2006 Honor: Princess Academy

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy is about a fourteen-year-old girl who attends the princess academy and by the end of her lessons will have the chance of the lifetime to be picked by the prince to be his bride.

This book very much reads like a fairy tale. Miri lives up in the mountain lands of Eskel, where working in a quarry is the main way of life. When a soothsayer predicts that the next queen will come from her village, all the town’s teen girls are rounded up and sent to the academy to learn the manners, etiquette, and skills that a future princess will need to know. The sharp contrast between her former easy-going life and the strictness of the new academy brings out her boldness and desire to learn all she can. Miri’s a fun heroine to follow as she is a natural-born leader, and her relationships with her crush Peder and best friend Britta are fun to watch develop.

I was pleasantly surprised that this book didn’t focus much on the competition between the girls to win the title of Academy Princess; instead, it focuses on their growing friendships with each other. The girls’ education is a major focus of the novel, and it provides a viewpoint in how knowledge and learning are perceived by different social classes. While the girls begin the book uneducated, they are able to bring knowledge of economics and reading back to their hometown to help build a better community.

Princess Academy was not particularly memorable. The main portion of the book – where the girls attend the academy – is a bit slow going, and it felt like scene after scene featured their strict headmistress, Olanna, yelling at them and making them feel inferior. I found the quarry singing to be an interesting concept and wish it had been featured a bit more prominently as Miri slowly figures out the mystery of this magical communication system. The magic aspect is very low key throughout the novel and hardly feels present at all.

Overall, this was a middle-of-the-road fantasy novel that features some courageous female characters and some “boarding school” plot material. If you want magical kingdoms and princesses, you’d be better off reading any series by Gail Carson Levine, Tamora Pierce, or Patricia C. Wrede – all of whom feature more colorful “princess” characters and more intriguing world building. Despite this, the book was a satisfying read; don’t be put off by the title alone.

2012 Honor: Inside Out & Back Again (A Refugee in America)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai follows a Vietnamese girl named Ha, who escapes from South Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon. When her family relocates to Alabama, she has trouble fitting in with her new classmates and adapting to American culture.

The novel is written completely in verse and effortlessly hits all the emotional points of a refugee’s journey. Since the book is based on the author’s own experiences, it was interesting to read about the Vietnam War from the perspective of a young Vietnamese girl and her struggles in America. Throughout the narrative, we see Ha completely at peace with her life in Vietnam, but when the war breaks out and she moves to America, her whole life falls apart – which makes for an interesting read – as she must build up her life again.

Ha’s refugee narrative would appeal to children who feel like outsiders when dealing with everyday issues at home and at school. Her isolation is depressing to read about as the other children bully her for her Vietnamese looks, odd sounding name, and the fact that she cannot speak English very well. She finds solace in her family, which includes her mother and several brothers, and ends up embracing both her Vietnamese heritage and new American traditions with an optimistic spirit that is inspiring to read about.

While I very much enjoyed this story, I couldn’t help but compare it to Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust – which takes a pivotal time in history and expresses the protagonist’s trials and tribulations through verse. Inside Out & Back Again pales in comparison to this other Newbery winner as the writing here doesn’t allow the protagonist’s emotion to come through in the same compelling way. The poetry doesn’t really add much to the story, and I would have much preferred to read a more in depth narrative about Ha pushing through her problems. I felt that the poetry only let the reader take a small glimpse into the narrator’s life and didn’t truly dig into her life struggles in a complex or unique way.

Inside Out & Back Again showcases how one girl adapts to the changes in her life, even though it oftentimes makes her feel more alone than ever before. I’d recommend this novel to middle school students who are interested in the Vietnam War or to those who enjoy exploring history through poetry.

1925 Honor: The Dream Coach (The Kind With Horses)

VERDICT: Treasure?

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

The Dream Coach was one of the 1925 Newbery Honor book. It’s a series of loosely connect stories told in folktale/fairytale style. In it, the Dream Coach, pulled by a team of horses, brings dreams to four children, who each need dreams for different reasons.

The dreams are mildly entertaining. Each is fairly original and disconnected from the others. In the first one, a lonely princess receives a funny dream to cheer her after a celebration of her birthday which fails to actually include her. A Norwegian boy dreams life into the objects around him, including a snowman that comes alive. Interestingly, the snowman is evil when his mouth is attached as a frown but jolly when it’s a smile. The Little Emperor of China is keeping a wild bird caged in his chambers, so an angel delivers dreams in which the Emperor is similarly confined, increasing the child’s empathy and leading to the release of the bird. In the final story, a French peasant boy, enticed by his uncle’s stories of exotic travels, imagines each of his family members as elements: grandma is water, grandpa is snow, uncle is wind, etc.

The stories themselves are imaginative and at least slightly amusing. They also address some of the key fears and insecurities of young children: being left alone, being trapped, etc. However, being from 1925, there IS some casual racism, primarily in unflatteringly stereotypical descriptions of characters. These primarily refer to Chinese characters (cartoonish physical description, spoilt emperor, fat advisors) and black ones (always cast as hulking servants/slaves). Some of the illustrations display the same qualities.

This wasn’t a bad read, particularly considering when it was written. The narrative moves along at a decent pace, interspersing prose narrative with verse interludes. For people interested in narratives with a traditional feel but new content, the book is an interesting read. I’d say it’s best for kids in mid elementary school, though the themes are perfectly accessible to younger children. If you can’t find a physical copy of the book, a public domain copy of The Dream Coach is available here. The formatting is a little funky, but the main content is there.

The End of the Newbery Medal Winners

As you may have noticed, Sally and I have made it to the end of the Newbery Medal Winners. While we intend to continue reading and blogging about the Newbery Honor books, our post frequency is likely to drop.

After reading all of the Newbery Medal winners through the years, some of the titles were clear winners, while others left us wondering why they were selected. In general, our ratings improved over time; this was not unexpected, as many of the themes and social conventions backing the older titles have shifted considerably, leading to narratives which now read as glaringly racist or otherwise inappropriate. Below are some of our favorites.

Laurinda’s Top Picks (those titles earning a 4.5 or 5 out of 5):

1936 – Caddie Woodlawn
1959 – The Witch of Blackbird Pond
1963 – A Wrinkle in Time
1976 – The Grey King
1977 – Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
1978 – The Bridge to Terabithia
1994 – The Giver
1998 – Out of the Dust
2001 – A Year Down Yonder
2004 – The Tale of Despereaux
2010 – When You Reach Me

Sally’s Favorites (books in my top 10):

1959 – The Witch of Blackbird Pond
1961 – Island of the Blue Dolphins
1976 – The Grey King
1979 – The Westing Game
1985 – The Hero and the Crown
1994 – The Giver
1995 – Walk Two Moons
1998 – Out of the Dust
2001 – A Year Down Yonder
2013 – The One and Only Ivan

2015: The Crossover (Basketball Love)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The Crossover is a love song to basketball and family. Written entirely in verse, the 2015 Newbery Medal Winner is narrated by Josh, a 12-year-old who is obsessed with basketball. He goes through major upheavals during one school year, as his twin JB begins dating a new girl, spending less time with Josh, and his father develops health problems. The book deals with Josh’s thoughts and feelings around these events, as he tries to cope with big changes.

This book was a fresh addition to the Newbery canon. The form was unique and  the subject ordinary, yet surprisingly touching. The author successfully captures the voice of a child sitting on the brink of adolescence. I honestly went in to this book with a slightly negative attitude, as I’m not a huge fan either of basketball or verse. However, The Crossover shook my preconceptions thoroughly; I enjoyed the book much more than I initially thought I would.

I highly recommend this book for middle-schoolers, particularly those who are sports fans. This would also be a great book for reluctant readers, as the verse form means that each page and chapter is fairly short. The language use is also very modern, with some of the more challenging words described through the trope of Josh’s vocabulary homework.