1953: Secret of the Andes (Llama Herding)

VERDICT: Meh

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The 1953 Newbery Medal Winner, Secret of the Andes, is the story of an indigenous boy in Peru. He is raised in a hidden valley with a special herd of llamas, trained for an unknown purpose. Eventually, Cusi of the golden ear hoops goes to see Cuzco. He must also make a choice between what he was raised for and the secular world, although he doesn’t know it. Cusi decides he’s happier with the man who raised him, carrying on the tradition of raising llamas descended from the royal herds. Although he finds out the truth of his birth parents, he declares that family of choice is more important.

I just don’t have strong feelings about this one. The character building and development of the main characters is well executed. The author does an excellent job of describing Peru. The plot is what got this a “meh” rating from me. Although there is some journeying/questing, it involves no danger and the moral is super cheesy: Love the family you choose. Although he does it with fuller knowledge, Cusi ends the book the same way he began – as a llama herder. It’s not a bad book, and it has many cute parts, it just engenders no soaring emotions.

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1953: Secret of the Andes (the case of the long lost llamas)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes is a slow yet solid character piece that highlights the mysteries of the Inca Empire as a young boy who is raised in seclusion must discover his identity and find his family.

The best part of the book is the setting. Taking place high up in the mountains of the Andes, Cusi’s isolation from the rest of the world is easily felt as he only has his mentor and his llamas to keep him company. His interactions with the llamas is charming and amusing, and it’s easy to see how they become his entire world. This seclusion later contrasts against the busy city life of Cuzco that Cusi must eventually navigate. The descriptions of the land and the llamas took on a mystical quality that gave me a sense of being immersed into an unknown and long forgotten land.

I enjoyed being introduced to Incan culture with the various stories and tidbits that were told throughout the story. Several songs are featured in the book that were interesting to read about and actually added something to the book. Oftentimes, I hate when authors add long poems or songs in their stories, but these ones were well integrated into the Cusi’s coming of age narrative as he discovers who he really is.

I didn’t care much for the storyline. This book was very much an introspective piece that took a deeper look at the meaning of family. The climax of the plot revolves around the main character deciding if he should stay in the city with a new family or return home to keep caring for his llamas. Action was not really needed, but it was tough to keep reading when there is nothing compelling about the plot.

Overall, I enjoyed how Secret of the Andes took a deeper look at an ancient culture. The South American setting gave this book a magical sense of wonderment that allowed the story to grow organically. The characterization was muted, yet engaging. I would recommend this book to children who would like to learn more about ancient cultures and traditions.

1952: Ginger Pye (when dogs go missing)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes is a cute book about Jerry Pye and his sister adopting a dog. While everything goes well at first, their dog is kidnapped, resulting in them having to enlist the town to help them find their lost puppy.

The characters were exciting to read about. They actually had personalities. The author had a good handle on what it is like to think as a child does. Both Jerry and Rachel’s narrations were refreshing to read in their simplicity and childlike curiosity. The children felt like they were real people, especially their ability to have a good time with limited resources. At one point, the kids dust the pews at a church and end up shoving 3-year-old Uncle Benny across the pew on a duster. The children’s actions felt true to life and made this book easier to relate to since I’m reading it as an adult.

While the characters are having fun, there is a somewhat sinister quality about this book. A stalker follows them for the early parts of the book, making the characters paranoid and worried for their safety. The author did a good job at building the tension until the inevitable event happens and Ginger is stolen.

As a mystery/suspense book, I felt this book missed the mark when the villain is revealed half way through the novel. I was really enjoying the book until the reveal; after that I lost interest because they spend the second half of the book searching for their lost dog.

Despite the fun characters, I hated the point of view shifts that happened in the middle of each chapter. It would switch between Jerry and his sister’s point of view without any warning; sometimes it even touched upon the cat’s point of view. The characters also go off on a tangent quite a bit throughout the book as flashbacks are constantly interrupting the action. Though most of their ramblings tend to be humorous, I felt the book could have been cut in half and been better for it.

Also of note in this novel were the illustrations. The pictures looked more like a child’s scribblings than real art. They honestly looked like something a random person would draw on a napkin at lunchtime.

The story ends predictably and happy endings are found all around. Ginger Pye is a decent read for children who love a quirky mystery book that features a cute dog. It also has a sequel Pinky Pye, but I’m in no rush to pick up the next adventure with the Pyes.

1952: Ginger Pye (A Boy, A Girl, and Their Dog)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5

Ginger Pye, the 1952 Newbery Medal Winner, is the charming story of the Pye siblings, Jerry and Rachel, and the dog they name Ginger. Jerry loves one of the neighbour woman’s puppies and is determined to earn the money to buy him. He does so just in the nick of time; Rachel suggests “Ginger” as his name, and it sticks. The children and dog are inseparable, going off to swim in the reservoir and explore Cranbury. However, the presence of the Unsavory Character mars their happiness. The Unsavory Character had wanted to buy Ginger Pye, but the neighbour woman saved him for Jerry. Thus, the man in the yellow hat haunts the area, threatening the dog by his mere presence. The children never see his face. Meanwhile, Ginger proves himself incredibly intelligent, following Gerry’s scent trail to school and climbing the fire escape into the classroom. He becomes something of a local celebrity. On Thanksgiving, Ginger is dog-napped. Rachel and Jerry spend most of the remainder of the book searching for him and exploring Cranbury. In the last chapter, Ginger breaks away from his captor (one of Jerry’s school mates who was training the dog to assist in a vaudeville act) and returns home. He immediately proves himself compassionate and intelligent, as he carries the finicky cat across freshly tarred streets when she demonstrates a wish to be on the other side of the road. The children are ecstatic at his return, although sorrowful about the abuse he received.

The plot is decent, but not the main attraction of the book. Rather, the author’s rich, rambling descriptions of the characters and their explorations are what kept me reading (ok, well, I’m not really allowed to abandon these Newbery books since I committed to read all of them, but I didn’t want to ditch this one, either). I shared a few over on our Tumblr, including this incident from the day Ginger disappeared.The tangents, and they are legion, capture how real people’s minds work but are restrained enough not to overwhelm the plot, adding colour and back-story to the book. We learn all about Rachel, who hopes to be a bird-man like her father and who tries to be brave even when something like heights scares her. Gerry wants to be a rock-man, so interesting bits of local rocks fall into the descriptions. The author creates very authentic interactions between the characters, from little in-jokes and stories passed between the siblings to the benign tolerance with which they regard their 3-year-old Uncle Bennie. Ginger Pye has that special something that is hard to put your finger on. This would be an entertaining read for pet lovers in middle to late elementary school or early middle school. It would also make an excellent read-together or “story” book for younger readers.

1951: Amos Fortune, Free Man

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 1.5/5

Elizabeth Yate’s Amos Fortune, Free Man is an emotionless account on slavery in the Americas in the early 1700’s. The life of the historical Amos Fortune is revealed in this tale of a former slave turned free man.

This was without a doubt the tamest book on slavery I have ever read. The author glosses over the slave portion of his life, wherein Amos has a couple of different owners, but is not treated atrociously by them. Instead, he is taught to read and develops skills that are useful to him later in his life. This depiction of slavery does not look at physical abuse, but focuses on how his owners try to Americanize him and convert him to their religion, making him struggle to still hold onto his African beliefs and traditions. The bulk of the story takes place once he is freed, as he sets out to make something of his life.

Once freed, his life story becomes very repetitive as he continually saves up his money to free other slaves.  He meets his wife in this way, resulting in them setting off to buy some land and build a house in an attempt at domestic bliss. While Amos was obviously an admirable person, the author’s writing style does not let his character come to life on the pages. The story is simply an account of his life; very little personality shines through, making it hard to care about the characters.

The biggest problem with this book is that the main character is emotionless and flat. I would think someone in his position would feel anger, sadness or happiness at some point in his life, but Fortune’s character seems complacent throughout the book. It’s hard to feel anything for his desires when his deep feelings are complete hidden from the reader.

Amos Fortune, Free Man failed to live up to my expectations. Biographies need some kind of spark to get them noticed or else they seem to end up like this one – a list of facts that happened during this man’s life. Recommendation: Don’t pick this up.

1951: Amos Fortune: Free Man (Slavery wasn’t bad, nope)

VERDICT: Trash!

Laurinda’s Rating: 1.5

The 1951 Newbery Medal Winner, Amos Fortune: Free Man, is the story of a boy abducted from Africa shortly after the death of his father makes him chieftain/king of his tribe. A Quaker purchases him out of kindness, for he fears the boy’s spirit will result in harsh treatment. The family treats him kindly, teaching him to read and to weave. They offer to free him, but his is content to stay. Unfortunately, his owner leaves no provision for Amos’ freedom in his will, so Amos is sold to help to pay the debts after his owner croaks. Amos works for a tanner and eventually buys his freedom. He opens his own tannery, using most of the profits to buy women he’s either attracted to or pities, since he failed in his quest to find his sister (who may well have remained in Africa). The women are his “wife” for the year or so they each have until they die (excepting Violet, who outlives him). Amos moves to a small town and works hard to become a valued member of the community. Although some bastions of separation remain, such as never being permitted to buy a pew in church, Amos gains the respect of most of the town. On his death, he gives large sums to the school and the church.

This is a mash-up of the worst features of Invincible Louisa and Daniel Boone. The narration is a recitation of facts like Louisa, tinged with the contempt for the “Other” that Daniel Boone showed. Throw in a dollop of Biblical imagery – Amos is set up as Moses, complete with burning mountain to substitute for a burning bush – and you have an accurate picture of Amos Fortune: Free Man. Although the author is less blatantly racist than in Daniel Boone, there are many, many references to “his people” as well as statements like “those black people, nothing but children. It’s a good thing for them the whites took them over” (90). Some of this, particularly the portions that appear in dialogue, serves to accurately capture the mood toward Africans in the time period (late 1700’s), but not all of it. The book also minimizes the very real horrors of slavery, as Amos was always owned by “good” people and whipped only on the boat over from Africa.

Skip this one. It’s racist, but more importantly, it’s really boring, with poor narration and emotion-less characters. Not even the pictures (which also portrayed Amos using racist tropes), save it.

1950: The Door in the Wall (Use of legs, optional)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

The 1950 Newbery Medal Winner, The Door in the Wall, is not a winner in my book. The setting is England during the reign of Edward III. The main character, a boy named Robin who lost the use of his legs after an illness, is incredibly whiny and annoying. If I was poor Brother Luke, I would have left the brat to rot in the family home after the servants fled and/or succumbed to the Plague. Unfortunately, Brother Luke rescues Robin and takes him back to the monastery, where, with much patience, he acts as masseuse, physical therapist, and psychologist. Robin learns various trades from the monks while gaining bodily strength and (a bit more) patience. Along with a minstrel, Brother Luke and Robin journey to the castle where Robin is to be fostered. Requisite adventures are present – they almost get robbed, lost in the forest, etc. Robin’s fosterage accepts him fully, despite his inability to learn the traditional tasks of a page or squire. He repays them in full when he escapes a siege and sends the minstrel for aid. Of course, shortly after the siege is broken, the King rides in with both Robin’s noble parents in tow. The King knights Robin, and the book ends with some sappy line about his parents loving him no matter what he does.

Ok, while it’s lovely that everyone adores and accepts Robin’s physical impairment, in my opinion, it’s ridiculously unrealistic for the time period. I’m sure that some parents would have been loving and all, but Robin’s crippling (potentially) leaves them without a heir capable of fulfilling the duties of the nobility, which usually included riding to war with their liege lord. I suspect their reaction to the news would have been much more mixed, if not outright negative. I know, I know, that wouldn’t make for a good story. English Heritage has an interesting section on disabilities in this period.

Semi-redeeming factor: The Door in the Wall shows kids with different physical abilities that one can make the best of circumstances and still be a “hero” despite any limitations. Robin eventually is able to stand upright and to walk with crutches. He saves the day by sneaking out of a besieged castle (can’t trust those Welsh, you know), making a long overland walk to the minstrel’s house and sending him for aid. Through his hard work on activities like swimming and prodigious stair climbing, he builds the strength to complete “his” task.

Overall, this book is trite (see here for one example), with an extremely irritating main character. Avoid it like Robin’s servants tried to avoid the Plague.