It’s time for another Newbery roundup! This time I’m retroactively reviewing the 1940 Newbery books that I read as a child. And I’m sorry to say there were no real winners from that year. (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)
Medal Winner: Daniel Boone
Daniel Boone was a farmer who couldn’t stay put. Something was always pulling him westward into new and mysterious lands, and when this pull got so strong that he could no longer ignore it, and his wife and children could not persuade him to stay, he just went, with his toes pointing into the West and his eyes glued to the hills.
As a child, I knew a fair amount about Daniel Boone. He lived an interesting life full of adventure, and any kid who enjoys adventure stories is likely to enjoy learning about Daniel Boone’s life. Still, I found this book just okay. It definitely shows its age, and despite the interesting material, it couldn’t keep my attention for long.
Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz
Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz is a children’s biography of the nineteenth-century paleontologist and natural scientist Louis Agassiz by Mabel Robinson. It tells his life story from his boyhood in Switzerland to his professorship at Harvard.
When I read this book as a kid, I found it pretty awful. It was dry and boring, as many children’s biographies were at the time. Unless for some reason your child has a fascination with Louis Agassiz (I don’t know any children who do), I’d skip this book.
Rating: Skip This One
By the Shores of Silver Lake
Laura and her family are head to the Dakota Territory for a chance to own their own land–and stop moving. The new town of De Smet is filling up with settlers lured west by the promise of free land, and the Ingalls family must do whatever it takes too defend their claim.
If you enjoy the Little House on the Prairie series, I don’t need to tell you about this book. I enjoyed it when I read it, but it kind of blurs together with all the other books in the series. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that these books are classics for a reason–if you or your kids haven’t read them yet, give them a shot!
Ingrid is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or at least her shoes are. And getting them back will mean getting tangled up in a murder investigation as complicated as the mysteries solved by her idol, Sherlock Holmes. With soccer practice, schoolwork, and the lead role in her town’s production of Alice in Wonderland, Ingrid is swamped. But as things in Echo Falls keep getting curiouser and curiouser, Ingrid realizes she must solve the murder on her own — before it’s too late! (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This is a fun, kind of dark murder mystery for MG readers. It’s pretty obvious that this is Abrahams’ first exploration of children’s fiction; some of the things Ingrid does are kind of unrealistic for a kid her age. Still, I enjoyed following Ingrid as she gets in over her head and tries to solve a murder without implicating herself.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Pleasing the Ghost
As nine-year-old Dennis confronts the ghost of his uncle Arvie, Arvie’s eccentric antics and wonderful wordplay keep the reader laughing. But at its tender heart, the story reveals the holes left in our lives when we lose the ones we love. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I never thought I’d dislike a book by Sharon Creech! She has written some of my favorite books of all time, but Pleasing the Ghost just didn’t do it for me. I think I’m drawn more toward Creech’s MG fiction, rather than her children’s fiction. Still, I found this book cute, and small children will probably still enjoy it.
In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was so lovely! Minli’s journey to find the Old Man of the Moon was such a fun way to string together the Chinese folk stories that author Grace Lin grew up reading. Plus there is beautiful full color art. This is a quick read that should be on your (or your child’s) TBR list.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
The Tangle-Coated Horse
Ella Young was born in 1867 in the little village of Feenagh, County Antrim. “From childhood I heard tales of ghosts, banshees, haunted castles, mischievous and friendly sprites, snatches of ballads, and political arguments….It was not until I came to Dublin and met Standish O’Grady, A.E., and Kuna Meyer that I realized what a heritage waited for me in Celtic literature. I read every translation I could get, learned Irish, and betook myself to Gaelic Ireland where, by turf fires, I could hear the poems of the Fianna recited by folk who had heard the faery music and danced in faery circles…”
This is one of the old, out of print Honor books that I’ve ordered through interlibrary loan. I’m finding that most of the books that fall into that category are short story collections, which I’m not a big fan of (as you might remember). This one, a collection of tales about ancient Ireland and the magical creatures that lived there, is not too bad, but I found myself getting bored much of the time. I have a feeling your kids will probably feel the same way about it.
Tales and legends from Finland form the background to this story of a modern Finnish boy who is a student during the Finnish Revolution of World War I that freed that country from oppressive Russian rule.
Vaino was surprisingly enjoyable. Expecting another short story collection (see above), I was glad to find that the majority of this book consists of historical fiction focused on Finland in the early 20th century. There are short stories here about the fictional creatures and gods that populated ancient Finland (of course there are), but they are interspersed with the real-life events of the Finnish revolution during WWI and the adventures of Vaino, a young Finnish boy who gets caught up in these events. The intertwining of these two threads made this book work.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
In the Beginning
A thought-provoking collection of twenty-five stories that reflect the wonder and glory of the origins of the world and humankind. With commentary by the author.
You know I love Virginia Hamilton. This Newbery book of hers, In the Beginning, retells many of the world’s creation stories. The book is filled with great illustrations and explanations of these myths, including the various types of creation stories. I didn’t find this book as compelling as the last Virginia Hamilton I read, but I certainly don’t regret reading it.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
The Year of Billy Miller
When Billy Miller has a mishap at the statue of the Jolly Green Giant at the end of summer vacation, he ends up with a big lump on his head. What a way to start second grade, with a lump on your head! As the year goes by, though, Billy figures out how to navigate elementary school, how to appreciate his little sister, and how to be a more grown up and responsible member of the family and a help to his busy working mom and stay-at-home dad.
If you’ve read as many Newbery books as I have, you start to realize that there are major themes for the different time periods in which they’ve given the award. As mentioned above, many of the early Newbery books are collections of myths and short stories, while the 70s and 80s brought a glut of historical fiction. The most recent decade or so has been marked by unique, easy-to-read writing styles and a branching out from the topics of previous years.
The Year of Billy Miller, a Newbery honor book from 2014, fits nicely into that description. It’s a sweet story about a wonderful, ordinary second grade year. In four consecutive sections, seven-year-old Billy learns how to get along with his teacher, his mother, his sister, and his father. Your second grader will almost certainly enjoy this book.
I’m continuing my journey of reading the classics that have somehow escaped me (you can read previous posts here and here). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Beautiful and Damned were next on my list, simply because I happened to have audio book versions of each. (I admit to listening to each of them on 2x speed and using my 30 minute commute to force myself to listen to them when they got dry and boring.) Still, it’s easy to see how each of these books became classics, and I’m glad I read them.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
First published in 1852, this book follows the story of several slaves and the white people who surround them. When Mr. Shelby, the slave owner, finds himself in debt, he has to sell two of his favorite slaves–kind, patient Tom and the young child of Eliza. Eliza decides to run away with her child, while Tom agrees to be sold downriver. We follow both characters, along with the masters and fellow slaves they encounter on their travels.
I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. It is powerful and surprisingly modern for the time it was written. It’s easy to see why Abraham Lincoln reportedly cited it as the cause of the Civil War. Of course, there is a fair amount of racism still present (it was written in the 1850s, after all), and there is a strong case of White Savior Complex and a large group of simple, pure-hearted slaves, but I was amazed at what a case Stowe built for ending slavery. She focused on how deeply these mothers felt the loss of their children, husbands the loss of their wives, and often directs her narrative voice at the audience, urging them to think about how they would feel in similar circumstances. Stowe clearly had a deep Christian faith, as did many of her readers at the time, and she gathers evidence for how unchristian it is to own slaves. She even attacks those who justify slavery by describing how kind they are to their own slaves and how lost these people would be without guidance–Stowe rightly points out that everyone desires freedom above practically all else and how harmful it is to be even a kindly master.
If you can get past the historical racism inherent to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the length which at times feels dry, you should read this book. I’m glad I did, even though I doubt I’ll pick it up again.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
The Beautiful and Damned
Embellished with the author’s lyrical prose, here is the story of Harvard-educated, aspiring aesthete Anthony Patch and his beautiful wife, Gloria. As they await the inheritance of his grandfather’s fortune, their reckless marriage sways under the influence of alcohol and avarice. A devastating look at the nouveau riche and New York nightlife, as well as the ruinous effects of wild ambition, The Beautiful and the Damned achieved stature as one of Fitzgerald’s most accomplished novels.
Fitzgerald is great at presenting a depressing, dark view of human nature, and that’s exactly what he does in The Beautiful and Damned. Anthony and Gloria selfishly mistreat each other and fall into straits as they can’t control their spending/drinking/vanity. It’s painful to see them do so much harm to themselves and each other, although it is of course very well written. If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, you’ll know what to expect from this book.
I’ve been working my way through several more Newbery books, both new and old, this month. Surprisingly, all of them were enjoyable, and a couple were very good!
Splendors and Glooms
The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is so expert at manipulating his stringed puppets that they appear alive. Clara Wintermute, the only child of a wealthy doctor, is spellbound by Grisini’s act and invites him to entertain at her birthday party. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with caravan, puppets, and his two orphaned assistants.
Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are dazzled by the Wintermute home. Clara seems to have everything they lack — adoring parents, warmth, and plenty to eat. In fact, Clara’s life is shadowed by grief, guilt, and secrets. When Clara vanishes that night, suspicion of kidnapping falls upon the puppeteer and, by association, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This book is just fun children’s fiction. It’s a dark story with lots of magic. The kids are likable characters, and the inner thoughts of each of the three (pampered but overprotected Clara, hardworking Lizzie Rose, and frightened, angry Parsefall) are interesting to follow.
If you or your kids are looking for a magical story with a bit of an edge, you couldn’t do much better than Splendors and Glooms.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
Inside Out & Back Again
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
Inside Out & Back Again is a novel told in free verse poetry. It depicts the author’s fictionalized experiences of moving to Alabama after the Vietnam War, and it is by turns heartwarming and saddening. The first segment of the book describes Hà’s life in Vietnam with all the foods and traditions that she loves. But after the Vietnam War forces Hà and her family to move to the United States, Hà finds herself struggling to learn a new language, eat new foods, and meet people who aren’t excited to see a different face.
This is a book that not only teaches about a certain era of our world’s recent history, but also has important applications in our world today. In a time of worldwide upheaval with millions of refugees fleeing their home countries, Inside Out & Back Again can offer middle grade kids a new perspective on the struggles and joys that many immigrants face.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
In the tradition of Hamilton’s The People Could Fly and In the Beginning, a dramatic new collection of 25 compelling tales from the female African American storytelling tradition. Each story focuses on the role of women–both real and fantastic–and their particular strengths, joys and sorrows. Full-color illustrations. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This is probably my favorite book in this whole roundup, and it’s not even a Newbery book (Virginia Hamilton is a multiple-time Newbery author, but this book is not one of those Newbery books). Her Stories is a book of lovely stories and illustrations. It includes African, African-American, and Creole folk tales and fairy tales, along with a few nonfiction bios, all focused on female protagonists. And I love the fact that each of the tales includes helpful explanatory notes which describe the origins of the story and how it ties into that culture’s storytelling tradition.
If you want to add diversity to your child’s bookshelf, you could hardly do better than this collection of stories about African and African American women. The stories themselves are wonderful, the illustrations are gorgeous, and the short story format makes it easy to read one or two with your child before bed. I can’t recommend this not-quite-Newbery book enough.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
A fictional history of railroading, as told by the first steam engine. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
Little Blacknose is a short story for young children about the first steam engine in the United States. The little engine makes its journeys to Schenectady and gradually meets many other engines throughout his career.
Reading this as an adult was not super enjoyable; it’s just too simple and even silly. If your young child is really into trains, though, this might make a good read-aloud book (just be sure to skip the few racist bits).
“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood.
Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I’m not a big fan of poetry (another recent Newbery book, Brown Girl Dreaming, is a notable exception), but this book was good. Josh and his twin brother JB deal with basketball, girls, tragedy, and growing up through Josh’s rhymes.
Crossover is a fun book with some surprisingly dark themes. Definitely recommended for middle grade readers.
Note: I received free copies of these books in exchange for an honest review.
Last week I discussed a couple of my latest nonfiction galley reads. This week’s nonfiction ARCs focus more on living a good, fulfilling life. I always think I’m going to enjoy this kind of book, but–spoiler alert–these two weren’t that great.
How to Live a Good Life
Seriously . . . another book that tells you how to live a good life? Don’t we have enough of those?
You’d think so. Yet, more people than ever are walking through life disconnected, disengaged, dissatisfied, mired in regret, declining health, and a near maniacal state of gut-wrenching autopilot busyness.
How to Live a Good Life is your antidote; a practical and provocative modern-day manual for the pursuit of a life well lived. No need for blind faith or surrender of intelligence; everything you’ll discover is immediately actionable and subject to validation through your own experience.
Drawn from the intersection of science, spirituality, and the author’s years-long quest to learn at the feet of masters from nearly every tradition and walk of life, this book offers a simple yet powerful model, the “Good Life Buckets ” —spend 30 days filling your buckets and reclaiming your life. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
Oh, this book. It has some cliche ideas on how to improve your life (get enough sleep, exercise, meditate), but some good ones too (try to give purpose to your awful, boring job instead of quitting it). I found this so forgettable that, one week later, I can remember practically nothing about this book. If you want to think about living a better, happier life, I’d suggest checking out Gretchen Rubin’s work instead.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
365 Ways to Live Generously
Transform your physical, emotional, and spiritual health with the power of generosity. 365 Ways to Live Generously features an easy, inspiring lesson for every day that focuses on one of the seven generosity habits: Physical Health, Mindfulness, Relationships, Connecting with Yourself, Gratitude, Simplicity, and Philanthropy. Each habit appears once a week, giving readers a whole year to practice and make it a part of their daily life. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
Honestly, this book was even worse than How to Live a Good Life. It did have some great ideas for improving your life, giving more, and being more grateful, but there are also plenty of “out there” ideas that just don’t sit well with my personality. Your mileage may vary.
However, this book has tons of great quotes from various celebrities, writers, and thought leaders, and in keeping with the theme of my Write 31 Days series, I’d like to share my absolute favorite quote:
I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli. –George H.W. Bush
This post is part of the Write 31 Days series, Lovely Words. You can see all the posts in that series here.
Note: I received both of these books from a BEA giveaway. The publisher did not ask for a review in return.
Ever heard of Allied spy Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman whom the Nazis considered “highly dangerous”? Or German painter and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian, who planned and embarked on the world’s first scientific expedition? How about Huang Daopo, the inventor who fled an abusive child marriage only to revolutionize textile production in China?
Women have always been able to change the world, even when they didn’t get the credit. In Wonder Women, author Sam Maggs introduces you to pioneering female scientists, engineers, mathematicians, adventurers, and inventors—each profile a study in passion, smarts, and stickto-itiveness, complete with portraits by Google doodler Sophia Foster-Dimino, an extensive
bibliography, and a guide to present-day women-centric STEM organizations. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I so wanted to love this book! You know I like reading about smart, strong women, so I was super excited to pick up this book (written by author Sam Maggs, whose previous book I really enjoyed). And it does have interesting stories of amazing women, but it is written in such a flippant way that I couldn’t take it seriously. This could have been so much better. Disappointing.
Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge
A sharp and funny urban fantasy for “new adults” about a secret society of bartenders who fight monsters with alcohol fueled magic.
College grad Bailey Chen has a few demons: no job, no parental support, and a rocky relationship with Zane, the only friend who’s around when she moves back home. But when Zane introduces Bailey to his cadre of monster-fighting bartenders, her demons get a lot more literal. Like, soul-sucking hell-beast literal. Soon, it’s up to Bailey and the ragtag band of magical mixologists to take on whatever—or whoever—is behind the mysterious rash of gruesome deaths in Chicago, and complete the lost recipes of an ancient tome of cocktail lore. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This book had such a fun, unique idea. The characters were a bit cliche at times (if you’re a recent college grad, you’ll recognize these stereotypes), but that doesn’t keep the story from being an enjoyable urban fantasy. The “excerpts” from the book of magical mixology are probably the best part–so funny! But be forewarned–there is a fair amount of language in this book.
And of course, because all my posts this month tie in with my Lovely Words series, here’s my favorite quote from Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge:
Those who read on will learn how to do the impossible: To fade from sight. To exert control over distant objects with only one’s mind. To justify the existence of the olive, which is the most loathsome of all fruits.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
This post is part of the Write 31 Days series, Lovely Words. You can see all the posts in this series here.
Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Eve Schaub is the author of Year of No Sugar, and her latest book, Year of No Clutter, follows in that book’s footsteps. When the Hell Room–an enormous room crammed with odds and ends from her family’s life–starts weighing heavily on Eve’s mind, she decides to finally deal with it. She sorts through years worth of items, including useless clothing from Eve’s own childhood, stacks upon stacks of her children’s artwork, old phone bills, and less savory things like dead mice. Throughout the process, the author struggles with whether or not she should classify herself as a hoarder, and she talks to others surrounding her (hoarders and non-hoarders alike) about the problem of clutter.
I found this book baffling. I’m a neat freak who doesn’t understand the hoarder mindset, so I had trouble sympathizing with the author’s inability to throw away things that had no purpose. At one point, Eve describes her younger daughter injuring herself and losing a fingernail, and when she says she’s going to keep the fingernail, Eve agrees! I have absolutely no understanding of that mindset.
If you find yourself hovering on the edge of becoming a hoarder, you might be interested in this memoir. If you’re just looking for some advice on clutter-clearing, however, Year of No Clutter is probably not for you.
But in honor of my Write 31 Days series, Lovely Words, I’m going to share my favorite clutter-related quote by Wendell Berry:
Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.
This post is part of the Write 31 Days series Lovely Words. You can see all the posts in this series here.
The latest in my exploration of the oldest Newbery books continues with The Boy Who Was. This book is yet another mythology collection, this time about Italy. A young boy named Nino is given eternal life, and thus he is present throughout many factual and mythological events in Italy’s history.
You all know my feelings about mythology and short stories (I hate them), and although this one was better written and more interesting than most, I still wouldn’t read it again.
As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This book was not at all what I expected. It started out with an idyllic childhood at Hailsham, where Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy were at boarding school. But as the book goes on, you can see that there is something else going on in their lives–a secret that only now that the three friends are adults can they truly understand. I won’t reveal what the secret is for fear of spoilers, but I will say that it ended up being more sci fi related, instead of the relational drama I was expecting.
Never Let Me Go is a book that will definitely make you think, but it just didn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because I was expecting a totally different kind of book; maybe it’s because I hated several of the characters (fortunately, our narrator Kathy is not nearly as irritating as some of the other characters). Whatever the reason, this just wasn’t the book for me.