The latest in my exploration of the oldest Newbery books continues with The Boy Who Was. This book is yet another mythology collection, this time about Italy. A young boy named Nino is given eternal life, and thus he is present throughout many factual and mythological events in Italy’s history.
You all know my feelings about mythology and short stories (I hate them), and although this one was better written and more interesting than most, I still wouldn’t read it again.
The story of young Nicholas Drury’s struggle to maintain his uncle’s shipyard in a Massachusetts town in the difficult years following the American Revolution. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
Clearing Weather tells the story of the years right after the Revolutionary War. Nicholas is in charge of his uncle’s failing business when he decides to build his own ship and set it off in search of riches. This is not a bad story; I found myself enjoying the plot in many places, but it’s full of racism and sexism. For that reason, I found this book unsalvageable.
If you receive my newsletter (and if you don’t, get on that!), you know that I’ve been relying on our wonderful library’s interlibrary loan system to help me get some of the older, out of print Newbery honor books. Unfortunately, these books are often not as enjoyable as the more recent Newbery books, but I soldiered through them so you don’t have to! Read on to find out what I thought of three recent reads.
Tod of the Fens
Mystery farce with historical novel aspects set against the development of England’s merchant fleet and its trade in wool with the continent in the early 15th century. A bluff and jovial man, with an infectious laugh and a great shock of unkempt hair, Tod of the Fens leads a band of merry rogues and adventurers who live in rude huts in the fens near the port of Boston and prey on travelers for fun. Tod takes into his band Dismas, who is really Henry, the Prince of Wales. For a lark, he wagers Tod’s men that in a week and a day he will make fools of all the townsmen in Boston. Assuming various disguises, he steals one by one the five keys to the town strong box. he leaves the contents untouched and deposits the ekeys at the foot of the steeple of St. Botolph’s. The townspeople assume their treasure has been stolen, and suspicion falls on the wrong person. A series of amusing misadventures ensues involving a large number of people until finally Tod of the Fens takes possession of the treasure. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This book is full of Old Timey Racism (this kind of goes without saying for most of the older Newbery books). And sadly, it doesn’t get interesting until the second half. Johanna, the mayor’s daughter, was pretty cool, though (she wants to sail, despite the restrictions on women in the 15th century, and she later gets kidnapped, providing some of the only excitement in the book).
Rating: Good but Forgettable
The Runaway Papoose
Nah-Tee, a young Pueblo Indian girl, is separated from her parents when enemies raid their camp. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I actually really enjoyed this story. The illustrations are nice, and the story kept my interest the whole way. I wanted to find out what happened to Nah-tee and Moyo as they get in and out of trouble in their quest to find Nah-tee’s parents. Unfortunately I can’t recommend this book wholeheartedly, as it is (shockingly!) a bit racist and sexist.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
The Wonder Smith and His Son
The classic Gaelic stories about Gubbaun Saor, maker of worlds and shapes of universes, and his son, kept alive by Ella Young — as she heard them — in the tradition of Celtic storytelling. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
People, I just don’t like myths, or fables, or tall tales. So it probably comes as no surprise to you that I didn’t really enjoy this book. Some of the stories were entertaining, but I forgot them about as quickly as I read them. If you liked any of theseotherNewberybooks, you’ll probably like this one.
Although the 1935 Newbery award was given to several books, I have read only one of the honor books. Day on Skates: The Story of a Dutch Picnic is a sweet, fully illustrated story of a winter day in Holland when the canal ices over.
Day on Skates is exactly what the title leads you to believe. It’s very short, making it a great book to read with your younger kids (but do watch out for Old-Timey Sexism). I enjoy reading about the daily lives of people from countries other than the U.S. and England, the locations of most of the children’s books that are readily available in my country, and this book scratches that itch.
These two Newbery books don’t really have anything to do with each other (other than the award). El Deafo is a 2015 honor book, a graphic novel about growing up deaf. George Washington’s World, on the other hand, was an honor book in 1942, and it fleshes out the history and leaders of the 1700s. The one thing these books have in common? They’re both really good!
“Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.
Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All.” (Summary via Goodreads.com)
El Deafo is a cute graphic novel that tackles the joys and difficulties of growing up deaf. It’s based on the author’s experiences, which I loved. This book definitely deserves the Newbery honor it received–it’s well written and drawn, and it offers representation to an underrepresented group. You’ll enjoy the book if you want to learn more about growing up deaf, but every kid will also be able to relate to the topic of not fitting in.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
George Washington’s World
This book offers information on the leaders and events around the world during the 1700s. Although you might think from the title that this book focuses mainly on American history, that’s not the case. Each chapter focuses on a different character from history, from Catherine the Great to George III to John and Abigail Adams. Although the Revolutionary War is the main event, the French Revolution, the Seven Years War, and other events and leaders from Russia to China to Australia to Africa are also included. The book is full of great drawings, maps, and musical snippets, so there’s a lot of visual interest (important in a history book of this length!).
At first I was put off by the cheery way most events and people are talked about (war, slavery, colonization, etc.), but later I started to appreciate the subtlety–none of the people discussed were wholly bad or good, and the author doesn’t shy away from mentioning the less savory aspects of our forefathers’ lives, even if she doesn’t dwell on them. The other thing I love about this book is that it was updated by the author’s daughter to add diversity. This book does a better job of discussing the roles of women, Native Americans, and African-Americans during this time period than you would expect, and I really appreciated that.
Many kids may not enjoy this book because it is pretty lengthy and a straight up history book, but if you or your child has a deep interest in this time period, it’s worth looking into.
The Dream Coach is one of the 1925 Newbery honor books (another book I had to find through interlibrary loan, because there are very few copies of this book still around).
The book is made up of five stories of the dreams of children around the world, and it’s framed by the story of the dream coach itself. I love the idea of that, and I can see parents in the 20s reading this to their kids as a bedtime story. The story is helped along by some really nice illustrations by Dillwyn Parrish.
Unfortunately, this book suffers from 1920s racism. What I mean by that is, although The Dream Coach doesn’t come right out and say racist things (and one of the main characters is, in fact, not white), it’s filled with the kind of stereotypes that make modern readers uncomfortable.
Is it still worth reading? Well, given how difficult it is to find this book, I would say probably not. It’s sad because this book has a lot of potential! It’s a really cute idea, and the illustrations are great. But it’s marred by prejudices that will make modern readers cringe a little.
Medal Winner: Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women
This book is a short biography about Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. She lived a fascinating life surrounded by some of the greatest writers of the time, and her own views on writing and her classic book are not what you might think. This is a book for children, so of course it’s not a tell-all (and of course no one can stack up to Russell Freedman for biographies about important and fascinating historical figures), but it is full of interesting facts and stories about Louisa May Alcott’s life. Definitely worth a look if your child is a fan of Little Women or wants to learn more about the lives of female American authors.
This 1925 Newbery honor book is one that I’ve been searching for for many months. It’s old and out of print, and I couldn’t find it at my library or on Amazon (at least, not for a reasonable price). So when I finally received a copy of Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story through the interlibrary loan, I was thrilled!
Nicholas is a boy who is eight inches tall, and he sails from Holland to the U.S. in order to spend Christmas (and New Year’s, and President’s Day, and Valentine’s Day) with his friends in New York. He meets with many magical creatures, including trolls, brownies, and Santa, and he goes on many adventures on the east coast.
This book is charming. It has that distinctive feel of children’s books in the early 20th century–sweet, magical, and nonthreatening. Still, it left me with many questions. Why is Nicholas only eight inches tall? Why did he sail across the ocean just for Christmas? How does everyone in New York seem to know who he is? Is there a cohesive plot tying all these short vignettes together? Unless there are other books in a series about Nicholas, I guess we’ll never know.
In our journey through the early years of Newbery winners, we have now come to the place in which I have actually read many of the books, but I read them so long ago or they were so unmemorable that I have little to say about them. Although I definitely read these 1933 Newbery books, I have very little memory of them. Still, I’ll offer you my best thoughts to help you decide whether or not you (or your kid) will enjoy them.
Medal Winner: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze
When Young Fu arrives with his mother in bustling 1920s Chungking, all he has seen of the world is the rural farming village where he has grown up. He knows nothing of city life. But the city, with its wonders and dangers, fascinates the thirteen-year-old boy, and he sets out to make the best of what it has to offer him. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I have memories of reading this book for school as a kid, and to this day, most of what I know about 1900s China probably comes from this book (sad but true). This is the kind of book that made me love historical fiction, and I would be totally interested in reading it again sometime.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
Barred from his family homestead by his mean-spirited uncle, eighteen-year-old Chris weathers a Minnesota winter in a small cabin with his grandfather. Poverty and the tempting stories of a wandering Easterner convince Chris to harvest the trees on his grandfather’s land and float the logs down the spring floodwaters of the Mississippi to the lumber mills in Saint Louis. Filled with stories of raft hands and river pilots, this fast-paced novel has all the momentum of the great Mississippi. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
In my original notes from reading this book, I wrote that it was “surprisingly interesting and usually fast-paced.” Does that mean I remember it? Apparently not. But I can tell you that if I wrote “surprisingly interesting” about a book about logging down the Mississippi, “surprisingly” is the key word.
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.