Tag Archives: Newbery winners

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


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.

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson, 1977, Book Review

bridge to terabithiaKatherine Patterson is one of only five authors to twice win the Newbery medal. She delivers powerful, thought-provoking stories, beautifully written with a depth of emotion and meaning. The kind of stories I love, yet I wouldn’t count either of her Newbery winners among my favorites. Personal preference, I suppose. Yet there is much I admire within Bridge to Terabithia. And some I wrestle with.

Written in 1977, it captures the flavor of the 70’s. To those of us who grew up in that era, it is nostalgic. For younger readers, it’s a time capsule waiting to be opened. Yet Jess’s experiences transcend decades. For this is a story of friendship, placed in a glass bottle and examined from lots of angles, then dumped out and smashed. For this is also a story of loss.

Jess lives a rough life. The farm hardly supports a family, yet his dad struggles to find work. His two older sisters are selfish, lazy snobs; his two younger sisters are obnoxious tag-alongs, which leaves Jess to bear the brunt of chores. Enter Leslie Burke.

After a rocky start, Leslie, with her imagination, her frank honesty and her love of life, demonstrates a new kind of friendship. Not like at school, where the guys compete to be the best and battle for control, but friendship based on mutual respect and acceptance. With Leslie, it’s okay for Jess to be less than brilliant. It’s okay that he’s not the fastest runner in the fifth grade. It’s even okay for him to be afraid. Together, Jess and Leslie create an imaginary kingdom of Terabithia that becomes for Jess a highlight in his imperfect world. It’s their secret; special, guarded and precious. Yet Jess’s newfound joy mingles with tragedy.

(Spoiler alert!)

Terabithia probes the very touchy subject of death. Not only the overwhelming emotions, but also the questions. After an Easter service that Leslie found fascinating and Jess found boring, Leslie says, “It’s crazy, isn’t it? You have to believe it (Christianity), but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle, Jess’s little sister, is horrified that Leslie doesn’t believe the Bible. “But what if you die?” she asks. “What’s going to happen if you die?”

After Leslie dies, the book does provide an answer to May Belle’s question. A very controversial one. Jess asks his father:

“Do you believe people go to hell, really go to hell, I mean?”

“You ain’t worrying about Leslie Burke?”

I did seem peculiar, but still–“Well, May Belle said…”

“May Belle? May Belle ain’t God.”

“Yeah, but how do you know what God does?”

“Lord, boy, don’t be a fool. God ain’t gunna send any little girls to hell.”

In conclusion, Bridge to Terabithia provides a sweet tale based on the true, tragic events of Mrs. Patterson’s son’s childhood. One that gently illustrates the joys of friendship and the heartache of loss.

Note to parents: This book is well-written, but consider your child’s age and sensitivity. Also, it does contain some mild swearing.


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.

Moon over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool, 2010, Book Review

PDF Creation in Quark 7I loved, loved, LOVED this book! Recommended to me by a sixth grade literature teacher, I gobbled it up in a two sittings. A few days later, I learned it won this year’s Newbery. Well-earned, I say!

Following an illness, twelve-year-old Abilene’s father, Gideon, sends her away to friends in Manifest, Kansas, a town that strongly influenced his childhood, though he never talked about it much. It’s hot and dry, the dustbowl era, right smack in the middle of the Depression, and Abilene holds out desperate hope that her father will come back for her. But the rails, he told her, are no place for a young lady.

While she’s there, Abilene uncovers stories from 1917 that lead her on a spy hunt with two friends. The stories tie her to the town and develop a love within her for its people. But love, she learns, can be devastating.

Moon Over Manifest is Ms. Vanderpool’s first novel, but it is so tight. Every colorful detail eventually finds a place in the book’s final picture. Every single character becomes important. Everything fits together. And the human emotion it paints for us is still relevant eighty years after the book takes place.

The story does contain a spiritual element in the form of a gypsy story-teller who also poses as a medium. Abilene is skeptical of her the whole time, and nothing weird actually happens. The woman’s past later becomes intricately woven in the plot.

Great choice for readers 10 and up, especially those who enjoy nostalgic, small-town flavor. I almost think adults would like this one better than kids. It’s a powerful little story. A definite must-read.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater, 1938, Book Review

Mr-Poppers-PenguinsI really liked this book! I was hesitant at first, not knowing what to expect. The sentences  seemed a little simplistic, the details redundant, and the humor a bit corny. But I quickly realized this is not a middle grade novel but one aimed at a slightly younger audience, unusual for a Newbery winner. It’s a wonderful chapter book choice for 7 to 9-year-olds. So I amend my hasty judgments. The sentences are easy for new readers to wade through, the repetition helpful and even funny, and the outlandish plot will tickle any young child’s funny bone. And Richard Lawson’s quirky illustrations provide the icing on the cake. How cool to find such a quality novel for the younger set!

Mr. Popper is a house painter. Unfortunately, come winter, every house in Stillwater has been painted and papered and Mr. Popper is out of work till spring. He’s not too concerned. He’ll just prop his feet up and indulged in his favorite study, that of the North and South Poles. Mrs. Popper, however, fastidious housekeeper that she is, laments having Mr. Popper underfoot messing up her house for so long. And she’s concerned that money might run out. But the unlikely accumulation of twelve penguins sets the family on an entirely different course.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is full of kid-pleasing antics. Mr. Popper drills holes in his fridge so his penguins might nest in his icebox. He takes his newest pet for a walk on a leash while wearing a tuxedo and they both wind up sliding down stairs on their bellies together. He even turns his basement into a frozen tundra so his wife must play the piano with her gloves on. Eventually, Mr. Popper trains his penguins to perform for audiences and takes them on an audience-pleasing tour that earns him five thousand dollars a week.

The book’s seventy year history, rather than render it obsolete, simply adds to its charm. With quaint expressions, droll humor and a matter-of-fact delivery, it’s hard-hitting fun. Consider this hilarious clip, when Mr. Popper is trying to obtain a license for his penguins from City Hall, which has absolutely no ordinances concerning penguins:

…Every time he would explain what he wanted, he would be told to wait a minute, and much later a new voice would ask him what he wanted. This went on for a considerable time. At last a new voice seemed to take a little interest in the case. Pleased with this friendly voice, Mr. Popper began again to tell about Captain Cook.

“Is he an army captain, a police captain, or a navy captain?”

“He is not,” said Mr. Popper. “He is a penguin.”

“Will you repeat that, please?” said the voice.

Mr. Popper repeated it. The voice suggested that perhaps he had better spell it.

“P-e-n-g-u-i-n,” said Mr. Popper. “Penguin.”

“Oh!” said the voice. “You mean that Captain Cook’s first name is Benjamin?”

“Not Benjamin. Penguin. It’s a bird,” said Mr. Popper.

“Do you mean,” said the phone in his ear, “that Captain Cook wishes a license to shoot birds? I am sorry. The bird-hunting season does not open until November. And please try to speak a little more distinctly, Mr.–Topper, did you say your name is?”

“My name is Popper, not Topper,” shouted Mr. Popper.

“Yes, Mr. Potter. Now I can hear you quite clearly.”

In closing, let me add a little editorial about the recent movie of the same name which I, unfortunately, took my kids to see: It’s ridiculous and totally remakes the plot. It replaces all the book’s lovely, old-fashioned charm with stupidity, modern family issues, bathroom humor and a lot of “OMG!”  In short, use your ticket money to BUY THE BOOK!