2009: The Graveyard Book (The Only Living Boy in the Cemetery)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book follows the adventures of a boy who grows up in a graveyard, raised and educated by the supernatural beings that eternally live there. While there are plenty of interesting people who reside within its boundaries, Nobody Owens has always been intrigued by what else lies beyond it in the normal world. And it turns out that if he leaves the graveyard, the mysterious man who murdered his family will find him and finish the job.

While I enjoyed this Newbery Medal winner very much, the main character had a hard time keeping my interest. Instead, I found all of his friends – both supernatural and human – to have a lot more depth and background than Bod. Bod himself is a very curious boy, but his innocence and lack of connection to the real world make him somewhat hard to relate to.

The cast of characters that round out this novel more than make up for Bod’s shortcomings. His guardian Silas is a being neither living nor dead who has a mysterious, dark past. Scarlett is a young girl who happens upon the cemetery and becomes friends with Bod. Other characters such as ghosts, witches and werewolves also make an appearance.

The worldbuilding makes this book an exciting read with different supernatural beings having different backgrounds, rules and beliefs. Each chapter is essentially its own story, with an overall story line connecting all the incidents together, wherein Bod explores someplace new or meets someone else who lives there. While the book mainly takes place in the graveyard, Bod’s interactions with everyone allow him to experience the world through different eyes. I found myself enjoying the different stories that were told by his new friends and wished I could have been reading about their adventures instead.

The book has a satisfactory ending with a touch of melancholy coming through in the final few chapters. This would definitely be a great read around Halloween and would appeal to those who enjoy the supernatural.

2008: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (A Day in the Life of…)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Readers will meet blacksmiths, pilgrims, knights and varlets in the 2008 Newbery Medal winning Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Written for the classroom, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! enlightens its readers with the day-to-day lives of several medieval characters with vivid monologues of the trials, tribulations and joys of being born to a certain profession in medieval times. The author excels at creating vibrant portraits of all 23 characters, each personality brimming with their hopes, thoughts and desires that easily entertains while simultaneously educating readers on medieval life.

The reader is introduced to Hugo, the lord’s nephew, who goes on a boar hunt to prove his manhood. Sisters Mariot and Maud argue the merits and pitfalls of marrying the glassblower’s apprentice. And Alice the shepherdess learns how to sing to a dying lamb in the hopes of making it feel better. Through each character’s narrative, the author explains certain traditions and wordplay through annotations in the margins that provide interesting contexts for the story being told. Even as an adult reader, I learned several things that I had never known before, and children could easily read this book without feeling overwhelmed.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was a pleasure to read with its multitude of colorful characters and witty prose. I’d definitely recommend this short and sweet book to anyone who enjoys fun history lessons mixed with a cast of clever characters.

2007: The Higher Power of Lucky (A Runaway’s Plan Gone Awry)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron was a book that slowly plodded along with irritating characters, awkward plotting and a lack of enthralling adventure.

The protagonist is Lucky, a ten-year-old girl who lost her mother and is currently living in a small town in California. She lives with her guardian, who she believes is planning to return to France and intending to send Lucky to another orphanage. Lucky decides to do what she can to avoid this fate and sets out to run away from her family and friends, which ultimately ends up on the day a huge dust storm strikes through town.

The themes of abandonment, loss and family are featured prominently in the book, but I had such a hard time caring about the main character and her friends that the overall message was kind of lost on me. Lucky is a fairly irritating character, and despite the fact that she is written as book smart, she always leaps to the wrong conclusions and whines constantly about her situation.

At times, I struggled to keep reading The Higher Power of Lucky. Despite being only 130 pages, it was about 50 pages too long as nothing exciting happens until about 2/3rds of the way through. It’s hard to say why this won the Newbery Award for this year; while its exploration of her abandonment issues was set up interestingly enough at the beginning, it failed to live up to the somewhat interesting premise of one girl’s struggle to make it through life with her confidence of knowing what she wants out of life and her willingness to do whatever is necessary to achieve her goals.

2006: Criss Cross (fragmented perspectives of a quiet life)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Criss Cross is a story wherein no big events happen. Instead, Lynne Rae Perkins crafts a book that focuses on the quiet moments that occur in everyday life through the alternating perspectives of a few teenagers in a small town.

The highlight of the piece was its prose. Well-written, elegant and somewhat lyrical, the writing captures the sentiment of a lazy summer atmosphere, where no plot has much focus and the narrative feels somewhat scattered as the protagonists are just hoping for something exciting to happen. The author also experiments with different styles of text and illustration, with a chapter that is filled with line after line of haikus and a clever diagram that showcases the exact definition of the correct pant length for jeans. It’s a fun read, if only for the author’s clever use of words and styles.

Throughout the book, each character goes about his or her normal life with the occasional detour along the way. I particularly enjoyed Hector and his desire to learn how to play the guitar. In another vignette, Debbie and Peter decide to take the bus two stops away so they can walk around somewhere they had never been before. The ordinariness of their day is somewhat refreshing to read, and teenagers may easily connect with their actions and emotions.

Criss Cross was a creative if unexciting entry in the Newbery Medal winner list. I think this book is definitely more for the younger teenage crowd that enjoys thoughtful characters that could easily take the place of a best friend in the real world. But don’t bother reading this book if you don’t particularly enjoy books filled with vignettes about everyday happenings.

2005: Kira-kira (a tale of two sisters)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Kira-kira was an average story. Cynthia Kadohata’s book focuses on the changing relationship between two sisters when one begins suffering from a fatal disease.

The dialogue between Katie and Lynn is central to the book’s overall message. As the younger sister, Katie looks up to her older sister while also feeling bouts of angst and jealousy towards her success in making friends and her ease at schoolwork. Their rocky relationship is very believable, and both characters are saddled with both good and bad qualities that are true to life. As Lynn gets sick, their sisterly love is tested as they both find different ways to cope with the illness.

Despite the fact that it takes place in the 1950s, the book fails to recreate that era in a memorable and vivid way. While it begins in Iowa in the mid-1950s, Katie’s parents decide to move to Georgia for financial reasons and to be closer to her uncle’s family, but they must deal with racism against the Japanese American community in the Deep South.

The author does a good job at presenting the awful work conditions of the time. While Katie’s father works in a chicken hatchery and her mother works in a chicken processing plant, the harshness of factory life capitalizes on the already overbearing depression and angst that is already hanging over this book like a cloud. Despite the realness of the situation, I found myself hard-pressed to become invested in Katie’s family’s work troubles. The little subplot with the factory workers trying to unionize was hard to get invested in because Katie herself is not aware of the social issues that are happening in this time period and don’t seem to emotionally affect her.

Overall, Kira-kira was a weak read. While the two sisters were realistically drawn, the backdrop for the novel failed to come to life in a way that spoke to me. Recommended for those who enjoy reading about sisterly angst and drama no matter what not-so-fun historical era they are living in.

2008: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village (Everyone Matters)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Although the title is a bit unwieldy, the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village, is an excellent read. The monologues contained within it were originally written by school librarian Laura Amy Schlitz to supplement a class unit on the Middle Ages. Every chapter captures the perspective of one person, each with a different trade/job. Some of the stories intersect, giving the reader another perspective on a particular character. Characters represented include a shepherdess, a miller, a local knight’s son who, due to family finances, will become a monk instead, and many others.

One of my favorite sections was written for two people. The voices of Jacob, the Jewish moneylender’s son, and Petronella, the merchant’s daughter, weave together as they start looking beyond religion to the similarities they share. They meet by chance at the stream, where Jacob goes to collect water so that his family can’t be accused of poisoning the village well. Petronella is looking for watercress. When she picks up a stone, Jacob fears the worst. Instead of throwing it at him like past village inhabitants have done, she skips it along the water. He responds in kind, and the two share a brief period of fun and connection.

I adored this book. The author’s descriptions aptly capture the varying world views and concerns of young people serving in many different roles. The text is alternately funny and touching, capturing quotidian life. The illustrations perfectly complement the text. I actually took several semesters on different topics in medieval history, including one on the Crusades and one on the Medieval Church. I claim no special expertise on the area, but I have enough background to appreciate the author’s work at distilling history into fairly accurate monologues while avoiding the trap of romanticizing the period.

I highly recommend this book. It would be great for teaching, as it lets kids get up and act out bits of history. It’s also entertaining enough to lure in people who don’t love history. Additionally, each person’s narrative is short – generally about 3 pages in verse, so it’s easy to work through the book in short bits of time. Although there are no princesses, dragons, or valiant knights, this book is full of the quiet dramas of everyday life.

2007: The Higher Power of Lucky (Still Grey, Even After the Storm)

VERDICT: Treasure?

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

In the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner The Higher Power of Lucky, a girl who lost her mother searches for her Higher Power, a term garnered from time eavesdropping on 12 step meetings of various flavors.

Lucky is growing up in a tiny desert town when her mother touches a downed power line after a storm and dies. Rather than taking responsibility for Lucky, her deadbeat dad imports his ex-wife Brigitte from France to care for Lucky “temporarily”. The book follows Lucky’s daily life. Lincoln, obsessed with knot tying, and Miles, 5-years-old and mildly annoying, are Lucky’s sidekicks. When home, Lucky both sympathizes with Brigitte’s homesickness and engages in annoying behaviors like processing her bug samples on the kitchen table. She fears abandonment and watches Brigitte carefully for signs that it’s coming. One day, Lucky finds Brigitte’s passport and other documents sitting out on a suitcase and assumes that Brigitte is leaving her.

Lucky, trying to take control of her own life, decides to preemptively run away. She chooses the day of a sandstorm. Miles cuts short her flight when she finds him curled up by the side of the road in the storm. Lincoln finds them both in the old caves shortly thereafter. In an interesting twist, Lucky is finally able to release her mother’s ashes into the air when the entirety of the town comes to rescue the kids; she also finds out that Brigitte had the documents out because she was preparing to formally adopt Lucky.

This story wasn’t particularly engaging. Neither the character nor the stories grabbed me. Lucky is a quirky narrator, who dreams of being a scientist and using her talents to attract people to town. However, I found her pretty boring, with a side of mildly annoying. Part of this is likely the grade level – this is aimed at grades 3-5 , with a corresponding lack of subtlety. Everything about the book was average – the adventure barely threatened the kids, there was one bout of tears but not much engagement with feelings, and the home life wasn’t rich enough to bump the book into the “cozy” category.

Overall, I’m hard pressed to identify an audience to whom this would appeal. Perhaps younger readers who enjoy ordinary characters? There are a few fun episodes, including snakes in the dryer, but yeah. Not much that I loved.