1996: The Midwife’s Apprentice (from dung to placenta)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 1996 Newbery Medal Winner, The Midwife’s Apprentice, tells the story of a young girl who has nothing, not even a name. The villagers initially call her Beetle, because they find her sleeping in a dung heap for the warmth. Beetle works for the village midwife, a knowledgeable but cantankerous lady who assigns her a lot of work but barely feeds her. However, this is the first village in which Beetle has stayed for a long period of time and she appreciates the regular food and shelter. She adopts the name Alyce after someone at the fair mistakenly calls her that.

Over time, Alyce wins the respect of much of the village. She saves a boy her age from drowning, helps deliver his cow’s calves, and delivers a baby in the village when the midwife goes up to assist with another delivery at the manor. However, Alyce flees the village after she had to call the midwife in to a problematic delivery. While working as a tavern assistant, she learns to read. More importantly, she overheard the midwife talking to another patron, telling him that her assistant needed to stick with hard situations. After successfully delivering a baby on her own, she gains the confidence to return to the village. Alyce becomes truly the midwife’s apprentice rather than just her servant.

The Good: Despite the many disadvantages which Alyce faces, including being told constantly that she’s stupid, can’t do various tasks, etc., she is stubborn enough to choose her own path and disregard any naysayers. She demonstrates both cleverness and intelligence. In one of my favorite chapters, she impersonates the Devil and ensures that villagers engaged in various dishonest acts are punished. Her cat Purr is also an endearing sidekick. Further, the scope of the narrative fits the fairly concise length of the book.

The Bad: The narrative and characters are fairly stylized.  Part of this is the result of the pace of the narrative. The rest may be a deliberate choice – since the book is set in Medieval or early modern England, the style mimics such classics as the Canterbury Tales. Regardless, the style makes it challenging to connect with the characters on more than a superficial level.

I remember reading and enjoying this when I was in the target age range. I would recommend this for middle to late elementary school readers, particularly those who enjoy historical fiction. The simple style and inspiring heroine make this a decent Newbery read, although not one of my favorites.

1995: Walk Two Moons (Layers of Life)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Walk Two Moons, the 1995 Newbery Medal Winner, is a journey of discovery wherein a girl dealing with her mother’s abandonment comes to grip with it. The author, Sharon Creech, nests two narratives together. The “outer” story chronicles Sal’s road trip to Idaho with her grandparents to see her mother. They follow a similar route to that which her mother took, documented by the numerous postcards Sal received. The “inner” story is one Sal tells to her grandparents; it focuses on her friend Phoebe, whose mother also briefly abandons her. The intertwining themes between the two are masterfully handled. Sal sees Phoebe’s situation much more clearly than her own but makes the connection between the two, acknowledging that she engaged in some of the “bratty”/negative behaviours which annoy her when Phoebe uses them.

The book’s greatest strength is its characterization. Each character, no matter how minor, is interesting and well developed. You get a sense of their personality, not just their actions. Gran and Gramps are pretty hilarious grandparents, interested in exploring. As they passed through some locations with which I’m very familiar, particularly Madison, WI, I greatly enjoyed their descriptions and experiences. Sal, although scarred by her mother’s disappearance,

Creech manages a somewhat unexpected plot twist towards the end of the book. Throughout most of the book, the reader is given the impression that Sal and her grandparents are going to visit her living mother. However, when Gran falls ill and Sal takes the car to where her mother is, we find out that her mother died in a fiery bus crash. Sal knew this all along and the trip was basically to allow Sal to say goodbye to her mother.

The book is imbued with so many examples of basic human decency. From the cops that take Sal to see her mother’s grave site rather than arresting her for driving without a license to the old lady who leaves inspirational messages for the neighbours because she thinks they’d like them (though it takes them a while to figure out who is leaving them), Creech shows us how people can care for one another. She also includes a fair number of questionable choices (Phoebe deciding they needed to break in to the neighbour’s house, etc.); these prevent the book from seeming overly saccharine.

Walk Two Moons is immensely readable and well constructed on all levels. I highly recommend this for late elementary and middle school readers. It may be particularly poignant for those who have lost a parent, but it touches on so many other issues that most kids should find something of interest.

 

1994: The Giver (To Remember or Not to Remember)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5

The 1994 Newbery Medal Winner is one of the best known, The Giver. The society in which it is set initially appears a modestly happy one, with a strict structure in which everyone is content. The book opens with Jonas approaching his twelfth year, when children are assigned to a profession. At the ceremony at which placements are announced, Jonas is initially skipped, then is informed that he was selected as the Receiver, the person who holds memories for the community.

The current Receiver, who takes the title the Giver, gifts Jonas with memories from long before the current society. They allow Jonas to experience much more profound emotions than others in his society, showing him what it truly means to love. In the process, Jonas comes to question the current order. He finds out that those who are “released” are really just killed. When Gabriel, a child fostered at his house, is unexpectedly scheduled for release, Jonas takes him and runs away to safety, an action which Jonas and the Giver hope will force the community to deal with its own memories and bring about positive change.

This book is exquisite. Until the final chapters, there is little action but the storytelling and the evolution of Jonas’s understanding of his society are perfect. The book is deceptively simple initially, depicting a child’s anxiety over what he is going to (be assigned to) do with his life. Lowry slowly strips bare humanity, showing a society that chose security and Sameness over individuality, in so doing losing profound emotion as well as color vision, music, and much more. The Giver makes you consider the trade-offs between security and self-determination, echoing similar tensions between capitalism and communism.

This is highly recommended for late elementary and middle school readers, as well as a general audience. The themes are interesting and challenging for everyone, but will be of particular interest to those who enjoy dystopian fiction and novels which explore society and politics.

1993: Missing May (Dead and…Gone?)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The 1993 Newbery Medal Winner, Missing May, explores the process of grieving, from what happens to a person after death to why a person chooses to stay alive if given an option.

Summer lost her mother at a young age and bounced between various relatives houses until Aunt May and Uncle Ob brought her home. Although they were older and had health challenges, they created a warm, loving environment where Summer could always be herself. All this came crashing down when Aunt May dies unexpectedly. Summer is left dealing with her own grief, as well as that of Ob. The two are surviving, following their previous pattern, when Ob suddenly feels May’s presence. Summer mentally prepares to lose Ob too. However, her eccentric classmate Cletus leads them on a (failed) visit to a spiritualist church. Something sparks Ob’s desire to live. The book ends with Summer finally weeping for her lost aunt after an owl flying over sparks a tender memory.

This book is angsty and odd. As previously mentioned, it primarily chronicles the grieving process, tracking both Summer and Ob through the process of coming to terms with a loved one’s death. Neither the characters nor the plot are compelling. Summer is just an ordinary girl – Cletus mentions she’s a good writer but this is never shown and she makes no use of the talent in the book. Further, there is no specific turning point when Ob chooses life over death. Many small clues/loose-ends are established and never resolved, which hinder the plot development.

Not recommended for most people. It’s a fast read – I finished it over one lunch break – but utterly mediocre, with surprisingly little emotion for a book focused on loss. That said, the very ordinariness might make this an interesting/useful book for a child who has lost a loved one as it does a good job capturing the complexities of grief on both the personal and interpersonal levels.

1998: Out of the Dust (or, have you ever seen the rain?)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, more than any history book, depicts the dark, depressed mood and harsh lifestyle of the Oklahoma people during the Dust Bowl.

Taking place in the 1930’s, the story follows a young girl and her family’s struggles during the violent dust storms and droughts that plagued the country at the time. Billie Jo Kelby’s life becomes consumed by the promise of rain coming one day, but the world never gives her what she wants. After day in and day out of constant misfortune, death and despair, she sees her life as nothing but a dead end. She begins dreaming about finding a way to get out of the dust, even if it means leaving her loved ones behind.

While the story is very dark, the story is written in verse, which helps it not get too bogged down with all the death and depression that is present. If the story had been written in a normal narrative style, the darkness and utter despair would have been a lot more prominent – almost too much for a children’s book. Instead, the poetry allows the repetition within the story to enhance the misery of the main character while her hopes and dreams really shine through and give an ultimate message of hope.

Overall, Out of the Dust was an interesting way to present a dreary time in American history. This topic could easily be boring, but the author’s lyrical style makes it more interesting and exciting than a typical historical fiction book that covers this era. The poetry makes for a quick read while the plot covers issues revolving around family death and misfortune and highlights how one girl makes do with her lot in life. Out of the Dust is an inspiring, yet harrowing, read.

1997: The View from Saturday (more tea club than breakfast club)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

In The View from Saturday, four sixth graders compete in the Academic Bowl. Yet, when Mrs. Olinski is asked how she chose her team, she has trouble answering the question. Through flashbacks to the time leading up to the event, it’s revealed how the four students with different backgrounds came together to form the team that is currently competing.

Throughout the novel, each character tells about the time in their life that led up to them being picked for the Academic Bowl Team. Except for Ethan’s story, most of the stories were rather boring. I got tired of Noah really quickly as he tries to think of ideas for wedding gifts when he becomes the best man at last minute. Likewise, Nadia’s story dragged a bit at the beginning, filled with family and conservation issues. Julian’s flashback was fine, but this is mainly due to the previous chapter that covered how Ethan became friends with him and how they started hanging out together.

Additionally, there is no central conflict in the novel. The problem is that it’s an introspective novel that focuses on bland characters and boring storylines. The competition itself is not the point of the novel; it’s the characters’ growth and interaction, which can be problematic if the reader doesn’t care for the characters.

E. L. Konigsburg’s The View from Saturday comes off as trying to hard and fails to create an engaging storyline; the writing style reflects a cute and quirky vibe that doesn’t quite mesh with the narrative being told. If looking to read one of her books, stick with From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – which has similar characteristics, but feels a bit more cohesive and entertaining.

 

1992: Shiloh (Budding PETA member)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

Shiloh, the 1992 Newbery Medal Winner, is a simple tale of a boy longing for a dog and doing what it takes to hold onto it when he finds one.

The tl;dr version: West Virginian poor boy finds abused dog in the woods and keeps it hidden from his parents. Dog is attacked by another dog one night, revealing the secret. Boy successfully barters with the neighbour who owns the dog. Everyone lives happily ever after.

The actual story is more involved. It focuses on the boy, Marty, and the moral dilemmas he faces after finding Shiloh the beagle in the woods. Marty has to decide whether to lie to his parents about the dog, how to feed Shiloh, and whether Shiloh’s owner’s right to the dog as property balances out against the poor way in which he treats all of his dogs. It illustrates the slippery slope begun by one lie but chooses to focus on the courage and conscience Marty shows in trying to protect an abused animal from its abuser.

This is a decent enough read, with a focus on characterization rather than action. I recommend it for those who love dogs as well as to a general middle grades audience.