1964: It’s Like This, Cat (every feline wants to be named Cat)

VERDICT: Treasure? 

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

In the 1964 Newbery Medal Winner, Dave adopts a cat from a local hoarder cat lady. He takes the feline, which he creatively names Cat, on his many adventures around New York City. Cat facilitates his interactions with a number of interesting people. Tom, for example, picks the lock on a basement locker to release the hapless Cat; Tom is later caught returning some items he liberated on a dare. Dave and Tom’s friendship forms one of the few coherent subplots in It’s Like This, Cat.

Although the characters are congenial, the book is light on plot. Dave does work through some common adolescent issues, particular in how he interacts with his father. Through Tom’s interaction with Dave’s father, as well as in contrast to Tom’s own father, Dave comes to see the helpful, generous side of his father. Most of the story, however, is just Dave gallivanting around, taking the subway to New York landmarks like Coney Island.

Altogether, this Newbery entry is an atmospheric but forgettable one. I cautiously recommend it to people with a great love of New York City, because it has great descriptions of the early 1960’s life of the city. It might also be of interest to cat lovers because of Cat’s adventures, though there is a scene where a kitten dies. However, there are both stronger animal adventures out there and better novels set in NYC. This is NOT an essential read, unless you, like Sally and I, are reading all of the Newbery winners.

1964: It’s Like This, Cat (New York, New York)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

It’s Like This, Cat follows the amusing adventures of a 15 year old boy and his pet cat in 1960’s New York City. More of a young adult novel than a children’s book, this Newbery Medal winner is a cute coming of age story that touches on the issues of family fights, first loves and new friendships.

This book perfectly captures how new pets bring unexpected happiness and adventure into their households. Dave is just a kid who is trying to stay out of trouble, whose life is aimless and pedestrian, until his cat doesn’t come home one night, which forces him to meet some new people in the neighborhood. As a result, there is no real plot to speak of, but his episodic adventures feel very true to life and the people he meets are fun to hang out with. Dave’s adventures with Cat lead him to getting involved with a burglary, picking up girls on the beach and chasing an escaped cat across a busy parkway. His coming of age journey sees him go from being unsure of how to act around girls and getting into dumb fights with his best friend to becoming more confident and self-aware later on in the novel.

The wry and relaxed tone of the novel makes it seem like it’s for an older audience than it is intended for. The first line (“My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat.”) sets the stage for a story whose casual observations about life are filled with subtle humor. The narrator’s thoughts are funny in his naivety, and the descriptions of Cat’s actions will appeal to almost anyone who owns a cat. While the story blends both humor and melodrama, it does get fairly serious in a couple of chapters that deal with the loneliness of Aunt Kate – the resident old cat lady, whose name even further illustrates her life revolving around her favored companions.

Emily Neville’s It’s Like This, Cat recalls an older and more simpler time with references to record stores, payphones and other outdated paraphernalia. A love story to New York City, the book is authentic in its treatment of a teenage boy’s trials and tribulations of growing up. But ultimately, it’s pretty forgettable.

1963: A Wrinkle in Time (Again, Love Trumps Evil)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating 5/5

The 1963 Newbery Medal Winner, A Wrinkle in Time, is by far my favorite Newbery Medal winner. I loved this book as a kid and it’s as least as good as an adult. I want to grab the rest of the books in the series and devour them instead of moving on to the next Newbery winner. L’Engle deftly blends action, growing-up, and a fight against evil into a touching narrative.

Meg Murry comes from an extraordinary family, but feels like the odd one out both at home and at school. Her close bond with Charles Wallace, her special younger brother, ameliorates some of the hurt from the scorn heaped on the Murry family because of Mr. Murry’s disappearance. One stormy night, Mrs. Whatsit blows into the Murry family kitchen; although no one thinks much of it at the time, her visit sets of a challenging battle. Along with Calvin, a schoolmate, Meg and Charles are transported off Earth to aid in the battle against the Shadow. Escorted by the eccentric Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Why (really transdimensional beings), the children take a “wrinkle in time” to Camezotz, a dark planet encompassed by the Shadow. All inhabitants of the planet are perfectly synchronized and controlled. The Central Controller/IT brings Charles Wallace under its control, but Meg escapes with her father and Calvin. Meg returns for Charles Wallace, discovering that love is the only thing that can defeat evil. Everyone makes it back to Earth, and the book closes with a sweet family reunion.

Part of what makes this story entertaining and meaningful for adults is its multiple layers of meaning. It can be read as a Christian allegory, certainly not much of a stretch considering blatant reference to God as the opposition to the Shadow and Jesus as one of the warriors for the Light. Despite her immense fear, Meg returns to free her brother, struggling with negative emotions until she realizes that love is the only means to freedom. This mirrored Jesus’s struggle in Gethsemane, as well as his choice to die for love of humanity. However, L’Engle also names numerous other scientific and artistic luminaries as propagators of the Light, so the Christianity theme doesn’t come across as heavy-handed. Considering the Cold War milieu in which L’Engle wrote this novel, the story also contains more than a tinge of the U.S./U.S.S.R struggle. Camezotz, with its standardized people, stands in for the U.S.S.R., which also prized standardization and very defined roles for everyone in its population. The Black Thing continually struggles to overtake new worlds, much as the U.S.S.R. (and, to be fair, the U.S.) did during the 1960’s. Again, L’Engle handles these themes delicately, allowing the surface story-line to retain its primacy.

L’Engle’s strong character building is key to the book’s success, however. Meg is a very relatable heroine. She gets mad at people with great frequency, struggles with feeling inferior to her brilliant parents, and believes everyone is judging her; however, she also loves deeply and carries more strengths than she knows. Meg’s journey of self-discovery, facilitated greatly by her fight against evil, is touching because circumstances demonstrate the positive uses of her “negative” qualities. Stubbornness and anger help keep her free of IT’s mind control, though love tops all. So frequently, I gag at saccharine narratives of characters “growing-up”, but L’Engle manages Meg’s beautifully.

I unreservedly recommend this book. It is an excellent, quick read. Even though I had read it before, I still came away with something new to think about. I’m quite tempted to turn around and read it again right away, or at least pick up the next book in the series. Late elementary school and later would probably enjoy this the most, though I can see it being a great read-aloud for younger children.

 

 

1962: The Bronze Bow (Revenge Through Love)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 1962 Newbery Medal Winner, The Bronze Bow, was authored by Elizabeth George Speare, who won the 1959 Newbery with The Witch of Blackbird Pond. This Newbery entry is the store of Daniel, a boy growing up during the time of Jesus. When we meet him, Daniel is living with a gang in the hills above town, seeking revenge against the Romans because they killed his father. Following his grandmother’s death, Daniel returns to his village to work as a blacksmith and care for his agoraphobic sister. He continues to work for the liberation of Israel by organizing a squad of young townsmen, including his wealthier friend Joel. Gradually, Daniel comes to see the negative effects the gang has on the town, both through thievery and through the retaliations the Romans visit upon the village in lieu of the robbers they can’t catch. The final break comes when Joel is captured and imprisoned for gathering information for the rebels. The gang leader, Ross, refuses to help save him, so Daniel and his group undertake the task, losing two friends in the melee. Eventually, Jesus heals Daniel’s sister, removing Daniel’s disbelief and hatred at the same time.

As in her previous Newbery Winner, Speare creates vivid characters and maneuvers them skillfully through challenging moral quandaries. Daniel initially believes strongly that Ross’ methodology – stealing food from local farmers/herders and robbing travelers – is justified because they’re helping bring about the liberation of Israel. However, he soon has to grapple with facts to the contrary. Speare does an amazing job depicting Daniel’s desperate struggle to find a place for himself in the world. Daniel’s depression when he rejects first Ross and then, temporarily, Jesus, comes through not merely in his thoughts but also in the nuances of his actions. Even beyond the normal struggles of any adolescent, Daniel wrestles with deep philosophical questions few of us face in our lives.

Although the main character is male, Speare’s female characters are also quite nuanced. Joel’s sister Thacia swears an oath alongside her twin. She breaks the Law by dressing as a man, serving as a decoy of Joel. More importantly, Thacia helps teach Daniel how to love. Even Daniel’s sister Leah, who begins the narrative as a shadow, scared of others, blossoms into a personable character who struggles with her limitations and willingly interacts with a young Roman soldier, helping him deal with his homesickness. Both women are integral to the narrative and to Daniel’s self-discovery, serving as far more than foils.

Ultimately, Speare gives us a tale of one man’s conversion to Jesus. While the religious motif of love topping hate weaves through the novel, particularly the ending, Speare draws the journey with subtlety. She depicts the milieu in which Christianity arose with great sensitivity, showing why people doubted as well as how some came to believe. Even for those without an interest in Christianity, The Bronze Bow‘s provides an fairly interesting narrative of a boy’s journey into manhood. I recommend this novel for late elementary or middle school readers, particularly those interested in antiquity. I will admit that I groaned when I initially read the description, so this Newbery entry was far better than I expected.

1962: The Bronze Bow (a story of a young angry man)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Bronze Bow was a book I was apprehensive about picking up since it was historical fiction that featured deep religious overtones, but once I started reading it, I didn’t want to put it down. Elizabeth George Speare tells a compelling story about a Jewish boy who is looking for vengeance in first-century Judaea. While living as an outcast, David begins to hear about a new messiah giving sermons and finds that his singular drive to vengeance is beginning to be tempered by something else – love and friendship.

The supporting characters were this book’s greatest strength. The siblings Joel and Thacia were my favorite characters as they were wise and thoughtful while still being young, impetuous and eager to fight. What stands out about this book is that all the characters have their own backgrounds; their lives do not simply revolve around Daniel’s character. They each had their own motives and never went along with whatever Daniel says without asking questions.

Daniel’s character grew in leaps and bounds as he goes from a lone, outcast avenger to a loyal man with a code. He is deeply flawed and is oftentimes awful to the people closest to him. Though Daniel’s character saw tremendous growth, I hated that he couldn’t come to his final epiphany on his own. The main theme of the story had to spelled out to him by a one-on-one talk with Jesus. It took me out of the story a bit since I felt like there were subtler ways to go about doing it. I wish Daniel would have been able to come to his conclusion on his own.

His sister, Leah, is the one character that fell flat. Her whole possessed by demons schtick was a bit over-the-top, and her character development was unbelievable as she changed from a slowly recovering girl to timid withdrawn person at the drop of a hat. She felt more like a plot point whose sole purpose was to create moral conflict for Daniel, as well as providing a way to bring Daniel and Thacia together.

Surprisingly, Jesus was not in the novel as much as I thought he would be. His influence can be seen from the fringes as Daniel attends some of his sermons, and Daniel’s thoughts often stray back to his teachings. The biblical setting creates a tense atmosphere and knowing the eventual turn of events in real history allows the reader to take a more critical look at the time period.

The Bronze Bow was an exciting story that had great potential until the final few chapters. It didn’t get overly preachy, but there was still enough sermonizing and moralizing that may turn some readers away. For avid readers of Christian historical fiction, The Bronze Bow succeeds in capturing the sentiment of the time period while presenting a deeply flawed hero in the form of an angry Jewish boy whose only thought is to avenge his parents by killing any Roman he crosses paths with.

1961: Island of the Blue Dolphins (What No Woman -of that group- Had Done Before)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

In the 1961 Newbery Medal Winner, Island of the Blue Dolphins, author Scott O’Dell tells the store of Karana. Karana is a young Native American woman who, following several tragedies, ends up living alone on what she refers to as the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Contravening many societal taboos, she constructs weapons with which to hunt the abundant fauna of her surroundings. She also uses the materials around her to construct several sturdy dwelling places. Though she lacks human companions, she is rich in animal friends. After shooting the leader of an aggressive pack of wild dogs, she takes pity on the dog, pulls the arrow from his chest, and tames him. Karana also befriends nestlings, an injured otter, and the original dog’s son; these friendships lead her to eschew hunting of animals. Eventually, another ship full of white men, like the one that took the rest of her tribe elsewhere, lands on the island. Karana sails away with them, though the author’s note informs us that she is never reunited with her family.

Although the narrative is sparsely told, Karana’s voice and spirit shine through. The very lack of prose embellishment matches the struggle to subsist without anyone else to help her. The story is “just the facts” so to speak, yet it still conveys a touch of Karana’s inner life, particularly her initial loneliness and anger at the circumstances which left her by herself.

As Sally did, I read – and loved – this book as a child. While I still enjoyed it as an adult, the book is rather more haunting than inspiring or touching. I’m an imaginer/worrier, so I’ve spent some quality time thinking about losing my family; I can barely fathom taking that to the next level and having to endure the isolation which Karana does. I admire Karana even more for making a life for herself, producing what she needed, and staying fairly cheerful (or at least matter-of-fact).

I would recommend this book for nearly everyone. It’s a quick read. Unlike many of the other books, it isn’t moralizing or “inspirational” by design; it just tells an interesting story.

1961: Island of the Blue Dolphins (or, 10 reasons why dogs are a girl’s best friend)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Island of the Blue Dolphins is the story of Karana, an Indian girl who lives for years alone on a small island in the Pacific, waiting for her tribe to one day return. In a tale filled with courage and self-discovery, she learns how to hunt for food, build a shelter out of whale bones and fashion weapons to kill the wild dogs on the island.

I remember loving this book as a kid. I envied Karana’s freedom to be on her own without needing anybody else’s help. Her resourcefulness and perseverance is really admirable, as well as her decision to go against gender norms in order to survive. But reading this book as an adult, I found her situation really sad and depressing as her loneliness really comes through in her thoughts and actions. It’s especially heartbreaking when thinking how this book is based on the true story of Juana Maria, an Indian girl who was left alone for eighteen years on San Nicolas Island in the 19th century.

Karana is a person who has essentially lost everyone she has ever known – first her father, then her tribe and lastly her brother. Yet she takes this all in stride and finds a way to survive even though she knows that no one is coming to rescue her. She always finds a way to move forward and never looks back to the past. She only fails once when she tries to sail to the mainland, and instead, is forced to return to the island. This marks a turning point for her as she accepts her fate and realizes that the island is now her home.

My favorite scenes revolved around Karana’s developing friendships with the various wild animals on the island. Rontu and Karana’s easy companionship has always been one of my favorite human-dog relationships in print form as they go from enemies to best friends. He’s a constant friend at her side and never lets her down. She also takes in a wounded otter, a couple of birds and a fox, making her a regular pied piper.

There is something about living a life on a small island in the middle of the wide ocean that helps emphasize her isolation. Much of the book follows her day-to-day actions, leaving no room for dialogue. Even the people she meets towards the end of the book speak a different language than her, making you wonder if maybe she should have stayed on the island she called home instead of going with them, because she communicated just as well with her animal friends.

Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins has a lot to offer everyone. It’s an easy read; the sentence structure is fairly basic and the plot is simple to follow. Relatively short, this Newbery winner combines action, adventure and meaningful relationships in a riveting tale that leaves you wondering how you would have fared in Karana’s position.