Newbery Reviews: El Deafo and George Washington’s World

El Deafo is an adorable and interesting graphic novel on growing up deaf. (George Washington's World wasn't bad, either!). | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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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!

El Deafo

“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.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

June YA Roundup

This June YA roundup contains a few forgettable books and one really stellar one. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As I try to dig myself out from my stacks of books, I’m going to be doing a few roundups to give you some quick reviews on the books I’ve been reading lately (and a few books that I read months ago… oops). Today’s post is a YA roundup. Enjoy! (All summaries are via Goodreads.com)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

There’s no wonder that this book has become a modern YA classic. It has hilarious illustrations, a great writing style that captures the voice of a teenage boy, and it is sad and triumphant and angry and eye-opening. Junior faces prejudice both from the white school he attends and the people on the rez that he left behind. He watches many of his friends and family member succumb to alcohol, but no matter what happens, Junior keeps drawing. I know this book doesn’t cover all the varied experiences of Native Americans, so I’d love to read more books featuring Native American characters in the future.

There is a fair amount of swearing and sexual content in this book, so be forewarned.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Grounded

In Hemlock Hollow, life isn’t easy, but it is simple. Things in my community haven’t changed much in over three hundred years, since the time my Amish ancestors came to what is now the Green Republic. I milk my cow by hand, make fresh bread every morning, and hope to be courted by Jeremiah, a boy I’ve known since childhood.

When my father falls ill, the English doctor says a hospital outside the wall can heal him. Jeremiah convinces me to go on rumspringa, to experience the outside world as an Englisher in order to be closer to my father during his recovery. Others have gone before me. They claim it’s an adventure. But adventure turns to horror as an ordinary light switch thrusts me into a new world, and revelations about my personal history make me question everything I believe.

All my life I’ve worked to be simple. I can’t pretend anymore. Nothing about me is simple.

The idea of this book is great. Basically, the main character, raised Amish, suddenly finds herself in the outside (dystopian) world. While there, she discovers she has incredible powers that she can’t control. With little knowledge of the modern world or her own powers, she falls in with a boy who has a similar power and must decide who she can trust and how she can save her father.

Although I really liked the idea, I found the MC annoying and naive. (Honestly, I can’t even remember her name.) I won’t be looking into the rest of this series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Alias Hook

“Every child knows how the story ends. The wicked pirate captain is flung overboard, caught in the jaws of the monster crocodile who drags him down to a watery grave. But it was not yet my time to die. It’s my fate to be trapped here forever, in a nightmare of childhood fancy, with that infernal, eternal boy.”

Meet Captain James Benjamin Hook, a witty, educated Restoration-era privateer cursed to play villain to a pack of malicious little boys in a pointless war that never ends. But everything changes when Stella Parrish, a forbidden grown woman, dreams her way to the Neverland in defiance of Pan’s rules. From the glamour of the Fairy Revels, to the secret ceremonies of the First Tribes, to the mysterious underwater temple beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, the magical forces of the Neverland open up for Stella as they never have for Hook. And in the pirate captain himself, she begins to see someone far more complex than the storybook villain.

With Stella’s knowledge of folk and fairy tales, she might be Hook’s last chance for redemption and release if they can break his curse before Pan and his warrior boys hunt her down and drag Hook back to their neverending game.

I have always hated Peter Pan and his eternal boyhood. So I was interested by this book, which presents Pan as the powerful dictator of Neverland and Hook as the selfish but exhausted appointed nemesis. Hook, cursed many years ago by a scorned lover, is basically there to satisfy the whims of selfish little boys. He works for years to discover a way out for himself and his men, but none is apparent–until one day Stella appears.

I enjoyed the twist on the old Peter Pan story, especially since it paints Pan as the villain (like I said, I’ve always hated him). Still, I wasn’t a big fan of the romance, and reading about Pan’s actions just made me mad.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

No and Me

Parisian teenager Lou has an IQ of 160, OCD tendencies, and a mother who has suffered from depression for years. But Lou is about to change her life—and that of her parents—all because of a school project about homeless teens. While doing research, Lou meets No, a teenage girl living on the streets. As their friendship grows, Lou bravely asks her parents if No can live with them, and is astonished when they agree. No’s presence forces Lou’s family to come to terms with a secret tragedy. But can this shaky, newfound family continue to live together when No’s own past comes back to haunt her?

I picked up this book without knowing anything about it, other than the fact that it was a book in translation (I read it for a book challenge). So I was pleasantly surprised by the story that I was given. Lou lives in Paris, and she surprises herself and her family when she asks them if the homeless girl she’s been interviewing can live with them. No has had a rough past (obviously), and it follows her and threatens the new beginning she’s been given.

Well written (and well translated), unusual characters, and a powerful story. I’m glad I picked this one up.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Review: The Dream Coach

The Dream Coach is one of the 1925 Newbery honor books, and although it's a cute illustrated book, it has issues. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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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.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Review: Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story

A charming but odd (and definitely dated) Newbery honor book. | A book review from NewberyandBeyond.com
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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.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Roundup: March Edition

The March Newbery roundup contains this month's best (and worst) of the Newbery books I've been reading. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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We’re back with another Newbery roundup for March! Other than the 2016 Newbery winners that my sister and I reviewed, I’ve read some older books as well. Some were pretty decent, several were forgettable, and one was something I’m definitely not interested. So, on we go!

The Corn Grows Ripe

When his father is badly injured in an accident, a young Mayan boy called Tigre wonders who will plant and harvest the corn that they need to survive–and to please the Mayan gods. Twelve-year-old Tigre has never done a man’s work before. Now he will have to take his father’s place. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I felt all right about this book. It was interesting to read about the culture of the Mayans and how important corn was to the families of the time, but I didn’t care very much, to be honest.

Good but Forgettable

The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane

I always enjoy what Russell Freedman writes (as you might remember). He is a fantastic biography writer, and this book about the Wright brothers is no exception. I found it amazing how much the brothers had to discover for themselves; they really did pioneer the science of flight, not just flying itself. The book was crammed with tons of pictures (the Wright brothers were meticulous about documenting their progress). I did sometimes skim the more technical parts, though.

Good but Forgettable

Kildee House

In this book, a man decides to escape his former life by building a home in the midst of the redwood forest. He then makes friends with a slew of animals, including a family of skunks, a pair of raccoons, some squirrels, and many other woodland creatures, as well as a preteen girl. The girl and the old man work together to raise the animals and make them comfortable, even as their families continue to grow.

It’s a cute idea, and the illustrations were pretty awesome. If your kid is into animals, they’ll almost definitely enjoy this book.

Good but Forgettable

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones. With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger.

As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This was probably my favorite book of this month’s Newbery roundup. It’s well written and interesting, and Callie is a really fun character. I did struggle with how much her parents attempt to shove her into the turn of the century “female” box–they’re constantly discouraging her interest in science and trying to make her better at needlework and baking. I know it’s realistic, but it’s still heartbreaking, and I’m not sure I can force myself to read the rest of the series, good as this book was.

Pretty Darn Good

Pecos Bill

I really didn’t care for this book. I’m not a fan of mythology and tall tales, as a general rule, and this book wasn’t an exception to that rule. Add to that the casual racism and sexism that comes with many of the older Newbery books, and you come up with a book that I had to force myself to finish. Unless you or your kid is obsessed with American tall tales, maybe don’t bother.

Meh

Newbery Reviews: 1931

The latest addition to my series of Newbery book reviews: quick reviews of the 1931 Newbery books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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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.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1929

Short reviews of the 1929 Newbery books. | NewberyandBeyond.com
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Newbery Medal Winner: The Trumpeter of Krakow

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.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Book Roundup: January Edition

A collection of all the Newbery books I read in January. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Over the past month or so, I spent a lot of my reading time catching up on some Newbery books. If you’re here for the Newbery part of Newbery and Beyond, this post is for you. Enjoy!

Along Came a Dog

This book is by Meindert Dejong, a guy who I’ve had limited success reading in the past. This is partly because his books are old, and they read that way–the stories are old-fashioned and slow, and usually not much happens. Another strike against Dejong is that he tends to write animal books, something I have a hard time liking. But this one wasn’t too bad. I enjoyed the story of the little red hen, the big dog, and the man who watches out for them both. It’s cute and lighthearted, especially if you or your kids are particularly interested in the eccentricities of farm animals.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Voyagers

Ah, a book of mythology and short stories, two things which I really dislike as a general rule. Unfortunately, The Voyagers was no exception. This book was a 1926 Newbery honor book, and Colum’s writing is just as outdated as Dejong’s. (I realize this makes me sound like a spoiled modern-day reader who can’t stand anything slower paced than The Hunger Games… I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about that!)

The many stories in this book are all about ships and exploration and discovering new lands. Some are myths, but Columbus and Magellan also get a mention here. These short stories could make for fun bedtime reading if your kid is especially interested in exploring new worlds.

Rating: Meh

Honk, the Moose

This book was adorable. It’s a 1936 Newbery honor book, and it’s all about a moose that two boys discover inside their barn in Minnesota. At first, everyone is afraid and doesn’t know how to get rid of the moose, but the boys befriend him and start calling him Honk. The book is fully illustrated by Kurt Wiese, which makes it even more fun. The book does get into some dated and offensive cultural stereotypes (it was written in the 1930s), but these are easy to skim over if you are reading it aloud to your child.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Voice that Challenged a Nation

Oh, Russell Freedman. You are the best. You make me care about reading biographies, which is yet another book genre I usually steer clear of. Freedman has a way of shining new light on the famous figures in American history (his book on Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my favorites), and his biography of Marian Anderson is fantastic. Freedman discusses not only the incredible musical achievements of the contralto, but also gets into her fight for civil rights for African Americans. She, like Eleanor Roosevelt, broke ground in ways that were shocking for their time, ways which I was only remotely aware of before reading this book. (And apparently, Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson were friends! I love that thought.) Chock full of photos and snippets from newspapers and personal letters, this book is sure to teach your kids (or you) something new about this amazing woman.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Great Wheel

This Newbery honor book was a pretty interesting look at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (especially in light of one of my other recent reads). It follows Conn, a young Irish man who moves to Chicago to help his uncle build the first Ferris wheel in time for the fair. I do wish women weren’t relegated only to a romantic role throughout the book, but it’s still a fun read.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Waterless Mountain

Let me start this mini review by saying that I have absolutely no idea how this book would have been received by Native Americans at the time it was written. The story follows a young Navajo boy (spelled “Navaho” throughout the book) and his journey to become a medicine man, but it was written in the 1930s by a white woman. Armer was well respected by the Native Americans she lived with, and she became very familiar with their customs and way of life, but it does beg the question of how accurate a portrait this book actually is.

As a story, I found Waterless Mountain pretty interesting. I enjoyed reading about the ceremonies and traditional stories that the Navajos passed down through the generations, and I didn’t find it patronizing as many Goodreads reviewers did. Still, use caution before passing this book down to your child.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ABC Bunny

This is a rhyming ABC book that tells the story of a bunny and his adventures, complete with black and white illustrations and a song you can sing with your child. (Interestingly, Gag’s sister and brother were the ones who wrote the song and drew the illustrations.) It’s pretty darn cute.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Review: 1928

A review of the 1928 Newbery medal winner, Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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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.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Pairing: The Phantom Tollbooth and Stardust

This book pairing is a fun mix of magic, drama, and adventure. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing my posts in the Reading to Distraction book pairing challenge (you can read the previous posts here, here, and here) with another couple of books that I truly enjoyed, even before I thought of putting them together.

The books in this pairing are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster with illustrations by Jules Feiffer and Stardust by my favorite, Neil Gaiman. According to BuzzFeed, here’s the connection:

It’s the playfulness of The Phantom Tollbooth that wins over its readers (and, really, it’s one of the children’s books that warrants revisiting), and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust captures that same sense expertly. When Tristan Thorn embarks on a quest to find a fallen star, he encounters witches, elf-lords, a captain of a flying ship, and all manners of eccentrics that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Milo mopes in black ink sketches, until he assembles a tollbooth and drives through. He jumps to the island of Conclusions. But brothers King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis war over words and numbers. Joined by ticking watchdog Tock and adult-size Humbug, Milo rescues the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, and learns to enjoy life. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I read this book several times as a child and loved it, even though parts of it always creeped me out. I always loved reading about other worlds in which everything was neatly organized into specific countries (I was kind of a weird kid), and this book filled that need for me. The Phantom Tollbooth is also full of wordplay, which both children and adults can enjoy. The illustrations work perfectly with this strange, magical story.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Stardust

Hopelessly crossed in love, a boy of half-fairy parentage leaves his mundane Victorian-English village on a quest for a fallen star in the magical realm. The star proves to be an attractive woman with a hot temper, who plunges with our hero into adventures featuring witches, the lion and the unicorn, plotting elf-lords, ships that sail the sky, magical transformations, curses whose effects rebound, binding conditions with hidden loopholes and all the rest. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Not only a great book by Neil Gaiman, but also a pretty funny movie. (Do be forewarned, though, that if you watched the movie first, the book will be quite a bit darker and more “adult” than the movie was.) This is one of the less creepy of Neil Gaiman’s worlds, but it still has that dark, not-quite-earthly flavor that Gaiman is so good at producing. There’s adventure, humor, and lots of magic as Tristan makes his way through the land beyond the wall in an attempt to bring back a star.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Both of these books show their heroes making the leap from the dull, ordinary world into a world of magic and adventure–Milo through a tollbooth, Tristan through a wall in a seemingly empty field. Both are well written and lots of fun. If you’re into magical adventures with a sense of humor, you could do much worse than this book pairing.

Have you read either of these books? How do you think they stack up to each other? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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