1936: Caddie Woodlawn

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn follows the adventures of a young red-headed girl in the Wisconsin countryside in the 1800’s.

Caddie has a mind of her own. In fact, her characterization lights up every page of the book, whether she is facing her fears, learning the harsh lessons of life, or enjoying playing pranks on others. It was refreshing to read a Newbery book where the heroine was allowed to change and grow with every new situation that she got involved with. And Caddie herself is not an angel all the time; she constantly gets into trouble, which makes her seem more relatable and human. The fantastic characterization pays off when Caddie finally realizes that she must grow up and be an active part of her family. She is a heroine that other girls can look up to, with her free spiritedness and courage to say and do what she wants.

The interactions between all of the characters were fun to read. The book kept a very fast pace and took you through a roller coaster of emotions. Caddie experienced the distraught of losing a dog, the brave decision of alerting the Indians to an attack, the awkwardness of hoping (yet not hoping) someone sent her a Valentine card, and the outrageousness and humor of her family’s stories.

Caddie Woodlawn ultimately asks the question: what makes a home? As Caddie grows throughout the book, she begins to understand the responsibility and duty one has to family. Amongst her comradery with her brothers, her deep respect for her father, and distain for her ladylike sisters, Caddie must discover her place in the world.

As a child, the freedom of frontier life always appealed to me. Caddie Woodlawn, reminiscent of The Little House on the Prairie, offers readers the chance to see the world in a completely new way. Filled with humor and heart, this book is recommended for both children and adults alike.

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1939: Thimble Summer – (Not so) Idyllic Farm Life

Cover of Thimble Summer

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5

Thimble Summer, the 1939 Newbery Medal Winner, is set in the present (mid-1930’s) on a Wisconsin farm. As elsewhere, Garnet’s dad is smothered in bills and drought is baking the crops. Garnet is a spunky girl who likes to explore, leading her into a number of misadventures. While playing with her brother on some sand flats revealed by low water levels, Garnet finds a silver thimble, which she believes is magic. That night, the drought breaks. The family’s financial situation also starts to turn around, as they got a loan to replace their rickety barn. Most of the book focuses on the quotidian life on a farm – Garnet takes dairy down to the spring house to keep it cool, she raises a piglet, etc. However, she does have a few adventures.

In the first, Garnet and her best friend Citronella go into town and spend a nice afternoon at the library. The librarian completely forgets that they’re there, and the girls are wrapped up in the worlds of their books. They get locked in. After raiding the librarian’s desk for food, they start wishing that they were “safe, happy pig[s] asleep in its own pen with its own family!…One that had never seen a library and couldn’t even spell pork”. Eventually, a neighbour locates them and they are returned to their families.

At another juncture, Garnet’s temper gets the best of her. After a hay pile falls on her when she’s helping with threshing, she runs away to the “big” city, getting a ride from a singer, then taking the bus the rest of the way. She buys presents for everyone before realizing that she left no money for bus fare home. Garnet rides back with a man transporting chickens, helping him capture them when some escape. Mr. Freebody, her neighbour/guardian angel (’cause Garnet really does get herself into some good scrapes), noticed her leaving and has surreptitiously searched for her all day. Of course, he is overjoyed that she’s back and tells her to save the presents for a holiday so that her parents won’t know where she’s been.

Like some of the lower rated Newbery Medal Books, Thimble Summer is very episodic, almost disjointed in places. It’s writing style is rather simplistic, making it slower to read than it should have been. I’m fairly neutral about this book – I didn’t hate it but wouldn’t actually recommend that you read it. Because the setting was the “present” when it was published, a lot is implied that modern children are unlikely to understand. The full-color illustrations and line art save the book somewhat. The color pictures are lovely. I’ll be adding some to the Tumblr in the next day or so. The illustrations, well, some are good, some less so. I’ll just say “disembodied heads” and leave it at that.

1938: The White Stag (Chase a stag, murder half of Europe)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

In The White Stag, 1938 Newbery Winner, Kate Seredy retells the mythological origin story of the Hun-Magyar people. Seredy wrote it in response to a history book, full of “FACTS, FACTS, FACTS as irrefutable, logical and as hard as the learned pens of learned historians could make them”, but with differing conclusions on the origin of the Hungarians than the author held. She wished to preserve the mythology which taught that the Hungarians descended from the Horde.

The plot is typical for a myth: it begins a few generations before the characters of most interest. Nimrod, Mighty Hunter before the Lord, expelled from Babel with the rest, searched for a home for his people. After his sons Hunor and Magyar followed a white stag, they became the new tribal leaders, taking Moonmaidens (fairies) as wives. Hunor begat Bendeguz, nicknamed the White Eagle. He in turn married a Cimmerian (Sumerian, probably) princess. She died birthing Attila, the Red Eagle. The grieving Bendeguz takes as his mission to make Attila into a weapon, riding with him into battle before Attila could even walk. Wreaking havoc as they rode, Attila’s Horde ravaged Europe until they reach the Promised Land between two rivers.

Like most creation myths, this one involves divine guidance, retribution from the deity for doubting him, and a healthy dose of symbolism (White Stag, White Eagle, Red Eagle, etc.). However, the author does her best to humanize the characters. Bendeguz, particularly, is a multi-dimensional character. His grief and guilt over his wife’s death prevents him from showing Attila love and drive Bendeguz to hone his son into a weapon. Later in the narrative, however, Bendeguz tenderly covers Attila with a cloak. He also agonizes over Attila’s bloodshed, asking his god Hadur if Attila will ever wash himself clean of the death he causes. Although there’s little scope for character development in such a short multi-generational story, Seredy manages to insert some poignant moments.

Illustration from The White Stag
Basically, pick this book up for the pictures. They are vividly drawn, in a mix of realism and fantasy. I loved them all and put a few more on our Tumblr. The plot is standard mythology. Not great, not terrible, but blessedly short – the entire book is 94 pages and images take up a quarter to a third of the page count.

 

1935: Dobry (#1 Fan of Gypsy Bears)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

In Monica Shannon’s Dobry, a young Bulgarian boy must convince his mother he wants to be an artist instead of a farmer.

Dobry is the quintessential comfort read. The story contrasts the stability of peasant life against the uncertainness of Dobry’s passion for artistry and sculpturing. Conflict is minimal, and Dobry’s innate goodness is felt through his genuine interactions with those around him.

The cast features a handful of characters. Dobry’s optimism instils the book with a lightheartedness that affects the characters around him. His playmate, Neda, joins him in his small town adventures of anxiously awaiting for the gypsy bear to come to town and creating a stork-like kite to fly high in the sky. Their relationship quietly grows from one of childhood acquaintances to best friends who have fallen in love.

The relationship between Dobry and his grandfather is what makes this book really shine. While Dobry’s actions are typically childlike in their own simplicity (such as eating a whole sackful of tomatoes and getting a stomachache), his grandfather provides a necessary depth to the novel with his wise ways. Folktales are interspersed throughout the book as the grandfather tells ancient Bulgarian stories and makes up a few of his own for good measure. The grandfather’s influential tales result in Dobry’s first stab at storytelling – the intriguing tale of how Noah forgot to bring a pair of wickerwockoffs on the ark.

Dobry was a cute, heartwarming tale that highlighted an unusual setting and captured the innocence and conflict of a boy who is divided between his mother’s desires and his own passions. The book was finely balanced – keeping one foot in the past with Bulgarian folktales while taking one step forward into the future as Dobry begins his journey to becoming an artist.

1937: Rollerskates (Rollin’ Wherever She Goes)

VERDICT: Treasure, kinda sorta

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

Rollerskates, the 1937 Newbery Medal Winner, is the story of Lucinda, a roller skating fanatic. She declares herself an “orphan” when her parents go abroad without her. Lucinda blossoms with the new freedom she has. Skating around the city, she makes friends with everyone around her, including an Irish cab driver, an Italian fruit stand owner, the candy maker, and a rag seller, among others.

Lucinda’s relationships are the star of the book. She is amazing at taking genuine interest in everything going on around her and getting other people involved. When bullies repeatedly loot Tony’s fruit stand, Lucinda talks to a policeman she made friends with, who talks to his colleague assigned to that stretch. Together, they ensure that the bullies never return. Lucinda also cares deeply about a little girl living upstairs, Trinket. She puts together a lovely Christmas for Trinket’s poor family and coaxes her to eat when sick. All of Lucinda’s friends are depicted as lovingly.

Unfortunately, the plot is much less well drawn than the characters. It lacks overall momentum, at times seeming almost random. For instance, about 2/3 of the way through, Lucinda finds one of her friends dead with a dagger in her back. She tells the hotel owner, who convinces her to let a maid find the body and makes Lucinda promise not to tell. Plot twist? Nope. Merely an isolated incident, after which life continues as normal. Trinket’s death affects the plot a bit more but is no means a major driver except in illustrating that Lucinda can indeed change because of negative experiences. The ending is similarly unsatisfying. Lucinda learns that her parents are coming home, broodingly says goodbye to the friends made during the year her parents were absent, and prepares to idolize her year of freedom. We are left with the impression that Lucinda considers this a negative change, but there is no follow-up on what actually happens when her parents get back. The author skated through the plot much as Lucinda did, rather aimlessly. There is no major growth and development of Lucinda, no culmination of the smaller experiences/lessons learned during her year of freedom. This void left me asking, “That’s it?” at the end of the book.

While the characters are entertaining, and the writing style fluid, the lack of plot made me vacillate over the rating and recommendation of this book. It’s a quick read, so if you’re interested in a swatch of New York society circa 1890, it might be worth a read. Even if not, Rollerskates provides some amusement. It won’t be at the top of my Newbery Medal Winner recommendations, but I don’t regret taking the time to read it.

1934: Invincible Louisa

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 1/5

Invincible Louisa is a biography of the life and times of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. From the year Louisa is born through her tumultuous years in the Civil War to the final days before her death, author Cornelia Meigs lays out every single detail of Louisa’s life in excruciating detail.

It was hard to get invested in Louisa’s character, since Invincible Louisa is told from the viewpoint of an outsider looking in. The book makes the mistake in telling, not showing, the details of her life. While “telling” can be informative, the author doesn’t realize how vital “showing” is to create an effective story with a compelling heroine. Take this example:

“No one will ever know how hard for Louisa were those first years of making her way alone. Excessive shyness is not the best equipment for facing a strange and unreceptive world, in which the struggle for a living is already overcrowded. Louisa was not only shy, but she was very sensitive, as all creative persons must be. To offset such handicaps she had only courage, unquenchable courage, which could usually laugh at hurt feelings and discomfitures and always rose from a fall to try again.” (p. 105)

Instead, the writing lacks a vividness that would make the book come alive. It’s not necessary to spoon-feed readers the exact feelings Louisa should be feeling. Subtlety could have improved the book.

Additionally, the author seemingly viewed Louisa through rose-tinted glasses, admiring and complimenting her courage at every opportunity. This results in a very repetitive and unimaginative book that repeatedly uses the same overwrought descriptions of Louisa’s indomitable spirit throughout the worst years of her life. It’s impossible to get a good look into Louisa’s mindset with the dramatic and complimentary language that is being used.

Surprisingly, the book doesn’t cover much of the writing process for her most popular novels. Much of the book covers her family history and the relationships she had with her parents and sisters, which is hard to get invested in because dialogue is practically nonexistent. In my opinion, this book would have been more interesting if the author had delved into Louisa’s thought process while writing or focused on only one part of her life.

Overall, this book was a depressing look into Louisa’s life – especially the parts focusing on her family history. Invincible Louisa lacks the dynamic characters necessary to make this book a page turner and falls victim to its detailed biographic style.

1936: Caddie Woodlawn (Red haired hoyden)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

In the interest of full disclosure, Caddie Woodlawn is the first Newbery book that I had read before. I loved it as a child, but honestly couldn’t remember the plot. The elements that (likely) appealed to me as a kid: Caddie’s curly red hair, which I share, and all her adventures. What kept me reading as an adult: the adventures and the nuanced description of Caddie’s development. Although it is a coming of age tale, it’s far more subtle than most of its contemporaries.

Caddie Woodlawn is a historical fiction story set in northern Wisconsin around the time of the Civil War. While the setting is relevant, the main focus of the book is Caddie’s pure joy at being alive. She is an active, adventurous girl who enjoys playing with her brothers far more than helping with “proper” women’s work like cooking and preserving. Early in the book, Caddie laments all the buttons on her dresses, as it makes it harder to dress after wading across the river to visit an Indian camp. Despite tension from the some of the other families, Caddie and her father are good friends with local Indian tribes. Indian John even entrusts Caddie with his father’s scalp belt and his own dog when he is unable to take them with him. Caddie repays the favour by racing through the woods on a horse to warn the tribe when local settlers contemplate preemptive strikes after someone starts rumours of Indian massacres. The book also contains many other shenanigans by Caddie, Tom, and Warren. They nearly “collect” the skin of a still-living rattlesnake, charge admission for views of Indian John’s scalp belt, and fool visiting Cousin Annabelle into “salting the sheep”. However, particularly as Caddie begins to grow up, she exhibits real empathy for those around her. When half-Indian schoolmates are sad after their mother returns to her tribe (ok, her husband casts her off), Caddie takes them to the local stores and spends the entire silver dollar she carefully hoarded on items to make them happy. Eventually, although Caddie still enjoys outdoor adventures, she decides to also master pursuits like quilting and cooking. The author softens the “tomboy” to “lady” transition by having the brothers also decide they want to quilt and cook too.

Other than Caddie herself, Caddie’s father is my favorite character. When the family first moved to Wisconsin from Boston, he insisted that sickly Caddie be allowed to run free outside with her brothers, a choice which restored her to health. Despite some societal pressure, he continued to support Caddie’s enthusiasm for the outdoors; he never forced her to be what she wasn’t and nurtured talents like her clock repair skills. He also stuck with what he himself believed, whether it was his friendship with the local Indian tribes or his conviction that money he earned was better than the inheritance that came to him unlooked for.

This is, by far, my favorite Newbery book thus far. The story is engaging and the narrative balanced between adventures and quieter moments. Caddie really grows up over the course of the book, but it is a self-guided journey composed of a series of small events rather than one pivotal moment. To me, this read as more authentic than some very dramatic growing up stories, although this likely reflects my own developmental process and the lack of major cataclysms in it. Absolutely read this book and share it with any children (especially girls) in your life.