1979: The Westing Game (Neighbors, Games, and Murder)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Westing Game, the 1979 Newbery Medal Winner, is the story of how Samuel Westing disposed of his fortune by gathering together a group of people and making them compete. While the pacing keeps it fairly readable, the plot and characters failed to draw me in. I love flawed characters, but I found nearly all of these tediously venial and unengaging.

Samuel Westing, reclusive millionaire, stealthily draws together a group of people, most of them tied to him in some way, by offering them apartments in a newly constructed building. They run the gamut in age, occupation, and personality. A judge, a girl fond of kicking others, a podiatrist, multiple restaurateurs, and various others comprise the group. Shortly thereafter, Westing “dies”, leaving clues with an attorney and instructing the chosen people to solve his murder. Shenanigans ensue, including a theft and a few bombings. Officially, the mystery is declared unsolved, but each participants is given a modest amount of money. Turtle Wexler, champion shin-kicker and biological relative of Westing, manages to solve the riddle; she figures out that Westing has taken on four direction-based aliases over the course of the game and seeks him under the final name. She conceals her win from the others but becomes close with Westing, caring for him when he finally does sicken and die.

What I did like: the book has a great take on what-you-see-isn’t-what-you-get, or the importance of looking beneath the surface of people. One of the major plot twists is that Samuel Westing had disguised himself and was living among the other members of the game. Turtle wins by working that out. Angela, virginal bride-to-be, known solely for her engagement to a plastic surgery intern, was really the one who set bombs in the apartment complex; she also had the brains and desire to be a doctor in her own right. It’s a kids book, so, of course, Angela gets to break her engagement and finish her education, before marrying the guy to whom she was originally engaged.

This isn’t a terrible Newbery read. It still trumps many of the earlier Newbery winners. It is a fast read, with occasional interesting turns of phrase. However, there just wasn’t anything that grabbed me and made me want to keep reading. I worked on the book for an ENTIRE week before finally sucking it up and taking it home to finish. The Westing Game would be a fun book for kids that enjoy riddles and mysteries, as it’s very focused on solving clues. The 1970’s have been full of genuinely excellent Newbery entries, though, so I recommend most people read one of those instead.

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1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (a year of discontent)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautifully written story that explores the nature of human cruelty and brutality from a child’s perspective as racial tensions begin to escalate in the Deep South during the Depression.

Cassie Logan is the best part of the novel. Her childlike innocence at the beginning of the book deeply contrasts against the discrimination that is constantly going on around her. In some ways, she reminds me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird as both books are written through the eyes of a young girl who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Cassie, of course, must travel a tougher road, as she faces harassment and discrimination while not fully understanding why she is being treated differently just because of the color of her skin. Parts of the book are tough to read, especially the chapters where she is humiliated by another girl just because she wouldn’t get out of her way, and her resulting confusion and anger make her seem like she could be a real person.

Just as Cassie feels flawed and real, the book portrays the sentiments of the pre-Civil Rights era in a realistic way. It perfectly captures a deeply tumultuous time in our nation’s history without feeling too much like an after school special. Every action in the story has consequences that stretch beyond a single chapter; they permeate the book as a sense of dread builds up to the climax and Cassie’s world is forever changed.

Overall, this book was a bit lengthy, and while it told an intriguing story, I felt my attention beginning to drift about two-thirds of the way through. A tighter plot would have held my interest better, even though I enjoyed the themes that were addressed. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry easily makes the case for its inclusion in the Newbery Medal winner list.

1978: Bridge to Terabithia (Imagination, Saviour and Killer)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

Bridge to Terabithia, the 1978 Newbery Medal Winner, is a story of two lonely children finding each other and inventing a fantasy world all their own. Katherine Paterson strikes a perfect balance with this book. There is no grand drama and precious few evil foes, but the tender character-building carries the story. It makes the plot twist towards the end of the book that much more painful.

Jesse Aarons was always something of an outsider. He’s a gifted artist, the only boy in a family of girls, and lacks friends at school. When Leslie Burke, a city girl, moves into the farmstead adjacent to his, Jesse finally finds someone with whom he can be himself. Leslie loves running, is afraid of very little, and has an immensely powerful imagination. Together, Jesse and Leslie defeat the school bully, and make peace with their classmates. Leslie also invents the imaginary land of Terabithia, located in a grove of trees and reachable only by swinging over the creek on a rope. The pair pretend to be royalty, even dubbing the puppy Jesse gives Leslie Prince Terrien.

One rainy day, their world comes crashing down. While Jesse is in Washington, D.C. visiting the National Gallery, Leslie attempts to swing over the rain-swollen creek. The rope breaks and she dies. The event is nearly as stunning for the reader as for Jesse, who learns about it only when he comes home from a day out. The last portion of the book deals with Jesse’s attempt to accept Leslie’s death and move forward. Through Jesse’s clear eyes, the author writes a visceral description of grief and how people handle it. Eventually, Jesse makes peace with Leslie’s death and decides that Terabithia is something he wants to share with his younger siblings, to help give them the growth and development that it brought him. Jesse came to the conclusion:

“that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn’t Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world – huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile? (Handle with care – everything – even the predators.)

Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn’t there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.”

As noted above, I am in awe of Paterson’s skill in creating this story. It is in turns cozy and challenging, fraught and comforting. Bridge to Terabithia deals with so many problems kids face, including bullying and loss of a friend. Through embedding backstory skillfully into the narrative, Paterson rouses sympathy for even the initially “bad” characters. For example, Janice Avery, who bullies Leslie, eventually opens up to Leslie, admitting that her father beats her. While there is (thankfully) no Hallmark moment where Leslie and Janice become best friends, the revelation does help the two reach an understanding. Each character, even the minor ones like Jesse’s sisters, is treated with similar care.

I have no qualms in recommending this book to everyone, ever. It may be a particularly useful read for kids who are dealing with the main “problems” in this title, like bullying or loss of a loved one. Bridge to Terabithia will inspire people of any age to live more brightly and to interact with others in a purposeful manner.

1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

VERDICT: TREASURE

Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautiful and brutal portrait of black life in Mississippi during the Great Depression. Cassie Logan, the narrator, is an 8-year-old girl from a moderately prosperous African-American family. The narrative highlights her daily life, as well as her awakening to the institutional racism prevalent under Jim Crow.

Cassie’s parents own 400 acres of land and, while they still struggle financially, have more than most of the rest of the local families, who sharecrop on the estates of white landowners. Cassie’s mother, Mary, teaches school; her father, David, works on the railroad and is frequently absent. Big Ma, her grandmother, raises cotton and wrangles Cassie and her brothers.

Cassie is an entertaining narrator. She is naive and idealistic, a trickster yet concerned about others around her, and deeply devoted to the ideal of fairness. At times, I was silently screaming at her to be quiet, but only because I suspected the unpleasant outcome of her outspokenness and her failure to grasp the social situation. I loved her cleverness at rectifying situations involving her white peers, such as when she pretended to be friends with the girl who wronged her in order to collect personal information, forcing the girl to treat Cassie respectfully.

It is heartbreaking to watch Cassie learn about the societal position of blacks in her historical milieu. She deals with poor condition hand-me-down textbooks marked “nigra”, regularly gets a mud bath courtesy of the bus for the white school, and waits in fear for the return of her father when he is tardy returning from town.

The author, Mildred Taylor, does an excellent job portraying the various survival strategies employed by the black community when the deck was stacked against them so heavily. Big Ma and many of the neighbours pretend to respect the whites; in one incident, Big Ma forces Cassie to apologize to a little white girl she bumped into and backs the girl’s father when he forces Cassie into the street. Uncle Hammer regularly endangers himself and the rest of the family by taking the opposite tact: he rushes out to confront anyone who hurts the family. Thankfully, others generally stop him. Papa and Mama try to strike a balance. They organize a boycott of the Wallace store after the Wallaces burn a black family, finding collateral that enables sharecroppers to shop elsewhere. Even when this action threatens their land, they continue and find a way to make it work. Everyone in the book is forced to strike a balance between their conscience and the realities of Mississippi society.

The ending of the book is tragic: T.J., a friend of Cassie’s brother Stacey, falls in with two larcenous white boys. When their actions cause the death of a shop owner, T.J. is set up. While he escapes a lynch mob, the author strongly implies that T.J. will still die. Only Stacey’s quick thinking in setting the cotton field alight prevents the conflict from engulfing his entire family.

This book is note-perfect. Recent events re-affirm the importance of novels like this. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry highlights grossly unequal power relations, relations that have softened but not entirely decayed. Everyone should read this book. The sheer humanity of this book will make you laugh, bang your head against the wall, and tear up at the tragedy of the situation. It would be excellent as part of an integrated lesson plan combining current events, history, and literature.

1976: The Grey King (a travel advisory for Wales)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 5/5

It’s rare to find a fantasy series that improves as it goes on, but each book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series keeps raising the stakes with each sequel having more urgency and scope than the one that came before it. The Grey King, fourth in a five book series, focuses on Will Stanton and his adventures in the Welsh countryside as he becomes entangled in the Grey King’s mischief.

The Grey King, also called the Brenin Llywd, is more interested in causing chaos by preying on humanity’s weakness and anger than starting an all-out battle or apocalypse. Oftentimes, it feels like the bad guys in children’s fantasy are never very menacing and their threats never seem to have much heft behind them. The Grey King escapes this pitfall as there is always a dark feeling of foreboding that surrounds his actions – the paranoia surrounding the sheep killings, the gloomy weather on the mountain, and the grey foxes that go unseen by the townspeople. Caradog Prichard’s crazed actions make the most devastating parts hit closer to home as many readers can probably relate to the loss of an animal or pet, and it is ultimately human emotions that end up being the real evil.

This book feels more intimate and darker than the ones that came before it, as it focuses solely on Will and his new friend, Bran. While Will had previously grown into his powers as an Old One, he starts this book in a place of weakness, having lost some of his strength and memories to a bout of hepatitis, which makes him more relatable and human than ever before. Isolation affects all the characters, as Will must survive his trials without the help of his mentor Merriman, who is only tangentially involved in the storyline for the first time in the series. Will is mainly left to his own devices, forced to learn a new geography, find new allies, and understand the Welsh language, which makes him an outsider in a new, unknown and treacherous place.

The characters of Bran, Cafall and John Rowlands are all welcome additions to the series. Bran’s connection to the Arthurian myth is slowly teased throughout the novel as he learns more about his family history. He gets the toughest character journey in the book as all the horrible stuff happens to him, yet his relationship with his father ends up being poignant and touching as he learns several hard truths about his past. Additionally, Cafall’s loyalty to his master is used to great effect, as well as John Rowland’s human understanding of the real battle that is going on around him – even though he has no special powers himself.

Susan Cooper created a vivid world with some memorable scenes that really stay with you. The scenes of Will and Bran’s riddle game in the mountain, Cafall’s chasing of the grey fox and its aftermath, and the riders rising out the lake have all stayed with me since my first reading of this book as a child. Additionally, I’m always wanting to travel to Wales after I read the book since the descriptions of the countryside are so magical and beautiful. I would definitely recommend The Grey King to anyone who loves fantasy or the Arthurian myth.

1976: The Grey King (Music Saves All)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

The 1976 Newbery Medal Winner, The Grey King, is the fourth book in The Dark is Rising Sequence. I reviewed The Dark is Rising earlier this week.

Will, the main character from The Dark is Rising, gets severely ill with hepatitis. After he’s partially recovered, Will is sent to his aunt’s house in Wales to convalesce. There, he meets Bran, a boy who the locals think is magic and/or evil because Bran’s possessed of white hair and skin. Together with Bran’s dog Cafall, the boys roam the local hills, with Cafall directing Will to Cadfan’s Way. It is part of a new quest which Will must undertake. As Halloween approaches, Will feels the malice of the Grey King growing, although Will is yet unable to take action against him. To escape a fire spread by the Dark, the trio run inside the mountain. There, they succeed in gaining the golden harp, another artifact of the light, from guardians composed of representatives of the Light, the Dark, and High Magic.

Their escape is not wholly successful. Caradog Pritchard, a local farmer who unknowingly serves the dark through his hated and malice, shoots Cafall. He believes that Cafall was killing sheep; truly, the Grey King was served by grey foxes who could change their color to mimic that of dogs. In the wake of this tragedy, Bran pulls away from Will, blaming him for the cost that serving the Light had.

However, Will and Bran reunite when Bran comes to warn Will that Caradog is hunting for the dog of a friend, believing that that dog, too, was a sheepkiller. The Grey King’s magic pins the dog to the floor. Before Will can return with the harp, Bran awakens his High Magic and frees the dog. Will faces off with a possessed Caradog Pritchard, who acts as a proxy for the Grey King. Using the harp, Will awakens the Sleepers, vanquishing the Grey King and completing his own quest. Bran’s ancestry and powers are revealed more fully.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this work. The pacing is a bit quicker than The Dark is Rising and the symbolism/descriptive passages less tedious. Although the ending is ambiguous, in the main, the “heroes” won. One of my favorite passages is where Tom and Will discuss the Light. Tom makes the observation that the Light is cold and fanatical, observing that it doesn’t care about any individual, only the larger battle. Will acknowledges this point, emphasizing that the battle against the Dark must be won at any cost; he also realizes that it was the Light who brought on his illness, rather than the Dark. The book deals sensitively with loss, showing how a variety of characters, chiefly Bran, his father, and Pritchard, all deal with different bereavements. Though based on the same set of mythology as the first book, this entry has a stronger Arthurian theme, which may draw in readers more effectively than the mythos of the first book.

I would recommend this to fans of fantasy and mythology, as well as to a more general audience. Strong characters and a cohesive plot make this a book which will engage most people. It’s not strictly necessary to read the prequels, but you may, at least, want to read The Dark is Rising to gain familiarity with Will’s character.

1974 Almost Newbery: The Dark is Rising

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

One of the 1974 Newbery Honor books, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is the second book in her series of the same name. Because the next Newbery Winner to be read is the fourth book in the series, and features the same main character, I figured I’d also review this title.

Will Stanton is the seventh son of a seventh son and turns eleven on Midwinter’s Eve. He begins to enter into his powers as an Old One, a guardian of the Light, just as the Dark is at its height and mustering for an attack. Will’s quest is to hunt the Six Signs: iron, bronze, fire, water, air, and stone. In so doing, he learns to look beneath a person’s surface, to act even when frightened, and to think creatively. The author does an excellent job portraying Will’s growth and development in a realistic, non-cheesy manner. While no major characters die, Will doesn’t win every battle or instantly master a given skill. He causes injury to someone by giving into emotion and is nearly trapped by the Dark when he reveals himself by trying out his new fire-starting skill. In the end, Will succeeds in his quest to gain the Six Signs and free England of a bitter blizzard called up by the Dark. He does so on Twelfth Night, which, depending on how you count it, is either tonight or tomorrow. Having just suffered through a mini-snowstorm myself, I feel their pain!

I’m very torn about The Dark is Rising. I had a hard time getting into it, at points. The feature that drew me in, Cooper’s use of language, particularly detailed description, was also one that made it a slow read. The whole series is based on Welsh mythology and is paced something like a myth. Cooper’s description is intimately tied to the symbolic nature of mythology.

Overall, this book has more good than bad (or Light than Dark). It gently teaches a lot of hard truths, particularly through the character of Hawkins. A liege-man of Will’s mentor Merriman, Hawkins is imbued with the power to open a hiding place of knowledge; scared of the risk Merriman takes by using him thus, Hawkins listens to the whispers of the Dark, hidden under the facade of a sweet-faced maid servant/witch-born girl. His betrayal opens a hole through which the Dark can strike. Cooper does a great job of translating into very physical terms the impact that a betrayal can have. In the end, Hawkins chooses redemption, and death. The character building is impeccable, with the transition from ordinary boy to Old One handled particularly well, as was the building of secondary characters.

I would highly recommend this to late elementary/early middle school students who are interested in fantasy. It’s not a bad read as an adult, but I do remember liking it a lot more when I was about that age.