1957: Miracles on Maple Hill (the most unmiraculous miracles)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The 1957 Newbery Medal Winner, Miracles on Maple Hill, is the story of a family that moves from Pittsburgh to the country. It’s set shortly after the end of World War II; the father was a POW and the move to the country is primarily to help him recover. Marly and Joe, the children, are the main characters, with the book focusing mainly on Marly. She is an optimist, who sees the change of the seasons as a miracle. She is also ridiculously kind-hearted and throws a fit whenever anyone tries to harm even the mice infesting a dresser drawer. The narrative, what there is of it, relates the family’s transition to the country, with an emphasis on Marly’s exploration of nature.

The Good/Interesting: PTSD and the transition from military to civilian life is a major thread of the book, one that the author portrays with a fair degree of sensitivity. Marly’s father is snappish and irritable at the beginning of the novel. He even struck his son in one scene. The entire family walks on eggshells around him. As the story progresses, the father begins to take joy in his life; he heals his relationship with his family and himself. Harry the Hermit was a WWI vet who went on walkabout because of his experiences, eventually settling on Maple Hill and, with the help of Mr. Chris, establishing a self-sufficient homestead.

The Bad: The plot. The narrator. The language use. The plot was thin and episodic, with the Chris family (neighbours to Marly) providing the only continuity. Much of it was just an almanac of when specific flowers bloomed, etc etc. The main narrator, Marly, was a bit annoying. One passage in the book summed it up perfectly: Marly hated hunting season and seeing the poor dead birds, until she got to the dinner table, whereupon she ate and ate. She’s naive, well-meaning but stupid. She terms everything a “miracle”, including the beginning of spring. Sorry, unless you lived under the White Witch in Narnia, seasons happen, no miracle required. Because Marly is young and the story is from her perspective, the language use is very simplistic.

Skip this book, unless you are a devoted naturalist located in Pennsylvania or you want to know how to make your own maple syrup.

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1956: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (Sailing by Ash Breeze)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, the 1956 Newbery Medal Winner, is a charming rendition of the life of Nat Bowditch. The book begins when Nat is but a wee boy, growing up in Salem around the time of the American Revolution. Nat is extremely bright, particularly in the realm of mathematics. His schoolteacher and several community members recommend that he go to Harvard, but, due to family finances, is indentured to a ship chandler. Despite his disappointment, Nat quickly masters his duties and continues to learn about everything he can. While his one true love is mathematics, particularly as it relates to navigation, Nat also picks up several languages. Mastery of navigation and survey gain Nat a berth on a trading vessel. He proves his worth several times over, through his skill as a translator and navigator, but also as a teacher of the other sailors. Nat continues on his path, marrying two women who love and support his work on a new navigational almanac and set of charts. Through his work on these endeavours, Nat is granted an honorary degree from Harvard. He eventually gives up life at sea and settles down with his second wife.

The author does an amazing job subtly integrating emotion into the narrative. While it’s rarely explicitly depicted, the reader still gains a sense of what Nat feels with every loss (most of his family and many friends die at sea; his first wife dies of T.B. while he’s at sea) and how deeply his relationships with others affect him. Ms. Latham, the author, also presents a nuanced view of foreign relations and other cultures. In an entertaining incident, Nat chats with Frenchmen at Balboa who fleeced a captain who made much of his appreciation for the Republic. The overall plot arc takes Nat from a servant to successful navigator and sea captain, who made his own way in the world through hard-work (the ash breeze aka oars). His hard work and rational approach to life lead to innovations that others hadn’t previously considered. I finished this book with a smile on my face. It was very readable. I’d particularly recommend it to those with an interest in early American history, seafaring, and New England.

1957: Miracles on Maple Hill

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen tells the tale of a young girl who finds the little miracles in nature as she experiences country life at Maple Hill for the first time.

This sentimental Newbery Medal winner was overrun by sappy plot lines and sugary characters. Every chapter involves a “miracle” happening in nature as Marly learns the ropes of making syrup in a sugar camp. Her wide-eyed innocence allows her to view the world through awestruck eyes as she makes new friends, saves baby animals, and tries to get along with her war-stressed father.

Marly is the main reason this book is getting such a mediocre rating from me. While I enjoyed that the heroine had flaws, she was insufferable to read about in regards to her naivety about the world around her. While she was very good at reading people, she seemed ignorant of the way the world worked and her belief in the smallest of miracles was a bit unbelievable to me. Constantly on the verge of tears, her mission to save every single small animal in the world was a bit over the top as well. At a couple of points, she can’t bear to let some baby mice and a den of foxes die despite her family’s logical reasons for it. Too many of Marly’s tears and breakdowns made for a weak main character who never really grows up.

I enjoyed some of the more subtle character interactions between Marly and the secondary characters. Her father’s struggle with readjusting after the war is constantly in the background, informing every conversation and action he is involved with. Additionally, Marly’s sibling rivalry with her older brother Joe, brings up some jealousy over the gender roles of the time period. Her desire to be able to do the same things Joe can do is very relatable and a driving force in her motivations.

The other characters of Chris, Chrissie and Harry were essentially stereotypes out of a Hallmark movie special. Always with a wise word, their philosophy on life is impressed on Marly and Joe. Their idealized views on life were eye roll worthy at best and just indulged in Marly’s childlike fantasies.

Miracles on Maple Hill was an okay read, but the main character dragged the book down a notch. If you have any level of cynicism at all, I would not advise reading this book. I would only recommend this to people who are looking for a feel good book at Christmastime or have an arbitrary interest in how syrup is made in New England. Otherwise, leave it be and find another book that has more bite and less saccharine sweetness.

1955: The Wheel on the School (Calling All Storks)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 1955 Newbery Medal Winner, The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, was a surprisingly entertaining recounting of life in the Dutch village of Shora. One day, little Lina points out that no storks next in the village. Her whole class at school is set to thinking on the reason why nearby villages have storks but they don’t. Through conversation with Grandmother Sibble III, Lina discovers that storks came to Shora when the village had trees. Although they can’t grow trees, the children decide to put a wheel on the roof of the schoolhouse to give the storks somewhere to nest. Adventures ensue as they set off in search of a wheel. Eventually, Lina finds a whole wheel in the wreck of a boat, and enlists 93-year-old Douwa to haul it out. It is mounted on the roof despite stormy weather. Shortly thereafter, the children acquire two worn-out storks from a nearby sandbar and help them up into the wheel/nest.

Although the plot is a bit odd, the storytelling is extremely entertaining. The older characters, in particular, shine. Though the story initially focuses on children, the author engages the whole village to help tell the tale. He demonstrates the power of relationships and the value of every person. For example, Grandma Sibble III, by sharing her remembrances with Lina, shows the child that cranes have successfully nested in the village before, giving Lina inspiration for her project. Douwa races to grab a saw when Lina explains why she was on the boat, tells her the story behind the wheel’s presence, and frees the wheel from the boat under treacherous conditions. Janus, a legless man who initially scares the children, aids their project on several occasions. He uses his ferocious arm strength to retrieve a wheel rim from the dike, provides the brains behind the mounting of the wheel onto the school roof, and rows the children out to rescue storks stranded on a sandbar. The writing is warm and humorous, with a strong focus on interpersonal relationships. The illustrations are done by Maurice Sendak and, while they don’t attain the heights of his later solo work, there are certainly many lovely depictions of storks and of the children. I genuinely enjoyed this Newbery entry and highly recommend it, particularly to people who have a strong interest in nature or in the Netherlands.

1956: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (how to earn a college degree without ever going to school)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Jean Lee Latham’s Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is an informative historical take on Nathaniel Bowditch, a math-loving sailor who published a game-changing navigational reference book. Based on a real eighteenth-century historical figure, this book offers readers an intelligent hero who must overcome hardship to contribute to an important time in maritime history.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is one of the better historical fiction offerings on the Newbery Medal Award list. The most compelling parts cover his indentured years in Salem, in which he is forced to give up his dreams of going to Harvard and becoming a scholar. Instead, he must serve as a bookkeeper for a ship chandlery for the duration of his teen years. It is during this time where he learns that he can use his keen mind to help himself and his new coworkers in his new profession.

He learns to rise above his hardships as he puts his love of mathematics and astronomy to good use when he begins to sail. His strength of character is encouraging to read about, as well as the lessons he learns along the way. I think children would find Nat a sympathetic hero and admire his ability to persevere and rise above his situation.

This book lost my interest in the second half when the plot gets inundated with sailing metaphors and off-putting jargon. While it’s intriguing to read about Nat’s contributions to maritime navigation, I felt the book got bogged down with all the language and lack of direct action.

It also began to feel repetitive whenever one of Nat’s family members kicked the bucket. By the end, I pretty much just expected one of his friends to die every chapter, because that is how frequently it happened. Thankfully, the book does not dwell for long on Nat’s angst and moves on from these parts fairly quickly, with only a paragraph or two covering these events.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book despite not caring for the subject matter. Overall, I would recommend Carry On, Mr. Bowditch to those who are looking for a historical fiction book that features an intellectual scholar as a hero.

1954:…And Now Miguel (counting sheep induces sleep)

VERDICT: Trash!

Laurinda’s Rating: 1/5

Make a documentary. Rewrite the script into book format. Bribe the judges. Win an award. While Stage 3 may or may not have occurred, the rest is the true story of 1954’s Newbery Winner. As with the reverse process (book to movie), the end result is utter garbage. …And Now Miguel is an extremely tedious exploration of an adolescent shepherd’s life. Miguel’s family has raised sheep for several generations. Every summer, the men in the family take the sheep up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This year, Miguel is intent on proving that he has the skill and knowledge to move from boy to man in terms of his responsibilities. He helps clear out the irrigation canal, “brand” the ewes and lambs with identifying numbers, and sweep the floor when the shearers come. However, only the drafting of his older brother, Gabriel, gets him his coveted place on the drive up to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. While Miguel regrets his brother’s absence, and wishing to San Ysidro for an opportunity to join the men, he delights in the journey to the mountains.

The narration is excruciatingly detailed, with little emotion to carry the plot along. As in the documentary, Miguel is the narrator of the book. His language use is simple and boring, not a surprise since Miguel prefers working with sheep to attending school (and, well, he’s a 12 year old). He offers a detailed description of why a lamb being born looks like an airplane, for example. If that was a one-time occurrence, the narrative might have survived. However, this happens over and over, with everything from cleaning the irrigation ditch to the scenery Miguel traverses when skipping school to search for lost sheep. The plot is also lacking; although Miguel takes on additional tasks, the author fails to paint a strong picture of his development in anything other than work habits. Additionally, secondary characters have little individual personality. While there are a few amusing scenes involving them, the strong focus on Miguel prevents anyone else from taking even a bit of the spotlight. Heck, even the pictures are awkward line drawings. Really, there was nothing to save this book. There’s a reason it took me almost two weeks to finish it (besides my vacation and a busy work schedule). Unless you’re trying to cure insomnia, avoid this book.

1955: The Wheel on the School (the great stork society)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Wheel on the School is a charming feel-good story about a girl who wants to make her dreams of storks returning to a small Holland town come true. Through passion and dedication, Lina and her classmates mobilize a whole village to help find a wheel to put atop the school so some storks will come nest there.

This book has a such a simple premise that its easy to roll your eyes at it. After writing an essay on storks, Lina sees an opportunity to try to attempt to get storks to come back to her town. The children go on a quest and must overcome different obstacles to find the objects they need to build the nest. Each chapter details how the students look for a wagon wheel while serving as a way to show the characters overcoming their flaws and weaknesses to find their strengths. I enjoyed the camaraderie among the students and the townspeople as the town is eventually won over by the necessity of getting a wheel on top of the school.

Except for Lina, Janus and the teacher, most of the characters blended together. Most of the children were interchangeable for me, but the adults in the story were more developed and intriguing to read about. I found myself enjoying the teacher’s little tidbits of wisdom and poignant advice that was shared with the six students. Lina’s passion for the project was refreshing to read about, and Janus’s personality combined with him being a paraplegic interjected some unexpected humor and seriousness into all his interactions.

At its heart, Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School shows how one small town unites under a single cause. Its an easy read for a younger audience, but  it also teaches a great lesson without being overly moralizing on how to grab a hold of your dreams and not let go.