Tag Archives: Newbery Medal winner

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, 1959, Book Review

my side of the mountain“I left New York in May.  I had a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, and $40, which I had saved from selling magazine subscriptions.  I also had some flint and steel which I had bought at a Chinese store in the city.”  And with that, Sam Gribley left his city apartment filled with two parents and eight brothers and sisters and hitched a ride to the Catskill Mountains.  And he never looked back.

My Side of the Mountain was one of my favorite escapes when I was young.  It tickled something deep inside me.  I mean, what kid doesn’t want to run away and live off the land?  But Sam is the only one I knew who DID it.  I envied him his burned-out tree home, his storehouse of nature’s bounty, his neighbors the Baron weasel and Jessie Coon James, his falcon, and his wide open backyard.  I visited again and again and again.  Having just finished this book in my 30’s, I still felt the pull of the Catskills.  That hopeful runaway is still there inside me.

Published in 1959, My Side of the Mountain claimed Newbery honors the next year, and it’s just as good as it ever was.  It isn’t a book of fantasy, magic, action or suspense, which are so popular with kids today.  Rather it’s a survival story, but one with a kicked-back pace.  I mean, once Sam sets up housekeeping and figures out how to find food, he has all the time in the world.  No school, no appointments, no stress, only the problem of avoiding reporters.  For once word leaks out that a wild boy is living outside Delhi, the outside world takes an interest.  And once Sam makes a friend or two and burns out a guesthouse, it’s the beginning of the end.  “I seem to have an address now,” he comments.  It’s an end I’ve resisted every time I’ve read it.

My only complaint is that the ending still doesn’t settle well with me, even after years and years and a now grown-up perspective.  It’s too real-world, too adult, too against my inclinations.  Other than that, the book is flawless.  I so admire the way Ms. George can make a simple plot so compelling, so broadly appealing.  And I love how she gently weaves in truth and discovery.  This is children’s literature at it’s very, very best.  I highly, highly recommend it.

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary, Book Review

dear mr. henshawDear Mr. Henshaw is Beverly Cleary’s highest award-winner, capturing the Newbery and Christopher Awards in the early 80’s, yet it is one of my least favorites. Written as a series of letters and journal entries, with absolutely no narration, Mrs. Cleary somehow, miraculously, weaves together a plot, a central-California setting and a well-rounded character. This accomplishment is a testament to her craft; the story is emotional and compelling. I simply don’t care for the style.

In a departure from her usual optimistic, fun-and-quirky subjects, Mrs. Cleary introduces us to Leigh Botts, a troubled boy who wants to become a writer. Through a series of letters sent to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw, we catch insights into Leigh’s likes and dislikes, his hopes and insecurities, his absent, immature, truck-driver father, his wonderfully strong and supportive mother, and his loneliness. He quickly catches our hearts and our sympathies.

As Leigh’s first letters are rather insulting and demanding (humorous peeks into a child’s mind), Mr. Henshaw encourages him to keep a journal instead. We watch Leigh’s writing abilities grow stronger and stronger. Though Leigh’s never receives the happy turn of fortune he longs for, he learns, he grows, he meets with some success, and he grows stronger. For a child, this is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. For a parent, it is a wake-up call to consider exactly what adult selfishness and irresponsibility can do to the children who depend on us. One not to be taken lightly.

Though I much prefer traditional narration, the skill, the message, the powerful emotion of Dear Mr. Henshaw prompts me to recommend it.

Click here for a Kindle edition.  Read more of my Beverly Cleary reviews.

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite deAngeli, 1949, Book Review

door in the wallI love a story with a wealth of meaning behind its words. This one is exemplary. Within, young Robyn’s father has left for the Scottish wars, his mother has gone to wait on the ailing queen, and Robyn awaits John-the-Fletcher who will escort him to the manor of Sir Peter where Robyn will serve as squire. But Robyn takes ill and loses the use of his legs, John-the-Fletcher never arrives, and the servants flee for fear of the plague that rages through London.

A monk named Brother Luke carries Robyn to the abbey where he cares for him. “Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it,” the monk encourages him. But who would look for such a thing in illness?

At the abbey, Robyn recovers, but his legs remain crippled. “We must teach thy hands to be skillful in many ways, and we must teach thy mind to go about whether thy legs will carry thee or no,” Brother Luke tells Robyn. “For reading is another door in the wall, dost understand, my son?”

Robyn grows strong, and eventually receives word from his father to continue to Sir Peter’s, which he does with the aid of the monk. It is there, when danger threatens the castle, that Robyn truly comes to understand Brother Luke’s words.  For it is there he finds his own door in the wall.

Written in 1949 and capturing the Newbery the following year, The Door in the Wall has become an American classic. Its sweet story and positive message are still as relevant today as they were sixty years ago. It is chuck full of gentle lessons, like: “Each of us has his place in the world…If we cannot serve in one way, there is always another.” Or, “None of us is perfect. It is better to have crooked legs than a crooked spirit. We can only do the best we can with what we have.” And, “He had found out that the harder it was to do something, the more comfortable he felt after he had done it.”

The Door in the Wall also provides a textbook of fascinating medieval context. Ms. deAngeli had a special talent for detail that adds such richness to her settings. And her formal language style aids this illusion of stepping back in time. She doesn’t apologize for tough vocabulary, either. This makes the book more challenging to read, but sixth graders should handle it with ease.

This story has so much to offer. I’d definitely make it available to 10- to 13-year-old readers.