1948: The 21 Balloons (Explosions Mandatory)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3

The Twenty-One Ballons, a whimsical travelogue narrated by a not-particularly-successful balloonist, won the 1948 Newbery Medal. The book opens with the retrieval from the Atlantic Ocean of one Professor Sherman, found clinging to the wreckage of a wood platform and 20 balloons. His refusal to explain the circumstances anywhere except at the Explorers’ Club in San Francisco ignites the interest of the entire country. The presidents sends his personal train to convey Sherman from New York to San Francisco, where the city has decorated everything using a balloon theme. In one instance, their eagerness is not abetted by intelligence: the cupola of the Club, to which several strong balloons were tied, takes flight, only to land on a Native American reservation.

Once Professor Sherman arrives at the club, the book switches to a first person narration of his voyage. Planning on floating wherever the wind takes him for a year or so, Sherman designed a floating house, utilizing food stores as ballast. However, after very little time in the air, a sea gull punctures Sherman’s balloon over the island of Krakatoa. It is commonly “known” to be uninhabitable, so Sherman is shocked when he comes ashore (naked, as he ditched all his goods trying to keep the balloon from descending too quickly) to a welcome by a properly civilized gentleman in a morning suit. A sailor shipwrecked on the island discovered vast diamond mines; he escaped back to civilization and recruited twenty artistic/inventive families to populate the island. Selling a few diamonds at a time in cities spread throughout the world, they built an eclectic, self-sustaining community on the volcanic island. Each family was assigned a letter of the alphabet and serves cuisine from the corresponding country. Balloon invention pervade the island as well; the kids have a Balloon Merry-Go-Round which flies where the wind pushes it. Shortly after Sherman’s arrival, Krakatoa explodes. The families escape on a balloon borne platform but parachute off when over appropriate bits of land, leaving Sherman to attempt a landing because he lacks a parachute. It is from this landing that he’s retrieved at the beginning of the book. Undeterred by the experience, he vows to sell his diamond cuff-links and use the funds to take off on a year-long balloon voyage.

The third-person narrative sections, the first three chapters, captured my attention. The author’s writing style is engaging and the preparations for the Professor’s visit quite amusing. A local balloon company, for example, invents a new conveyance: a leather couch suspended from several balloons and drawn by horses. Grocers hang appropriately shaped produce from the ceiling to resemble balloons and women take up the old fad of balloon dresses. Nearly every page presents either a clever invention or humorous quips. I lost my interest somewhat when the narration switched into first-person, as the prose became more matter-of-fact and less entertaining. It also focused fairly heavily on the inventions created by the people of Krakatoa. While entertaining – there are chairs and tables that lower themselves into the floor, beds who sheets are cleaned automatically, and electric-powered chairs, among others – they become old rather quickly. We don’t really get close to the inhabitants of Krakatoa. The focus is squarely on the scenery, particularly the heavily heaving ground, and on the physical aspects of the community the Krakatoans created. Overall, this was a fairly entertaining read (the futurism in the prologue had me laughing uncontrollably because it was so wrong – though I wish atom transfer as a mode of travel had worked out). It’s also a reminder of how important the balloon and its offshoots were for a fair length of time. Because we mostly cut off that branch of scientific invention following the Hindenburg disaster, we tend to forget how promising and innovative balloon technology was in its day. I recommend The 21 Balloons especially for late elementary and middle school kids who are interested in science and inventions. The whimsy of it and the many plays-on-words will keep them reading.

1947: Miss Hickory (a cautionary tale for nutters)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Carolyn Bailey’s Miss Hickory details the rise and fall of Miss Hickory – an opinionated doll whose body is made of twigs and a hickory nut.

Miss Hickory, herself, is a selfish and hard-headed protagonist. She insults the other animals and has a high opinion of herself. She finds herself displaced a lot throughout the book, resulting in her sharing a tree with the forgetful Squirrel, a character who literally loses his nuts. As a result, Miss Hickory must fend off his advances as he always seems to be imagining how good her hickory nut would taste. The cast of characters is filled with some other colorful animals as well, such as the groundhog who is afraid of his shadow, the fawn who loses (and then finds) his mother in a Bambi-like scenario, and a crow who is the local gossip.

With so many characters, the plot meanders and is never very cohesive. There is no true overall story arc. Some of the individual chapters could be their own short stories – that’s how disjointed this book felt. With a bare semblance of the plot, the reader must wait until the very end of the book to get a shocking plot twist.

Regardless of its flaws, this story had one of the best ending scenarios ever. The forgetful squirrel takes his revenge in the best, most humorous way possible. Forced to listen to her insulting remarks, he decides he can’t stand her anymore and eats her hickory nut head. I was really surprised (and happy) with this ending because I thought the author would not go there. And I loved it!

Miss Hickory was a bizarre, yet oddly satisfying read. While the tone of the book ends up being moralistic and seeks to impart a lesson, it was so ridiculous that I can’t help but somewhat like it just for the ending. Nevertheless, this book is not a masterpiece and should probably be skipped unless you really like allegorical children’s books about woodland animals.

1946: Strawberry Girl (or, good fences make bad neighbors)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl was a tough book to get through. Riddled with rough language and a thick Southern dialect, this book focuses on a boundary dispute between two feuding families in Florida.

The feud plot did not grab my attention at all. The two neighboring families try to one up each other, resulting in some despicable things being done to each other like killing farm animals, cutting barbed wire fences and letting wild animals wander into their neighbor’s fields. It was hard to care about any of the characters. While Birdie is charming and sweet, all the other characters are so awful that it’s hard to enjoy this book. Her growing friendship with Shoestring was handled well, and I liked their interactions with one another as Shoestring constantly tries to scare and tease her in a believable kid-like way.

The last minute religious conversion at the end of the book felt unearned. Slater’s ensuing atonement was too quick and made the ending come together too sweetly, especially after all the awful things he did to the Boyer family.

Even the illustrations are not particularly enticing. The black and white sketches are well drawn, but this book could have used a bit of color and excitement to spice it up a bit.

Strawberry Girl was a big miss for me. The dialect was too much of a chore to get through that it was almost impossible to follow the uninteresting plot.

1947: Miss Hickory (finally, a decapitation)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 1.5

The 1947 Newbery Medal Winner, Miss Hickory, is about a doll made from twigs and a hickory nut. Forgotten under the lilac bush when the family leaves, Miss Hickory is abandoned to fend for herself. Basically, the book goes like this: talking animal tries to do something friendly, Miss Hickory rebuffs the offer rudely and continues on her way. She then misses out on something interesting or wonderful. Continue ad nauseum.

This isn’t the first book where Sally and I have jokingly wished death upon the main characters, just so the book would end. It is, however, the first in which our wish was granted. After Miss Hickory ventures into Squirrel’s house, hoping that he had abandoned it, he eats the hickory nut of which her head is made. He was starving and she had insulted him one to many times. Oddly, her body continues to live and thrive; she stumbles out of his den, climbs up the apple tree, and is miraculously transformed into a flowering graft on the old tree.

Miss Hickory is, to put it nicely, a persnickety, cantankerous, ill-humoured, unsympathetic main character. So, yes, I was cheering for the Squirrel in the death scene. The secondary characters are numerous and make only sporadic appearances, so I wasn’t drawn in by them either. The whole book reads as a weird mash-up of natural history, religion, and animals. In one chapter, a wild heifer adopts a fawn as a friend, while the next is a retelling of the Christmas story stable scene. The chapters are rather episodic, almost disconnected, like Miss Hickory’s head and body. Really, the only semi-redeeming characteristic of the book is the absurdity of it all. Don’t bother reading this one.

 

1946: Strawberry Girl (Family Feud: Florida edition)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 1.5

The 1946 Newbery Medal Winner, Strawberry Girl, is the story of the Boyers, a family that moves from Marion County down to south Florida and attempts to turn neglected land into a profitable farm. A nearby family, the Slaters, are vehemently opposed to their efforts and undermine them at every turn. Pa Slater lets hogs run through the strawberry fields, slashes the barbed wire fence, and even sets the grass around the Boyer’s house on fire, nearly burning his own children to death. Despite these challenges, the Boyer family successfully establishes a business raising and selling strawberries. They also exercise considerable restraint and charity towards the Slater family, realizing that only Pa Slater is an antagonist. When Shoestring Slater comes to tell Mrs. Boyer that his mother and younger siblings are deathly ill, Mrs. Boyer and Birdie go over there and nurse everyone back to health. This action helps break the hostility of Pa Slater. He also “finds God” at a camp meeting; at the end of the book, he’s a reformed man who’s given up drinking, shooting the heads off his chicken, and running free range cattle. He has accepted “civilization” and plans to raise cash crops like the Boyers.

Birdie Boyer and Shoestring Slater serve as a microcosm of Boyer/Slater relationship. Initially, Birdie hates Shoestring. On his father’s orders, Shoestring drove hogs through the strawberry fields; he also delivered threatening notes. More personally, he did twirled a snake through the air and onto her Sunday hat. She, in return, releases the baby rabbit which he put into his pet rattlesnake’s cage. However, the two also worry about their fathers’ actions and try to keep the peace. Shoestring warns Birdie that his father is planning on sabotaging the fences again. Eventually, the peace efforts bear fruit, and Birdie and Shoestring become good friends, with Birdie dedicated to helping Shoestring in school.

Despite the back-and-forth sabotage efforts, this story is extremely tedious. Very little happens and there is no build-up to the resolution where Pa Slater completely changes his attitude on everything. That just happens in the last chapter or so. It’s also written nearly entirely in dialect, complete with creative phraseology and spelling. This makes for downright painful reading. Character “development” doesn’t mitigate these other flaws because it’s not present. Although relationships evolve somewhat, no characters demonstrate deep growth. Compounding these flaws, the book has very strong religious overtones. I’m not opposed to some religious content, but the presentation is trite and made me want to punch the characters for being overly-moralizing, self-righteous sticks-in-the-mud (why yes, I’m seeing how many hyphenated descriptors I can insert into one post). Skip this book, as not even the illustrations are any good (although the perspective is poorly done enough that it makes the characters contort hilariously at times).

1945: Rabbit Hill

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill follows a group of wild animals who are anxiously waiting for new human neighbors to move into an abandoned house. After a year of suffering bad gardens and poisons from the house’s previous owners, the animals test their new neighbors to see if the next gardening year will be a good or bad one.

This book contemplates the idea that appearances can be deceiving. Mr. Muldoon, the family’s cat, is the best example of this. The wild animals believe him to be a savage cat, but when presented with the opportunity to catch some wild animals, the cat would rather laze around in the sun and sleep his day away. While animal stories can be cute, this one lacks a central driving conflict and, instead, is about animals standing around, talking and worrying about things that don’t end up mattering at all.

Nothing really happens in this story. The first twenty pages are devoted to one animal going around and telling the others that the New Folks are moving into the area. While it gives us the chance to meet all the characters, the same conversation is repeated over and over again with nothing new being added to the conversation. Later on in the novel, this happens again when Little Georgie composes a song that gets sung by his animal friends.

A decent amount of humor was present throughout the book. A couple of the characters were a bit snarky and freely spoke their mind. For example, while trying to convince Porkey the Woodchuck to move, one animal doesn’t hesitate to threaten to bring Phewie the Skunk over to his house to evict him. The language and intentional misspellings were a bit irritating to read, though, and made the animals seem unintelligent.

Overall, Rabbit Hill is targeted towards a younger age bracket than the other Newbery books with its simple plot and animal characters. With a sappy ending and fluff-filled plot, Rabbit Hill should be passed over in favor of any of the other multitude of children’s books that feature cute woodland animals.

1945: Rabbit Hill (Or, Why to Grow a Garden)

Cover of Rabbit HillVERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5

The 1945 Newbery Medal Winner, Rabbit Hill, tells the tale of all the animals living around Rabbit Hill, focuses particularly around a rabbit family. The book opens with the arrival of New Folks (the author likes capital letters rather a lot), with the animals holding extensive debates on the factors that make the new arrivals either good or bad. The Man and The Lady prove themselves very good indeed, as they prevent the handyman from setting traps, spreading poison, or disturbing the animals in any way. They even care for Little Georgie the rabbit after a vehicle hits him. At the end of the book, the Folks reveal a lovely St. Francis of Assisi fountain and provide a meal for all the Rabbit Hill residents; they continue this practice throughout the summer, putting out food for everyone, including fried chicken for the skunk and the fox. In gratitude, the animals leave the entire garden alone, even patrolling to make sure nothing disturbs it.

Plot you say? A book is supposed to have a plot? Rabbit Hill missed that memo. The above is pretty much all that happened. While the characters were at times entertaining (and the author did an interesting job of assigning each one a different speech pattern), they didn’t make up for the fact that nothing. happened. Uncle Analdas' BurrowThe only reason this book got a 2.5 was the illustrations. The author is a much more talented illustrator than author.
In his drawings of Uncle Analdas, for example, the author manages to convey Analdas’ elderly nature and life experience with a series of notches in his ears and a slightly belligerent expression. Lawson injected a similar level of detail and personality in the numerous illustrations throughout the book.

If you’re looking for a strong animal story, skip this Newbery entry. It’s worth a browse for the pictures, but that’s about it.