Left orphaned and alone in a strange country, thirteen-year-old Marguerite Ledoux has no choice but to become a servant girl. She promises her services to the Sargent family for six long years in return for food and shelter. But life as a “bound-out girl” is full of more hardship than Maggie ever could have imagined. Living with the family in an isolated part of northern Maine, Maggie struggles through the harsh, hungry winter of 1743, the constant threat of Indian attacks, and worst of all, the loneliness she suffers knowing that her own family is lost forever. Will the Sargents’ house ever feel like home? (Summary via Goodreads.com)
Calico Bush is another historical fiction Newbery book that I read as part of my homeschool curriculum. (Thanks, Sonlight!) Although it is written by Rachel Field, author of Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, this book is nothing like her early Newbery book.
The main character of this book, Maggie, gives the reader a window into early colonial life, complete with all its hardships. You’ll read about indentured servants, harsh weather, illness, death, and conflict with Native Americans (remember that this book was written in 1932, and thus has all the insensitivity you would expect from a book of that time). Although I don’t remember being traumatized by this book as a child, it is definitely for a middle grades audience.
Books like these are why I still count myself a fan of historical fiction, even though I find most adult historical fiction novels a bit dry. I would love to read this book again someday and refresh my memories of it.
1931 Newbery Medal Winner: The Cat Who Went to Heaven
This is the story of a little cat who came to the home of a poor Japanese artist, and, by humility and devotion, brought him good fortune. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I read this book as a child as part of my homeschool curriculum. It’s about a cat who belongs to a painter who is commissioned to paint a picture of the Buddha surrounded by animals. The painter includes a cat in the picture, and he gets in a lot of trouble for doing so–apparently the cat refused to help Buddha when he was walking around on earth. But the painter’s beloved cat keeps worming its way back into the artist’s life and heart. It’s a short and sweet story that you or your pet-loving kids will really enjoy.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Spice and the Devil’s Cave
A story of the rivalry between Arab traders, the city-state of Venice, and of the struggling nation of Portugal to dominate the spice trade by finding a new sea route to India by going around the “Devil’s Cave” — the Cape of Good Hope. In Lisbon, the workshop of Abel Zakuto, a Jew, becomes the meeting place for Vasco da Gama, Bartholomeu Dias, and Ferdinand Magellan to discuss their plans to find this sea route. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
In my original notes for this book, I wrote that it was a “really interesting story.” I honestly don’t remember much about it now, but the fact that I said a book was “very good” when it’s all about ocean voyages is really saying something (as you might recall, I have mixed feelings about books about the sea). So… maybe pick it up? I obviously enjoyed it, but the fact that it was so forgettable doesn’t make me feel great about recommending it wholeheartedly.
Hitty is a doll of great charm and character. It is indeed a privilege to publish her memoirs, which, besides being full of the most thrilling adventures on land and sea, also reveal her delightful personality. One glance at her portrait will show that she is no ordinary doll. Hitty, or Mehitable as she was really named, was made in the early 1800s for Phoebe Preble, a little girl from Maine. Young Phoebe was very proud of her beautiful doll and took her everywhere, even on a long sailing trip in a whaler. This is the story of Hitty’s years with Phoebe, and the many that follow in the life of a well-loved doll. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This story about a beloved doll and her adventures was surprisingly interesting. Hitty is taken on trips, passed from girl to girl, and even lost during her first hundred years. I do remember that, reading this as a young teenager, I was a bit overwhelmed by the length of the book and the old-fashioned writing style, so for a younger kid, it might work better as a story you read to them, bit by bit. But don’t pass this book by simply because the main character is a doll. Hitty and her many owners over the years are sweet, fun characters to spend time with.
A dramatic tale of 15th century Poland, it tells the story of a courageous young patriot and a mysterious jewel of great value. The beautifully written book, filled with adventure and excitement, gives young readers a vivid picture of Krakow in the early Renaissance. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This was a fun, interesting story with what my young self described as a “very unusual setting.” I had not then read many books set in Poland, and I still haven’t, so I stick by that description. In fact, I might read this book again in the future to refresh my memory of this exciting story.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
Millions of Cats
Once upon a time there was an old man and an old woman who were very lonely. They decided to get a cat, but when the old man went out searching, he found not one cat, but millions and billions and trillions of cats! Unable to decide which one would be the best pet, he brought them all home. How the old couple came to have just one cat to call their own is a classic tale that has been loved for generations. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This was so cute! It’s such a funny story with nice illustrations. Young kids will probably love it, and if you’re into cats and have a soft spot for the ridiculous, you might too.
It has been a while since I first read Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, the 1928 Newbery medal winner, and I kind of want to go back and read it again. I enjoyed it well enough when I originally read it, but I think I might enjoy it even more as an adult.
Writing out of his own experience as a boy in India, Dhan Gopal Mukerji tells how Gay Neck’s master sent his prized pigeon to serve in Word War I, and of how, because of his exceptional training and his brave heart, Gay Neck served his new masters heroically. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This book was actually pretty interesting and different from many of the other Newbery books of its time. It’s the story of a homing pigeon and the boy who owned him. Gay-Neck (so named because of his colorful feathers) is carefully trained by his young owner and then sent to serve in WWI. I can’t remember if the book is actually set in India as the Goodreads summary seems to imply, but if so, it’s one of the most diverse and interesting books out of the first ten or even twenty years of Newbery books. It’s definitely worth a read, whether you’re a child or an adult.
I’m picking back up with myNewberyreviewsbyyear, starting with 1927. Again, there was only one Newbery book for this year.
Medal Winner: Smokey, the Cowhorse; Will James
Smoky knows only one way of life: freedom. Living on the open range, he is free to go where he wants and to do what he wants. And he knows what he has to do to survive. He can beat any enemy, whether it be a rattlesnake or a hungry wolf. He is as much a part of the Wild West as it is of him, and Smoky can’t imagine anything else.
But then he comes across a new enemy, one that walks on two legs and makes funny sounds. Smoky can’t beat this enemy the way he has all the others. But does he really want to? Or could giving up some of his freedom mean getting something in return that’s even more valuable? (Summary via Goodreads.com)
When I first read this book, I wrote myself a note about it, which said, “A little slow, but usually pretty interesting.” I remember practically nothing about this book, which probably has something to do with my usual disdain for animalstories. My recommendation is, if you enjoy books about horses, you’ll probably enjoy this one. If not, you’ll probably forget everything about it as soon as you put it down, just like I did.
A series of fascinating Chinese stories, strong in humor and rich in Chinese wisdom, in which the author has caught admirably the spirit of Chinese life and thought. (Summary via Amazon.com)
This very short Amazon summary is close to the only information I could find about this Newbery winner. I read it as a child, so I don’t remember a huge amount about it, but even on the basis of this short review, I wish I did! My note to self from when I read the book says, “Very fun, short Chinese folk tales.” Maybe I should reread this one! It sounds great, but I remember close to nothing about it. I do remember that of all the Newbery short story/folk tale collections, this was my favorite. Let me know your thoughts if you read this one!
Once again, there is only a medal winner and no honor books for 1925’s Newbery books. I read this book several years ago, and I found it pretty cute, but forgettable.
Medal Winner:Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger
This book is made up of a bunch of short stories, folk tales collected from Latin America. Considering my feelings about short stories, I actually enjoyed this book pretty well. That said, I remember not a single one of the stories well enough to tell it to you. I remember talking animals and good versus evil, but that’s about it. I do remember it being easy to read and holding up pretty well for its age. Definitely take a look if you or your child are interested in the fairy tales of other cultures.
Like 1923, the Newbery award was only given to one book in 1924. Here is the medal winner for that year.
Medal Winner: The Dark Frigate; Charles Boardman Hawes
In seventeenth century England, a terrible accident forces orphaned Philip Marsham to flee London in fear for his life. Bred to the sea, he signs on with the “Rose of Devon,” a dark frigate bound for the quiet shores of Newfoundland. Philip’s bold spirit and knowledge of the sea soon win him his captain’s regard. But when the “Rose of Devon” is seized in mid-ocean by a devious group of men plucked from a floating wreck, Philip is forced to accompany these “gentlemen of fortune” on their murderous expeditions. Like it or not, Philip Marsham is now a pirate–with only the hangman awaiting his return to England. (Summary via Amazon.com)
I remember being surprised at how much I liked this one. I’m normally not interested in pirates or expeditions, but amazingly, I enjoyed this. Unfortunately, like many of the other Newbery books at the time, this one is pretty forgettable. I read it a few years ago, and I have no memory whatsoever of the plot, the characters, or the writing style. Reading the summary reminds me of this book, though… If you’re going to choose between The Great Quest and The Dark Frigate, I would definitely choose this one.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
P.S. Okay, I only just now noticed that Charles Boardman Hawes did, in fact, write both The Dark Frigate and The Great Quest. That explains the similarities…
It’s been a while since my last Newbery roundup by year, so I figured it was about time to move on to 1923! In 1923, the second year the Newbery award was given, there were no honor books. Thus, the medal winner listed below is the only 1923 Newbery book in existence.
Medal Winner: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle; Hugh Lofting
What a famous book this is, and how many movies have been made from this plot! This book is pretty interesting and unusual. It’s the second in the Doctor Dolittle series, which had at least ten sequels. If you know anything about Doctor Dolittle, you probably know the gist of the plot. Doctor Dolittle can speak to animals, and he goes on a voyage with Tommy Stubbins in order to find the greatest naturalist in the world.
It’s a fun book, but like many of the early Newbery winners, it’s not one that has stuck with me. (Plus, in the early editions of this book, there are some regrettably racist terms–so be careful if you give this one to your kids!)