Newbery Roundup: November

Quick reviews of my latest Newbery reads, both recent and backlist. | Book reviews by

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

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

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

Her Stories

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

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

Little Blacknose

A fictional history of railroading, as told by the first steam engine. (Summary via

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).

Rating: Meh

The Crossover

“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

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.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Audio Books Roundup

I'm not a big audio book fan, but I've been listening to more and more on my commute. | Book reviews by

I’m not a big fan of audio books, but my commute to work has nearly doubled since our recent move. Because my favorite podcasts only update once a week, that still leaves me with a lot of driving time to fill. So on the days that I don’t feel like listening to music, I’ve started turning to audio books. I have a huge collection from the SYNC summer audio book program, and I’ve listened to a few of those.

The Perfect Storm

It was the storm of the century – a tempest created by so rare a combination of factors that meteorologists deemed it “the perfect storm.”

When it struck in October 1991, there was virtually no warning. “She’s comin’ on, boys, and she’s comin’ on strong,” radioed Captain Billy Tyne of the Andrea Gail from off the coast of Nova Scotia. Soon afterward, the boat and its crew of six disappeared without a trace. (Summary via

This nonfiction book offers an interesting look at commercial fishing, how hurricanes work, drowning, and true life deaths and rescues from the storm of the century. If you’ve seen the movie The Perfect Storm, you know the central characters from the book, but you’ll be surprised at how much more information is contained here. Although the crew of the Andrea Gail did not survive, there were many other boats in need of rescue, and the stories of these rescue attempts are both harrowing and heartwarming.

“Meteorologist see perfect in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm.”

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Here in Harlem

These fifty-four poems, all in different voices but written by one hand, do sing. They make a joyful noise as the author honors the people-the nurses, students, soldiers, and ministers-of his beloved hometown, Harlem. Worship with Deacon Allen, who loves “a shouting church,” and study with Lois Smith, who wants “a school named after me.” Don’t get taken by Sweet Sam DuPree, who “conned a shark right outta his fin.” And never turn your back on Delia Pierce, who claims she “ain’t the kind to talk behind nobody’s back” while doing precisely that-with panache. (Summary via

The audio version of this book of poetry is amazing–there is a different narrator for each character, and there is jazz/blues music and sound effects in the background. The poetry itself is great, too. The collection of poems talks about life in Harlem from the viewpoint of people of all ages and occupations, and Walter Dean Myers’ writing makes each character come alive.

If you decide to read this book, I strongly suggest the audio version. It is just wonderful.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Courage Has No Color

World War II is raging, and thousands of American soldiers are fighting overseas against the injustices brought on by Hitler. Back on the home front, the injustice of discrimination against African Americans plays out as much on Main Street as in the military. Enlisted black men are segregated from white soldiers and regularly relegated to service duties. At Fort Benning, Georgia, First Sergeant Walter Morris’s men serve as guards at The Parachute School, while the white soldiers prepare to be paratroopers. Morris knows that for his men to be treated like soldiers, they have to train and act like them, but would the military elite and politicians recognize the potential of these men as well as their passion for serving their country?

Tanya Lee Stone examines the role of African Americans in the military through the history of the Triple Nickles, America’s first black paratroopers, who fought in a little-known attack on the American West by the Japanese. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, in the words of Morris, “proved that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.” (Summary via

I was really interested by this book, as the Triple Nickles are not a group I ever learned much about in school. The stories of racism in America, even as our troops battled one of the most evil regimes in history, are horrible. In particular, I’ll never forget one African American soldier’s description of how much better the German POWs were treated than the black soldiers.

Still, if you can face up to these awful moments (and I think we have the responsibility to do so), you’ll find a lot of good here. Although the writing itself is nothing special, the story is important and interesting.

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.

Mini Reviews: Maya Angelou and Catcher in the Rye

In which I finally catch up with a couple of classic books. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond

These two classic books have been on my list for a long time, and I finally got around to reading them! But I didn’t have very strong feelings toward either of them.

Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry

I picked this up from my library because I’ve been wanting to read more of Maya Angelou, despite the fact that I’m totally not into poetry. (Honestly, I just don’t get it…)

Some of the lines that struck me most were these:

You’re Africa to me / At brightest dawn.
–To a Husband

Here then is my Christian lack: / If I’m struck then I’ll strike back.
–Lord, in My Heart

The poetry was beautiful, sometimes wrenching, and almost always clear. I do appreciate poetry that has a point (that is, a point that I can easily grasp–yes, I’m a total idiot about poetry). Still, it’s not really my thing. I’m hopeful that I’ll enjoy I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings better.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Catcher in the Rye

Okay, so I’ve been hearing about this book practically all my life, and I know for a lot of high schoolers it’s required reading. I’ve also heard from a lot of people who hated it. But I read straight through it and just felt kind of… bored. I guess the point is that Holden is experiencing the alienation that a lot of teenagers feel as they grow up? But honestly, he was bored, so I was bored. Possibly I didn’t give this book enough of a chance, but since I’m not in school anymore, no one can force me to go back and analyze the literary themes. So there!

Rating: Meh

P.S. If you want to see some other books in which I felt like I was missing something, check out my reviews of The Color Purple and Cold Comfort Farm. If you have a book that everyone else loved or said was a classic that you didn’t “get,” I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Newbery: Good Masters, Sweet Ladies!

A realistic look at medieval life, as seen through the eyes of young people of the time. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond

Maidens, monks, and millers’ sons — in these pages, readers will meet them all. There’s Hugo, the lord’s nephew, forced to prove his manhood by hunting a wild boar; sharp-tongued Nelly, who supports her family by selling live eels; and the peasant’s daughter, Mogg, who gets a clever lesson in how to save a cow from a greedy landlord. There’s also mud-slinging Barbary (and her noble victim); Jack, the compassionate half-wit; Alice, the singing shepherdess; and many more. With a deep appreciation for the period and a grand affection for both characters and audience, Laura Amy Schlitz creates twenty-two riveting portraits and linguistic gems equally suited to silent reading or performance. Illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by Robert Byrd — inspired by the Munich-Nuremberg manuscript, an illuminated poem from thirteenth-century Germany — this witty, historically accurate, and utterly human collection forms an exquisite bridge to the people and places of medieval England. (Summary via Amazon)

This book was so neat!  Written for classroom use, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! consists of vignettes of young people in a medieval village.  Many of them are poems, and a few are written for two people.  All are made to be read aloud by young students, and they are perfect for that.

For anyone who wants to know what the daily life of the rich and poor in medieval times, this is the perfect book.  And the illustrations are a perfect fit!

A realistic look at medieval life, as seen through the eyes of young people of the time. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond

Definitely check out Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!  It’s not sweet.  It’s realistic without being painful; it’s educational while still being fun.  And it’s great for kids with a dramatic side, since they can read it aloud, alone or in pairs.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Review Copy: Starved for Bullets

Starved for Bullets: Pretty Darn Good #spon | Book Review by Newbery and Beyond

Note: I received a digital copy of Starved for Bullets from the author for review consideration.

This small book of poetry was sent to me by Ryan Goodrich, a former Marine, and the poems are pulled from military experiences–his own and others’ experiences.  They are very powerful.  It was so interesting to read through and feel the emotions that were portrayed–sure, there’s some pride of country in there, but most of the emotions are much more complex and bitter.  I found this depiction particularly poignant:

I explained to the frightened chap that I would strip myself of my true blues and my bloodshed stripes and my costly medals, give him the powers I possess… my warrior strength, my years of training and my memories of the battlefield.  “You can have them all!” I spat, “Except for my honor and my courage and my commitment.  Those are mine.”

Goodrich also explores the difficulty of obeying orders that seem to go against everything right, such as killing children:

So in my head it came to be / one thought was enough to make me see / that a youngsters’ wrath when given chance / to grow up strong, a second glance / a risk that would put more at harm / they would avenge when given arms. / So life we took for freedom’s sake / a choice we knew we had to make.

It fascinated me how the soldier is portrayed–not always a hero, but sometimes bloodthirsty, sometimes carrying out orders that seem to harm the innocent, sometimes bitterly trapped in his own uniform.

A few of the poems were set in a specific rhyme scheme, and those were hit or miss with me.  Several of them were well done and well organized, but a few seemed like the rhymes were forced and didn’t flow as well.  Some were difficult to understand, but I’m not much into poetry and don’t always get the subtleties (much to my own disappointment).  I really enjoyed the “Twas the Night Before Christmas” spoof, which was much more violent than the original.  One or two of the poems portrayed the soldier’s weapon as his lover, which was an interesting thought as well.  I feel a little inadequate while reviewing this book, since like I said, I’m not much into interpreting poetry, but if the feeling I got from reading through these poems is any indication, the majority of these poems are thoughtful, well-written, and evocative of a whole different world than most of us experience.

Definitely pick this book up if you’re interested in the military life, especially in the conflicts of the last couple of decades.  If you’re looking for perfect poetry, this may not fulfill all your expectations, but if you want a powerful and emotional look into a soldier’s psyche, this book delivers.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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