Mega Roundup: Kid Lit and YA

This mega roundup is jam-packed with all the kid lit, middle grades, and YA fiction I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I tend to get behind in my reviews over the holidays. But since I don’t stop reading (of course not!), I always have a few books to catch up on reviewing. Or in this case, a lot of books. If you like kids’ books or YA, with an emphasis on fantasy, today’s mega roundup is for you! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Howl’s Moving Castle

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

I can’t believe it took me this long to read a Diana Wynne Jones book. Howl’s Moving Castle is a very enjoyable, fun fantasy. It’s a treat to read. I needed some lightweight, quirky, sweet books to get me through the holiday season, and this book hit the spot. I can’t wait to read more DWJ now!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Vol. 2

You might remember my review of the first volume of rebel girls stories. This follow up is just as wonderful. It’s jam packed with lovely illustrations and tons of new, inspiring women and their stories. A great book for girls (and boys!) of all ages.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Josh Baxter Levels Up

Video game lover Josh Baxter knows that seventh grade at a new school may be his hardest challenge yet, but he’s not afraid to level up and win!

Josh Baxter is sick and tired of hitting the reset button. It’s not easy being the new kid for the third time in two years. One mistake and now the middle-school football star is out to get him. And Josh’s sister keeps offering him lame advice about how to make friends, as if he needs her help finding allies!

Josh knows that his best bet is to keep his head down and stay under the radar. If no one notices him, nothing can touch him, right? But when Josh’s mom sees his terrible grades and takes away his video games, it’s clear his strategy has failed. Josh needs a new plan, or he’ll never make it to the next level, let alone the next grade.

He’s been playing not to lose. It’s time to play to win.

Josh gamifies his life when his mom takes away his video games and forces him to focus on improving his grades, making friends, defeating a bully, and winning a video game competition at school (because of course).

I was worried this book would be gimmicky–or possibly not interesting for those of us who don’t play many video games–but it wasn’t. It was a fun MG novel with a video game spin, but its focus is on those timeless, relatable aspects of growing up.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

First Class Murder

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday through Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. From the moment the girls step aboard, it’s clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: rumour has it that there is a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a bloodcurdling scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer is nowhere to be seen – almost as if they had vanished into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery – and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case as they are.

Hazel and Daisy are back, and their latest mystery takes place on the famed Orient Express. But this time, Hazel and Daisy’s investigations are hampered by Hazel’s father, who wants the girls to stay as far away from murder as possible.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in this series, you’ll like this follow up. I missed Daisy and Hazel’s school friends, who are such fun side characters in the previous installments, but this is still a fun MG mystery.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

TodHunter Moon trilogy

Seven years after the events of the original Septimus Heap series, a young PathFinder named Alice TodHunter Moon—who insists on being called Tod—sets out from her seaside village to rescue her friend Ferdie from the malevolent Lady.

She receives help from ExtraOrdinary Wizard Septimus Heap and Ex–ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, but the Lady’s brother, the Darke Sorcerer Oraton-Marr, has a plan that will put everyone Tod holds dear in danger. To save her people, Tod must embrace her identity as a PathFinder and navigate the often dangerous Ancient Ways.

I was so excited to discover that Angie Sage had written a trilogy set in the world of Septimus Heap! This series picks up seven years after the events of the original series and focuses on Tod, a young PathFinder who discovers she has the ability to combine Magyk and PathFinding to explore the Ancient Ways.

We get to visit with Septimus, Jenna, Marcia, Beetle, Lucy and Simon, and several other characters from the original series, but the star of this spinoff series is definitely Tod. Tod and her friends (new and old) have to save the people from Tod’s village and eventually the Ancient Ways themselves.

This is a fun series, but I found some of the characters irritating, and I kept wishing we could see more of Septimus, Jenna, and Marcia. These books just didn’t grab me the same way the original Septimus Heap series did.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters

After a year at the king’s palace, Miri has learned all about being a proper princess. But the tables turn when the student must become the teacher!

Instead of returning to her beloved Mount Eskel, Miri is ordered to journey to a distant swamp and start a princess academy for three sisters, cousins of the royal family. Unfortunately, Astrid, Felissa, and Sus are more interested in hunting and fishing than becoming princesses.

As Miri spends more time with the sisters, she realizes the king and queen’s interest in them hides a long-buried secret. She must rely on her own strength and intelligence to unravel the mystery, protect the girls, complete her assignment, and finally make her way home.

This book is the final installment in the Princess Academy series. I’m always impressed with how Shannon Hale creates memorable, flawed, smart female characters in a stereotypical role, and the sisters in this book are no exception.

However. As much as I enjoyed the backwoods princesses and their unusual way of life, I was so disappointed in Miri! In the original Newbery book, Miri and her friends are set apart from the rest of the kingdom because of their mountain ways and rugged lifestyle. But in this story, Miri has apparently been softened by her time at the palace, and the princesses are constantly looking down on her fancy clothing and her inability to hunt with them. I wished we had more of Miri the mountain girl.

I’m not sorry I read this book, but compared to the first two books in the series, it was a weak finish.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Save Me a Seat

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL.

Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own.

Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in.

Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

This is a cute MG story about two boys, Ravi and Joe, who are having a hard time fitting in at school (Ravi is from India and Joe has a learning disability). Both are bullied and have to learn to band together despite their differences.

All of the events take place in just one week, so the scope of the story is small. Still, it’s sweet to watch Ravi learn humility and Joe learn to stand up for himself.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Last Dragonslayer series

I love Jasper Fforde’s writing, and his YA series is a bit less strange but no less wonderful than his adult fiction. I read the first book years ago, and I finally got around to reading the rest. The second book is great, but the third book in the Last Dragonslayer series pulls off something that I think is very difficult: introducing new lead characters into the mix that we don’t hate. The spoiled princess proves herself to be a surprisingly intelligent and sassy character, and Addie the 12-year-old tour guide is resourceful and reliable. Still, Jennifer and Perkins’ quest to find the Eye of Zoltar and figure out what the Mighty Shandar is up to takes center stage. With characters and a plot that continue to be fun and quirky, I can’t wait for the next book in the series to be released!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Witch’s Vacuum

Poor Mr Swimble is having a bad day.

Rabbits are bouncing out of his hat, pigeons are flying out of his jacket and every time he points his finger, something magically appears – cheese sandwiches, socks . . . even a small yellow elephant on wheels!

It’s becoming a real nuisance – and he’s allergic to rabbits.

His friends at the Magic Rectangle can’t help, but the mysterious vacuum cleaner he saw that morning may have something to do with it . . .

Fourteen fantastically funny stories from master storyteller Sir Terry Pratchett, full of food fights, pirates, wizards and crooks!

These funny, sweet, fantastical short stories are only my second foray into the works of Terry Pratchett (third if you count the book he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman). I enjoyed these quick stories, and they made me more excited to read some of Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

These Ruthless Deeds

England, 1883. Still recovering from a devastating loss, Evelyn is determined to use her powers to save other gifted people from those who would harm them. But when her rescue of a young telekinetic girl goes terribly wrong, Evelyn finds herself indebted to a secret society devoted to recruiting and protecting people like Evelyn and her friends.

As she follows the Society’s orders, healing the sick and embarking on perilous recruitment missions, Evelyn sees her problems disappear. Her reputation is repaired, her friends are provided for, and her parents are newly wealthy. She reunites with the dashing Mr. Kent and recovers the reclusive Mr. Braddock (who has much less to brood over now that the Society can help him to control his dangerous power). But Evelyn can’t help fearing the Society is more sinister than it appears…

I really enjoyed this sequel to These Vicious Masks. Mr. Kent’s power to make people tell the truth when he asks a question is used for great comedic effect, but Evelyn’s struggles to decide whether or not to work with the Society of Aberrations and whether or not to kiss Sebastian keeps things tense. Secret powers + romantic tension + possibly evil societies + Victorian England = a YA series I can get behind, even if I don’t usually like romantic tension or paranormal plotlines.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Wonder

Ten-year-old August Pullman wants to be ordinary. He does ordinary things. He eats ice-cream. He plays on his Xbox. He feels ordinary – inside.

But Auggie is far from ordinary. Born with a terrible facial abnormality, he has been home-schooled by his parents his entire life, in an attempt to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. Now, Auggie’s parents are sending him to a real school. Can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, underneath it all?

So sweet and sad and wonderful! I can see why this is such a classic already. Auggie is a great character, and each of his friends and enemies are interesting and complex. There are a few cliche moments, but on the whole, this is a heartwarming story of a boy who faces bullying over his facial abnormality alongside typical school problems with courage and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Roundup: December 2017 (Part Two!)

It's the last Newbery roundup of the year! Here are all the Newbery books I read in December 2017. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been reading a lot of Newbery books this month (you might have noticed) because I’m trying to finish reading 75 points worth of books for my Newbery book challenge. With the books in this post, I’ve just made it! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People

Clara Ingram Judson presents Lincoln in all his gauntness, gawkiness, and greatness: a backwoods boy who became President and saved the Union. Judsons careful reading is enlivened by her visits to his home and vivid descriptions of the Lincoln familys pioneer life. She reveals the unforgettable story from his boyhood and days as a shopkeeper and lawyer, to Lincolns first elected offices and his election as president, the Civil War, and assassination.

This book was okay, but I, like most Americans, know a lot about Lincoln already. This is nothing special, although it’s perfectly acceptable as a children’s introduction to Abraham Lincoln.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Winterbound

The story of young people from the city adjusting to a winter in the Connecticut hills.

I really liked this story of four siblings making their way through their first winter in the country of Connecticut. The story is sweet and old fashioned–it reminded me of the Penderwicks. I would gladly read a sequel to this book if there was one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned 3 continents. In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world’s most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.

This book about the creation of the atomic bomb is interesting and informative, but also horrifying. I kept asking myself, Is this book really for kids? If you want to be terrified about the future of nuclear war (as well as learn some admittedly fascinating history of the international race to create the ultimate weapon), this book is for you–no matter what your age.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Perilous Gard

In 1558, while exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote castle known as Perilous Gard, young Kate Sutton becomes involved in a series of mysterious events that lead her to an underground world peopled by Fairy Folk—whose customs are even older than the Druids’ and include human sacrifice.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book! The beginning was slow, as Kate’s bubbly sister accidentally gets Kate sent to a country estate known as the Perilous Gard, but as Kate meets the mysterious residents of the castle and the surrounding village, she finds that there is something strange going on. Kate’s interactions with the Fairy Folk, who are treacherous and heartless, just get more and more enthralling as the book continues. If you like dark-ish books about magical beings, you might enjoy this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

One Crazy Summer

In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.

I read this book several years ago (for the Newbery challenge I participated in, it’s acceptable to re-read books you read as a child, and that’s what I did here). As I read through, I remembered most of the events, but I got even more nuance out of it than when I read it the first time. It’s a quick read about a family of sisters who spend a summer with their poet mother and the Black Panthers. Interesting and sweet.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Reviews: 1943

Quick reviews of the 1943 Newbery books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Medal Winner: Adam of the Road

“A road’s a kind of holy thing,” said Roger the Minstrel to his son, Adam. “That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”

And Adam, though only eleven, was to remember his father’s words when his beloved dog, Nick, was stolen and Roger had disappeared and he found himself traveling alone along these same great roads, searching the fairs and market towns for his father and his dog.

Here is a story of thirteenth-century England, so absorbing and lively that for all its authenticity it scarcely seems “historical.” Although crammed with odd facts and lore about the time when “longen folke to goon on pilgrimages,” its scraps of song and hymn and jongleur’s tale of the period seem as newminted and fresh as the day they were devised, and Adam is a real boy inside his gay striped surcoat. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I really enjoyed this book when I first read it, probably 15 years ago. It’s an interesting story set in medieval times, and both the story and the characters are enjoyable. I wouldn’t mind re-reading this one sometime and seeing if it holds up to my memories of it.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Middle Moffat

Who is Jane Moffat, anyway? She isn’t the youngest in the family, and she isn’t the oldest-she is always just Jane. How boring. So Jane decides to become a figure of mystery . . . the mysterious “Middle Moffat.” But being in the middle is a lot harder than it looks.

In between not rescuing stray dogs, and losing and finding best friends, Jane must secretly look after the oldest inhabitant of Cranbury . . . so he can live to be one hundred. Between brushing her hair from her eyes and holding up her stockings, she has to help the girls’ basketball team win the championship. And it falls to Jane-the only person in town with enough courage-to stand up to the frightful mechanical wizard, Wallie Bangs.

Jane is so busy keeping Cranbury in order that she barely has time to be plain old Jane. Sometimes the middle is the most exciting place of all. . . (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I really like Estes’ books. They capture the feeling of being a child in the 1940s so well. This is the second book in the Moffat series, and as you can tell from the title, it focuses on the middle child, Jane. The book is jam packed with cute, old fashioned stories about growing up.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Roundup: December 2017

I've almost finished this year's Newbery book challenge! This post includes Newbery reads--and a Caldecott, too. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m getting so close to finishing my Newbery book challenge–just in time, too! Thus, this Newbery roundup actually includes a Caldecott book, too. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Truce of the Wolf

This book is full of cute Italian stories and fables, mostly about animals interacting with humans. I enjoyed most of them, except the one which had a moral of “women can’t keep secrets.” Sigh.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Paperboy

An 11-year-old boy living in Memphis in 1959 throws the meanest fastball in town, but talking is a whole different ball game. He can barely say a word without stuttering, not even his own name. So when he takes over his best friend’s paper route for the month of July, he knows he’ll be forced to communicate with the different customers, including a housewife who drinks too much and a retired merchant marine who seems to know just about everything.

The paper route poses challenges, but it’s a run-in with the neighborhood junkman, a bully and thief, that stirs up real trouble–and puts the boy’s life, as well as that of his family’s devoted housekeeper, in danger.

This Newbery book about a boy with a stutter is sometimes hard to read. It’s filled with discussions about bullies, racism, violence, and more. Still, Victor is a great character who faces up to his disability with courage. I loved that the author says this is basically a fictionalized memoir of his own childhood–you can tell that he understands the struggles and triumphs of growing up with a stutter.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Heavenly Tenants

This supernatural tale was originally published in 1946. In the story, the Marvell family goes away on vacation, leaving their farm, pets, and livestock home alone, to be taken care of by August, the hired man. But August fails to come. That night, the neighborhood is roused by an unusual glow. When August goes to the farm to investigate, he finds that it is under the care of mysterious beings-the twelve signs of the zodiac. This story sparkles with fantasy and humorous realism that both adults and children will appreciate.

This is a very short, illustrated book about how the stars of the zodiac come to visit a family’s home when they go out of town. I don’t have too much to say about it. It’s a bit outdated, and I’m not exactly sure why someone thought it was worthy of the Newbery honor award.

Rating: Meh

Thistle and Thyme

Thistle and Thyme is a short story collection I can actually get behind! It’s filled with entertaining myths, fairy tales, and legends from the Gaelic storytelling tradition. Most of them are amusing; a couple are more serious. I really enjoyed this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Leave Me Alone!

One day, a grandmother shouts, “LEAVE ME ALONE!” and leaves her tiny home and her very big family to journey to the moon and beyond to find peace and quiet to finish her knitting. Along the way, she encounters ravenous bears, obnoxious goats, and even hordes of aliens! But nothing stops grandma from accomplishing her goal–knitting sweaters for her many grandchildren to keep them warm and toasty for the coming winter.

Here’s the Caldecott book I read for the book challenge! In it, a grandmother looks for some peace and quiet in which to do her knitting. It’s short and sweet with great illustrations. Super cute.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Review Copy: The Case of the Cursed Dodo

*Note: I received a free copy of this audio book from the author. All opinions are my own.

I’ve already read and reviewed the physical version of this book (you can read that review here), so it probably won’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed the audio version. This audio book is special–it’s more like an old-time radio show than a regular audio book. I loved the music, the sound effects, the voice over, and all the character voices. They really keep the story interesting.

I think kids will love this. Everything from the plot (hard-boiled PI panda has to solve a mystery and save endangered animals from harm) to the voice acting and sound effects is fun and engaging. Although adults might notice the fair amount of cliches and stereotypical characters, it’s still an enjoyable story, something the whole family can listen to together.

P.S. If you are a teacher or parent, the author has also provided these cool online resources for learning more about radio drama and endangered animals. Check them out!

Newbery Roundup: November 2017

In which I review the Newbery books I've read in November 2017. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m still trudging my way through the older Newbery books. *sigh* I have to admit that most of the early Newbery books just don’t hold up very well, whether because writing styles have changed or acceptable treatment of different groups of people has. Still, I’m getting there–only about 75 books left to read. I’m getting close! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Floating Island

When the doll house they inhabit is shipped overseas as a gift, a terrible storm results in shipwreck on an uninhabited tropical island for the Doll family. This includes Mr. and Mrs. Doll, their children William and Annabelle, and Dinah the cook. The story follows their adventures with affection and humor.

I loved the feel of this book–the dolls’ adventures on a tropical island, the illustrations, the narrator who talks directly to the reader–but the casual racism made it so I can’t recommend this book to modern readers. I would love to have a modernized version of this book; I think that children who like an old-fashioned adventure story would really like it.

Rating: Good but Problematic

Chucaro

Pink certainly is an unusual color for a pony, and when Pedro spies Chúcaro grazing on the Pampa he can hardly believe his eyes. He just has to have that pony for himself. Unfortunately, the estancerio’s spoiled son is equally determined to own the pony. But the wisest gauchos know that ponies as special as Chúcaro can never truly be owned. Chúcaro alone will decide for himself which gaucho will have the privilege of riding him.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Although I don’t usually like books about horses, this short and sweet book with its great illustrations kept my interest. I also appreciated that the author, although Hungarian, seems to have a fair amount of knowledge about the Pampa and its residents, and the book never seems patronizing toward its own characters. (And yes, it’s sad that that was such a surprise!)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Shiloh

When Marty Preston comes across a young beagle in the hills behind his home, it’s love at first sight–and also big trouble. It turns out the dog, which Marty names Shiloh belongs to Judd Travers, who drinks too much and has a gun and abuses his dogs. So when Shiloh runs away from Judd to Marty, Marty just has to hide him and protect him from Judd. But Marty’s secret becomes too big for him to keep to himself, and it exposes his entire family to Judd’s anger. How far will Marty have to go to make Shiloh his?

I was also surprised at how much I liked this book (again, I’m not a huge fan of animal stories). The West Virginian Southern dialect is great, and Marty’s family is wonderful. Their love and support for each other and others in their community, despite the poverty of their region, makes the story sweet even during the painful parts.

(*spoiler alert* that I think you all will be happy to have: The dog doesn’t die in this book!)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Horsecatcher

Praised for swift action and beauty of language, The Horsecatcheris Mari Sandoz’s first novel about the Indians she knew so well. Without ever leaving the world of a Cheyenne tribe in the 1830s, she creates a youthful protagonist many readers will recognize in themselves. Young Elk is expected to be a warrior, but killing even an enemy sickens him. He would rather catch and tame the mustangs that run in herds. Sandoz makes it clear that his determination to be a horsecatcher will require a moral and physical courage equal to that of any warrior. And if he must earn the right to live as he wishes, he must also draw closer to family and community.

I was really bored by this book. 1) I don’t like books about horses (see above). 2) I’m about tired of books about Native Americans not written by Native Americans. And that’s pretty much all I have to say about this book. Unless you’re obsessed with horses, it’s probably not worth your time.

Rating: Meh

Newbery Reviews: 1942

I'm continuing my journey through the Newbery books with reviews of the 1942 Newbery winners. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today’s post covers the 1942 Newbery books, which are all historical fiction. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Medal Winner: The Matchlock Gun

In 1756, New York State was still a British colony, and the French and the Indians were constant threats to Edward and his family. When his father was called away to watch for a raid from the north, only Edward was left to protect Mama and little Trudy. His father had shown him how to use the huge matchlock gun, an old Spanish gun that was twice as long as he was, but would Edward be able to handle it if trouble actually came?

I have close to no memory of this book. I enjoyed it, as I did most of the historical fiction I read as a child. But I’m not sure if I would bother re-reading it now.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Little Town on the Prairie

The long winter is finally over, and with spring comes a new job for Laura, town parties, and more time to spend with Almanzo Wilder. Laura also tries to help Pa and Ma save money for Mary to go to college.

Yes, it’s another Laura Ingalls Wilder book. This one is slightly different from the other Little House books (they’re in a town!). As always when I review these books, I feel like there’s not a lot for me to say. Others have much sweeter memories of this series than I do, and all the books have kind of blended together for me. Still, it’s a Little House book! It’s worth reading at least once.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

 

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison

In this classic frontier adventure, Lois Lenski reconstructs the real life story of Mary Jemison, who was captured in a raid as young girl and raised amongst the Seneca Indians. Meticulously researched and illustrated with many detailed drawings, this novel offers an exceptionally vivid and personal portrait of Native American life and customs.

Of all the historical fiction I read during my childhood years, this one really sticks out in my memory. A young girl is kidnapped by Native Americans, and she and her family are both distraught–at the beginning. Over time, however, Mary becomes assimilated with the Seneca tribe and wants to stay with them, even when her family comes to rescue her.

I don’t remember much about the details of this book now, so I’d be interested to see how I feel about it now. I’ve read a huge amount of early Newbery books about Native Americans, written by everyone but Native Americans, and I have found that hugely frustrating. I’m never sure how accurate those stories are, or how insensitive. Still, I appreciate that this novel is at least based on a true event, and I might revisit it in the future.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1941

Mini reviews of the 1941 Newbery books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It has been a while since I did a post reviewing the Newbery books I read as a kid. So today I’m reviewing the 1941 Newbery books that I’ve already read. (Back to more recent reads next week!) [All summaries via Goodreads.com]

Medal Winner: Call it Courage

Maftu was afraid of the sea. It had taken his mother when he was a baby, and it seemed to him that the sea gods sought vengeance at having been cheated of Mafatu. So, though he was the son of the Great Chief of Hikueru, a race of Polynesians who worshipped courage, and he was named Stout Heart, he feared and avoided tha sea, till everyone branded him a coward. When he could no longer bear their taunts and jibes, he determined to conquer that fear or be conquered– so he went off in his canoe, alone except for his little dog and pet albatross. A storm gave him his first challenge. Then days on a desert island found him resourceful beyond his own expectation. This is the story of how his courage grew and how he finally returned home. This is a legend. It happened many years ago, but even today the people of Hikueru sing this story and tell it over their evening fires.

This is one of two books that Armstrong Sperry won a Newbery prize for (this one the medal, the other an honor award). Both books are focused on sailing and exploration, topics which don’t generally interest me. I thought this was pretty good when I read it as a child, but I feel no need to go back and read it again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Blue Willow

To Janey Larkin, the blue willow plate was the most beautiful thing in her life, a symbol of the home she could only dimly remember. Now that her father was an itinerant worker, Janey didn’t have a home she could call her own or any real friends, as her family had to keep moving, following the crops from farm to farm. Someday, Janey promised the willow plate, with its picture of a real house, her family would once again be able to set down roots in a community.

Blue Willow is an important fictional account of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and has been called The Grapes of Wrath for children.

This is one of those books that I’d like to read again someday. I remember enjoying this book, the rustic feeling that pervaded it. Blue Willow is the kind of book that made me like historical fiction so much. Through Janey’s life, we get a glimpse at life during the Great Depression, but it never actually becomes depressing (at least, as far as I remember).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Long Winter

The town of De Smet is hit with terrible, howling blizzards and Laura and her family must ration their food and coal. When the supply train doesn’t arrive, Almanzo Wilder and his brother realize something must be done. They begin an impossible journey in search of provisions, before it’s too late.

In case you weren’t aware, this book is another installation of the Little House on the Prairie series.  I remember liking this book pretty well, just as I did with most of the Little House books, but this one was never my favorite in the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Roundup, October 2017

The latest roundup of Newbery books I've read, both new and old. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Not only have I been working through the classic Newbery books lately, but I’ve also found a few more recent Newbery books in the archives that I read months (or years) ago and never reviewed (oops!). So in today’s Newbery roundup, you’ll find mini reviews of books from recent years and also some of the oldest honor books. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

I love Jacqueline Woodson’s writing style, and this book, which shares Woodson’s own childhood in free verse form, is no exception. It’s a lovely, quick read that will stay with you even if you don’t generally like poetry.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Daughter of the Seine

This is a fictionalized biography of the French Revolutionary patriot and writer Jeanne Manon Roland de la Platiere (1754-1793), who became known simply by Madame Roland. She was the daughter of a Paris engraver who encouraged his daughter’s interest in music, painting, and literature. As a young girl, she told to her grand-mother: “I’ll call myself daughter of the Seine,” and as an adult she often said that the river was part of her soul. As a young woman she became interested in the radical ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the movement for equality. She shared these enthusiasms with her husband, whom she married in 1780. After the outbreak of the Revolution, she formed a salon of followers, who late became known as the Girondists. Under the constitutional monarchy, her husband became minister of the interior, a post he held after the monarchy was overthrown. Madame Roland both directed her husband’s career and influenced the important politicians of the period.

As with most of the historical fiction from this era of Newbery books, it’s hard to believe that kids would ever have enjoyed reading A Daughter of the Seine. This book is not as dry as others I’ve read, but it’s still pretty forgettable (and surprisingly long). I did learn some new things about this interesting historical figure, and I appreciated that the focus of this book is a woman, but I still wouldn’t really recommend it for modern-day readers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Three Times Lucky

Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone’s business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she’s been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her “upstream mother,” she’s found a home with the Colonel–a café owner with a forgotten past of his own–and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.

Full of wisdom, humor, and grit, this timeless yarn will melt the heart of even the sternest Yankee.

This book is wonderful! If you like small-town, Southern characters in the style of Lucky Strikes or even A Year Down Yonder, you’ll enjoy this book. There is a sequel which I still haven’t read, but I definitely plan to.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Dark Star of Itza

The story of a Mayan princess who lived at the time the ancient city of Chichen Itza fell under Toltec rule.

Why is this book so obsessed with adult themes (war, jealous love, and human sacrifices among them)? It’s a bit jarring in a children’s book. Despite that, I did like the character of Nicte, a princess and the daughter of the high priest in the ancient Mayan civilization. Like A Daughter of the Seine, this is one of the less offensive and dry historical fiction books from this period in Newbery history.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Heart of a Samurai

In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way.

Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.

This is an interesting fictionalized account of Manjiro, a Japanese boy who helped unite the US and Japan, ending Japan’s 250 years of isolation. Although I was slightly familiar with the story of Manjiro before reading this book, I still found myself feeling like these events couldn’t possibly have occurred–but they did! The author does a great job of fleshing out the actual historical events (including some of Manjiro’s own words from his letters and writings) with the thoughts and feelings a young man might have had. This book is a well-written, fascinating account of historical events that I actually would recommend for modern-day readers, whether children or adults.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Queer Person

Relates the experiences of an outcast deaf-mute Indian boy as he grows to adulthood and eventually becomes a great leader.

Here we go again… I find it very questionable that this white man (who, granted, seems to have spent a fair amount of time working with Native American tribes) has taken it upon himself to write about being a deaf Native American. In addition, the story (young deaf boy struggles to find his place in his tribe, finds out he has royal blood, magically becomes able to hear, wins the heart of the princess) is trite. I can’t really recommend this one.

Rating: Meh

The Great Fire

The Great Fire of 1871 was one of most colossal disasters in American history. Overnight, the flourshing city of Chicago was transformed into a smoldering wasteland. The damage was so profound that few people believed the city could ever rise again.

By weaving personal accounts of actual survivors together with the carefully researched history of Chicago and the disaster, Jim Murphy constructs a riveting narrative that recreates the event with drama and immediacy. And finally, he reveals how, even in a time of deepest dispair, the human spirit triumphed, as the people of Chicago found the courage and strength to build their city once again.

I love this kind of historical book, filled with photos and first-hand accounts. Murphy offers a historical view of the great fire in Chicago, including its causes, the destruction it caused, and the fallout. He also takes it upon himself to remind readers that the blame which fell on the poor, the immigrants, and the women who lived in the city was a product of its time and not an accurate reflection of what happened. This is fascinating reading, whether you’re a kid or an adult. (And if you like this book, you might also enjoy Jim Murphy’s other Newbery book, An American Plague.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

1930s Newbery Reviews

Meggy Macintosh

Meggy MacIntosh had a gentle manner and an adventurous spirit inherited from her father who had fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie. But there was no adventure in Edinburgh where Meggy was the neglected ward of her titled uncle, so she ran away to North Carolina to find her heroine, the celebrated Flora MacDonald. Meggy reached the Carolinas in March 1775 where she finally meets the Highlanders of her dreamson. (Summary via goodreads.com)

This book is an interesting historical fiction novel about a Scottish girl who makes the trek to America and becomes a Patriot. Meggy spends a lot of time adjusting to the new, wild environment of the New World, and she is torn between her childhood heroine (a supporter of the king) and her growing sense that America is worth fighting for. Sadly, there’s a fair amount of racism toward slaves and Native Americans contained within. I enjoyed Meggy’s story, but it was greatly marred by its racist content.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Garram the Hunter

Garram, son of the chief of the Hillmen tribe, is forced to flee his home when it is revealed to him that a planned usurping of his father’s position as chief will take place soon unless Garram goes into hiding. The journey that Garram subsequently embarks upon helps prepare him for the inevitable confrontation with his father’s political enemies that is sure to occur when he eventually returns home. (Summary via goodreads.com)

If you like hunting and fighting, you might like this book. That’s pretty much all that’s involved in the story. As you might expect, a white American man isn’t a very sensitive author to write about tribal Africa. It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, but it certainly isn’t one I’d read again.

Rating: Meh

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