1959 Honor: The Family Under the Bridge

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson is a sugary Christmas tale about a grumpy old hobo and the homeless children who warm his cold and bitter heart.

This is an optimistic story about finding the best in yourself and others. Armand is a homeless man who lives under a bridge in Paris. One day, he finds three little kids playing there, after being abandoned by their mother who had to work during the day. Armand is initially irritated with the kids and only sees them as a way to help him with panhandling, but he eventually is won over by their resilience and becomes part of their family by helping them find a home.

The setting takes place in Paris, which gives the story a bit of a fairy tale-esque vibe. The children themselves are selfless, and only want a home for the holidays. Their hope and optimism really shines throughout the book despite the horrible situation they’ve grown up with.

The book does a great job of tackling the idea of why someone would want to live a life of homelessness. Armand happily lives his life and sleeps under a bridge each night because he enjoys the freedom that being a hobo brings to him. As he develops a friendship with the children, he slowly becomes torn between his desire for a solitary life and his feeling of responsibility towards the children.

I’d definitely recommend this book as a family reading activity for parents and children who want to get into the Christmas mood.

1976 Honor: The Hundred Penny Box (A Life in Change)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The Hundred Penny Box, by Sharon Bell Mathis tells the story of Michael, a young child, and his Aunt Dew. The venerable Aunt Dew is a hundred years old and has recently moved in with Michael’s parents. She tells wonderful stories about Reconstruction and other momentous historical events. However, Michael’s mother frequently clashes with Aunt Dew. Michael cherishes Aunt Dew; he helps keep her hundred penny box from destruction and prompts her for stories. He is sweet and patient with her even when she calls him by his father’s name.

My summary really doesn’t capture the book. So much of it is in tone; along with the corresponding images, they tell the tender story of a strong, venerable black woman who survived a whole lot and wants to share that with others. While are there some hints that she has Alzheimer’s/memory loss, her relationship with Michael is strong.

I highly recommend this, particularly for early elementary school students. While they may need some help reading it, the story will (hopefully) resonate and help them be more thoughtful in their own interactions with the elderly. Even as a grown-up, I found this an incredibly touching, poignant story that captures multiple perspectives while honoring the primary narrators. It explores Michael’s mother’s frustrations at Aunt Dew moving in as well as Aunt Dew’s struggle to maintain a sense of self and independence after she has moved.

1966 Honor: The Animal Family (Lynxes, and Mermaids, and Bears, Oh My!)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating 3.5/5

The Animal Family, written by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is a small-format story written in a classic fairy tale style. A hunter, who has lived alone in the woods since his parents died, woos a mermaid by singing to her. She decides to move to land and live with him. The hunter eventually yearns for a child; rather than a human, he ends up with first a bear cub, then a lynx. Those two engage in many entertaining antics. Their best one, however, is rescuing a human baby whose mother died in a boat wreck. Everyone lives happily as a family.

This story was simple but surprisingly entertaining. The whimsy kept everything fresh. After the gross sexism of The Great Wheel, I particularly appreciated that the hunter never tried to change the mermaid. It didn’t matter how much one of her behaviours irritated him or vice versa.  In one case, the author writes,”Why should he want her to keep house? If you had a seal that could talk, would you want it to sweep the floor?” The Animal Family does have a happily-ever-after ending, with a slight twist. The very ending of the book is framed as a story told to the human boy, one he’s not sure he believes. His disbelief tilts the story such that readers are unsure whether the story really happened as told or not.

I highly recommend this as a read-together book for early elementary school readers. The format mirrors fairy tales, giving them a basis of familiarity. Slightly older children might enjoy reading this by themselves.

1986 Honor: Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Rhoda Blumberg’s Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun tells the true story of Matthew Perry’s visit to Japan in 1853 in an effort to establish trade relations with the then-isolated country.

This book provides a balanced look at both the Japanese and American sides of this cultural-blending event. It starts with Perry and his ships landing in Japan and slowly negotiating throughout year-long talks to establish a trading post with the samurai-based Japanese culture. It’s amazing to read about a time in world history where two nations came together peacefully, especially because the two countries couldn’t be any more different if they tried. The story is very positive and provides an optimistic message on how cultural differences can be solved without conflict or violence.

Despite being historical nonfiction, there is a lot of humor to be found in the book – whether it’s the Japanese depictions of the barbarous Americans or the commentary on odd quirks in American culture. The narrative moves along at a quick pace with an appendix of historical documents for further reading. The storyline is easy enough to understand for younger readers, and adults can easily learn a few new things as well.

I think the book could have been improved with a just a little more context for the time period, especially in regards to American politics and events. The author kind of just drops the reader into the action, and while we get the background history for the Japanese and their samurai culture, a little more backstory for the American ships could have been useful to know about – especially for younger readers.

Overall, this nonfiction title provided a decent overview of a unique time in American history – one that most likely gets little exposure to middle school students. I’d recommend it to readers who are interested in Japanese history.

1958 Honor: The Great Wheel (with not-so-great characters)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson was one of the 1958 Newbery Honor recipients. God knows why. More on that later.

Conn sets out from Ireland bound for his Uncle Michael’s New York business. On the voyage, he meets Trudy, a lovely German girl bound for Wisconsin. In NYC, Conn quickly learns the business of digging sewers and becomes his uncle’s right hand man. However, Aunt Honora had predicted that Conn would travel west and ride a great wheel. Enter Uncle Patrick, who hires Conn to work on a project Mr. Ferris is creating for the Chicago World’s Fair. Conn moves west and helps with every phase of construction of the first Ferris Wheel, a now familiar staple of fairs and carnivals. He also dreams of meeting Trudy there and writes her letters (which he can’t mail since he didn’t get her last name). Lo, during the last week of the fair, Trudy arrives! A shocker, I know. Conn gets hung up over Trudy’s family money, so it takes the pair until the last day of the fair to sort out their differences. They marry and move to Wisconsin to raise fat, happy cows and children.

The Good: If you’ve ever wondered how a Ferris Wheel is built, this is the perfect book for you. It goes into a fair amount of detail (way more than I cared about, for sure) on each stage of the construction. The illustrations are also excellent.

The Bad: Pacing is uneven and the character development is minimal. Secondary characters are caricatures built on stereotypes, lashed together with racial or ethnic epithets.

The Ugly: This book is BRIMMING with objectionable names. Every minor character’s nationality/group is mentioned before each appearance, and generally tagged with slang like mick, box head, etc. I realize some of this appears worse in hindsight than it would in its own context, but it’s still jarring. Sexism also runs rampant, highlighted in passages like this.

I’d conditionally recommend this for late elementary/early middle schoolers with a strong interest in engineering or construction. Beyond that, this book is better left forgotten.