Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5
Set in medieval England, Crispin: The Cross of Lead is the story of a “peasant” boy discovering that he is so much more. The boy grew up without a name, simply referred to as Asta’s Son. When his mother dies, the local priest tells the kid he was christened Crispin but is killed before he can reveal Crispin’s father. Crispin is declared an outlaw and runs away. Bear, a juggler and revolutionary, finds him and takes him along as he travels to various cities. It is eventually revealed that Crispin is the illegitimate son of a noble, with a cross of lead to prove it. After various adventures, Crispin renounces his noble heritage to save a friend and the prime villain is thrown onto his own soldiers’ weapons and dies. Crispin goes from a nameless, servile ignoramus to a spirited, adventuresome adolescent.
This book was a chore to read. The narration was unevenly paced and pointless descriptions slowed down the whole story. Crispin is a ridiculously annoying character throughout. He’s too stupid to live. Although, intellectually, I can appreciate his growth and development, the process was downright painful.
To me, the more interesting story lines (Bear’s political activities, the gross injustice of traditional feudal society, etc.) are very underdeveloped, besides not actually matching more recent understandings of history in which labor shortage created by the Plague elevated the value and living conditions of commoners. I get that Crispin’s story is the main event, but a larger view of society might have distracted me a bit from his whining and made it easier to finish this sucker.
Kids with a strong interest in medieval history might enjoy this story. Maybe.
Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo is a fairy tale-esque story of one mouse’s bravery in his quest to save a princess from an evil plot schemed up by some unsavory rats.
This book seems like it was written for a different medium. The style, wherein the narrator is consistently breaking the fourth wall to talk to the reader, would be better served either visually or through audio. It’s easy to understand why they developed this into a movie since it is very imaginative and creative with some very pretty illustrations that speak to the imagination. Yet, it reads very much like a children’s book with its many characters falling either on the light side or the dark side – there were not many characters that straddled the ambiguous line in between.
The main character, Despereaux, is just a bit too earnest for me. He embodies all of the traits of a classical hero – brave, courageous, willing to buck the trend and in awe of the beauty of a princess. While his tragic plight and exile by his own people was rather dark to read, he succumbs to being almost too perfect of a mouse-like hero, and it felt like the stakes were never high enough to care about throughout his adventure.
The Tale of Despereaux delves into the fun, quirky side of children’s literature with mice, rats and humans interacting amongst each other – each with different cultures, beliefs and traditions. The story emphasizes the idea of identity by exploring those who rebel against society while highlighting the theme of forgiveness. While this story was definitely not for me, others might be more appreciative of it if they enjoy reading about cute adventures with animal characters.
Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5
A Single Shard, the mildly amusing 2002 Newbery Medal Winner, takes places in 12th century Korea. Tree-ear, an orphan boy, lives with crippled Crane-Man under a bridge, scavenging food from the rest of town. He also watches the town potters avidly, enchanted by the process and workmanship. When Tree-ear accidentally breaks a master potter’s box, he repays Min by doing grunt work for him. The initial 10 days turns into a continuing relationship. Tree-ear learns much from Min, but is never invited to throw a pot because that teaching is reserved for sons, even though Min’s perished tragically.
Eventually, Tree-ear volunteers to take Min’s prized work to the capitol. He is beset by robbers, who smash the vases. Tree-ear strongly considers turning back, but finds a large shard and takes that to the palace. It is enough to earn Min a prized royal commission. When Tree-ear returns home, he finds that Crane-Man died. However, Min and his wife invite Tree-ear to live with them and Min begins teaching Tree-ear the trade.
The story highlights the value of perseverance. Tree-ear faces circumstances which make him want to quit multiple times but decides to push on. When first working for Min, for example, Tree-ear works his hands raw. However, he keeps up the work to fulfill his obligation. Again when bandits break the vases, Tree-ear almost gives up and heads home, but instead makes a hard choice to continue on. His eventual adoption is the culmination of the reward for his efforts.
This is a decent enough read, if not dramatic. It’s a solid portrayal of daily life at that particular place and time. The characters are interesting and well developed. They shine against the simple plot background. Recommended especially for those who are interested in how things are made, as the book gives many details about the process of making pottery.
Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5
Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi is an underwhelming adventure tale about a young orphan boy that must flee his tiny village when accused of a crime he did not commit. On his journey, he slowly learns about his parents’ mysterious past and the reason for why there is now a bounty on his head.
It was really hard to care about anything that happened in this novel. Crispin is simply a straightforward adventure story wherein nothing in the narrative is surprising nor turns out a clever twist. The story line is very trite and formulaic with obvious tropes such as an orphan boy, a secret royal identity and a father-like mentor.
The hero of the story oftentimes just felt like he was going through the motions, and he doesn’t particularly get emotional or curious about the things that are happening around him as he mainly just reacts to the plot. The main character, Crispin, is a young boy who has been kept in the dark about his parents’ true identity. When events cause him to flee the city, the priest who is helping him gets ready to tell him about his parents, but unfortunately is interrupted and says he’ll reveal it all later. Yet, he conveniently dies. Most of events happen in a similar way throughout the story as the narrative always goes to the most obvious place and can easily be anticipated, which makes for an unexciting read since every mystery is easily solved.
While I would classify this book as a page turner, the main character doesn’t really do much. He is very reactionary and doesn’t really know what is going on for most of the story. As a result, he comes across a bit dense and ignorant and doesn’t live up to what I’d consider an ideal Newbery Medal worthy hero.
I will not be reading the sequel.
Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5
Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard is surprisingly riveting for a story about one boy’s dream to learn how to craft pottery in twelfth-century Korea.
This book follows along the same lines as other Newbery winners Dobry and I, Juan de Pareja, wherein a young boy develops an interest in art and becomes an apprentice to someone who has already mastered the craft. Where it excels, though, is at incorporating the multicultural customs into a simple narrative that is both engaging and sympathetic.
Tree-ear, the main character, takes special care in learning how pottery is created and the reader can easily learn through his eyes the importance of the craft. I never felt like I was being lectured on the creation process and was never bored with learning all the steps involved; instead, it seemlessly blended in with the tale being told as Tree-Ear slowly gains respect for his master and his craft and, in return, gains a new family.
Belonging and self-discovery are the themes that are prevalent throughout as Tree-ear craves to be accepted by the potter and his family. Additionally, it was lovely to see him develop an appreciation for the potter’s wife and everything she did for him. Getting a glimpse into this culture was interesting and very enlightening. While the story was bit slow, the characters brought the whole narrative together as it was more about family obligations than adventure.
I would recommend this book for anyone interested in this time period in Korean history. Additionally, those that love arts and crafts might learn a few things in this tale. Overall, its a heartwarming tale that is both charming and thoughtful.
Sally’s Rating: 4.5/5
A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck is a wonderful read, filled with quirky small town characters, fun adventures and just the right amount of sentimentality.
When the recession hits and money troubles begin for one family, a young girl from Chicago moves in with her crazy grandmother for a year – and must adapt to living in the rural countryside in the 1930’s. Mary Alice is a bit nervous at first because her grandmother is known for her crazy antics and mean streak, but when the year is up, she isn’t so sure she wants to go back to Chicago again.
Grandma Dowdel is without a doubt the highlight of the piece. You never know what you are going to get from her as Mary Alice is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it turns out that it’s better to have grandma as a friend rather than an enemy. The narrative focuses on how Mary Alice comes to appreciate her grandma’s quirky and awful behavior as the layers behind her motivations are slowly revealed.
While the book is very episodic, the adventures never feels repetitive. After all, life with grandma is never boring as she traps foxes, takes in random drifters that paint nudes, and teaches Mary Alice the various politics of making pies for society events. Grandma can easily smart everyone else in the town, and its entertaining to see Mary Alice become more and more like her grandmother as she begins to stir up trouble all on her own.
Recommended for everyone – both children and adults alike!
Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5
Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice doesn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day life in medieval times. When a homeless girl takes on the thankless task of being a midwife’s apprentice, she gains new knowledge and confidence of what she wants in life.
This book was refreshing in that it doesn’t romanticize medieval times. Alyce begins the story with no family, home or future; she is just looking to survive one day at a time. Once she becomes the apprentice to Jane Sharp, she is forced to deal with the midwife’s sharp tongue and disparaging remarks while trying to be a good person. While her life does get better, Alyce doesn’t get a traditional happy ending, but she’s found her place in life and has gained a new confidence and appreciation for doing something good with her life.
Midwifery is an interesting topic for a children’s book. Through Alyce’s sympathetic eyes, it’s quite astonishing to see what different methods were used back in this time and compare it to modern day medicine. The childbirths in the book range from being funny as the midwife tries to coax a baby out by yelling at it to dead serious when complications arise.
Both Alyce and Jane’s characters get time to shine in the novel as they tough it out in the midwife profession. Jane’s wit and Alyce’s compassion lead to some fun dialogue between them as they are both learning more about each other. Her interactions with her cat, Purr, are also humorous as the cat is her only true friend.
I would definitely recommend this book to people who want to read about the somewhat humorous and exciting ordeals of an ordinary girl who is living in a different time period – especially if interested in childbirth and medieval times.