1971: The Summer of the Swans (family matters)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars is about one girl’s search for her mentally challenged brother who goes missing. Initially shallow and selfish, Sara learns that there is more to life than looks and finds that she must embrace her family, both their strengths and flaws.

The Summer of the Swans is very much a slice of life type of tale, focusing on Sarah’s “worst summer of her life.” Fourteen-year-old Sara is a decently developed character who acts very much like a girl her age. She constantly compares herself to her older and more beautiful sister and thinks that she is tall, gangly and has overly large feet. Additionally, she is burdened by her younger brother Charlie, whom she feels she has to babysit constantly because he has a developmental disability.

Her insecurities lead her to making many dumb mistakes that many young adolescents may sympathize with. When she figures out that her bright orange shoes are not trendy, she tries to dye them another color, which ends up in disaster. Later on, Sara takes a magazine photo to a hair dresser so she can be styled like a model, but ends up with a really bad cut. She makes a lot of mistakes, but by the end of the novel, she is able to learn how to be a better person. Sara is easily relatable, though a bit irritating, making her journey of self-discovery a fun part of this book.

The main narrative follows Sara as she must find her missing brother, Charlie, who she thinks went looking for some swans they had seen the day before. She teams up with a classmate who she thinks is a jerk to find him, and they end up better understanding each other after talking things out. Charlie also gets a point of view, which captures the simplicity, single-mindedness, and fear of his predicament in an engaging way. Everything ends up tied neatly in a bow with everyone one happy family at the end of the novel.

Overall, The Summer of the Swans was a bland story that reads more like an after school special than a prestigious award winning book. The main character’s travails may attract some younger readers, but much of the book feels dated and lacks the action needed to make this a real page turner.

1971: The Summer of the Swans (In which swans play very little part)

VERDICT: Trash?

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

Summer of the Swans primarily focuses on the relationship between awkward teenager Sarah and her mentally handicapped brother Charlie. Sarah is in the self-criticism phase of growing up; she spends much of the book moaning to her older sister about what she hates about herself, from the orange shoes she dyed puce to her skinny legs. However, Sarah has a genuine affection for her brother Charlie. She sees it as her duty to watch out for him. One evening, Charlie leaves the house alone, looking for the swans Sarah took him to see earlier in the evening. He becomes very lost, panicking his family. Sarah, with the help of her former-enemy, brings Charlie home, in the process gaining a greater sense of self-worth.

I’m pretty neutral on this book. Didn’t hate it but it wasn’t riveting either. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a younger sister with Down’s Syndrome, so the relationship between Sarah and Charlie felt very familiar to me. Sarah sprayed someone with a hose because they were taunting her by calling her brother retarded. I almost punched someone for similar reasons when I was in elementary school. The need to protect a sibling, even if they occasionally frustrate you, is strong.

The Good:

The Sarah/Charlie relationship is extremely well drawn and realistic, as I’ve discussed above. I also liked the stylistic choice to include chapters written from Charlie’s perspective. Besides explaining what happens while Charlie is alone, the author does a good job of getting inside Charlie’s head. Rather than portraying him as simple or a less competent child, the author reveals why Charlie makes the choices he does; Charlie often reacts to stimuli differently than “average” people. The sympathy with which the author portrays Charlie makes Charlie the more interesting, developed character in Summer of the Swans.

The Bad:

Sarah. Especially in scenes where it’s just her and Wanda, the older sister, talking. She’s annoying, judgmental, and hasty in her actions. While the story is about her development, she’s still a grating character. The plot is frustrating in that external validation matters greatly to Sarah, who is afraid of being judged. Although finding Charlie is the high point of the book, Sarah getting asked to a part by – gasp – a boy is a close second. Of course, it was pretty hilarious when she forgot color theory while trying to dye her sneakers. Orange and blue rarely mix into an attractive hue…

I’d recommend this for siblings of people with disabilities. That part of the book is well done, and it’s an issue not talked about as frequently/portrayed in significant depth in many other books.

1970: Sounder (life can be ruff)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

William Armstrong’s Sounder takes a somber look at the relationship between a dog and his master while also combining the themes of identity, loneliness and literacy into a gloomy tale on the perseverance of the human spirit.

This book was one of the most depressing children’s books I have ever read. I went into it without having read the blurb on the book jacket and was not expecting a plot this dark. I cannot imagine a child enjoying this story – with its violence towards dogs, lack of humor and focus on identity and oppression. Sounder is the ideal book to work into a school curriculum around these topics, but it’s a somber tale that needs to be read when one is in the right mood to enjoy it for what it is.

The main issue I had with this book was the narration. Since all the characters remain nameless throughout the story except for the dog to emphasize their lack of identity, it was hard to get attached to the characters of the boy, the mother and the father. While this idea sounds interesting in concept, the execution of this style of writing did not come across well as there is lots of emphasis on description while little attention is paid to the emotional beats. The character’s thoughts and actions came across as soulless and apathetic, which was most likely what the author was going for, but it was hard to stay engaged with the story.

Loneliness was the other big emphasis in this novel. In fact, at some point in the novel, I felt like some iteration of the word lonely showed up every other sentence. That kind of repetition took me out of the story as the prose was not as fluid as it could have been.

As Laurinda mentioned in her review, there is an odd side story that focuses on the boy’s desire to learn how to read. It did not exactly mesh with the other plot points and distracted from the main storyline. Nevertheless, this extraneous plot does infuse the story with a bit of greatly needed optimism and hope for a happy ending.

I would not recommend this novel unless you are the kind of person who loves to read sad books about dogs. I will definitely be skipping the sequel, Sour Land.

1970: Sounder (Dead Dogs and Dads)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

The 1970 Newbery Medal Winner, Sounder, is nominally the story of the titular character, Sounder the coonhound. The dog is the only named character in the book. The father of a share cropping family is dragged away for theft; Sounder is shot in the same incident. Sounder eventually returns to the family, but the main narrator, the oldest child of the family, spends years searching for his father. Eventually, it’s a reunion of gimps. Sounder lost the use of a leg, an ear, and an eye in the shooting and the father lost use of one side of his body in a dynamite accident. Shortly thereafter, the pair goes out hunting for what will be the last time. When Sounder returns without his father, the boy finds his body under a tree. Before he returns to school, the boy digs a grave for Sounder, which Sounder occupies a few weeks later.

The secondary plot focuses on the boy’s desire to learn to read. Because his labor is needed at home, he is rarely able to attend school, instead picking up rudimentary literacy with the aid of discarded newspapers. While searching for his father, a guard injures the boy’s hand, leading to a fortuitous meeting with a school teacher, who offers him education and board in a cabin in exchange for doing maintenance on the school. Both parents are very proud. However, this subplot rarely connects with the main plot, leaving the reader asking why either one matters.

The author, William Armstrong, frames the book as his retelling of a story a former teacher once related to him. This is one of those stories that probably worked much better as part of the oral tradition. It’s heavy on the description and light on plot. That, combined with the lack of names, made it difficult to connect with the characters. Armstrong does evoke the experience of a poor, presumably African-American, person living in the South, but, while reminding the reader how challenging that experience would have been, fails to raise strong depths of feeling. Instead, Sounder‘s “factual”/pseudo-non-fiction style narration just made me go “Well, that would have sucked” before moving along with nary a backward glance.

This is a short read. That’s the best part of it. Ok, well, the pictures are really the best, but the length helps. I wouldn’t particularly recommend this for anyone, though. Despite it’s length, I found the style tedious and the narration boring. It’s an oddly passive book, as the main character’s actions don’t change the outcome of the plot at all. Definitely skip this one.

 

1960s Newbery Medal Recap

The 1960s Newbery Medal winners can be described in one word – mediocre. Historical fiction and coming of age stories dominated this era, but we also got some samplings of adventure stories that represented both science fiction and fantasy genres. It’s not that this decade was awful; it’s just that the stories were boring and forgettable. And we had such high hopes for the ‘60s.

Our combined ratings were the highest yet for this decade, coming in at 3.18 out of 5. No rating went below a 2 and one novel achieved a 5 star rating. Sally’s average rating was 3.15, and Laurinda’s was 3.2.

Well, at least Laurinda and I are through with the worst (we hope) as we have now officially read 48 out of 93 Newbery winners – just over halfway done. The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s are filled with the stories we had to read in grade school so we are optimistically, yet cautiously, looking forward to the next few decades.

And here is our list of where the best of ‘60s kid lit fall on our Trash or Treasure barometer. Yeah, the ‘60s kind of stunk.

Treasures: Instant Classics
Island of the Blue Dolphins
A Wrinkle in Time

Toss-Ups: Mediocrity is Thy Name
The Bronze Bow
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Shadow of a Bull
I, Juan de Pareja
It’s Like This, Cat

Trash: Best Left Forgotten
Up a Road Slowly
The High King
Onion John

1969: The High King (Pig-Keepers Make Great Kings)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The High King, Lloyd Alexander’s 1969 Newbery Medal Winner, is the fifth and final book in the Pyrdain Chronicles. The series is a classic high fantasy tale which tracks Taran from childhood into the adult world. While Taran is technically titled Assistant Pig-Keeper, he has experience working at many trades. In the course of The High King, he primarily functions as warrior. Along with his companions, Taran seeks to prevent Arawn, the Dark Lord (ok, maybe not of that exactly title, but same difference), from taking over the world. About half the companions die along the way, generally in battle. They succeed in defeating Arawn, but learn that his defeat mean that those descended of Don must leave for another world? reality? Eilonwy, Taran’s beloved, is among those who must leave, until she uses her one wish to renounce any magical ability. Taran and Eilonwy live happily ever after, repairing all the shit that Arawn destroyed. The end. Or, in Alexander’s words, “Thus did an Assistant Pig-Keeper become High King of Pyrdain.”

Basically, just read Lord of the Rings instead. The similarities between the Pyrdain Chronicles and LOTR probably derive from the shared mythology on which they’re based, but LOTR storytelling is much more nuanced and less cliched. Alexander uses so many of the tropes of high fantasy that the whole thing very nearly reads as satire. Fair Folk/elves? Check. Magic wielders, both benevolent and baleful? Check. Lots of warriors who die in battle, some of who enact betrayals? Check. Woman depicted as unknowable to man? Check. It’s got it all!

In all fairness, this is a decent enough high fantasy series for the intended age range. I do remember enjoying the series when I was a wee one. Unlike many children/young adults, where everything works out happily, many of the characters developed across the series are offed swiftly and brutally in the final book. Death is senseless as often as heroic. Alexander does justice to the female characters; Eilonwy rides into battle with Taran and aids their quest as much as he. Taran faces a tough choices at the end: whether to give up Eilonwy to serve the kingdom or to abandon his oath and need to bring healing and life back to ravaged areas. Of course, it all works out in the end, but for a whole paragraph, the reader thinks Taran might not “win”.

While I have no plans to reread this, The High King is a respectable high fantasy novel. For those kids who’ve already chugged through the more modern fantasy series and are groping for something else to read, I’d recommend this, obviously starting with the first book.

Non-Newbery: The Donner Dinner Party

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Because I work at a university whose primary focus is on education, the library has a substantial children’s book collection. I spotted Donner Dinner Party on the new books shelf and couldn’t resist. When I was in elementary school, I went through a history/ historical fiction phase, which included reading a LOT about the Donner Party.

Donner Dinner Party cover

This graphic novel is an entertaining addition to the fairly extensive literature on the Donner Party. The history is well researched and the writing entertaining but not overly gruesome. The narrator is Nathan Hale (the patriot, and a pun on the author, who shares the name). Hale tells the story of the Donner Party to his hangman and the British soldier guarding him. All interject at various points in the story.

For those unfamiliar with the history, the short version goes like this: Families leave the Midwest (mostly Illinois) bound for California. They make bad choices and end up way behind schedule. Most of the party gets trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. They resort to cannibalism. Rescue parties eventually get the survivors out. This is the portion of the story (the cannibalism) on which most books focus. However, Hale does an excellent job explaining how things got to be so bad, focusing on James Reed’s prideful errors and refusal to listen, as well as the internal rifts within the fairly fluid “Donner” Party.

The hangman provides great comic relief. He is completely unfazed by cannibalism (he himself participated when shipwrecked), but gets worked up over animal deaths, refusing to believe that Billy the pony starved to death after the Reed family left him to wander. The book even includes a panel drawn by the hangman, showing the lovely meadows in which Billy and the family dog ended up.

This is a great book to interest kids in history. The Donner Party has the appeal of goriness, but the book moves beyond shock value to capturing the challenges posed by the trip itself and the fracturing of group dynamics in which it results. Because of the graphic novel format, even relatively marginal readers can get something out of the book. I highly recommend this for anyone looking for an engaging non-fiction read.