1973 Honor: The Witches of Worm (Beware of the Cat)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

The 1973 Newbery Honor, The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, is a chilling and disturbing tale of one girl’s growing paranoia and belief that her cat is making her do horrible things to the people around her.

This book is a great children’s psychological horror novel with an atmospheric gothic vibe. The main character is a neglected child who is a manipulative liar with a mild curiosity of the Salem witch trials. When Jessica comes across an abandoned cat on a stormy night in her secret cave, she is at first repelled by it’s unnatural looks, but she ends up taking it in despite being disgusted by it. Everything is fine until the cat begins speaking to her and telling her to do horrible things – such as lying to her landlady about an intruder in the yard, getting a schoolmate into trouble with her mom, and smashing her former best friend’s instrument. The situation finally escalates to the point where Jessica believes she needs to kill the possessed cat.

Snyder does a fantastic job at building up Jessica’s paranoia – at first it’s just little things like Jessica believing the cat is talking to her and making suggestions to help her, but then it ramps up to the fact that the cat causes her to feel trapped in her own home. She has no one to talk to, with a mother who is more interested in finding her next husband than helping her daughter, a school-appointed counselor that Jessica doesn’t trust, and Mrs. Fortune – the resident cat lady who is oddly witch-like. Jessica is truly alone with no one to talk to except for the cat.

Throughout the entire book, the reader is left guessing at what is really going on in the story. Is the cat really a witch? Or is Jessica just using him as a scapegoat for her horrible misdeeds? The story ends on an ambiguous note where one is left questioning whether there were really witches involved or if Jessica’s own self-denial and overactive imagination were causing the events to happen. It’s up to the reader to truly decide the outcome and feels slightly unresolved in a classic horror sense.

I would highly recommend The Witches of Worm to anyone who loves a good horror story.

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1991 Honor: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (A Mutinous Affair)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a historical novel about an ocean voyage that goes terribly wrong for one thirteen-year-old girl, who is falsely accused of murder, brought to trial and found guilty.

This fast-paced novel and twisty mystery keeps the pages turning, but the irritating main character drags the story down with her snobbish airs and quick turn-around from spoiled rich girl to repentant sailor. It was hard to suspend my disbelief at Charlotte’s characterization which seemed to arbitrarily change depending on what the plot needed.

The first part of the novel provides the most entertainment as the stage is slowly set up and all the characters are introduced when Charlotte first boards the ship. As Charlotte meets the captain and his crew, she has to quickly learn who to trust as a mutiny is about to happen. As the reader, you have no idea who to trust as well as she slowly pieces together the various allegiances of the crew, and the situation quickly gets tense as Charlotte makes some naïve decisions that get her into trouble and ends up with everyone on the ship hating her.

The second portion of the book focuses on Charlotte’s self-demotion to part of the crew as she learns how to sail a boat. For those interested in maritime sailing, Avi does a good job at creating a setting that is easy to visualize even if you are unfamiliar with ships, masts and sails. The last part of the novel also includes a trial and verdict, which was unexciting to read through, and, unfortunately, the consequences don’t quite stick.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle would most likely be enjoyable to middle school students who enjoy adventure stories that feature a heroine in a non-traditional role. This novel, though, requires the reader to suspend their disbelief for a lot of the action, which makes it a bit hard to immerse oneself into this 19th century sea-faring journey.

1931 Honor: Mountains Are Free

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

One of the 1931 Newbery Honor books, Mountains Are Free tells one of the most famous snippets in Swiss history, that of William Tell. It is narrated by a boy who is living with the Tell family when he sees passing knights. He attracts their attention and is taken with them to Austria. Unfortunately, the knight who grabbed him is a hot-tempered bastard and nearly kills the kid by forcing him to climb a four story, smooth sided building for entertainment.

That incident leads the Duke to seize BOY and adds him to the court as an archer. Kyo, the court minstrel, teaches him a few basics of court and helps him escape further notice. The boy also falls for Zelina, a noble girl who is nearly forced into marriage with EVIL KNIGHT. To escape the marriage, all three flee back to Switzerland.

Aided by winter, the trio settle in to the area. When an unreasonable overlord is appointed to Switzerland, tension builds. In a crystallizing moment, William Tell is arrested for failing to bow before the magistrate’s hat. He turns the tables on his captors, and the cantons rise. The boy takes out his former captor with a morningstar and the Swiss wipe out the spoiled noble Austrian army sent against them. Zelina and the boy finally express their affection for one another and she chooses to remain with him for the moment rather than try to reclaim her lands.

Overall, the storytelling was entertaining and well-paced. The main character was decent, but the secondary characters (and the setting) are what really made the story, particularly Kyo. He initially is difficult to deal with, but is genuinely a tender character who does his best to care for both children. The villains are overdrawn and less than convincing, but the style fits the semi-mythological nature of the story.

I would recommend this for those who enjoy decently written historical fiction and stories of distant times and lands. The flow is good and Mountains Are Free is a fast read.