Newbery Sequels: Palace of Stone and Hattie Ever After

A review of two sequels to Newbery books--one lives up to its predecessor, the other... not so much. | Book reviews by Newbery and Beyond
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Palace of Stone is the sequel to the Newbery book Princess Academy, one of my favorite Newbery books ever.  When I found this sequel, I was equal parts excited and wary.  I loved Princess Academy so much, getting to know Miri and the other mountain girls and how quarry-speak carried through the linder, stone which the mountain people carved out of the mountainside for use in the lowlands, and I was afraid that this sequel wouldn’t live up to the original.

At the beginning of this book, Miri and a few of the other girls from the academy are invited to visit Britta at the palace as she prepares for her wedding.  But a letter from Katar, now a delegate for Mount Eskel, sends a cryptic letter that makes Miri think that their visit might be more than just a pleasure trip.  As the girls acclimate to life in Asland, Miri begins to see the injustices that the nobles have carried out against the “shoeless,” the poor of the country.  She works hard at her studies, as the other girls pursue their own interests, but she finds herself increasingly drawn to the revolution that may soon be taking place. But when Miri finds that the spark for the revolution may hurt her friend Britta, she doesn’t know what to do.  Can Miri stay the girl from Mount Eskel, or does she need to find a new path?

The best part about this book was that the quarry-speak from the first book was used and expounded upon.  I loved the girls’ ability to communicate without anyone else knowing, and I loved the power of the linder as it carried the power of the mountain.  This book wasn’t quite as good as the original, but I truly enjoyed it.  Hale’s writing style stayed consistent in both books, and the simplicity of the writing was beautiful.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hattie Ever After was not nearly as good a sequel, sadly.  I loved, loved, loved Hattie Big Sky, the Newbery winner that was the original.  But this sequel did not stack up.  Hattie, after failing to claim her uncle’s land, decides to move to San Francisco to pursue her dream of being a journalist, much to her boyfriend Charlie’s chagrin.  She fights her way into a newspaper job, where she encounters scammers and backstabbing, along with adventure and plenty of questions about her future.

There just wasn’t as much substance or emotional resonance here as in the original book, and though I still liked Hattie, I felt like she could have been any 1900s female character looking to break into a male-dominated field.  Just not as interesting as the original.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Review: The Singing Tree

One of my favorite Newbery books ever--touching, sweet, and powerful. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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World War I tragedies + Hungarian history + strong, courageous characters = I’ve teared up more over this book than probably any of the children for whom this book was written.  The Singing Tree was written and illustrated by multiple Newbery Honor award winning author, Kate Seredy.  The title sounds silly, but the story is anything but.

The book starts off happily–it’s a continuation of The Good Master, an earlier Newbery book written by Seredy, and the plot of The Singing Tree picks up where The Good Master left off.  Jancsi and Kate are cousins (preteens at the beginning of the book) who ride horses, take care of chickens, and get into trouble together on Jancsi’s father’s farm in the Hungarian countryside.  All the characters from the first book are enjoying life together, working on the farm and spending time with family, even attending a traditional Hungarian wedding.  Then the news comes–Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated; War has begun.  Jancsi’s father, Kate’s father, the newlywed Peter, and many others are sent off to fight.

As time passes, Jancsi and his family take on six Russian prisoners of war, who are big, friendly farmers who didn’t want to be fighting in the war anyway.  They help take care of the farm while Jancsi’s father Marton is away.  Six more join the household when the family agrees to take on German children who are starving and in need of a place to stay.  Eventually, there are twenty family members and refugees who call the Nagy farm home.

I was surprised at how many of the issues that war  presents were tackled head-on.  At one point, the new bridegroom Peter comes back from the war (he deserted temporarily to see his newborn child and sickly wife), and he is so full of anger and hate, even toward those who had loved and cared for him during his youth, that his wife wonders how she can ever love him again because he was so changed.  The lines of people begging for food, the abandoned houses and animals all over Hungary, are described in passing but without sugarcoating.  News of the deaths of family and friends arrives, and tears are shed in private, so as not to make life more difficult for other family members.  An American general writes, “Lost ten thousand men.  Advanced three miles.”  I can’t fathom losing so many human lives in one go.  It’s incredible.  Along with these sad aspects, however, there are moments of hope.  The German children, Russian farmers, and Hungarian locals all begin to see that whether German, Russian, or Hungarian, they have more things in common than they have differences.

There are some issues in this book in terms of how women are presented, although I hesitate to call them “issues” in a book written in 1939 and set several years earlier than that.  There are several occasions where Kate and the new housemate Lily are told they can’t do things because they are girls (it was a little shocking to me that on a farm, women would still be expected to wear full skirts and ride sidesaddle), but there was one section that really caught my attention and came close to making up for all of that.  This section speaks about Jancsi’s mother and her fears as her husband has been gone so long at war.

So she knew, thought Jancsi.  Under that gentle smile she was hiding the same fear, smiling so we wouldn’t be frightened. […] So women were not all gentle, helpless softness, either; they too had a steel armor that would not let them show the tears inside.

The last shred of harsh, small-boyish pride in his new manhood left Jancsi then; he was all man now, bowing his head to the strength of a woman.

The girls, Kate and Lily, are also allowed to tag along with Jancsi on several different trips that he took, in order to help him or to accomplish their own goals.  I thought that was impressive, not just because they were female, but because they are all young teenagers.  It made me quite sad to see all the responsibility the children had to take on during the war.

The saddest part, though, was at the end of the book, when the war was finally over in 1918.  The Jewish shopkeeper, Uncle Moses, says, “A new day is coming, Marton, for us, for all nations.  No more wars, Marton.  No more persecution, no more intolerance ever….”  To think that only a few years later, the Nazis would entrench themselves in Hungary and begin a reign of terror is so painful to think about.

After spending eight weeks living in Budapest, I have a soft spot for this small country that has been overrun by nearly everyone around them–Turkey, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the Nazis, and most recently the Soviet Communist party.  I have read before how the events of WWII affected Hungary, but this is the first book I’ve read that detailed the effects of WWI.  It really moved me in its unflinching yet hopeful look at the tragedies of war and the strength of family.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Book Review: A Northern Light

Book Review: A Northern Light | Newbery and Beyond
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I didn’t realize until the end of this book that A Northern Light is based on a true story of a 1906 murder (not a spoiler; it’s written on the back of the book.  I just didn’t read that, apparently).  It’s categorized as YA fiction, but I think adults would really enjoy it as well, even those who don’t generally like YA books.

Set in the early 1900s in the Adirondacks, the story follows the struggles of sixteen-year-old Mattie, her family, and her friends.  As the oldest daughter, Mattie cares for her father and her three younger sisters after her mother’s death and her brother’s disappearance.  She loves reading books and dreams of writing her own, but her busy life taking care of her family and their farm threatens to keep her from chasing her dreams.  Eventually Mattie ends up with a job at the Glenmore hotel along with several of her friends, where she meets Grace Brown, a hotel guest who is found dead in mysterious circumstances.

My favorite thing about this book was the format.  The book begins with a description of Grace’s death and Mattie’s life at the Glenmore, and the story of how Mattie ended up there is told through flashbacks interspersed with short chapters set at the Glenmore.  For me, this kept the book from becoming too depressing.  “I know she’s not stuck here forever,” I would think at a particularly heart-wrenching setback, “because she at least made it to the Glenmore!”

The characters were also well written.  From Mattie’s angry friend Weaver, to her beau Royal, to her silent and serious Pa, to the ever-hungry neighbor boy named Tommy, the characters were interesting and distinguishable.  Although I don’t know a huge amount about rural life in the early 1900s, the struggles that the characters went through seemed realistic enough without becoming melodramatic.

Basically, this is a story about a young girl and her big dreams, with a bit of mystery thrown in the mix.  It made me grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had in my life and all the people who have supported my dreams.  Mattie struggles with balancing the expectations of those she cares about with her own desires and goals.  But Mattie’s struggle makes her dreams that much more important to her, and I admired that.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Reviews: Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy

Book Reviews: Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy | Newbery and Beyond
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These two books, packaged together, are so cute!  Written in the early 1900s, both books have a charm and a life about them.  Both are epistolary novels, seen only through the letters of one person.  Daddy-Long-Legs is composed of letters from an orphan girl named Judy who has been sent to college by a mysterious benefactor, whom she nicknames Daddy-Long-Legs.  Judy learns and experiences new things, both through her classes and through her exposure to new friends, and eventually, through meeting Daddy-Long-Legs.

The second book, Dear Enemy, is made up of letters from Sallie, one of Judy’s college friends.  Judy hired Sallie to be the temporary superintendent of the John Grier Home, the orphanage in which Judy grew up, and the book is filled with the exploits of Sallie, the orphan children, and the other employees and teachers at the JGH.

Both female characters have spunk, and although the books have some turn-of-the-century problems with racism and sexism, for the most part, Judy and Sallie seem like they would be at home in today’s world.  They’re outspoken and cheerful and aren’t afraid to ruffle feathers.  (Plus, there’s a little romance in both books that is not overdone–it never threatens to overtake the plot!)  Both books include adorable stick figure drawings, drawn by the author, Jean Webster, herself.  They’re fun, sweet books with a lot of charm.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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