1968), Mixed Up Files is a wonderful combination travel, art history, and mystery story.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is my absolute favorite Christmas book. It reminds me so much of my own childhood Christmases, with all the stress of the Christmas program at church, and honestly, the Herdmans really do make the whole thing more authentic.
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
People associate the Little House books with the West, forgetting that Farmer Boy is set in New York State. It follows a pivotal year in the life of Almanzo Wilder, the boy who grew up to become the husband of Laura Ingalls when they met in South Dakota.
Farmer Boy is a great book for kids who love animals, especially if they also question the value of school.
I personally learned how to bargain from this book.
Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
This novel follows a year in the life of a family as they attempt to farm in north Florida.
Strawberry Girl is the most famous of Lenski’s “Regionals”, but she wrote several more titles in this series, and they are currently available on Amazon Free Time/Kindle Unlimited.
Read more about Lois Lenski and her Regionals, including the exact location of all of them, here: Lois Lenski’s exquisite portraits of 20th century America’s hidden children