Newbery Roundup: January 2017

The latest Newbery books, both new and old, that I've read over the past couple of months. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

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.

Rating: Meh

Vaino

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.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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

DNF: Matrons and Madams

Matrons and Madams: a book I didn't finish. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. Summary via NetGalley.com.

Clara Durling is a British widow of the First World War who arrives in Canada as the new superintendent of the Lethbridge Hospital, just as wounded soldiers are streaming home. Lily Parsons is a young widowed schoolteacher from Nova Scotia who ends up in the same city, managing a brothel called The Last Post.

Set against the backdrop of love, union organizers, amorous bachelors, gamblers, drinkers, and prostitutes, the lives of these two women unexpectedly intertwine when Clara, in the heat of local politics and responding to the highest incidence of venereal disease in the province, establishes, with Lily’s help, the first venereal disease clinic in the province. In this sprawling saga, Lily and Clara must confront the conservative thinkers in the city to give help and compassion to the wounded veterans.

Why I picked it up: I mean, doesn’t this sound fascinating?  The aftermath of World War One, along with a brothel?  I was hooked by the description.

Why I didn’t finish it: Frankly, I just got bored.  There was nothing wrong with the book itself, it just wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be.  It was very slow moving, and at the time I was working my way through a huge stack of books (physical and digital), and I had plenty of more attention-grabbing books to turn to.  That doesn’t make for a very interesting review, but I wasn’t interested by the book, so there you go.  Oh well.

What was the last book you didn’t finish and why?

Review Copy: A Simple Guide to WWI

This fully illustrated history of WWI is perfect for kids, or anyone who needs a quick refresher on the events and statistics of the Great War. #spon | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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Note: I received a free galley of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

A short review for a short book: This book of WWI history is exactly what it claims to be.  It’s full of infographics, simple maps, child-appropriate explanations, and statistics about the first World War.

I thought this book was adorable.  The illustrations were simple and clean, and they helped get the basic points across without becoming too cutesy or distracting.  My one complaint is that the book is so short that I didn’t get a good feel for what the daily events and consequences of the war were.  If the book had been about WWII or the Civil War instead, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but I know much less about World War I.

This fully illustrated history of WWI is perfect for kids, or anyone who needs a quick refresher on the events and statistics of the Great War.  It’s short and sweet, and it gets the major points across without bogging you down in the details.  It would be a great companion to a more in-depth study of the events of WWI.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Review Copy: The Yanks Are Starving

The Yanks are Starving #spon | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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Note: I received a digital copy of The Yanks Are Starving from the author for review consideration.

This book is a World War I/Great Depression-era historical fiction novel.  I was excited to accept it for review, as I’ve read soooo many WWII historical fiction books, and not many WWI books at all.

The first half of this book introduces all the characters and their actions during the first World War, while the second half talks about a time during the Great Depression when many veterans, starving and unemployed, created a group to camp out in Washington and lobby for the bonus they had been promised for their service.  They called it the Bonus Army, and what happened with that army is truly unbelievable.  I’m pretty up on my American history, at least through WWII, and I had never heard of the Bonus Army.  But it really happened, and you can read all about it on Wikipedia.

The only reason I had to rate this book as “Good but Forgettable” is because there were so many characters, I could not keep track of who was who.  In the first half of the book, the amount of viewpoint characters was overwhelming.  However, toward the middle of the book, all their storylines started converging on a battlefield in WWI, and I started to enjoy the book much more.  Plus, there were pictures in the center, showing all the characters who were real-life people!  (That is one disadvantage of reading this on my Kindle–if I had had a paperback instead, I would have flipped to the pictures first thing and probably been much less confused.)  So don’t let that deter you from this book!  Despite my rating, I really enjoyed reading it.

In my mind, the second half of the book, which actually told the story of the Bonus Army, was by far the best part.  All the characters from the first half of the book–General MacArthur, the soldier destined for glory, one way or another; Walter W. Waters, the stuttering but powerful leader of the Bonus Army; Hoover, the weak and downtrodden president; Anna, a former Mennonite who became a field nurse in the war; “Happy” Glassford, set up to fail; Ozzie Taylor, oboeist and member of the Harlem Hellfighters; and many more–converge on the same site and battle for their rights.  This book is intricately researched, and you can see how much work Craney put into it.  Almost every single character is a real-life person, or was based on a conglomerate of historical participants, and several of the things they say are direct, historical quotes.  I love that in historical fiction.  It makes me feel smart and entertained at the same time.

If you’re interested in historical fiction on a subject that hasn’t been done countless times (I’m looking at you, WWII), you will love this book.  It’s well-researched, interesting, and even heart-wrenching at times.  You just might want to bring your own character list to keep track of who is who.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Review: The Singing Tree

One of my favorite Newbery books ever--touching, sweet, and powerful. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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World War I tragedies + Hungarian history + strong, courageous characters = I’ve teared up more over this book than probably any of the children for whom this book was written.  The Singing Tree was written and illustrated by multiple Newbery Honor award winning author, Kate Seredy.  The title sounds silly, but the story is anything but.

The book starts off happily–it’s a continuation of The Good Master, an earlier Newbery book written by Seredy, and the plot of The Singing Tree picks up where The Good Master left off.  Jancsi and Kate are cousins (preteens at the beginning of the book) who ride horses, take care of chickens, and get into trouble together on Jancsi’s father’s farm in the Hungarian countryside.  All the characters from the first book are enjoying life together, working on the farm and spending time with family, even attending a traditional Hungarian wedding.  Then the news comes–Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated; War has begun.  Jancsi’s father, Kate’s father, the newlywed Peter, and many others are sent off to fight.

As time passes, Jancsi and his family take on six Russian prisoners of war, who are big, friendly farmers who didn’t want to be fighting in the war anyway.  They help take care of the farm while Jancsi’s father Marton is away.  Six more join the household when the family agrees to take on German children who are starving and in need of a place to stay.  Eventually, there are twenty family members and refugees who call the Nagy farm home.

I was surprised at how many of the issues that war  presents were tackled head-on.  At one point, the new bridegroom Peter comes back from the war (he deserted temporarily to see his newborn child and sickly wife), and he is so full of anger and hate, even toward those who had loved and cared for him during his youth, that his wife wonders how she can ever love him again because he was so changed.  The lines of people begging for food, the abandoned houses and animals all over Hungary, are described in passing but without sugarcoating.  News of the deaths of family and friends arrives, and tears are shed in private, so as not to make life more difficult for other family members.  An American general writes, “Lost ten thousand men.  Advanced three miles.”  I can’t fathom losing so many human lives in one go.  It’s incredible.  Along with these sad aspects, however, there are moments of hope.  The German children, Russian farmers, and Hungarian locals all begin to see that whether German, Russian, or Hungarian, they have more things in common than they have differences.

There are some issues in this book in terms of how women are presented, although I hesitate to call them “issues” in a book written in 1939 and set several years earlier than that.  There are several occasions where Kate and the new housemate Lily are told they can’t do things because they are girls (it was a little shocking to me that on a farm, women would still be expected to wear full skirts and ride sidesaddle), but there was one section that really caught my attention and came close to making up for all of that.  This section speaks about Jancsi’s mother and her fears as her husband has been gone so long at war.

So she knew, thought Jancsi.  Under that gentle smile she was hiding the same fear, smiling so we wouldn’t be frightened. […] So women were not all gentle, helpless softness, either; they too had a steel armor that would not let them show the tears inside.

The last shred of harsh, small-boyish pride in his new manhood left Jancsi then; he was all man now, bowing his head to the strength of a woman.

The girls, Kate and Lily, are also allowed to tag along with Jancsi on several different trips that he took, in order to help him or to accomplish their own goals.  I thought that was impressive, not just because they were female, but because they are all young teenagers.  It made me quite sad to see all the responsibility the children had to take on during the war.

The saddest part, though, was at the end of the book, when the war was finally over in 1918.  The Jewish shopkeeper, Uncle Moses, says, “A new day is coming, Marton, for us, for all nations.  No more wars, Marton.  No more persecution, no more intolerance ever….”  To think that only a few years later, the Nazis would entrench themselves in Hungary and begin a reign of terror is so painful to think about.

After spending eight weeks living in Budapest, I have a soft spot for this small country that has been overrun by nearly everyone around them–Turkey, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the Nazis, and most recently the Soviet Communist party.  I have read before how the events of WWII affected Hungary, but this is the first book I’ve read that detailed the effects of WWI.  It really moved me in its unflinching yet hopeful look at the tragedies of war and the strength of family.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Book Review: The Children’s Book

Book Review: The Children's Book | Newbery and Beyond
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Wow, this book is long!  It runs about 650 pages, and it is slooooow.  The book follows the Wellwood family (mother, father, and seven children, along with some of their close friends and relatives), the members of which suffer intrigue, scandal, loss, and tragedy during the years from 1895 to the first World War.  Beautiful writing, but very little plot–this book amounts to the story of their lives, information about the Socialist/Anarchist movement in England, and the events leading up to and resulting in the first World War.  If I had to summarize the plot, it would read like a long-running soap opera.  And yet… I found it pretty interesting.  There were times that I wanted to put this book aside because of the slow, meandering nature of the storyline, but on the whole, I was interested enough in the characters to want to keep reading.  Some of the characters were incredibly irritating (for me, especially Olive Wellwood, the mother), and almost every character made a majorly poor decision at some point in the book, but I was still interested in their lives and how they would turn out.

The other aspect that kept me interested in the book was the way the author, A.S. Byatt, wove in information and details about the time period.  From the underlying causes of World War I, to the Anarchist movement throughout England and Germany, to the entertainment and parties that were popular at the time, to the rise of electric lights, these details are historically informative enough to ground this book firmly in its time period, but not so dry and dusty as to become boring.  (The exception to this, for me, were the sections mostly composed of names I didn’t recognize, but knew I probably should.  I got confused and then bored, and eventually I started skimming those sections.)

Please note that, despite the name of the book, this is not a children’s book.  (You can probably guess that just from the heft of the novel.)  The title of The Children’s Book comes from the fact that Olive Wellwood, the mother, is an author who kept private stories for each of her children and added to them as the children grew up.  Among other things, this book contains several sex scenes which, while not graphic, are sufficiently explicit to keep this book out of the hands of children and teenagers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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