Newbery Roundup: February 2017

I'm making progress in my Newbery book challenge! You can read reviews of the latest Newbery books I've read here. | Book reviews by

I’m taking part in the Newbery book challenge hosted by Smiling Shelves (because how could I not??), and so far I’m making good progress. I read several Newbery books in February, bringing my total points up to 15 (from 7 books). In this post, I’m providing quick reviews of three of the books I read recently. (All summaries via

Because of Winn Dixie

The summer Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket–and comes out with a dog. A big, ugly, suffering dog with a sterling sense of humor. A dog she dubs Winn-Dixie. Winn-Dixie is better at making friends than anyone Opal has ever known, and together they meet the local librarian, Miss Franny Block, who once fought off a bear with a copy of WAR AND PEACE. They meet Gloria Dump, who is nearly blind but sees with her heart, and Otis, an ex-con who sets the animals in his pet shop loose after hours, then lulls them with his guitar.

I read this book as a child and just recently re-read it. I loved the book then, and I was pleased to see that I still love it now. Ten-year-old Opal and her dog, Winn-Dixie, make friends with everyone in their Florida town as Opal finally comes to grips with her mother leaving her and her father.

Kate DiCamillo is a multiple-time Newbery honoree, and for good reason. Especially in this book, her characters are wonderful. From Opal’s father, who she thinks of as “the pastor,” to the local librarian to an ex-con with a heart of gold to an old woman the other kids call a witch, small town life never seemed so sweet. If you haven’t read this book, you must.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good


A Bulgarian peasant boy must convince his mother that he is destined to be a sculptor, not a farmer.

Dobry offers a pretty interesting look at Bulgarian peasant life, but the characters don’t experience growth. Goodreads doesn’t have much to say about this book, and neither do I. I enjoyed the depictions of the peasant children’s lives and then immediately forgot about it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Jumping-Off Place

In the early 1900s, four orphaned siblings, the eldest being seventeen, set out to fulfill their uncle’s dream of homesteading in Tripp County, South Dakota, and although they face drought, discomfort, and sabotaging squatters, new friends and inner strength help them carry on.

I love stories about homesteading, and this one–about four children who prove up their own homestead when their uncle dies before he can move there–is really interesting. If you like books about children doing things without adult supervision, this is for you.

Warning: There is a blatant use of the n-word early in the book, shocking (at least to modern ears) in how casual its use is. Please be aware if you decide to give this book to a child.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Are any of you participating in this book challenge? I’d love to hear about your progress!

Newbery Review: Flora & Ulysses

Book Review: Flora & Ulysses | Newbery and Beyond

This book was ridiculously cute!  Even though it’s fairly long (about 230 pages), I sped through it in less than two hours.  Kate DiCamillo has written other Newbery books (as well as the non-Newbery book, The Magician’s Elephant), but this is her most recent: It’s the Newbery Medal winner for this year.  And I can definitely see why.  Nothing really traumatic happens (as in many Newbery books); it’s just an adorable adventure with ten-year-old Flora and her squirrel, Ulysses.

The story begins with a comic: An innocent squirrel is sucked up into a powerful vacuum named the Ulysses 2000X.  Flora runs outside to see what the commotion is about, and she gives the squirrel CPR.  Amazingly, this not only works, but the squirrel seems to have gone through a transformation in his near-death experience.  He is suddenly much smarter than the average squirrel.  Flora, sensing this, names the squirrel Ulysses after the vacuum that almost killed him, and she decides to take him home.  Flora is obsessed with comic books, even though her mother, a romance writer, has forbidden her to read them.  She decides that Ulysses is like her favorite comic book hero, Incandesto, and that Ulysses is destined to protect the weak and the endangered.

Eventually, Flora finds that Ulysses can not only understand her, but he can write–he types out poetry on her mother’s typewriter.  Flora meets William Spiver, the nephew of the next door neighbor who almost sucked up Ulysses in her vacuum, and William Spiver becomes (reluctantly, on Flora’s part) Flora’s friend and cohort.  Flora goes with her father to his apartment, and she and Ulysses get into scrapes along the way.

The characters are quirky and adorable.  The best thing about this book is K.G. Campbell’s pencil illustrations, which often take the form of the comics that Flora loves so much.  The plot is a little ridiculous–a poetry-writing squirrel?–but a fun ride nonetheless.  It takes only two days for the entire plot to play out, which keeps things sweet and simple–just perfect for a book filled with comics, adventure, and squirrels.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Review: The Magician’s Elephant

Book Review: The Magician's Elephant | Newbery and Beyond

This book, though not a Newbery book itself, is written by Kate DiCamillo, who wrote the Newbery books Because of Winn Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, and Flora & Ulysses.  The Magician’s Elephant is sweet and has a warm, dark, mid-winter feel to it.  The story begins with a young boy missing his sister, who he has been told died at birth.  But when a fortune teller tells him that his sister is alive, and the elephant will lead him to her, everything begins to change.  Sure enough, an elephant appears when a mediocre magician longs to do something spectacular and makes an elephant appear out of thin air.

The plot is fairly simple, for all it is outlandish and impossible.  Something about the writing keeps the fantastic appearance of the elephant subtle and understated, almost dreamy (the illustrations by Yoko Tanaka really add to this feeling).  The main draw of this book is the characters, who are almost like characters in a play.  Their personalities are silly and their dialogue seems stilted, but not in a bad way–just in a scripted way.  It’s almost like you’re watching the characters from above.  Everything is very deliberate and precise, and somehow that was comforting to me.  It was probably written for younger children, but if you’re looking for a simple, fun story that makes you feel like you’re watching a play, you will probably enjoy this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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