Category Archives: Newbery Winners and Honors

Rules, by Cynthia Lord, 2006, Book Review

rules

This was part of my goal to read every Newbery book (this one took honors), and I finished it in one sitting. I started it the last evening of 2012 and enjoyed it enough to forego watching the ball drop. I turned the last page in the earliest hours of 2013. I knew this book had won wide acclaim, but had no idea what it was about. Turns out it shares a similar theme with Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine.

Catherine is a normal twelve-year-old girl who would like a normal life, but having a younger brother with autism means nothing is normal. David blurts out odd phrases at inopportune times. He opens cupboard doors at other people’s houses and hunts for their cellars to make sure the door is closed. He embarrasses Catherine and makes a simple thing like inviting the new neighbor girl over not so simple at all. He must be taught the social graces that the rest of us so naturally assume. So Catherine takes it upon herself to help him by creating a list of rules.

Chew with your mouth closed.

Say “thank you” when someone gives you a present (even if you don’t like it).

If the bathroom door is closed, knock (especially if Catherine has a friend over)!

No toys in the fish tank.

A character like David can easily alienate a reader with no basis to relate, but David actually became my favorite. He evokes a great deal of sympathy with a few cute quirks. For instance, every time he puts a toy in the fish tank, he burst into Catherine’s room and tells her, “No toys in the fish tank!” (See, he hates to be wet, and he needs her to take it out.) And every time Catherine’s guinea pigs squeal, he covers his ears and yells, “Quiet pigs!” And my favorite, my absolute favorite quirk is that whenever he can’t find the words he needs, he quotes Frog and Toad, a classic easy reader written by Arnold Lobel.

“‘“What are you laughing at, Frog?”’” David asks, worried lines cutting his forehead.

I touch the tiny frog stamp on his hand and show him mine. “‘“I’m laughing at you, Toad,” said Frog, “because you do look funny in your bathing suit.”’”

David smiles. “‘“Of course I do,” said Toad. Then he picked up his clothes and went home.”’

I feel like I got to know David, and I loved him. But the story focuses on Catherine and her changing emotion from anger and embarrassment to acceptance. And she does this with the help of Jason, a wheelchair-bound boy she befriends who can’t talk. The person under the handicap, she realizes, is a person worthy of love and respect. Rules is a moving, well-written story any way you look at it, one I’d highly recommend.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg, 1967

mixed-up-files

Can you believe I’ve never read this book before? This Newbery winner is a heavy hitter, well-known and well-loved by the generation that grew up with it. Except me. But now I see why it has such a reputation.

Claudia Kincade is a sixth grader who is so unhappy with the routine of her life that she decides to shake things up. She recruits her third grade—and rich—brother and runs away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. (My only critique is that brother Jamie seems much older than nine.) At first it’s all about the adventure: stashing their bags in a sarcophagus, hiding in the public bathroom after visiting hours, sleeping in a display bed from the 1600’s, rationing their money, and bathing in the fountain. But Claudia doesn’t really like to be uncomfortable, and she misses the clean smell of freshly washed laundry. The constant hunger gets tiresome as well.

Then the children discover Angel, a small marble statue that may or may not have been sculpted by Renaissance great Michaelangelo. It’s under investigation by the museum experts. Claudia becomes fascinated with the statue. She has to find out the truth about it. As she searches, she also learns that her running away, her seeking, wasn’t really about the adventure at all. It was about finding out what makes her Claudia.

From the Mixed-up Files is beautifully written, thought provoking, and fun. I loved the adventure. I would have been all about hiding out in a museum for a week when I was a kid. (It’s still a little tempting now.) But as an adult, I really got on board with the conflict raging within Claudia. In a large family, she wants to feel special. She wants to know she’s an important individual. She does find out what makes her unique, but her search becomes as important as the answers. I just wouldn’t recommend her methods. Ages 9+

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, 1997, Book Review

I’ve been slowly picking away at the list of Newbery winners. The medal is a sign of skill and quality, the best book of the year, and usually I enjoy them. But not always.

I didn’t care for Out of the Dust simply because it doesn’t follow a traditional story format; it’s a collection of free verse poems. I didn’t realize this when I purchased it for my Kindle when I was loading it up for my hospital stay. When I dove in, I was a little disappointed. It makes the text quite short, yet Ms. Hesse is able to create the character of fourteen-year-old Billie Jo and successfully illustrate the trials and joys of the Dustbowl years in 1934 and 1935 Oklahoma. There is a depth and beauty to the story that eventually sucked me in, and I’m always a sucker for history.

Since I accidentally threw away all my reading notes, I was jogging through some review sites to help me remember the plot. I came across this wonderfully written review on Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site. Just this once, I’m going to use someone else’s synopsis in place of my own:

It’s 1934 and life is already tough and it’s about to get worse. Billie Jo, her mother and father are struggling on through hard financial times on the farm. Her father doesn’t say much but we know he loves his family and that he is a man who feels a strong connection to the soil. Her mother comes from a more refined background. Billie Jo says she’s “made herself over to fit my father”. Her mother plays the piano beautifully and, when she plays those elegant pieces, Billie Jo’s father stands in the doorway and watches her with something in his eyes Billie Jo seldom sees. Billie Jo plays, too. Her music makes her mother wince but she’s making a name for herself with the kids at school intrigued by her wild and exuberant music. Billie Jo fully intends to ride that music out of the dust.

Billie Jo’s mother is pregnant and they’re all looking forward to the baby’s arrival. Before the baby arrives, however, the dust does. The fierce dust storms and their aftermath drive many of their neighbors off. They’re heading to California where things are bound to be better. Billie Jo’s father will hear none of that. He has lived through hard times before and he says they’re staying.

The climax is the tragedy. Her father leaves a pail of kerosene by the stove (we never learn why) and her mother, thinking it to be water, spills it on the stove when making tea. The flames send her mother out the door screaming for her father and Billie Jo grabs the pail and throws the remaining kerosene out the front door just as her mother is rushing back inside. Immediately the flames engulf her mother fatally wounding her and the baby. They also burn and scar Billie Jo’s hands so that playing the piano becomes impossible.

Billie Jo’s already remote father becomes unreachable after the death of his wife and baby. Billy Jo fears that they’re both turning into the dust that has covered everything. After trying to carry on without support, she runs away only to discover that her future lies back home.

I’d recommend Out Of The Dust readers 10 and up.

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park, 2001, Book Review

I had the vague feeling that I read this book before. I remembered bits and pieces, and some settings I recalled quite strongly. The characters were sort of like those familiar faces you run into now and then and know you should place them but they elude you till you stop and ask. I guess the book didn’t make a powerful impression on me the first time, but it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. After all, it did win the Newbery in 2002.

Tree-ear is an orphan in twelfth-century Korea. A peasant, an outcast who digs through rubbish heaps to feed himself and his companion, the crippled old man, Crane-man. Together they live under a bridge in warm weather and in an abandoned cellar pit during the two or three months of cold. It’s rough living, though Tree-ear has an eye for beauty.

And beauty isn’t far away in his seaside village of Ch’ulp’o, known for its beautiful celadon pottery. The greatest master among them is crotchety old Min, on whom Tree-ear often spies. He’s captivated by the way the clay takes shape under the potter’s hands. But one day he comes too close and breaks one. So begins a year working under the grouchy master. Min’s wife is kind and generous, supplying Tree-ear with enough food to share with Crane-man and clothing him from her own dead son’s wardrobe. But Min bitterly declares that Tree-ear will never be his son and so shatters the boy’s hopes of learning the potter’s craft. For it is a skill always passed from father to son.

Still Tree-ear is pleased to be so near the master, whose fine work just may bring a much-coveted commission from the king. But Min is too old to carry his finest two vases to the city for inspection. Tree-ear volunteers, though the way is far and the path plagued by robbers. Will he reach the city? Will the vases be accepted? Will it change his relationship with Min?

Then the vases are smashed.

This is an interesting look at ancient Korean culture and a very lovely coming of age story. I sympathized with Tree-ear, and I enjoyed the beautiful settings and all the details of pottery making. The whole novel is as beautifully crafted as one of Min’s vases. However, the story didn’t resonate as strongly with me as other Newbery winners I’ve read. I guess that’s why I forgot it the first time. Yet giving it a recommendation is a no-brainer. A Single Shard is a good one and squeaky clean. Probably a fifth grade reading level but appropriate for younger readers who show an interest.

 

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, 1993, Book Review

Imagine a world that is efficient, safe and painless. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No one is rude, crime is not a problem, no one ever goes hungry. Every member of the community contributes in a helpful, organized manner, and life glides along as easily as sled runners on a snowy hill. Except there are no hills. They’re too impractical for shipping. And there is no snow. Climate control has eliminated such food production problems. Sameness—in human and object—is the rule, because sameness most benefits the community.

Still sound good? This is the world Jonas lives in. It’s all he’s known since his days as a Newchild, when he was given to his parents to begin their family unit. A few years later, when he was a Four, his little sister completed their family—one girl and one boy, as stated in the rules. Each year marked some new development in his training, but now, as an almost-Twelve, after years of being observed and monitored by the Elders, he’s anxious to receive his occupational Assignment that will determine the rest of his life.

The Assignment changes everything.

As the new Receiver of Memories, it will be Jonas’s burden to hold the memories of the entire world so others in the community need not suffer them. Because the memories of ages past hold pain. The pain of grief and loss, of hunger and war. Overwhelming memories long forgotten. But along with the pain comes images of color, music, and love, and Jonas begins to realize what his people have given up for the sake of comfort.

This is a powerful, powerful book. Not one that leaves a reader with warm fuzzies, but truly unique and profound. Does pleasure balance pain? Can there be one without the other? How much freedom should be given up to ensure safety? Should the institution of family be restructured? Should birth limits be enforced? Should we be sheltered from death? Should death be taken on as a responsibility to ensure the greater good? Just how far should a society go when working toward that goal?

This Newbery winner explores these questions in a very emotional way. Content is appropriately handled, but it can be blunt and shocking. Points are illustrated with some disturbing images including war, poaching, and of the murder of a baby. Like the other books in the trilogy, this one is written at about a fourth grade reading level, but I would recommend middle school as the minimal age to consider such deep social themes. This one, in fact, is the most disturbing of the three, but it is invaluable as a tool for promoting the discussion of a whole host of issues kids will face as they mature into adulthood.

I highly, highly recommend The Giver for readers 12+.

My reviews of the series:

Book two: Gathering Blue
Book three: Messenger
And there’s now a Book four: Son

The High King, by Lloyd Alexander, 1968, Book Review

I’ve so enjoyed this series. If you’ve never read it, check out my other reviews (scroll to bottom) then get thee to a library and check out book one. These are among the cream of the crop in children’s literature, and all five books are chock full of fantastic adventure and fabulous writing. They relate the story of Taran, a lowly Assistant Pig-Keeper with a valiant heart. He is only a rash eleven-year-old child at book one’s outset, wanting desperately to find glory on the battlefield—and he does, more often than he’d like—but his repeated quests serve to fill him with a good deal of wisdom. The takeaway value of these books is so rich. Book two, The Black Cauldron, received Newbery honors but this last book, The High King, took the crown (sorry, bad pun), and it well deserves its Newbery medal.

In my book four review, I made several easy predictions, including my guess that Taran would get the throne of Prydain. With a title like The High King, I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say I was right. My dog could have seen it coming. Taran does fight the evil Lord Arawn and comes out successful, but it’s the getting there that is so fantastic. It’s the journey, the growing, the struggling along the way that make this such a fit ending to the series. Yet Taran finds out that kingship is “like jumping headfirst into a thorn bush” and a crown “more discomfort than adornment.”

I also guessed that Princess Eilonwy would return to the storyline, and I’m so glad she did. I just adore her character. She’s brave, yet Mr. Alexander doesn’t have her fighting unrealistically on the front lines. She’s sharp and outspoken, but she balances Taran so well. And she’s completely miffed over everyone’s expectation that she wash her hair and act like a lady. The banter between Taran and Eilonwy is still funny and light, but there is now a depth to it, a maturity, an adult awakening, a realization of what losing the other would mean. Taran and Eilonwy have grown up.

All the characters I’ve come to love have returned for this final installment, each comically consistent with their snapping harp strings, buzzing ears, and unique styles of speech, but not all of them make it to the end. War is costly and painful, but some things are worth dying for. Taran and company once again prove themselves valiant, honorable, and brave.

As in my four previous reviews, I have a whole list of fabulous quotes I want to share. Quotes that illustrate the rich quality of the series:

“Surprising how easy it is. The planning, at any rate. The doing, for some reason, always seems a little harder.”

“A man’s life weighs more than glory, and a price paid in blood is a heavy reckoning.”

“Every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone.”

“The deeds of man, not the words of a prophecy, are what shape his destiny.”

And when Taran is asked sharply asked in the heat of battle “Are you a warlord or a pig-keeper?” he replies gently, “Must you ask, friend? I am a pig-keeper.”

But my favorite quote is from Princess Eilonwy: “It’s been long since I’ve slept on comfortable roots and rocks. What a pleasant change from goose feathers!”

So much good stuff! I want to conclude, however, with a quote from Mr. Alexander:

“(Book five’s) structure is somewhat different, its range wider. If there is more external conflict, I have tried to add more inner content; if the form follows that of the traditional hero tale, the individuals, I hope, are genuinely human. And although it deals with a battle on an epic scale, where Taran, Princess Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflam, even the oracular pig Hen Wen, are pressed to the limits of their strength, it is a battle whose aftermath is deeper in consequences than the struggle itself.”

The High King is indeed a grand finale. Mr. Alexander, you’ve been successful on every level.

Here are my reviews of the other books in the series:

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, 2009, Book Review

Miranda and Sal are best friends, until the day they are not. Until the day Sal takes a punch to the stomach. Until the first day of the story she must write in a letter…to someone. Suddenly, Sal no longer wants to walk to school with Miranda, and the first of four strange notes appear. Someone is writing to her. Someone with a keen knowledge of her life. Someone who knows things before they happen. Someone who wants her to record all of it.

Wow. Let me say that again. Wow. Every detail, every character, every event in this book is crucial to the outcome of the story. We’re given a homeless man, a bully who isn’t really a bully, and a few classmates that Miranda befriends when Sal is off doing his own thing, all separate threads. But just underneath the surface they are pulling tight, borrowing shades and colors from A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, and weaving into something beautifully new. (You need not read Wrinkle beforehand, but I’d recommend it–on its own strength as well as for background.)

Content is pretty harmless. Miranda’s mom does swipe a lot of inconsequential items from work, but she also refuse to give her boyfriend a key to her place. The value of friendship is a major theme, even to the point of sacrifice. Unfortunately, the book contains two mild profanities and a few OMGs. We’re also given a page of evolution as a broad history for mankind. Therefore it doesn’t earn a Squeaky Award. But the story is engaging, intricate and beautifully done. Miranda is a character I could cheer for. She’s in a tough place. She’s poor, from a single-parent home, and friendless. But she’s honorable, and she comes out better than when she went in.

Sweet adventure factor: I would call When You Reach Me more of a journey to maturity than a true adventure, though there is a strong element of science fiction in it. I was able to foresee the ending, the tying of threads, about halfway through the book, but the getting there is fresh and suspenseful and clever. It’s not sticky sweet. It’s not really even feel-good at the end. But the whole book is right. In fact, it’s just the kind of book I like best. It didn’t win the 2010 Newbery for nothing.

I must warn you, I had a strong hankering for a sub sandwich—preferably one from Jimmy’s–or a piece of pizza as I read this one. Grab one with a soda then sink in for a few very good hours in 1978-9 New York City.

Roughly a fifth grade reading level.

Dead End in Norvelt, Jack Gantos, 2011, Book Review

Dead End is a worthy title for this book. It deals with death on several levels, but it’s done in a comic, light-hearted way. Jack Gantos, age 12, lives in a town started for the poor by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression. It’s a socialist type of community (communist, as Jack’s dad, who desperately wants to leave, calls it) where everyone looks out for each other and trade is based on a barter system. But it’s a dying way of life and a dying town. Not only have folks started demanding cash for services, but the original residents are actually dying off. Quickly. Suspiciously. And old Miss Volker, the town’s official nurse, medical examiner, and obituary writer—and Jack’s neighbor—comes under suspicion. And as Jack has been grounded for the summer with the additional sentence of being arthritic Miss Volker’s new assistant, he’s right in on the action.

I grabbed up this book eagerly when I learned it won this year’s Newbery medal, but I wasn’t crazy about it. It’s being heralded as a great “boy read.” What that actually translates to is “irreverent and a little disgusting.” For example, we get a thorough explanation of the rotten meat in the fridge, a graphic play-by-play of Miss Volker boiling the flesh off her arms (she’s actually treating her arthritis with hot paraffin), and some descriptive visits to the embalming room at the local funeral parlor run by Jack’s friend’s father. Mr. Gantos (the author, not the character) also has a good deal of fun with Jack’s nose bleed problem, which is constantly saturating the landscape in scarlet. It doesn’t contain anything to be alarmed over; I simply wasn’t taken with Mr. Gantos’s style.  On the bright side, the book does contain a fair bit of humor that even I chuckled at. I also enjoyed the history lessons that are woven throughout. And the story actually has a good deal of depth to it. The characters are endlessly original and quirky as well.

The content, aside from being blunt and a little gross at times, is fairly clean. I don’t recall any swearing. If so, it was infrequent and mild. Jack does, however, make up his own brand of profanity, “Cheese-us crust,” which I, like Jack’s mother, still found offensive. A few broad social statements are made through the viewpoint of Miss Volker, like war can only be won by the most brutal, and all religions are essentially the same. But the primary message is that history, if it is not learned, is bound to repeat itself.

Not a bad book, yet not as good as I hoped from a Newbery winner. 10+

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, 1989

Annemarie lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is 1943. Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is Jewish.

This is a beautifully told story appropriate for fourth graders. It is sweet in it’s own way, and pulse-poundingly adventurous, though not in a way I’d ever want to experience for myself. It is a deadly serious look at how Nazi occupation changed the lives of so many people. Though I’ve read this book a half dozen times now, every time I like it more. It won the Newbery in 1990. It would have won the Squeaky Award as well but for two OMGs and one mild profanity.

“How brave are you, little Annemarie?” he (Uncle Henrik) asks suddenly.

She was startled and dismayed. It was a question she did not want to be asked. When she asked it of herself, she did not like her own answer.

“Not very,” she confessed.

“I think that is not true,” Uncle Henrik said. “I think you are like your mama, and like your papa, and like me. Frightened, but determined, and if the time to be brave came, I am quite certain that you would be very, very brave.”

That time does come. Annemarie never thought it would. Copenhagen, though German soldiers stand on every corner and pink-frosted cupcakes are a thing of the past, still seems like a safe place. Even after occupation, King Christian continued to ride his horse, Jubilee, through the streets and the Danes remain fiercely loyal to him. They would give their lives to protect him. “All of Denmark is his bodyguard.” But one day soldiers do come come after Jewish families like Ellen’s, and Annemarie is called on to be very, very brave.

“Now she–and all the Danes–were to be a bodyguard for Ellen, and Ellen’s parents, and all of Denmark’s Jews.”

Number the Stars is a remarkable book that should certainly be read with a pink-frosted cupcake in honor of all those who found the courage to stand against the Nazi regime.

******

I read Number the Stars with my boys as part of a social studies curriculum in conjunction with two other books of note that I would like to mention. The first is an adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank which is appropriate for a young audience. It’s called Anne Frank, written by Susanna Davidson, and put out by Scholastic. Though only 65 pages in length, it is extremely well done and filled with real pictures, timelines and facts. There also happens to be an excellent BBC dramatization of the original title that streams on Netflix. It’s done in a series of five half hour segments.

The second book is called The Secret Room and is available through Amazon, but it’s also free online. It’s a condensed version of The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. Religious in nature, it’s the powerful story of a Dutch family who hides Jews in their home and is discovered the the secret police. It tells of the time Corrie and her sister spend in a concentration camp, but it is written at a child’s emotional level. There is a movie called The Hiding Place, which we watched as well. It was made in the late 70′s, I believe, and is a bit slow in places, but it’s another visual tool to help kids learn about this period in history.

All three books and both movies are appropriate for age 9+. In fact, my seven-year-old listened in.

The Black Cauldron (Chronicles of Prydain, book two), by Lloyd Alexander, 1965, Book Review

The wonderful group of companions that overcame danger and evil in book one of the Chronicles of Prydain return for a second bold adventure in The Black Cauldron. This time, Taran is called away by Prince Gwydion on a quest to seize the cauldron that belongs to the evil Lord Arawn. Within this vessel the Dark Lord creates his cauldron-born, those “mute and deathless warriors who serve the Lord of Annuvin. These are the bodies of the slain, steeped in Arawn’s cauldron to give them life again.” To diminish the evil that threatens all of Prydain, the cauldron MUST be destroyed.

Taran, ever ready to prove his budding manhood, leaps at the opportunity. So, too, does the ever-faithful Gurgi with his poor tender head and Princess Eilonwy whose mouth never does stop running, even though the two have been commanded to stay behind. They join Fflewddur Flam, who is still having a great deal of trouble with snapping harp strings, and the dwarf, Doli, who has at last mastered the art of becoming invisible, though it does make his ears buzz something terrible. (“Hornets! Wasps! A whole swarm of bees!”) Yet our companions soon learn the Black Cauldron can only be destroyed at the highest cost, that of a life willingly given.

And so, Taran Pig-Keeper’s second adventure proves as dangerous, fun and rewarding as the last. Maybe it’s even meant to be, “for there is a destiny laid on everything; on big, ugly Crochans as well as poor ugly ducklings, and a destiny laid even on us.” And through it Taran learns some valuable lessons about friendship, honor, betrayal and forgiveness. “It is easy to judge evil unmixed,” Gwydion tells him, “but alas, in most of us good and bad are closely woven as the threads on a loom; greater wisdom than mine is needed for the judging.” Wisdom, perhaps, that we all need to keep in mind when we’re wronged.

The Chronicles of Prydain is turning out to be absolutely remarkable and worthy of its legendary status. (And they’re all newly on Kindle!) This volume won Newbery Honors in 1966. This series is highly, highly recommended–my very highest recommendation–for middle readers 8-13.

My reviews of the other books in this series: