1987: The Whipping Boy (All Hail Prince Brat!)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Whipping Boy won the Newbery Medal in 1987. It is a humorous adventure-tale with a pseudo-medieval setting. Jemmy serves as Prince Brat’s whipping boy; he is punished every time the Prince misbehaves, which, as his nickname suggests, is frequently. Only one of the boys learns to read and write, and it isn’t the Prince. One evening, Prince Brat decides to run away from the palace, dragging Jemmy with him. The two are kidnapped by highwaymen and held for ransom. In an effort to protect and free the Prince, Jemmy pretends to be the royal. Prince Brat repeatedly foils Jemmy’s attempts to misdirect the thugs and to escape. Eventually, however, they both escape, at which point a dancing bear and a potato monger aid them. Jemmy knows the sewers well from his previous life, so he takes the Prince there to avoid recapture. They bond when the Prince deliberately sends the thugs into the tunnel with vicious rats; together, they return to Palace, with the Prince promising good behaviour forevermore.

Although not a deep story by any means, The Whipping Boy was amusing and the action moved quickly enough to keep me interested. It’s a fairly short book – I finished it in about 40 minutes. The author matched the story line to the length, so it neither felt rushed nor beleaguered. Jemmy is a plucky character who does the best he can to protect the Prince, even though he initially dislikes Prince Brat. The intersection with his old life as a rat-catcher was well executed.

Scholastic informed me that this is 4th grade level. As with Sarah, Plain and Tall, this seems a bit inflated. I believe that children as young as 2nd grade should be able to read this mostly independently; parents might need to explain a few words and concepts, but the book is an easy read, just slightly above the level of the “first chapter book” books. While not an essential read, The Whipping Boy, this is a fun book which might appeal to reluctant readers, particularly those who enjoy adventure. Because of the low reading level, this will appeal less to adults than some of the Newbery entries aimed at slightly older kids. However, it’s a very fast reading, so if you’re looking for brainless fun, I recommend this.

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1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall (A Plain Plains Tale)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

Sarah, Plain and Tall, the 1986 Newbery Medal Winner, is a short, sweet story about two kids wishing for a new mother and the woman who comes to fulfill that role. Caleb and Anna live out on the plains; they lost their mother to childbirth, the day after Caleb was born. Caleb loves hearing about his mother, and both children miss her, particularly the songs she used to sing.

One day, their father Jacob tells them that he placed an advertisement in the paper for a bride, and Sarah from Maine replied; after some correspondence, she comes out to visit, telling the kids that “I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall.” Sarah is a strong-willed but kind woman who quickly adjusts to farm life, insisting that she be taught how to plow and how to drive a wagon. She decides to marry Jacob. Everyone is overjoyed.

This is a very simple story meant for elementary school students. Scholastic suggests this for 3rd grade and up, but I actually think that many kids younger than that could tackle it. There aren’t any big words or hard concepts to trip them up. My feelings are somewhat mixed. Because it’s aimed at young readers, the plot and character development are both basic: kid wants, and gets, a mother. The only tension is whether Sarah will stay or go, and even that isn’t played up for the suspense. The best fiction for this age groups has a special something – whether it’s humour, stronger sentiment, or shining character development – that elevates it beyond a simple tale. Sarah, Plain and Tall, while a quick read and enjoyable for what it is, lacks that vital spark. I’d recommend this for younger kids who are fans of historical fiction. Most adults and older kids can skip this Newbery entry.

1985: The Hero and the Crown (Dragons, Magic Swords, and Redheads)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The 1985 Newbery Medal Winner, The Hero and the Crown, is a high fantasy tale by Robin McKinley. It tells the story, from her adolescence, of Aerin, first sol (princess) of the kingdom of Damar. Aerin never fit in at court. She was the only one with wild orange hair, she lacked the family Gift (magic), and unfeminine pursuits like swordplay and horse-back riding interested her more than courtly games. Aerin’s cousins mercilessly teased her and the court, by virtue of her birth to a “witchwoman”, kept her at arms length.

However, things began to turn around when she tamed her father’s lamed warhorse, Talat, who became her most loyal companion. Together with the sword-fighting lessons from her cousin Tor and her own work on a fireproofing balm, Aerin gained the tools she needed to slay the small dragons which periodically plague the kingdom; her success gains her the official role of Dragon-Slayer. When a villager brings word of the awakening of the Black Dragon just as her father leaves to put down a rebellion, Aerin rides out to face him, a battle which nearly claims her life. She eventually finds healing with the mage Luthe, but it comes with the price of her mortality.

Luthe informs Aerin that her uncle Agsded is causing the Northern invasion of Damar. Aerin, with her magic awakened, seeks him out, joined by wild dogs and cats. She defeats him on instinct, using a wreath of the plant that nearly killed her combined with the heartstone of the Black Dragon. Aerin both removes the source of aggression fueling the North and regains the protective Crown that was lost long ago. Luthe pulls her back to the proper time and, despite Aerin’s love for him, she races back to the City. She arrives barely in time to turn back a Northern invasion; although her father doesn’t survive, Aerin gives the crown to Tor. They marry, as Aerin also loves him, and Tor insists that Aerin be named Queen rather than simply Honored Wife. Together they rebuild the kingdom.

I genuinely enjoyed reading this book. Aerin is an engaging character who takes action to solve her problems rather than brooding about them; she cares about the good of others and acts accordingly. Her animal friends are entertaining and the fast pace of the plot keeps everything moving.

The style of this book won’t be for everyone. Parts where the author is skipping through time/events read like a fairy tale, with a slightly stylized, remote feel. However, the sections in which Aerin is taking action hooked me and made up for portions which were over-descriptive or dispassionate.

I’d recommend this to people who enjoy fantasy or fairy tales. It has the classic mix of magical creatures, enchanted swords, and battle, but features a strong female character who does the rescuing rather than waiting around for someone else. Other series with a similar feel include The Song of the Lioness and The Protector of the Small. (Honestly, I like Tamora Pierce’s work slightly better as the character development is stronger).

 

1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw (I’m like new paper, blank)

VERDICT: Trash!

Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

Dear Mr. Henshaw, the 1984 Newbery Medal Winner, uses letters and diary entries to explore the experience of a 12-year-old boy whose parents recently divorces. The narrative begins as letters Leigh writes to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw. When Leigh sends Henshaw a list of questions as part of a school project, he gets comical responses and his own list. By so doing, Mr. Henshaw gets Leigh to practice thoughtful writing. Eventually, Leigh switches over to diary entries, though those are addressed to Dear Mr. Pretend Henshaw.

The concerns and narrative are as expected. Leigh worries about his lack of friends, gets mad at whoever is raiding his lunchbox, frets that he caused his parent’s divorce, and pines for the dog his dad took as part of the divorce. With the help of his lunchbox alarm, Leigh begins to make friends. Under the tutelage of Mr. Henshaw, Leigh gets a writing award for a narrative of a trip with his father. He also accepts that his parents won’t reunite, after his mother explains that his dad will never really grow-up. Leigh even does some growing up of his own, sending Bandit the dog back with his father because he knows the two need each other.

Stylistically, the author mimics the voice of a 12-year-old boy, complete with simplistic language and a limited range of topics. For me, this was an utter failure at engaging my attention. It failed to commit – it lacked the hard-core angst and action to succeed as a drama but was too self-involved and whiny to fit elsewhere. The main character was bland and tedious. Early to middle elementary schoolers dealing with a parent’s divorce might relate to this, but I recommend everyone else steer clear. Despite its short length, this was painful to slog through.

1983: Dicey’s Song (The Beat of a Different Drum)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.75/5

The 1983 winner, Dicey’s Song, is the second book in a series which explores the lives of four children after their mother Liza succumbs to mental health problems. In this book, the children, led by the titular Dicey, have taken up residence with their grandmother and are adjusting to life in a new town and with a responsible adult. Their previous experiences have greatly impacted them. Dicey holds herself aloof from anyone not part of the family, James downplays his intelligence in an attempt to fit in, Sammy’s self-control in school eventually leads to fights outside of it, and Maybeth struggles academically.

Slowly, as the family builds new ties with “outsiders”, they make progress on their individual issues. Dicey makes friends with Mina, daughter of a local African-American preacher, following an incident in English in which Mina defended Dicey from charges of plagiarism. James researches how to teach reading in order to help Maybeth and in turn gains an outlet for his intellect. Sammy expends energy with a paper route, and, combined with Gran’s visit to the school to beat everyone at marbles, starts to fit in. Maybeth, with the help of Mr. Langerle the music teacher, builds her piano skills and begins to make academic gains under James’ tutelage. They also gain legal security when Gran legally adopts them.

The book concludes with Liza’s death in a psychiatric ward in Boston. Although sad, her death allows the children to move forward and to continue growing in their new home. The ending, while not exactly happy, is fairly neutral, imparting the sense that life goes on no matter what happens.

Dicey’s Song poses interesting questions about interpersonal relationships as well as about mental health. I particularly enjoyed the conversations between Ab, the grandmother, and Dicey. Ab stresses the important of holding on to people, not allowing relationships to drift away. She learned that from bitter experience, as, following the loss of one son and the daughter, she withdrew from the town and interacted minimally with the outside world. It’s gratifying to see Dicey start to take that advice. Dicey’s Song also asks whether it is better to have a mother alive but catatonic or dead; there are no easy answers, but Dicey explains to Gran that, even though they knew that Liza would never recover, it still made a difference knowing she was alive.

The main factor preventing this Newbery entry from receiving a higher rating was its over-reliance on description. This slowed down the pacing and led to some judicious skimming on my part.

Overall, this is an excellent book that sensitively covers many difficult topics. Its rich character development makes it shine; you genuinely care what happens to all of the characters, even the secondary ones. I particularly recommend this for children of parents who struggle with mental illness and those who live with someone other than their parents.

 

1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw (author’s worst nightmare)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw explores the troubles of a sixth grader through a series of letters written to his favorite author.

This is your typical divorced parents with kid story. Leigh is having trouble adapting to his recently divorced parents; he’s stuck living with his mom while his dad doesn’t always remember to call him. Yet it’s hard to sympathize with Leigh since he acts (and writes) much younger than what I’d consider typical sixth grade behavior. As a result of problems within his family life, he ends up reaching out to his favorite author for guidance and simultaneously becomes an annoyance.

Leigh Botts isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and lots of advice he receives goes right over his head. He writes to his favorite author as part of an assignment, but continues to pester him to the point that the author tells the kid to write all his letters in a diary. Leigh, sadly, is a bit too dense to understand that the author no longer wants to hear from him. I wish we would have gotten to read Mr. Henshaw’s letters and postcards, because they sound more entertaining than Leigh’s long ramblings about his own life. The letters felt pretty lifeless to me, and Leigh’s anxious personality was hidden by the gimmick of a book written in the form of letters.

For most of the book, the reader follows Leigh’s highs and lows of living a mundane suburban life. At one point, there is a subplot where someone is stealing his lunch so he rigs his lunchbox up with an alarm to catch the culprit. While these story lines may entertain a younger child, reading this as an adult was a bit of a chore to get through.

While I didn’t care much for the story, I did enjoy the part where he meets another author at a brunch who compliments him on his ability to write in his own voice and not imitate someone else. I thought this helped round out the story a bit as you can see Leigh’s voice progress and grow through the whole story as he writes his letters and journal entries.

Overall, I would give this book a pass. I remember reading it in fifth grade, but it didn’t leave much of an impact on me. It’s not particularly memorable, and other Newbery Medal books have more interesting stories to tell than a tale of an attention-starved boy who is upset and anxious about his home life.

 

1983: Dicey’s Song (where shopping is the best therapy)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

In Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt, one family learns what it means to hold onto the past while simultaneously letting go and looking to the future. When Dicey and her three siblings are abandoned, they move in with their grandmother and have trouble adapting to living in a new home.

Dicey Tillerman is only thirteen, but she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Unsure of whether she can trust her grandmother to look after her siblings, Dicey takes on the responsibility of a part time job in order to take care of her family. Her maturity was refreshing to read about and while she was a fairly adult character, she still learns some lessons throughout the book as she grows up. More akin to a tomboy than a proper girl of the time, she doesn’t stress over how she looks and doesn’t care for manners; her strength of character shines through in her actions and mood swings. She learns through trial and error, though, that there is more than one way to contribute to a good life – whether it’s through helping build a boat, planning the family meals, or learning to sew an apron.

The secondary characters were comprised of some interesting personalities, as well. Dicey befriends Mina, a smart and thoughtful African American girl who goes to school with her, and Mr. Lingerle, the elementary school music teacher who begins to teach her younger sister how to play the piano. Her younger sister struggles with learning to read, and there’s an interesting chapter in which several character’s debate how to help her. Much of the story is about how the family must reach out to others for help, even though Dicey would prefer to be self-sufficient and keep to herself.

While this novel is a follow up to Homecoming, it’s not necessary to read the prequel. Things from the past are alluded to, but the climax of the book, which deals with Dicey’s absent mother who is in a psychiatric hospital, still hits all the relevant points to give it a strong ending (which features an emotional shopping trip) even without really knowing what happened before.

As coming of age novels go, Dicey’s Song featured a cast of strong main characters and a well-thought out story while bringing up some interesting themes that are not always covered in young adult literature. Its only downfall was that it was a bit slow at times, but every moment gracefully builds up to a moving finale. I would definitely recommend this for people who are looking for a meaningful and emotional read.